Baader-Meinhof Reverberations: the New Left and Me

Frank Portman
14 min readApr 9, 2019


This aroused a dread, finally, that pointed to the terrors of the past.

It was a fear, in sum, that in World War II, fascism, and more specifically Nazism, had not been defeated after all — a fear that Nazism, by mutating, had continued to thrive into the 1950s and 1960s and onward, always in new disguises. It was a fear that Nazism had grown into a modern system of industrial rationality geared to irrational goals — a Nazism of racial superstitions committing the same massacres as in the past, a Nazism declaiming a language of democracy and freedom that had no more human content than the old-fashioned rhetoric of Lebensraum and Aryan superiority. And so the New Left in its youthful anxiety found its way to an old and mostly expired panic from its parents’ generation, and bent over it, and fanned the dead embers, and breathed on them, and watched aghast as the ancient flames leaped up anew.

— Paul Berman, “The Passion of Joschka Fischer”

Everything old is new again. Yet still old, obviously. Nihil sub sole novum.

One of the reasons for posting stuff on Medium has been to rescue and preserve some of the content from my old, crumbling, semi-functional blog. I stopped adding new posts in June 2018, though the decline had set in long before, a result of the old contraption getting rustier and rustier and, as importantly, of the internet having moved on to the current situation where information is scattered, unindexed, and all but ephemeral and blogs, even if they are maintained, are read by absolutely no one and serve no purpose beyond the archival. Interestingly enough, as I’ve discussed before with regard to music blogs and such, that’s the only bit of the internet that is, as it stands, reliably archived, the bit from 2001 till around 2008, when the Web 2.0 rot came in and set about destroying everything, information, discourse, and eventually, soon — we must assume — society itself. I’ve left the old blog up as an archive because it’s useful to me to refer back to things. But it is increasingly unstable even when left alone like that, so every now and then, usually when I’ve had occasion to look something up and realize it could well disappear before the next time I want to look it up, I’ll post a slightly edited version here so it can be found. It’s mostly for me and my own use, but if you want to read, by all means, read on.

I kept the blog going for seventeen years or so, and wrote about things I did and things that interested me. One of those topics was the “New Left,” ’60s radicals, and 60s radical terrorism. As described in the first chunk below, my interest was sparked by an August 2001 article in the New Republic by Paul Berman, “The Passion of Joschka Fischer,” which was later expanded into a book, about the complex, many-leveled New Left background, and the background to the background, of an otherwise rather uninteresting political controversy in contemporary Germany. It remains, for me, the quintessential cultural-critical-historical essay, a miracle of heterodox thinking, of clear argumentation, and of fine writing. But in a more personal way, it basically knocked me sideways, because in it I caught a glimpse of a truth that had till that time largely escaped me, the fact that the world I grew up in (the San Francisco Bay Area of the 1970s) was so heavily shaped by the matter of the New Left, the aesthetic, the history, the politics, the iconography. The more I read the more I realized just how much and in how many ways this social and cultural environment, that I had taken for granted, as one does, had been forged (and warped) under the New Left’s shadow, though I was completely unaware of it. And, weirdly, this exegesis of a rather obscure political moment a world away turned out to be, in some sense, an exploration of my own history. The fact that its echoes in my world, as I encountered them, tended to be so overwhelmingly farcical did nothing to diminish the fascination. Quite the contrary.

Though it is complicated to explain and indeed difficult to fathom exactly how and why, these ideas, conceits, and tropes seem to have come roaring back in contemporary culture over the past few years, the fascinating, complex, and honestly quite horrifying antecedents once again little known or acknowledged. While I still think of this complex of cultural artefacts and the “ideas” which travelled with them as overwhelmingly retrograde and old-fashioned, I can no longer claim with such confidence they are dead and buried beyond resurrection (though I hope they prove to be.) Radical violence is, once again, rather fashionable, and not so easily laughed off. There’s apparently a new wave of pretend hipster Communism washing over the streets of Williamsburg, or at least over its high-tech courting etiquette. Mobs of agitators, in Portland and on twitter, seem determined to revive the sectarian political street battles of ages past in parodic Live Action Role Playing form. Maybe it will all fade out into irrelevance as it tends to do. But the shadow still looms, and it still bears thinking about.

