Photo: Eva-Lotte Hill
“As historians, we want to understand why people in certain historical moments regard terrorist actions as legitimate”
Interview with Dr Sebastian Gehrig, University of Oxford
42: Dr Gehrig – how would you, as a historian, define terrorism?
Sebastian Gehrig: That is a difficult question. There are different conceptions. For me, a more recent explanation goes in the right direction which categorises terrorism as a form of political violence and political language. Communication research specialists have been intensively studying how terrorist groups, whether of an ethnic-, left-wing terrorism- or Islamic terrorist nature make use of violence to communicate certain political claims or statements. This depends on which types of attacks are chosen by terrorist groups and how these are prepared and executed.
42: This means terrorists as distributors of a certain message. What are the reactions to such a message?
SG: You must ask questions like: Who feels solicited by terrorism? What kinds of reactions does it provoke in the population? How does the nation proceed? Not only about police-led countermeasures but also in terms of the portrayal of terrorists. What are the measures taken to deny terrorisms legitimacy?
42: In general, would this theoretical approach of communication offer a better understanding, since it does not initially evaluate terrorist acts?
SG: I think so, it is valuable that there is no immediate danger of getting caught up in the logic behind actions of terroristic groups and governing countries. This approach is especially worthwhile from the perspective of a historian reevaluating past events. If we do not want to understand the motivation of the individuals who slip into extremism and devote their lives to the cause of political violence, then there will be no comprehension of the initial reason. As historians, we want to understand why people in certain historical moments regard terrorist actions as legitimate.
42: Your focus of study is left-wing terrorism in Germany during the 1970s. What are reasons for this kind of left-wing terrorism?
SG: Historically, and rightfully so, the answer usually refers to the undigested nationalist- and fascist past of Germany and Italy after World War II. This is what provides the moral indignation and legitimisation for the left-wing radicals who are politically socialised in the late sixties by student protests. After these protests die down and the social support within the radical working class dwindles certain people move towards a more radical mindset. Above anywhere else this happens in northern Italy, in Bologna and Milan but also in West-Berlin and Frankfurt. In Germany and Italy, this would mainly be the Red Army Faction (RAF) and the Red Brigades. In these centres, it is apparent that originally left-wing terrorism used to be a local affair. It was important to a lot of later terrorists to regain the lost momentum of the German student movement of 1986.
42: Why did young people in Germany become violent in the 1970s?
SG: Two things made this possible. On the one hand, the state which is still in parts seen as fascist and the undigested NS-past function as a moral legitimation for carrying out the protest through armed violence. On the other hand, networks play an important role. First, there are the strongly developed West German and Italian networks in the late 1960s which made certain conjunctions to the Middle East possible. The first generation of the RAF travelled to Lebanon to be trained in combat arms so that a new level of radicalism can become a reality. Both reasons, legitimisation and networks, are necessary to explain why in the 1970’s young people slipped into armed violence. It is important to look at the ’86 movement but also keep in mind the local and personal networks. In this way, people could come together who assessed the political situation in Europe in a similar way and together, would slide into radicalism.
42: Did the members of groups like the RAF or the 2 June movement understand their actions as terrorism?
SG: I think that terror groups never see themselves as terrorists. They understand their acts as a political struggle for freedom for a certain cause. The RAF’s self-assessment and 2 June movement are no different, whereas the 2 June movement particularly saw themselves as a militant side-arm of the local scene in the West Berlin environment and not so much as a West German terrorist group. Looking at the RAFs programmatic steps, it becomes distinct that from the start, they had a much higher ideological aspiration and tried to support the struggles for liberation in Third world countries. They saw themselves as a fifth column of the struggle for liberation of the Third World along the tradition of oppositions in the Vietnam war. They also used the language of radical Maoism, modelled after the People’s Republic of China to legitimise why it even is reasonable to apply radical political means in Western Europe during peaceful and stabilised times.
42: If the focus was from the start on a solidarity with the Third World, why was Germany chosen as the target for an attack?
SG: West Germany’s position as an accomplice to the United States and its status as a colonial and a hegemonic power was why the RAF attacked Germany to support the struggles of liberation in the Third World. This becomes clear from the letters of the first generation of the RAF; claiming responsibility. The second and third generation changed their approach to a more inward-looking perspective, which aimed mostly at freeing captured members. The world political aspiration is being kept alive theoretically but looking at the potential, aims and types of action, it becomes apparent that the actual implementation of this ideological agenda becomes less important after the 1972 wave of arrest.
42: Did something like a long-term objective exist?
