Bryan Caplan  

Reflections on The Baader-Meinhof Complex

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Normally I dislike movies based on true stories, but The Baader-Meinhof Complex was fascinating.  It's a history of the Baader-Meinhof gang, also known as the Red Army Faction - and as far as I can tell, the movie sticks very closely to the facts.  [But I'll still say: SPOILERS!] 

Long story short: Beginning in the late sixties, a band of German Marxist-Leninists decides to move from talking about violence and murder against bourgeois society to actually practicing it.  The leaders get a lot of attention, and an amazing amount of sympathy from the young.  But they're finally arrested, turn their trial into a circus, and kill themselves in prison.

Thoughts about the movie and the movement keep buzzing through my head, especially:

1. No one seems puzzled that a bunch of young German "idealists" in the sixties are avowed Marxist-Leninists.  All the events take place after the Berlin Wall goes up, but neither the terrorists nor broader German society appear to have any cognitive dissonance.

2. Before Marxist-Leninists actually held power, it's easy to see how they could get away with just denouncing the evils of the status quo: "How could socialism make anything worse?"  (But never forget Eugen Richter's precognition).  What's bizarre beyond belief is that latter-day Marxist-Leninists could get away with such rhetoric within sight of the East German border.

3. When I was a kid, I was baffled by the idea that hippies would be Communists, given the ultra-stodginess of the typical ruling Politburo.  The least-bad explanation: For a Communist, being a hippie is just one more way to offend bourgeois society.  It's kind of like the Baader-Meinhof rejection of capital letters.

4. I came across a modern apology for Ulrike Meinhof.  The chutzpah of this quote shocked even me:
Meinhof felt that it was her moral duty not only to see to it that this would never happen again, but to go a step further and establish an open and democratic society in Germany--a society where the freedom of those who think differently is respected and where justice and equality for all are the fundamental principles of political action... She was a fervent anti-fascist and as a gesture of defiance against the West German government banning its political opposition to the left, Meinhof became a member of the Communist Party.
<sarcasm>Yea, we shouldn't take Meinhof's Communist Party membership at face value just because she slavishly quotes Mao.  Clearly, the reason she affilated with the builders of the Berlin Wall was to protest the illegality of the Communist Party in West Germany.  I wonder why she didn't protest the illegality of the Nazis by joining their party, too?! </sarcasm>

5. One standard take on groups like Baader-Meinhof is that they were driven to radicalism (typically Marxism-Leninism) by the Vietnam War and other polarizing events.  The more I read about their history, though, the more inverted this story seems.  They didn't become Marxist-Leninists because they opposed the Vietnam War; they opposed the Vietnam War because they were Marxist-Leninists.  They used anti-war rhetoric because pacifism was far easier to sell than totalitarianism to mushy-headed students.   The same usually holds, I'm afraid, for left-anarchist opponents of the Vietnam War; see e.g. Chomsky's notorious Hanoi speech.  Even Rothbard was demented enough to cheer the fall of Saigon.

6. There are probably thousands of 20th-century movements that murdered more people than the Red Army Faction.  What's the point of singling them out?  Because whenever similar movements succeeded - and many did - they turned out not to be wolves-in-sheeps' clothing, but devils-in-wolves' clothing.  Those who do not remember the past... you know the rest.

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COMMENTS (21 to date)
Michael writes:

A common explanation for the militant radicalism of young German Leftists is the legacy of Nazism. We tend to forget two things about the WWII in Germany and its aftermath: 1) many, many civilians who had been willing and party-loyal participants in the Nazi regime were ex-Nazi's. Many, many of those people paid little price after the war and ended up in very powerful positions. For example, Hanns-Martin Schleyer the industrialist from Köln (I believe) murdered at the end of the film had been committed Nazi during the war, but wound up afterwards in a powerful and lucrative position at Daimler-Benz (the movie leaves his Nazi-past out). So, the hypocrisy that bothered all the Hippies in the Western Counter-Culture was for young Germans particularly egregious (not innocuous phonies, but bloody Nazis). 2) Within Germany the main power that, before the Nazi's became completely hegemonic, put up actual organized resistance to the Nazi encroachment and paid heavy prices were the communists. So the attraction to communism was more than just ideological. When most everyone else was shutting up, the communists put up and were beat down, very severely. They therefore had a cred that was quite besides the point of their ideology.