So here, I reproduce some of this writing. Read or not, as you like. There will probably be more to come. (Note: in the first chunk from August 2003 I’m sure you will recognize the initial sentence from which King Dork ultimately spawned. I was rather surprised by that.)

New Boss / Old Boss: the Baader-Meinhof Group

My interest in the Baader-Meinhof gang specifically was sparked by Paul Berman’s masterful essay on “The Passion of Joschka Fischer” in the New Republic. I suppose my long-standing fascination with ‘60s terrorist groups and the moral and intellectual midgets who apologize for them ultimately stems from the circumstances of my upbringing: growing up in the Bay Area in the ’70s, the SLA, the Manson family, the Weatherman, Che-worshippers of every stripe, faux-Maos, as well as ordinary folks who found it aesthetically pleasing to incorporate dashes of hippie politics into their suburban lifestyle, contributed to a cultural complex, an underlying, hard-to-pin-down ethos that exerted tremendous influence on day to day life, in ways that only became apparent to me much later.

“Ethos” is the wrong word, though: in its diluted, mid-70s suburban Bay Area form, it was more like a conglomeration of aesthetic judgments, choices about which cultural symbols and rhetorical platitudes would best express the vague aspiration to be part of some wave of the future, any wave, any future, rather than the imagined hide-bound, sexually-repressed, boring, close-minded, intolerant, un-hip, stick-in-the-mud past, which, as far as I can tell, never actually existed to any great degree in the Bay Area. (Ironic that, of course, since this aesthetic-masquerading-as-ethos was, in retrospect, very clearly on the way out, not the wave of any conceivable future except as a curiosity to be observed in the form of tiny remnants trapped in Berkeley’s amber; at the time, and to a kid, though, it wasn’t clear quite how much it owed to nostalgia and sentimentality.)

An important element of the complex, I’ve often fancied, is a general psychological condition that fetishized and aggrandized ordinary, adolescent rebellion against parental authority, and invested it with would-be world-historical significance, making it and its concomitant sensations the focus of life, the universe, and everything; and this to such a degree that experiences that do not include the sensations are found lacking, unexciting, inauthentic, suspect. The flame of sticking it to the old man had to be kept alive, and neither the absence of an actual old man to stick it to, nor the fact that one has become an old man oneself, has much bearing on the matter.

Maybe I’m way off base with this psychological stuff, but it does seem to me that, for my generation, something like this spirit, though often muted or diluted or rationalized in a new, less drugged-out form, animated many (most?) of our elders (parents, teachers, priests, et al.) And the darker stuff, so I fancy, continued to bubble under the surface, there to be noticed if only you look.

And in later youth, I saw the older, fringe denizens of the punk rock world, many of whom were themselves aging ‘68-ers or sympathizers, continue the tradition. I still have an RAF handbill that I was handed by a punky lefty activist at one of the first punk rock shows I attended at age 14. (RAF = Rote Armee Fraktion = Baader-Meinhof Group.) It was just another item amidst my “concert stuff,” T shirt, poster, Revolutionary Worker, etc., and the look of the iconography was certainly not out of place in those weirdly parallel, contexts. To look at the logo, RAF might well have been a cool punk band rather than a German leftwing terror organization.

Whether one was aware of it or not, the artistic (punk rock) and the political (terrorism) shared an aesthetic, in some modes any rate, that drew on the same sources, employed similar-sounding rhetoric, and benefitted from the same sort of fashionable, cutting-edge frisson. I didn’t understand what it was at all, so of course it didn’t occur to me to wonder if the affinities might have gone beyond the aesthetic. But I wonder it now, and I’m pretty sure that for some, the answer is yes, though possibly complicatedly so.

Anyway, I absorbed the counter-culture lessons all too well, perhaps, as I often adopted a contrarian attitude towards the contrarians, a habit that continues to this day. There’s no great harm in it, in itself. Being required to read (and love) The Catcher in the Rye each year from age eight to eighteen by adults who effectively stood around you with expectant, frozen, desperate smiles, shivering with excitement each time you turned a page; or listening to bands who lifted their lyrics in toto from subliterate articles in the Revolutionary Worker and were granted a reputation as dangerous, deep-thinking intellectuals in return; or sitting through endless coffee shop and dorm room discussions about “the Revolution” amongst other children playing political dress-up, none of whom were capable of noticing any irony in the situation — other than boredom, we’re not talking about any great hardship. “Question Authority” isn’t a bad motto, even if those who brandish it often seem mysteriously to exempt themselves from the questioning process, and even if, as is of course the case, nobody really ever means it.