SG: That is a good question because the left-wing terrorism in the federal republic is mostly unspecified. It remains unclear where the struggle against the perceived fascist regime in Bonn and the imperialist US eventually lead to. The most referenced point can be maybe seen in the early political radicalisation as part of the student movement of 1967-69, in which many varieties of socialist and communist revolution were being discussed. Nevertheless, the RAF never really made clear what their goal as a terrorist group is in the 1970s. This lead to the decrease of support for the RAF not just in the general population but also in their own left-wing, radicalised environment. The lack of straight forward claims as to what they are trying to accomplish is probably one of the biggest weak points of left-wing terrorism at the time.
42: From which social backgrounds were the terrorists recruited?
SG: In general, it is correct and also emblematic for West German left-wing terrorism that especially the leaders of the first generation, were seen as well-off citizens. Interestingly the women were perceived as “daughters”. Their actions were a shock for the Federal German society of the 70s. The only exception would be Andreas Baader who is often attributed a semi-proletarian background. In a kind of “Bürgerschrecknarrativ”, its often portrayed that those young women, especially Ulrike Meinhof and Gudrun Ensslin, were seduced by Baader to become terrorists. This also says a lot about the West German gender discourse of the 1970s. The question is such: Who is regarded as a student during this time in West Germany? We happen to be talking about the time before the social-democratic education expansion, through which more children of workers are able to attend university. The main reason why a big part of the first generation was of a higher social standing can be found in the fact that the university demographic and the student movement mainly consisted of well-off middle class which is mirrored in the composition of the RAF. This applies to the first generation.
42: And the second RAF generation?
SG: After the arson in a department store in Frankfurt in 1986, Baader, Ensslich and Meinhof put more effort into working with children’s homes and thus encountered youth from completely different social environments who then strongly shape the second generation. This is how the social differences between the RAF generations came about.
42: Let’s move from the sociology of the offenders to the sociology of the victims – who were they?
SG: If we look at the first big wave of attacks in 1972, these were geared mainly towards American military bases. On the other hand, in the attack on the Springerhaus in Hamburg most victims were working in production. The working class became a target of one of the RAF’s first attacks. This immediately led to a widespread rejection of the RAF in many social classes. Yet again, structural issues like the selection of their targets and their legitimacy were exposed. The rejection grew the more people become victims. A reason for the general rejection of the RAF was, for example, the many controls implemented by authorities which lead to gunfights with activists, resulting in deaths of policemen.
42: Who was supposed to be targeted?
SG: The intended targets are initially very much symbolic. In 1972 the RAF chose objects like the Springerhaus to attack the seemingly fascist controlled West German press as well as individuals that were understood to be of emblematic importance for the West German state. A known example would be the Schleyer-kidnapping or the tried kidnapping of Judge Günter von Drenkmann in 1974 which ended in him being shot. These examples show how the RAFs ideological reasons are narrowed down rapidly and severely. The RAF moves from symbolic targets, which are rooted in student movements and the left-wing radical development of the late 1960s to a strategic terrorism that specifically targets leaders of the state and financial capitalists. The ideological narrowing of the first to the second generation becomes very apparent.
42: What do you think about the claim that there was a sympathetic attitude among students towards the RAF?
SG: There is a diffused feeling of solidarity with the RAF among leftist radicals until the end of the 1970s. The topics of the protests change, for example, towards the anti-atomic power protests. Participating in such, many activists experience police brutality, whereupon a lot of the affected become radicalised. This leads to alternation of violence on both sides which often is provoked by the Government. The result is a situation in which one might experience violence inflicted through police which leads to a feeling of solidarity with others who have also been mistreated by the Government. Surely one of the most important things, and something the RAF leadership generates very skilfully is to keep a certain feeling of solidarity within their own environment. For example, the idea that left-wing terrorists are being tortured and abused in West German prisons. Even if terrorism is mostly being rejected as a political resource, the staging of RAF prisoners in isolation leads to a basic solidarity. There exists an ambivalent game which the RAF knows how to operate to their advantage. By inviting famous, international visitors like Jean-Paul Satre to visit the leading RAF members in Stammheim, the relationship between the left-wing radical milieu and the RAF is being kept alive. The changes brought upon by the so-called German Autumn in 1977 when an overwhelming majority of the left milieu officially announced that they will no longer support and back the ambivalent solidarity of the left- wing terrorists, but rather denounce terrorism as a political strategy.
42: How would you describe the dominant feeling among the majority movement regarding RAF?
SG: Society was dominated by the feeling of fear. Various waves can be detected in hindsight. Peaks were reached in 1972 with the first wave of attacks and in 1975 with the kidnapping of Lorenz and then a last time in 1977. In general, there is also a certain every-day feeling of living in a threatened society. This means that people got used to regular police controls in cities like Karlsruhe and Bonn. The general feeling of the public is intensified by the political confrontation between the SPD Government and the CDU and then again enhanced by the media who paint a stereotypical image of left-wing terrorists. There exists a growing feeling of fear in the left wing because solidarity with terrorists is being expected by befriended comrades. The most known case in which this forced support ends in a murder would be the exposure of an intelligence service informant, who was lead into an ambush only to be shot. There is a fear of being woken up in the middle of the night, to be asked by a radicalised friend to grant him asylum. The threat of being pulled into the terrorist scene is a common fear.
