TELOSscope: The Telos Press Blog

Terror and Solidarity: Part 1

This is the first part of a comment on the difficulty that parts of the Left sometimes have in criticizing terrorism. The second part will be posted tomorrow, and a reply by Ben Robinson will follow.

In February 1989, Gerhard Richter exhibited his so-called RAF cycle, October 18, 1977, in Krefeld, West Germany. (The cycle consists of fifteen photo-paintings referencing the Red Army Faction, the primary terrorist group to emerge from the West German New Left.) In a press conference, Richter announced the cycle as a reflection on the history of the European Left, a history of failed utopian projects: 1789 led to the reign of terror, Richter stated, Bolshevism led to Stalinism, and the guerilla struggle of the Red Army Faction collapsed with the suicide of its leadership in Stammheim Prison on October 18, 1977. Richter, who had left East Germany in 1961, did not foresee November 9, 1989; neither did he foresee one of unification’s side-effects, the interruption of the emerging discussion about the legacy of the RAF and, by implication, the legacy of 1968. But by the early 1990s, this debate resurfaced and has since continued unabated.

Why this growing interest in the RAF? Obviously, there is more at stake than the revision of West German history in the wake of 1989. Gerd Koenen, one of the first to critically explore the connection between the student movement’s disintegration into dogmatic splinter-groups and the RAF recently published an article entitled “Terror und Moderne.” Similarly, many of the films, plays, and exhibits dealing with RAF produced since the 1980s as well as the scholarly work that has developed around this material often reference the anti-globalization movement, or the question of political violence. Much of this German (and U.S. American) discussion is thus, in more or less explicit terms, a conversation about September 11, the Iraq war and the so-called “War on Terror.”

Gerd Koenen raised the question of the Left’s anti-Semitism—the RAF’s eagerness to embrace the Palestinian cause, their conception of an anti-imperialist fight against the U.S. and Israel. Another contemporary of the RAF and member of the generation of ’68, Wolfgang Kraushaar, foregrounds this dimension of ’70s radicalism even more polemically in his recent book, Die Bombe im juedischen Gemeindehaus (The Bomb in the Jewish Community Center). Kraushaar gathers evidence for his thesis that Dieter Kunzelmann, one of the German New Left’s most idiosyncratic figures, was responsible for the attempted bombing of the Jewish Community Center in Berlin on November 9, 1969. This was a provocative act, Kraushaar argues, an attack in Kunzelmann’s situationist style directed against “imperialist, fascist” Israel and the non-militant Left that started to re-form itself at this moment. Both Koenen and Kraushaar thus trace the capsizing of ’68 anti-fascism into a new anti-imperialism with strong anti-Semitic undertones. Kraushaar’s thesis is unambiguous: by planting a bomb in the Jewish Community Center, the West German Stadtguerilla constituted itself in an anti-Semitic act—with the help, Kraushaar thinks, of Al Fatah and East Germany’s secret police.

Kunzelmann had a specific goal: to radicalize the German New Left by “helping” it overcome its “Judenknax,” or Jew tic. In a letter from an Al Fatah training camp dated November 1969, Kunzelmann told his comrades back home how much he enjoyed finding himself in a situation where “everything is so very simple”: here, the enemy is clearly visible. The German Left needed to understand that “Palestine was for West Germany what Vietnam was for the U.S.” (Kraushaar, 68). The reason why the Left still hesitated to fight “Zionism” as the new “fascist ideology,” Kunzelmann pronounced, had to do with the “predominance of the Jewish complex,” the New Left’s paralyzing philo-Semitism (Kraushaar, 69).

Few members of the radical Left, Kraushaar argues, ever paid much attention to Kunzelmann, nor did they adequately analyze this form of left-wing anti-Semitism; instead they simply dismissed Kunzelmann’s group as marginal. Yet Kunzelmann’s provocations were not as marginal as the Left wished them to be. In 1972, Ulrike Meinhof defended the “actions of Black September in Munich” as “anti-imperialist” and “anti-fascist”: Black September unmasked the deep complicity between the Federal Republic and “Israel’s Nazi-Fascism” (Koenen, Das rote Jahrzehnt 409-410).

It does indeed not make much sense to see Kunzelmann, Meinhof, et al. as representative of the German New Left. But their anti-imperialism with its tendency to slide into left-wing anti-Semitism remains the Left’s problem. In 1972, Oskar Negt delivered a public speech in Frankfurt in which he appealed to the Left to distance itself unequivocally from the RAF’s violent radicalism. The RAF’s advocacy of revolutionary violence, their mixture of revolutionary romanticism and the fatal misinterpretation of West Germany as a fascist state resulted in politics that lacked experience, Negt argued, a politics that could only be self-defeating.

This appeal made Negt quite unpopular among some of his comrades; he was also not terribly successful. In 1976, Joschka Fischer and Daniel Cohn-Bendit still expressed their basic solidarity with the RAF in a pathos-laden public declaration. Fischer and Cohn-Bendit started their declaration with a line about Meinhof’s death that evoked memories of Rosa Luxemburg’s murder: “On May 8, Ulrike Meinhof was driven to her death by reactionary forces” (Negt, Achtundsechzig 264). While Fischer and Cohn-Bendit criticized the RAF along the same lines as Negt (questioning its militancy, the applicability of third-world guerilla tactics to Germany), by the end, they did again reaffirm their support: “We cannot simply distance ourselves from our comrades in the Stadtguerilla, because we would have to distance ourselves from ourselves—because we suffer from the same contradiction wavering between hopelessness and blind actionism” (Negt, 265).

Negt called this declaration an expression of the Left’s “bleierne Solidaritaet,” or leaden solidarity, a fundamental ambivalence toward the RAF’s militant politics based on revolutionary romanticism and a kind of macho guilt about not having taken up arms that reached deep into the German Left. (Of course, this uneasy, but widespread sense of solidarity owed to the urban guerilla was only fueled by the West German government’s overwrought reaction, the sudden militarization of the German state. The presence of heavily armed policemen played into the RAF’s hands, turned their story of the essentially fascist nature of the West German state into a success story. That too was part of the leaden solidarity—the West German Left’s all too quick belief in the continuity of fascism.) And this basic solidarity continued despite Meinhof’s celebration of Black September, which Negt didn’t even address in his critique.

The controversies about the RAF thus revive once more the question of the German Left’s tolerance towards anti-Semitism raised in the 1980s (see, for instance, Andy Markovits, Seyla Benhabib, and Moishe Postone on the Fassbinder-controversy in New German Critique, no. 38, Spring/Summer 1986). But I find Oskar Negt’s term of leaden solidarity useful and his analysis pertinent for us today. For we do find again the same ambivalence, the same reluctance to condemn terrorism unequivocally—be it in Iraq, in London, or on the part of Hezbollah.

Part 2 will be posted tomorrow and follows the argument through comments by Chantal Mouffe.

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