It wasn’t till I read Berman’s piece, however, that it really dawned on me just how much and how completely the spirit of the New Left and ‘68ers, in their period of unwitting decline, had influenced and shaped the world in which I grew up, and the degree to which this might have been something like a more generalized Western cultural experience. Everything snapped into focus. Patty Hearst and the “Symbionese Liberation Army” loomed large in my childhood, as a news item and a not very well understood topic for imaginative speculation, as did the Manson clan (who, it seems to me, differed from the “political” terrorists/murderers only in that, for whatever reason, they failed to clothe their lunacy, their psychopathology, their nihilism, and their apocalyptic delusions in malformed faux-Maoist pseudo-academic jargon — an affinity that was demonstrated by the Weather Underground’s explicit endorsement of the Sharon Tate murders, the “Year of the Fork,” etc.)

And it’s really pretty astounding how few degrees of separation there were between, on the one hand, the SLA and the ethos which motivated and spawned them (and which they “perverted” to some degree certainly); and, on the other, the spirit animating the much more benign, provincial, well-meaning, dippy, even occasionally right or beneficial, would-be alterna-establishment that, through some strange process of cultural accomodation and self-regard, served both as Authority and “resistance” at the same time, an orthodox Establishment with a nice gooey allegedly anti-Establishment center that everyone was rather proud of. Am I exaggerating this affinity? Probably. But I think it’s there. And the fact that quite a few otherwise relatively benign, if addled, 60s people continue to indulge, excuse, romanticize, and equivocate when it comes to groups like the Weather Underground, the SLA and the RAF, if not necessarily the Manson family, seems to bear that out.

The Baader-Meinhof Gang were like a less inept, larger, and, strangely, more “popular,” German version of the SLA. One “twist” on the pattern, and a surprising element to those not versed in the subject, was an ill-disguised anti-Semitism, not, perhaps, particularly surprising given Germany’s history and the socio-pathology and instability of these particular actors, but certainly in conflict with the admiring self-image of most of our own sentimentalist identity leftists. Jillian Becker’s 1977 journalistic account of the affair bore the unsubtle title Hitlers Kinder. Their Leftist rhetoric hid their affinities with an earlier generation of thugs (Nazis) only from those who wished to be deceived. Quoting Berman:

A new suspicion was dawning on these people [West Germany’s New Leftists] — a little tardily, you might complain, but dawning nonetheless. It was a worried suspicion that New Left guerilla activity, especially in its German version, was not the struggle against Nazism that everyone on the New Left had always intended. It was a suspicion that, out of some horrible dialectic of history, a substantial number of German leftists had ended up imitating instead of opposing the Nazis — had ended up intoxicating themselves with dreams of a better world to come, while doing nothing more than setting out to murder Jews on a random basis: an old story.

Strangely, given their archaic nature, the RAF, the SLA, and their ilk continue to pop up in our contemporary landscape, their distant words and deeds causing bizarre reverberations amongst their mercifully few, misguided apologists and requiring remedial commentary by civilized critics in response. There are those who, for reasons of their own, seem determined to get fooled again. And again.

[drawn from this August 6 2003 post.]

The Baader-Meinhof Complex

This is a kind of review of the 2008 German film Der Baader Meinhof Komplex, originally posted Dec. 14, 2009.

I finally got around to seeing that Baader-Meinhof Complex film. The sad, horrifying, fascinating tale of the New Left in general, and the Red Army F[r]action in particular, has long been one of my weird obsessive interests. I’m no expert, but I suppose I’ve read as much about it as I have on any other subject; and it was quite a strange experience to see scenes and figures with which I’ve been so familiar depicted on the screen so vividly and with such skill.

It really is an amazing movie, a “docu-drama” in the form of an action thriller, beginning with the Benno Ohnesorg shooting on June 2nd, 1967, and ending, rather abruptly, with the shooting of Hanns-Martin Schleyer in October of 1977.