With these two things in mind, I think the peculiar and pathetic militancy of German Leftism makes more sense. For a well-informed blog that covers these sorts of things, check out:

colin writes:

Andrei Markovits wrote a really interesting article in Foreign Affairs a few years back investigating the leftist terrorists and those, like Joschka Fischer, a future famous Green Party Foreign Minister, who narrowly avoided joining them.

Prakhar Goel writes:

Dear Bryan,

As to your first point, there is a simple reason why nobody displays any cognitive dissonance as to the leftist nature of the German idealists despite the existence of East Germany -- they are too used to it. Leftist have embraced the retarded and insane notion that intentions matter more than results. Communists (and leftists in general) have always had the "pure" (or rather, leftists-blessed) causes of equality or liberty (or their version thereof) or environmentalism, etc... Thus they are always right. The communists may have directly (through purges) or indirectly (through incompetence at managing the food supply for instance) caused the deaths of millions but they had good intentions and therefore are good people. The same goes for current leftists. PETA wants to help animals and therefore it is a good organization. That it kills over 85%[1] of the animals it "rescues" is irrelevant. Likewise, to a leftist, the worst thing about Hitlar was not the holocaust (though they will never admit this). The worst thing about the nazis was that they wanted to elevate the German people specifically -- which is clearly racist, therefore evil, etc... The holocaust is just something for them to point to.

They have been practicing this insanity for so long that by now, most of us (though thankfully not all) have become desensitized to it. In the early 1900s like during WWI and then during the communist revolution, people were horrified by the communist parties and tried to destroy them. Some authors of that time (Burnham for example) wrote amazingly well about the horror that communism carried for those familiar with it. Alas, they were not successful in stopping it.


Foobarista writes:

I'm not a huge student of pre-WWII German politics, but from what I know, I wonder if this wasn't a continuation of the struggle between the Nazis and the Communists that defined German politics in the late 1920s and early 30s? The Communists were a hardline Stalinist outfit that likely wouldn't have been much better domestically than the Stalin-era Communists were in the USSR. They had the sort of hatred for each other that only entities that are very similar but differ in a couple of key points tend to be.

The Nazis came into power as much because the "centrist" parties like the Catholic Center (ancestor of the Social Democrats) aligned themselves with the Nazis to keep the Communists from power as anything else - the Nazis seemed to be the "reasonable" extremists...

Snorri Godhi writes:

Very interesting to learn about Eugen Richter. I knew of French liberals [classical of course] who had premonitions about socialism, but not Germans.

For a Communist, being a hippie is just one more way to offend bourgeois society.

Or maybe for a hippie, being a communist is just one more way to offend his parents?

They didn't become Marxist-Leninists because they opposed the Vietnam War; they opposed the Vietnam War because they were Marxist-Leninists.

There might be a difference between Germany and the USA in this respect. American youth had an incentive to protest the Vietnam war irrespective of ideology; German youth did not.

Incidentally, I am a bit surprised not to see mention of the antisemitism of the RAF. Allow me to mention Snorri's Laws of Antisemitism:
1. not all anti-capitalists are antisemites, but over 99% of antisemites are anti-capitalists.
2. all anti-capitalist movements, if left to themselves, become increasingly antisemitic over time.

Kurbla writes:

Bryan, what is so puzzling about Berlin wall? Do you think it is one of the greatest crimes in that time? Greater than, say, throwing napalm on Vietnamese villages? Well, it doesn't look convincing claim to me. If one had to pick one and the most obvious evil in the world 1970's it could be easily the war in Vietnam.

