Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Shattering Myths on Domestic Radicals: "The Baader Meinhof Complex"

Jeffrey Herf's essay on "The Baader Meinhof Complex," the German documentary film on the Red Army Faction, the most prominent and deadly left-wing terrorist organization in postwar West Germany, may be the most stimulating essay you'll read today.

Here's Herf's key section on the ideological and terrorist core of the Baader-Meinhof program:
Der Baader-Meinhof Komplex begins with the anti-Vietnam and anti-Shah demonstrations in West Berlin of the late 1960s. Its depictions of left-wing leader Rudi Dutschke leading a chant of "Ho, Ho, Ho Chi Minh" at what is probably the Free University in Berlin, police violence against anti-Shah demonstrators, the shootings of Dutschke and student Benno Ohnesorg, and attacks on the right-wing Springer Press bring the viewer back to the maelstrom of violence out of which the Red Army Faction emerged. We see the evolution of Ulrike Meinhof from left-wing journalist to terrorist, as well as the emergence of Andreas Baader (a foul-mouthed thug with an appetite for violence) and his girlfriend Gudrun Ensslin, a minister's daughter-turned-radical. Director Uli Edel and writer Bernd Eichinger present the RAF as it was - a brutal, violent organization - while flatly and effectively contradicting some of the myths surrounding the group. They show the RAF shooting an unarmed office worker in a successful effort to free Baader from custody, placing bombs in police departments and at the Springer Press building, and exchanging fire with police after being offered the option of peacefully surrendering. They present the RAF seizure of the German Embassy in Stockholm and the murder of its military attache, Andreas von Mirbach. Scenes of the murder of German banker Jurgen Ponto in his home (though disputed in its details by his widow) and of the assassination of German Attorney General Siegfried Buback and his bodyguards with machine guns by two assassins on a motorcycle leave nothing to the imagination; they are barbaric. In 1972, Baader, Meinhof, and Ensslin were captured and placed in separate jails. But, in response to pressure from the prisoners and their supporters on the outside, they were moved to a special floor reserved for them in Stammheim prison. Many European intellectuals, including Jean-Paul Sartre, subsequently accepted the RAF's claim that the prisoners were being mistreated in Stammheim. One of the important accomplishments of Der Baader-Meinhof Komplex is to show that the prisoners resided in what was, as jails go, a relatively palatial environment. They had televisions, stereos, radios, and books. For the first time in post-war West German history, men and women were allowed on the same floor. They could meet and talk with one another in preparation for their trial. The film also depicts the role their lawyers played in conveying messages back and forth between RAF prisoners and RAF members on the outside--and in smuggling guns hidden inside legal briefing books to the prisoners. The high point of public attention for the group came in the fall of 1977 with the kidnapping of Hanns-Martin Schleyer, one of Germany's leading businessmen, in an effort to bargain for the release of the RAF prisoners. (Meinhof had committed suicide in 1976, but others were still alive.) The kidnapping began with a well-planned massacre. Schleyer's car was rammed by another. One of the RAF women pulled a machine gun out of a baby carriage. In seconds, other RAF members mowed down all of Schleyer's bodyguards and his driver with machine guns before seizing him. In a careful reconstruction of the crime scene based on the extensive investigation done at the time, Aust, Edel, and Eichinger have produced a cinematic moment that demolishes any of the romantic aura that may still surround these killers in some circles. In fact, police investigators found over 20 bullets in the corpses of two of the bodyguards. The film ends with Schleyer's murder in woods near the German-Belgium border. The film shatters one more RAF myth as well. When the West German government refused to release the prisoners, the RAF upped the ante and, with cooperation from Palestinian terrorists, seized a Lufthansa flight and threatened to blow it up unless its demands were met. After German special forces stormed the plane and released the hostages, the RAF prisoners in Stammheim committed suicide. The RAF and its gullible or cynical apologists insisted that they were murdered. Investigations by numerous judicial and parliamentary bodies have repeatedly confirmed that two of the prisoners shot themselves with guns smuggled into the prison, while another hung herself. A fourth attempted suicide by stabbing herself but was saved by prison doctors. Der Baader-Meinhof Komplex places on the big screen the truth about these self-inflicted deaths, which RAF supporters transformed into a politically useful story of martyrdom at the hands of the allegedly fascist state.
