Reflections on Germany's Red Army Faction

Book cover: The Red Army Faction
"The most in-depth political history of the Red Army Faction ever made available in English"

As euro zone economic turbulence continues, German political manoeuvring at the EU now faces unprecedented scrutiny.

Over the past year German politicians, specifically Chancellor Angela Merkel, have emerged in the international media as prominent symbols of a highly contested EU economic austerity agenda.

Conservative policies that move to cut funds to public institutions are a focus of great debate across the EU, from the halls of power in Brussels and Berlin, to the mass street protests in Athens and Madrid.

Recent German government statistics report positive numbers on rising employment in 2012, while contesting critiques point to jobs gained only in part-time and low-wage sectors, not in long-term equitable employment.

Lost in current news on Germany is a deeply contested national history, rooted in lands divided by war and profoundly shaped by social struggles, a complex political history often sidelined in contemporary reporting.

Reading news reports on Germany over recent weeks in Montreal, often quick fix articles in the Globe and Mail, has been complemented by a heavy book The Red Army Faction, A Documentary History - Volume 1: Projectiles For the People. Nearly 700 pages in length, the book is a collaboration between PM Press in Oakland and Kersplebedeb Press in Montreal. The book points to key moments in the popular history of Germany over the past century, while piecing together an incredible picture of the Red Army Faction (RAF), the armed left-wing guerrilla group.

Described as "the most in-depth political history of the Red Army Faction ever made available in English," the book is an incredibly detailed effort to convey post-war Germany history from a progressive lens, placing translations of pamphlets and communiques by RAF in a proper context.

Critically the book outlines political realities of Germany in the 1950s, detailing the strongly conservative reality of Western Germany and the neo-imperial role that U.S. political interests played during the Cold War.

For example, the book details major popular opposition in Western Germany to U.S.-backed rearmament efforts in the early 1950s, sparking "the first large protest movement in the new Federal Republic." These protests sparked violence by German state security forces and resulted in the death of a young anti-rearmament protester who was killed by police.

Importantly, the book also notes a lack of national focus, awareness or accountability for government and corporate officials involved in the Nazi regime, many incorporated into the conservative, U.S.-backed, West German government. In a way, texts in The Red Army Faction point to a national amnesia at a popular level and convenient disregard for accountability at a government level with regard to Nazi war crimes.

The injustices of their nation's past inspired young German activists in the 1950s and 1960s who called for accountability and redress from those who helped construct and sustain Nazi Germany. These were key issues in the political context that led major left, non-governmental movements to flourish in western Germany, especially in Berlin, throughout the late 1960s.

Details on years of political pressure and state violence in West Germany against leftist popular protest and grassroots organizing, outlined in The Red Army Faction are also key to reconstructing the contested history that led to the emergence of RAF.

For example, the book also highlights a major protest in 1967 against a visit by the Shah of Iran to Germany, where protesters "wore paper masks in the likeness of the Shah ... so the police couldn't recognize us ... they only saw the faces of the one they were protecting." The demonstration was organized to protest the German-backed dictatorship in Iran that ended in dozens of arrests, major injuries and a young protester shot in the head by a plainclothes police officer with a contested history.

In the book this moment is outlined as key to the emergence of a more militant German left, a police killing that gathered between 100,000 and 200,000 participants at mass anti-police brutality protests.

The book paints a political narrative, that features original texts and translated documents, providing a clear context to the emergence of the RAF.

Police violence and state repression against an above ground and growing German left in the 1960s is illustrated in The Red Army Faction as key to understanding the wider context that led some left activists to go underground.

"For the first time ever in English, this volume presents all of the manifestos and communiqués issued by the RAF between 1970 and 1977, from Andreas Baader's prison break, through the 1972 May Offensive and the 1975 hostage-taking in Stockholm, to the desperate, and tragic, events of the "German Autumn" of 1977," describes the co-publisher PM Press.

"The RAF's three main manifestos -- The Urban Guerilla Concept, Serve the People, and Black September -- are included, as are important interviews with Spiegel and le Monde Diplomatique, and a number of communiqués and court statements explaining their actions."

More importantly, the book strays away from superficial, individual-driven narratives on the RAF, a refreshing read to follow-up from Hollywood-like portrayals like those in the 2008 film The Baader Meinhof Complex, which fails to provide the detailed context and authentic documentation outlined in this book.

In reading the details surrounding politics in Germany in the 1960s and 1970s, specifically on the vibrant and complex left movements in that era, it is striking to consider many of the social-democratic reforms introduced in Germany decades later. These were in many ways a response to the social and political critiques by activists toward conservative politics and economic injustice that shaped post-war Germany in the 1950s.

In ways the book fails to address, questions on the decision by RAF to take human lives for a larger political struggle are critical to consider. However, The Red Army Faction challenges common, unspoken conceptions on the existing monopoly on violence that state security and military forces maintain and deploy often without accountability.

Certainly the book is an important reference for anyone interested in European left history and is critical for anyone grappling to understand the context of contemporary German politics.Stefan Christoff

Stefan Christoff is a Montreal-based writer, community activist and musician who contributes to rabble.ca. Stefan is @Spirodon

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