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"Being high, being free, terrorism's gotta be"

Arno Widmann looks back on the culture of violence in the Deutscher Herbst

German terrorism is a small offshoot in the world of international terrorism in the 1970s. You only have to think about how the transition from ballot to bullet was propagated and put into practise in the USA.

At the beginning of the 70's not a month went by without at least one major American city going up in the flames of insurrection. There was not a single major American city which did not have entire districts that were controlled by armed groups.

In Italy bombs were not only set off by left and right wing groups resulting in hundreds of casualties, it was happening to small-fry managers as well, who'd be shot in the legs on the bus to work. By left-wing radicals whose organisations made it their duty to continue the class war in this way.

The Third World liberation movements made it clear in the 60s that, even in the atomic age, power can come out of the barrel of gun. This lesson made a big impression. Not so much on the major political parties in the capital cities as on the artists, thinkers and opposition which was stirring everywhere. Just think about the war in Algeria which was fought for years using terrorist tactics on both sides. Just read what Frantz Fanon and Jean-Paul Sartre wrote about and inferred from it.

There was a culture and a cult of violence. And they merged seamlessly into one another. All around the world. The images of hundreds of Japanese students demonstrating with Prussian discipline, each with a Molotov cocktail in their right hand and regularly forcing the police to turn tail and flee, were seen on the evening news by every second household in the Federal Republic. This ignited ambition in many a heart.

The image of Che hung in thousands if not tens of thousands of apartments. "Because he was so good-looking" people often say today. No, because he was good-looking and chose the path of violence. Had he remained the minister of finance in Cuba, hundreds of thousands if not millions of people worldwide would not have marched behind his picture.

Violence and terror were not the privilege of the radical Left. Aside from the Weathermen, there was also the Ku-Klux-Klan and there was the government which did not only send down bombs in South East Asia on anything it didn't like. In Chile the democratically elected government was overthrown by a violent coup. Of all the opposition groups, the only ones that were interesting to the radical Left in Germany were those prepared to take up the armed struggle in Chile.

The huge popularity at that time of the Django films is hard to comprehend today. You have to remember how much young men and – far fewer - young women in Western Europe longed to put paid to the forces of evil with a revolver and and a couple of bombs. How quickly they then became evil themselves escaped their attention. American film celebrated the aesthetic of bullet-torn bodies in slow motion. Sam Peckinpah, son of a Californian judge showed in "The Wild Bunch" (two years after Arthur Penn's "Bonnie and Clyde") how people turn into violent criminals and then into mythical figures.

This symbolic violence is but one step away from the real thing. Sam Peckinpah once said: "When I think about all that happened to me in Hollywood, I wish I were a little like my heroes." Peckinpah was too smart, and too cowardly for this step. Others took it, however. In the USA, in Europe, everywhere. But Peckinpah's art was itself only a by-product of a worldwide terrorist reality.

Yet thinking that art only reflects real terror gets things back to front. The furore of destruction in Western art after 1945 played an important role - not only as a major topic, but as an essential stimulus - in the development of both the ideology and the praxis of terrorism in certain countries, among them the Federal Republic of Germany. Before his time as member of the Berlin "Kommune 1", Dieter Kunzelmann had been a Franconian situationist. And afterwards he went on to become a terrorist and party cadre.

The transition from the language of symbolic action - for instance dressing as a policeman and directing traffic at an intersection - to real action, and to carrying out an attack on the Jewish Community Centre in Berlin (more here), seems to have been irresistable. Even the line "High sein, frei sein, Terror muss dabei sein (being high, being free, terrorism's gotta be) started its career as a cheeky ironic slogan, until it swung over into literal, delusional, bloody earnest.

It says it all about the state of blindness of large parts of the rebelling youth in the 60s and 70s that both terror and drugs - certainly the most clear-cut enemies of individual and social freedoms - were sold as liberators. But the youth was not alone back then. When a department store in Brussels went up in flames in May 1967, a leaflet appeared in Berlin bearing the words: "Despite the human tragedy of the Brussels department store fire, we cannot deny our admiration for its audacity and unconventionality." A second leaflet read: "Brussels has given us the sole answer (to the Vietnam war): Burn, warehouse, burn."

At the trial of the leaflet's authors Rainer Langhans and Fritz Teufel, top-ranking German literary scholars of the day defended the surrealist nature of the pamphlets. Reading them as directives for action, they argued, attested to complete literary blindness. In April 1968, fires devastated the Frankfurt department stores Schneider and Kaufhof. The perpetrators were artists and those who no longer wanted to become such, as well as the daughter of a priest. All of them with a high literary education. In the appraisal of the leaflet, you sense a very dangerous alliance between the political blindness of aesthetics and the aesthetic blindness of sympathisers.

The terrorism of those years was not only a product of politics. It was part and parcel of Western culture of the time. The two influenced each other. It's impossible to understand the emphasis on the physical in performances by the Living Theatre, it's impossible to understand why the bodies on stage had to be tormented and afflicted, if you don't see the torments and afflictions as an attempt to point out oppression in reality. But equally, you underestimate art if you deny its animating force.

One could conclude that the sole way to put an end to this spiral of violence is not to talk about it, to let power run itself dry, to suffocate it in a sea of non-violence. This was the direction of Gandhi's thought, and many battered women think the same way. Perhaps they are right. But perhaps there is no alternative but to resign ourselves to this spiral of mutually-strengthening real and symbolic violence. Perhaps the times when the adversaries lie exhausted on the floor are just brief, happy moments in world history. Until they rise again.


The article originally appeared in German in the Frankfurter Rundschau on September 5, 2007.

Arno Widmann is feuilleton editor of the Frankfurter Rundschau.

Translation: lp, jab. - let's talk european