TELOSscope: The Telos Press Blog

An Age of Murder: Ideology and Terror in Germany

Jeffrey Herf’s “An Age of Murder: Ideology and Terror in Germany” appears in Telos 144 (Fall 2008). An excerpt follows below. Click here to read the full article (in PDF format).

It is best to begin with the obvious. This is a series of lectures about murder, indeed about an age of murder.[1] Murders to be sure inspired by political ideas, but murders nevertheless. In all, the Rote Armee Fraktion (Red Army Faction, hereafter the RAF) murdered thirty-four people and would have killed more had police and intelligence agencies not arrested them or prevented them from carrying out additional “actions.”[2] Yesterday, the papers reported that thirty-two people were killed in suicide-bomb attacks in Iraq, and thirty-four the day before, and neither of those war crimes were front-page news in the New York Times or the Washington Post. So there is an element of injustice in the amount of time and attention devoted to the thirty-four murders committed by the RAF over a period of twenty-two years and that devoted to the far more numerous victims of radical Islamist terror. Yet the fact that the murders of large numbers of people today has become horribly routine is no reason to dismiss the significance of the murders of a much smaller number for German history. Along with the murders came attempted murders, bank robberies, and explosions at a variety of West German and American institutions. The number of dead could have been much higher. If the RAF had not used pistols, machine guns, bazookas, rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs), remote-controlled bombs, and airplane hijackings, and if the West German radicals of the 1970s through the 1990s had only published turgid, long-winded communist manifestos, no one would have paid them much attention at the time. I doubt that the German Historical Institute would have decided to sponsor a series about Marxist-Leninist sects of the 1970s.

First, to understand the impact of the RAF, we need to expand our focus in time and space. The periodization of West German terrorism was not limited to the German fall of 1977. The RAF began in 1970 and did not dissolve until 1998. It waged an almost thirty-year war against the Federal Republic of Germany. Moreover, as a number of contributors to Wolfgang Kraushaar’s indispensable two-volume collection, Die RAF und der Linke Terrorismus (in particular Martin Jander, Thomas Skelton Robinson, and Christopher Daase), have pointed out, the RAF must be understood in the context of its connections to the international terrorist networks focused in the Middle East as well as to the Soviet Union.[3] Contrary to the tendency to romanticize the RAF, its international links—and its trans-national link to East Germany—belie efforts to present it as an isolated group. These links were crucial to understanding its political significance. That significance lay in a larger political effort that combined the various motivations of West German terrorists with the efforts of Communist intelligence services to weaken West German ties to the United States and of Palestinian terrorist organizations to weaken or break—or at least raise the cost—of West German support for the state of Israel. In this sense, the story of West German terrorism is a chapter in the history of the cold war. The RAF wanted to destroy both capitalism and liberal democracy in the Federal Republic in the hopes of giving support to an expected global communist revolution, led by “liberation movements” from Vietnam to the Middle East to Latin America, against global imperialism led by the United States. In those twenty-eight years, more than a thousand police and government officials worked to capture members of the Red Army Faction. The publicly available files of government investigators and trial records encompass eleven million pages.[4] Work in the archives of the intelligence services of the former Communist states, including those in East Germany, is still in the early stages, while the files of Western intelligence agencies—the CIA, U.S. military and diplomatic intelligence services, the Federal Intelligence Service (Bundesnachrichtendienst), the Federal Criminal Police Office (Bundeskriminalamt), and the West German Justice Ministry files—will hopefully be made available to researchers in accordance with the thirty-year rule.