However, I could agree that it is not the cause of leftist terrorism. I think, the cause for leftist terrorism is:

    (1) individual will for fight and power

    (2) potential of ideas to justify evil deeds is proportional to their promises.

I know many leftists who advocate terrorism and practice it to some extent. For example, I personally know secretary general of IWA AIT. Those people feel great anger and they do not care what other people think. They behave like they want power (and almost certainly they really do) but in the same time, they believe they can make the better world. Marxist or some other leftist ideology - but mostly Marxist - give them ammunition for rationalizations they need. They cherry-pick arguments that can justify their position, and ignore arguments against it.

The terrorist and their sympathizers strongly remind on football (soccer) hooligans. The hooligans believe that their favourite team is so important that they have the right to fight, sometimes even kill people who cheer for other team. Their justification is particularly weird, but it works good enough for thousands of people in Europe and South America. Clearly, the reason of violence has little to do with football itself. But football serves as justification.

The difference in ideology determines the potential for such justification. Relatively few people can accept loyalty to football team as justification for evil deeds ... but communist ideas, like "realm of freedom" have much more potential for such justification. However, it doesn't mean that ideas are wrong.

lukas writes:

No, no, Snorri, you've got it all wrong. See, the RAF were anti-Zionists and thus Good, Virtuous anti-Imperialists. The Nazis were Vile, Hateful, Imperialist Antisemites.

Snorri Godhi writes:

Lukas: thank you for allowing me to quote Ulrike Meinhof herself:
"Anti-Semitism is really a hatred of capitalism."

Brain damaged as she was, she saw things more clearly than many people do today.

See also the essay "On Socialist Anti-Semitism" by Max Geltman:

Rayson writes:

You are right that there is no reason to treat the "RAF", as they called themselves ("Red Army Fraction"), differently than other strange groups at the political margin, if you only look at their contribution to theory.

However, commenters like Micheal are right as well: The roots of this movement can be found in the 60ies, where not only in Germany the youth revolted against the old establishment. But especially in Germany this old regime was partly linked to Nazi heritage, or at least attitudes that allowed the Nazis to succeed on their way to power. Many young people felt the need to show the kind of resistance that their parents failed to do. In some aspects you could say that they tried to correct Germany's big mistake of the 30ies, but the only thing they could fight against at this timne was the quite young democracy of Germany. As a well-established German journalist, Johannes Gross, noted: "Resistance against Hitler has been growing from day to day since the end of WW II"...

The other reason why the "RAF" stays so important for us Germans is its function as the first important challenge of our post-war democracy. Many people feared that the state would react with extremely drastic measures, converting the republic into a "police state". Today we gather a lot of confidence in our democratic instutions from the way our state managed that crisis although decisions like sacrifying the already mentioned Mr. Schleyer could not have been easy for the politicians in charge, namely former chancellor Helmut Schmidt.

In some way, the rescue of hijacked German hostages in Somalia by the elite troop GSG 9, and the reactions following this event, were the final proof the new Federal Republic of Germany had the degree of support among (West-)Germans that the old Weimar Republic lacked.

The fall of the wall produced an interesting footnote: East Germany supported the "RAF" members to a large extent, destroying a lot of myth that was told about the "RAF" theoretical purity which made it possible for young Germany to regard these criminals as their heros.

(Apologies for my BSE - "Bad Simple English")

Fazal Majid writes:

There's a reason why Helmut Schmidt, who faced down the RAF and other terrorists, is still one of the most popular politicians in Germany today.

Patrick R. Sullivans writes:
The roots of this movement can be found in the 60ies...

Actually, in the twenties. Specifically, Willi Muenzenberg, Lenin and Stalin's chief propagandist, the man from whom Goebbels learned so much.

As the author of 'Double Lives' put it:

He wanted to instill the feeling, like a truth of nature, that seriously to criticize or challenge soviet policy was the unfailing mark of a bad, bigoted, and probably stupid person, while support was equally infallible proof of a forward-looking mind committed to all that was best for humanity and marked by an uplifting refinement of sensibility". He did so by co-opting public opinion in democratic countries and then denying he'd actually done so.