42: Was there a kind of subcultural “playfulness” with this extremism? A “radical chic” of the RAF which ultimately made the organisation fashionable?
SG: This seems to be the case for the wider milieu in the phase from 1967 to 1970 because there was no way to know yet to what personal and additional consequences the armament would lead to It was not clear that the RAF would ultimately lead to real experiences and exercises of violence. The general romantic association connected to the struggle for independence of Third World countries played an important role in the emergence of terrorism. This romanticisation then influenced the clothing and musical genres of the time. 1968 was a year of protests, pushed further along by the media and ensured a feeling among the radicalised left that there are other likeminded people out there who might be possibly pursuing different political goals but who still dress the same and use a similar political language. This longing for an imagined, inclusive space resembling a struggling Third World country opposed a sometimes boring West German society and was crucial for the begin of terrorism. This thought up connection to the collective lead to many not just being radicalised as an individual but also as part of a group. The effort of some to become the leader within their groups surely added to the advance of radicalism and the downward spiral of political violence.
42: What did the advance of terrorism mean for the young federal republic, especially for the then governing SPD?
SG: Besides the East, left-wing terrorism was one of the main problems of the social-liberal government. The conservative opposition, under the leadership of the CDU, tried from the start to portray the ensuing violence as a consequence of the SPD’s reform policy, thus delegitimising the government behind Willy Brandt (1969-1974). During World War two Brandt was active in the SADP’s underground movement and from then on closely associated with his communist past. The same goes for the then parliamentary party leader Herbert Wehner. Leading SPD personalities were being linked to left-wing terrorism in the public discourse. Additionally, there were accusations that the reform policy of the SPD and the easing of social norms supported left-wing radicalism at least indirectly. The accusations lead the SPD to execute drastic counter-measures, for example meaning the so-called “Radikalenerlass” from 1972. In accordance with the order, individuals who were suspected to be connected to communists were no longer allowed to work as a teacher or in any kind of civil service, which back then included the postal service and train system. The circle of all persons concerned was respectively high. The SPD gave way to the internal pressure with this illiberal legislation. The debate of internal safety concerned from the start, not just the RAF but also the surrounding and probably supporting milieu, which, from a conservative point of view, also includes the SPD government and leading left intellectuals.
42: What ended the era of left-wing terrorism? Is it due to an eventually successful manhunt or were there other reasons?
SG: To attribute the end of left-wing terrorism only to a successful manhunt would not reach far enough. Surely the Federal Bureau Police Office became one of the leading federal polices in western Europe due to their increase of digitalisation. The rapid, statewide countermeasures, which relied on computer technology – the early stages of digital Europe-wide persecution- lead to the capture of many terrorists right after the attacks. The highest officials were arrested relatively quickly after the so-called “Mai-Offensive” of 1972. The government proved its action ability through the arrests. The German Autumn of 1977 also proceeded well since the liberation of the Lufthansa Airplane in Mogadishu happened without causing any civic deaths. A failed release would have been a symbolic disaster for the government and might have lead to a constitutional crisis.
42: If these successful governmental countermeasures did not lead to the end of terrorism, then what did?
SG: In the long term, it was more the rejection of terrorism within the radical left milieu, which lead to a stronger isolation of the RAF in the 1980s. We know today that the RAF became increasingly more dependent on networks from the Middle East and the Stasi in East Germany due to their own networks not being reliable anymore. The experience of terrorism and the triggered governmental countermeasures lead to a general impression by the activists that participating in international struggles exceeds the potential of the left-wing in West Germany. Consequently, left-wing radicalism changed from the 1970s to the 1980s. It became more regional, like local anti nuclear power protests at planned construction sites. Other activists turned into squatters or fled into the countryside. The old idea of needing to revolutionise a small circle first before changing society became more universally believed. Many female activists concentrated mainly on feminism and the women’s movement. These diverse kinds of protests in the mid-1970s lead to a loss of connection to world political issues which used to be the focus in 1968. I believe that this development lead to more of a decline in radicalisation than the successful manhunt implemented by the government.
42: The hunt for terrorists is being seen as a failure in recent history. Are there structural parallels between left-wing terrorism and today’s Islamist terror?
SG: I see the biggest structural similarity in the way terrorism is being approached by society. This diffused feelings that one particular group is being seen as threatening Today, this group consists mainly of Muslim immigrants. The debates of the last months about failed prosecutions through misconduct by the authorities has a lot of parallels to the discourses of the 1970s. In the case of the kidnapping of Hanns Martin Schleyer, the house his kidnappers hid him in was discovered as such by authorities, but this information never reached the police who were thus not able to follow the lead. The way society handled terrorist threats was similar to today, only the subject of worry has changed. And yet terrorism is not seen as an inner-societal threat but more something that comes into the country from the outside, as with the refugee crisis.