Subscribe to Telos

Second, the terrorism of left-wing groups beginning with the Tupamaros and the June 2nd movement in West Berlin in 1969, and then evolving into the Red Army Fraction, was a chapter in the history of two major European and German political traditions: communism, and antisemitism. To be sure, many communists and antisemites did not engage in politically inspired murder, but the terrorism that emerged in West Germany in 1969 had its fundamental ideological roots in the communist tradition. German left-wing terrorism is incomprehensible outside that context. In addition, Communist states—East Germany, perhaps the KGB—and movements of the radical left inspired by communist anti-imperialism—most importantly radicals in the Palestinian Liberation Organization and its offshoots—offered money, weapons, fake travel documents, travel assistance, and escape routes.[5] The role of communism, particularly the Marxist-Leninist analysis of fascism that was central to it, is no less indispensable for understanding why the post–New Left sects in Germany, Italy, and Japan were so much more murderous than was the aftermath in the United States, France, and Britain. The communist interpretation of the causes of the Axis dictatorships was that they were the product of capitalism. Hence, as capitalism was reproduced in all three societies—and as many persons who had served the governments of Imperial Japan, Fascist Italy, and Nazi Germany returned to positions of influence in the postwar democracies—the terror groups could draw on a long communist tradition, sustained as well by the existing Communist regimes, including East Germany, which described and denounced Italian, Japanese, and West German democracies as “fascist” or “neo-fascist” governments.[6] Moreover, and very importantly, the Vietnamese Communists’ Tet Offensive was a military failure and a propaganda success for the international Left, which interpreted it as evidence that the United States might be defeated in Vietnam.

Third, this age of murder was also a product of the intersection of antisemitism with left-wing radicalism. Indeed, as Kraushaar among others has noted, a peculiarity of the German—but also of the Italian and Japanese—terrorists of the 1970s and 80s was its close links to Palestinian terrorist groups. Indeed, he makes a good case that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict became even more central for West German radicals than did the war in Vietnam. The placement of a bomb by the West Berlin Tupamaros in the Jewish Community Center in West Berlin in 1969 and the 1992 attempt by the RAF to blow up a bus in Budapest filled with Russian Jewish émigrés on their way to the Budapest airport and from there to Israel are two antisemitic acts that serve as starting and end points to the age of murder.

Jeffrey Herf’s “An Age of Murder: Ideology and Terror in Germany” appears in TELOS 144 (Fall 2008). Click here to read the rest of the full article (in PDF format).


1. This article was originally delivered as the opening lecture of the lecture series “The ‘German Autumn’ of 1977: Terror, State, and Society in West Germany,” held at the German Historical Institute in Washington, DC, on Thursday, September 27, 2007.

2. The Red Army Faction, or RAF, was also often referred to as the “Baader-Meinhof Gang” with reference to two of its founding members, Andreas Baader and Ulrike Meinhof. Meinhof’s leadership role was surpassed by others. The group referred to itself as the RAF, and I will use that term here.

3. Martin Jander, “Differenzen in antiimperialistischen Kampf: Zu den Verbindungen des Ministerium für Staatssicherheit mit der RAF und den bundesdeutschen Linksterrorismus, ” in Wolfgang Kraushaar, ed., Die RAF und der Linke Terrorismus, 2 vols. (Hamburg: Hamburger Edition, 2006), 1:696–713; Thomas Skelton Robinson, “Im Netz verheddert: Die Beziehung des bundesdeutschen Linksterrorismus zur Volksfront für die Befreiung Palästinas (1969–1980),” in ibid., 2:828–904; and Christopher Daase, “Die RAF und der internationale Terrorismus: Zur transnationalen Kooperation klandestiner Organisationen,” in ibid., 2:905–29. See also Christopher Andrew and Wassili Mitrochin, Das Schwarzbuch des KGB, vol. 2, Moskaus Geheimoperationen im Kalten Krieg (Berlin: Propyläen, 2006).

4. Butz Peters, Tödlicher Irrtum: die Geschichte der RAF (Frankfurt am Main: Fischer Taschenbuch, 2007), p. 17.

5. Richard Herzinger, “Deutsch-palästinensische Achse des Terrors,” Die Welt am Sonntag, September 2, 2007, p. 17. Martin Jander’s research in the Stasi files indicate that the RAF had multiple contacts and forms of assistance from the East German intelligence services. See Jander, “Differenzen im antiimperialistischen Kampf.”

6. For analysis of these comparisons, see Dorothea Hauser, “Deutschland, Italien, Japan: Die ehemaligen Achsenmächte und der Terrorismus der 1970er Jahre,” in Kraushaar, Die RAF und der linke Terrorismus, 2:1272–98; and Jeremy Varon, Bringing the War Home: The Weather Underground, the Red Army Faction, and Revolutionary Violence in the Sixties and Seventies (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 2004). On the centrality of anti-fascism in the history of twentieth-century communism, see François Furet, The Passing of an Illusion: The Idea of Communism in the Twentieth Century, trans. Deborah Furet (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 2000).

Comments are closed.