Now, I want to make a break here, because the following part of Herf's essay is so important it needs to be highlighted:
The admirable candor of Der Baader-Meinhof Komplex provides a much-needed challenge to Hollywood. No major American movie has yet told the story of the Weathermen, or for that matter the Black Panthers, with equal honesty. To be sure, the Weathermen did not engage in a campaign of murder comparable to that of the Red Army Faction in West Germany - or the Red Brigades in Italy or the Japanese Red Army. But neither, as some seem to think, was it simply the angriest part of the anti-war movement. In fact, its stated purpose was to carry out "armed struggle" in the United States in solidarity with third world communist movements and with the Black Panther Party in this country. The bombs being prepared by Weathermen in a Manhattan townhouse that exploded in March 1970 were intended to be set off at an upcoming dance for soldiers and their dates at Fort Dix. Had they exploded at the dance, dozens, perhaps hundreds, of people would have been killed. Members of the Weathermen were fond of arrogantly denouncing the great majority of participants in the anti-war and civil rights movements who declined to "pick up the gun." They mocked this decency as evidence of a "non-struggle attitude" or as the result of "white skin privilege." Today, former Weathermen leader Bill Ayers continues to rationalize the actions taken by his group - most prominently in a recent New York Times op-ed piece. An American equivalent of Der Baader-Meinhof Komplex - a movie that aimed to set the historical record straight by portraying the most violent 1960s radicals as they truly were - would do an enormous service.
I think it's hard for people nowadays - especially young people, hypnotized by today's "progressive" teachers and activists - to make connections between the intense ideological radicalism of the 1960s and 1970s and what's essentially the mainstream commercialization of far-left extremism today. Notice how the RAF was in deep alliance with European intellectuals and Palestinian terrorists. Today we have much of same thing: For the last five years we've had American leftists march hand-in-hand with pro-Palestian activists denouncing the "fascist" Bush regime, and right now across Europe protesters have taken to the street waving anti-Israel banners emblazoned with swastikas to denounce Israel's "genocide" against "innocent" Gazans. Indeed, since 2003, we've seen the mainstreaming of a worldwide alliance between socialism and Islam that finds backing in state capitals from Caracas to Tehran. At home, Bill Ayers is feted on "Good Morning America" while Che Guevara's murderous ideological program has been turned into "one of the most amazing displays of historical ignorance of the last half century." It couldn't happen here? Baader-Meinhof's violent terrorist program was a "'70s thing," right? Actually, no. Perhaps today's radicals are less willing to die for a cause than in earlier decades, but when we see International ANSWER as the key sponsor of the protests against California's Proposition 8, we're seeing the mainstreaming of neo-Stalinist agitation. The group's allied cells are busy conducting Soviet-style show trials against those who made campaign contributions to the Yes on 8 forces. As I've noted many times on this blog, the same groups of radical agitators from the 1960s counterculture have shifted gears, taking the revolution online, in the comfort of cushy living rooms and partitioned office cubicles. People like this have not abandoned the struggle, only the armed component. William Ayers just published a new book of "educational pedagogy" focusing on America's system of white racial hegemony, called Race Course Against White Supremacy. Tom Hayden, who collaborated with the North Vietnamese communists during the Vietnam War, is now a prominent Barack Obama supporter who maintains an active website that publishes the "Port Huron Statement." Extreme left-wing bloggers such as Chris Bowers, Jane Hamsher, Markos Moulitsas are routinely welcomed on the network news programs as "authoritative" voices of the "progressive left." Meanwhile, supporting the Iraqi resistance has been de rigeur at comment threads at mainstream blog outlets such as the Huffington Post, and smaller radical blogs such the Newshoggers cheer the deaths of mentally-impaired female suicide bombers in Iraq as brilliant tactical adaptations to American military hegemony. Times have changed, of course. Most of today's "progressives" would recoil in faux horror at the mention of taking up AK-47s against agents of the American state. Yet, these same people are all too ready and able to denounce any and all manifestations of traditional culture as "fascist" as they work to destroy American exceptionalism through hare-brained but relentless subversion from within. Keep this in mind when you get a chance to see "The Baader Meinhof Complex."