"He organized in all the media: newspapers, film, radio, books, magazines, the theater. Every kind of `opinion maker' was involved: writers, artists, actors, commentators, priests, ministers, professors, `business leaders,' scientists, psychologists, anyone at all whose opinion the public was likely to respect".

He shrewdly manipulated scores of left-leaning intellectuals, fellow travelers whom he disdainfully called the "innocents." He played upon man's hunger for righteousness, for an inner sense of making the world a better place.

"More than perhaps any other person of his era, he developed what may well be the leading moral illusion of the twentieth century; the notion that in the modern age the principal arena of the moral life, the true realm of good and evil, is politics".

Blackadder writes:

Incidentally, I am a bit surprised not to see mention of the antisemitism of the RAF.

The only surviving founder of the Red Army Faction is a Holocaust denier.

Kurbla writes:


    3. When I was a kid, I was baffled by the idea that hippies would be Communists, given the ultra-stodginess of the typical ruling Politburo.

The selection bias. Brezhnev and Honecker were stodgy, but Khrushchev wasn't, and Mao was prophetic figure without match on West. However, the real stars of the communist politics were actually cooler than rock and metal bands of the time.

lukas writes:

Snorri, what Meinhof said is "Antisemitism [as practised by the Nazis] was essentially anti-capitalist." Which it was, but she didn't see herself and her friends as antisemites. They always maintained the cognitive dissonance of fighting West Germany and Israel as reincarnations of the Nazi regime while embracing a good amount of Nazi positions themselves.

Snorri Godhi writes:

Lukas: apparently you know the context of the quote better than me, but I insist that she saw things more clearly than many people do: she saw that socialism was the seed of German antisemitism.

That contrasts with the xix century German social-democratic view (as presented in Geltman's essay) that antisemitism is the seed of socialism. It also contrasts with the dangerous modern view that the national- part in national-socialism was the seed of antisemitism.

lukas writes:

German antisemitism is too old and too varied to blame it all on socialism. From Luther to the landed Prussian aristocrats, there have been many non-socialist antisemites (some of them non-socialist anti-capitalists). Of course antisemitism was rampant in some parts of the labor movement, but you could not conceivably call that the seed of antisemitism.

Snorri Godhi writes:

Lukas: I over-simplified for emphasis. Still, I left a way out for myself: I said that Meinhof "saw things more clearly than many people do". That is not to say that she saw things with complete clarity.

OTOH I take exception to your insinuation that German culture is intrinsically antisemitic. Religious antisemitism could be found everywhere in Europe before the French revolution (and the contrast between Calvinists, Lutherans, and Catholics is suggestive of an anti-capitalist motive). Marx and Engels were not Lutherans, and yet they were probably as antisemitic as any German of their time. Metternich and Bismarck were German-speaking conservative aristocrats, yet they opposed the new, post-1789 antisemitism, according to this article:

The only surviving founder of the Red Army Faction is a Holocaust denier.

... and the founder of Holocaust denial was a French socialist, Paul Rassinier.

Blackadder writes:


Have you ever read Thomas Sowell's essay "Are Jews Generic?"

Snorri Godhi writes:

Blackadder: thank you for the pointer. It seems an important essay for those of us who want to be able to anticipate the need to emigrate. (Although I do not belong to a middleman minority.)

lukas writes:

Snorri, I did not mean to say that German culture is (or was) intrinsically antisemitic, just that Antisemitism was rooted in several subcultures, not all of them socialist, and not all of them religious... as was indeed the situation in most of pre-war Europe, to varying degrees.

Snorri Godhi writes:

Lukas: fair enough. I was just worried that you might under-estimate the insidious threat of anti-capitalism.
Incidentally, the Germans also suffered as a "middleman minority", in Wallachia under Vlad the Impaler. (At least that is what I found in wikipedia: I have not checked the sources.)

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