Hindsight turns German militants into T-shirt icons

On the 25th anniversary of the terror-filled 'German Autumn,' its perpetrators permeate pop culture.

They were Germany's homegrown terrorists of the 1970s and 80s, who kidnapped and killed prominent establishment figures in the name of left-wing idealism. During the so-called German Autumn of 1977, the campaign of militant violence by the Red Army Faction (RAF) – and West Germany's heavy-handed response – shocked and polarized the postwar generation.

But 25 years later, in a unified, confidently democratic Germany, those wounds are healing. A host of new movies, documentaries, novels, and pop culture take the RAF, also known as the Baader-Meinhof Group, as their subject. The reexamination of this turbulent phase has sparked a lively discussion about Germany's political culture.

Younger generation views the elder

"The Red Army Faction wasn't just a group of terrorists," says Joscha Schmierer, the former editor of a left-wing magazine and now an adviser in Germany's Foreign Ministry. "It was the extreme-most expression of a generation, and it marked a constituent phase of the Federal Republic."

Mr. Schmierer sees the upsurge in interest in the RAF and the German Autumn as healthy "historical curiosity," a way for younger generations – and former East Germans – to understand his generation.

The RAF emerged in West Germany in late 1960s as the militant wing of the student-led protest movement. The protesters took aim, above all, at their parents' generation, those who had participated in World War II. The student radicals charged that their elders had failed to take to heart the lessons of the past, and that the West German state preserved many of Nazi Germany's structures.

The Red Army Faction militants went a step further, as did like-minded groups in postwar Italy and Japan, branding the state as a reincarnation of its fascist predecessor. The only way to change it, they argued, was by overthrowing it through armed struggle.

The violence culminated a quarter century ago this month, when the movement's imprisoned leaders were found dead in their jail cells. The cause of their deaths – suicide or murder – remained controversial for years after the event. While the RAF dissolved itself in 1996, former activists are still serving prison sentences for the bombing campaigns and assassinations.

"Back in the 1970s, you were either on the side of the RAF or you were on the side of the state. It's hard to comprehend now, but the left-right dichotomy in postwar Germany was that strict," says Stefan Reinicke, who has written extensively about the movement.

Judgment neutral

In contrast to previous works about the German Autumn, the new films and books shy away from casting judgment on the leftist militants or the German authorities.

In Christopher Roth's film "Baader," RAF leader Andreas Baader is portrayed as a cool, womanizing gangster. The film itself resembles one long music video, with exploding bombs, sexy women, and a "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid"-style shoot-out at the end. Another feature film, Christian Petzold's "The Inner Security," portrays a terrorist couple on the run with their 14-year-old daughter. The RAF is never mentioned by name. A documentary that showed in cinemas across Germany, "Black Box Federal Republic Germany," sets the biographies of one RAF member, Wolfgang Grams, against that of one of the RAF's victims, the banker Alfred Herrhausen.

"This topic can be looked at so impassionately today because these ideas aren't a threat to the Federal Republic anymore," says Wolfgang Gast, a journalist for the daily Die Tageszeitung. "They can now be historicized. This was unthinkable even 10 years ago."

Real democracy

The fact that the films don't cast moral judgment attests to a popular confidence that the country's democratic credentials are authentic. The excesses of the 1960s and 70s are seen as the natural growing pains of a young state.

The German political spectrum now includes right and left, to the extent that the ruling coalition's junior partner, the Greens, represents the generation that took to the streets in the '60s. The young people who came of age in the tempestuous '70s, often on opposing sides of the political barricades, now share in power. Joschka Fischer, the foreign minister and Green leader, and many other former left-wing activists today serve in official positions.

German society has both incorporated that era and put it behind itself, say analysts. Two years ago, for example, a weekly magazine published photos of Mr. Fischer hitting a police officer with a stick at a 1972 demonstration. The episode provoked a brief flurry of accusations and then faded. The scandal that conservatives had hoped for never materialized.

"Not only is Fischer forgiven," says Mr. Reinicke, the writer, of the muted public response, "but his former radicalness is now part of his image.

"Germans know that their society has changed dramatically because of the '60s movement."

Alongside the books and films, T-shirts with RAF iconography, like their hallmark red star and machine gun, can be found in trendy clothing stores.

Even in the United States, the RAF are getting a retrospective treatment within a touring show of Gerhard Richter's artworks. One series of paintings is entitled "October 18 1977."

"There was something pure, almost religious about the RAF," says artist Martina Siebert. "These people weren't prepared to go through the cumbersome processes of social interaction to achieve their goals. This is very attractive to young people who don't want to spend their lives trying to change things." The fashion items don't amount to an endorsement of the RAF, she says, but rather expresses an amorphous rebellious attitude.

Just exploitation

Others are less impressed with the cultural phenomenon that the RAF has become. Hannover sociology professor Detlev Claussen says these films simply "exploit history for the sake of the spectacular, for show business." As far as he's concerned, it shows that "the past doesn't count very much."

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