I’d heard complaints that the film unduly glamorized and exculpated the perpetrators but it certainly didn’t strike me that way, much. Andreas Baader is depicted, accurately, as a slow-witted, thrill-seeking thug, for whom radical politics was little more than a self-aggrandizing pretext and cover for criminal activity. Gudrun Ensslin comes off as a hip, vapid sociopath, who cows all in her path with a relentless, hectoring stream of canned revolutionary Marxist clichés, pausing only occasionally to address Baader fondly with a kittenish “baby…” Horst Mahler is every bit as sleazy, comic-preposterous, and morally bankrupt as the real guy must have been (and still, clearly, is.)

There is, it is true, a salient pathos in the film’s portrayal of Ulrike Meinhof: she is the bourgeois intellectual who assuages her own guilt and feelings of inadequacy and inauthenticity by allowing herself to be seduced by the glamor of radical chic, eventually joining the gang and devoting her once-lauded rhetorical talents to a warped, semi-coherent post hoc quasi-theoretical justification of a wicked and ultimately pointless project driven chiefly by the egotism and narcissism of a couple of deranged half-wits. I have no idea if this psychological portrait is accurate, but it is certainly effective cinematically. Empathy, whether deserved or not, gives way gradually under the weight of successive horrors, as the grand, sordid tragedy plays out, leaving her, in the end, utterly corrupted, a burnt-out cinder, empty and inscrutable even in her anguish and abandonment.

This sorry trajectory lends a grim irony to the depictions of public support, the courtroom chants, the fist “power” salutes, etc. I find it difficult to imagine how anyone viewing this film could come away with a positive impression of the participants or their project, though that failure could well be mine.

A few puzzling omissions, given that such care was taken in re-constructing iconic scenes (the hooded Black September terrorist peeking out over the balcony in Munich, the bleached-blond, wounded Baader being dragged by the leather jacket sleeves after a shoot-out with an armored vehicle, etc.):

— Jean-Paul Sartre’s visit to Baader in Stammheim Prison during the hunger strike of 1974;

— the Revolutionary Cells’ hijacking of the Air France airliner and subsequent raid on Entebbe;

— related to that, if there was any allusion to the undercurrent of anti-Semitism running through the RAF and the German New Left, I managed to miss it — especially odd because the events of Munich 1972 are depicted, but not Ulrike Meinhof’s communiqué endorsing them;

— the RAF’s support and funding by the East German Stasi isn’t referenced at all.

Of course, you can’t put everything in a two-hour movie. I do wonder how and why such decisions were made, though.

The movie is based on the similarly-named, and once rather hard to come by, book by Stefan Aust (an associate of Meinhof’s from the pre-terrorist konkret days, played by Volker Bruch in the film) fortunately now re-printed in an English edition. Both the book and the movie are worth checking out if you’re at all interested in that type of thing.

ADDED, 6.23.2020: Astrid Proll, Joe Strummer’s T-shirt, and terrorist chic

In re. that stuff about the Red Army Faction’s “punk” logo, since writing this I came across a book called Keeping Up with the Germans by Philip Ottermann, which tells the story of founding Baader-Meinhof Gang member Astrid Proll, on the run and hiding under an assumed name in London, where she comes face to face with the RAF Kalashnikov logo on Joe Strummer’s Red Brigades / RAF shirt at the Victoria Park concert documented in the Rude Boy film:

Somewhere in the throng a young woman felt panic rising as she caught sight of the T shirt with the Kalshnikov logo, though she said nothing to the group of lesbians with whom she had travelled there from Bow to watch the Clash. They knew she was German, but that was all — even at the height of punk, young English people were too polite to ask more than that….

From “Hitler’s children” to The Only Band that Matters. And from there, in a sense, to the punk rock “concert stuff” clutched earnestly but uncomprehendingly in my fourteen-year-old hands in San Francisco. Had this shirt been on sale at Kezar I might well have bought one.

These shirts are actually for sale (as a Joe Strummer / Clash nostalgia item) all over the internet now. The connection between “punk” and “terrorist chic” continues, whether the purveyors and customers realize it or not (another continuing tradition, of course.) It’s a reciprocal relationship that goes back at least to 1968, and in a sense, per Berman, all the way back to the ’20s and ’30s.