42: What lessons can be derived today from the parallels between left-wing terrorism and Islamic terror?
SG: Parallels can be identified through looking at when public debates lead to a radicalisation of society, and governmental actions went too far. It comes down to the questions, which rights news services should have and at what point should basic rights and constitutional limitations be tested in a criminal prosecution. These boundaries were violated in the 1970s which lead to potentially more people being radicalised. The distinction remains that the threat back then was seen to be coming out of society whereas today it is external. In general, the history of left-wing terrorism teaches us that individual and socio-economic reasons have to be regarded when it comes to active terrorists.
42: How do you assess the existence of today’s left-wing terrorism in Germany?
SG: There are resurfacing waves of anonymous left-wing radicals from time to time, especially in Berlin and Hamburg where cars have been set on fire at night. After the RAF was dissolved at the end of the 1990s, there was no terror network left. By now the radical left in Germany occupies themselves, if at all, only with the ideological remnants of the RAF era. Still, there are real repercussions caused by the RAF that we have to address. Last year a security van was raided which can most likely be linked back to the third generation of RAF members. There has never been a general amnesty for left-wing terrorists in the Federal Republic of Germany, so some members of these groups still live in hiding among society.
42: A known former member of the left-wing terrorist organisation Anti-Imperialist Cell publicises radical Islam today. The common link seems to still be anti-imperialism. Is there an explanation for the phenomenon of activists converting to a different cause?
SG: Ideologically, the connection between the radicalised left and Islamic radicalism goes back to the 1970s. For the West German left, this past is unpleasant. After the attack on the Olympic games of 1972, the RAF approved the actions of the attackers publicly. This happens within a context of the radicalised left in western European turning away from Israel after supporting the country through the decades after 1945. The more Israel became an imperial power in the Middle East, especially after the Six-Day War in 1967 and the occupation of West-Jordan and the Gaza Strip, the more the left-wing radical milieu repositions itself. This leads to Israel changing sites through anti-imperialist rhetoric and logic of the time, to become part of Western imperialist powers. It is possible that old left-wing activists are still stuck in this mind-set today and get enthused by Islamic terrorism. Keeping in mind the background of Germany’s historic responsibilities after the Holocaust, the left will have to deal with the results of their strong anti-Zionism of the 1970s for a long time to come. These are debates which influence even today’s party’s politics. The relationship to Israel continues to be ambivalent.
42: Lastly, let’s look a Europe. Can you outline the developments of 1970’s European terrorism?
SG: Looking at death tolls, the 80s and 90s meant the peak of terrorism in Europe. This stands in contrast to how the European society experiences this constant feeling of being threatened today. Because of the attack on the Pan Am Flight 103, 1988 is the year with the highest number of terrorist caused deaths in Europe. The quantity and frequency of terrorist attacks – the ETA in the Basque country, the IRA in Northern Ireland, the RAF in West Germany, the Red Brigades in Italy and beginning in the 1980s, also the Action Directe in France – were higher back then than they are today. This shows how powerful terrorism is when it comes to spreading the feeling of danger, going beyond actual attacks. There was an attack in Spain in 2004 and the attacks in France last year have caused many victims. The attacks in Great Britain last week took many lives, racking up the death toll. In the 1970s and 1980s it was ethnically and politically motivated terrorism that caused fear, be it in Northern Ireland, the Basque country, in Italy, the Federal Republic of Germany or France. This is replaced by few and mostly ignored Islamic attacks in Europe which already happened all the way back in the 1970s and 1980s. Only since 9/11 are these attacks seen as a big threat to public safety.
42: So, it is religious and not secular terrorism which is seen as the prevalent danger today.
SG: You could say that, yes.
42: You already mentioned that religious terrorism is perceived as a threat from the outside. Is the fear of internal European terrorism over?
SG: It became apparent that fears of a resurgence of political violence in Northern Ireland still seem to exist in the light of the Brexit debate. Nevertheless, before July we would not have talked about this fear. Possibly as a debate with Britain but not in an European context. The fact that the French and German press ponder this question would have probably not happened to this extent before Brexit. It is apparent that the potential of a general feeling of danger is not over It all depends on the political situation. The exact opposite example would be the ETA, which a couple of weeks ago, gave up the secret location of their last remaining weapons. In both examples, it can be seen how persistent the phenomenon of political violence in the public debate is and how quickly it can resurface in an open discourse.
42: Herr Dr Gehrig, thank you very much for this interview.
Translation: Laura Emily Schulze