The Baader-Meinhof Complex is an investigation into the culture of anti-culture, and the psychologies of disintegration and justification. This narrative of West German left-wing terrorists of the 1970s moves from their euphoria to their neurosis, from Palestinian resistance to Western anarchism, and explores how these individuals saw the connections between.
In 1970, Andreas Baader and his girlfriend, Gudrun Ensslin, started a group to protest the Vietnam War through “urban warfare,” including targets such as US military barracks in West Germany. They funded their operations through “expropriation” of the capitalist class, a.k.a. bank robberies. The group was perhaps most famous for involvement by the leftist journalist Ulrike Meinhof, who continued to write articles after “going underground” with the group, forsaking her children to embrace what she became convinced was a necessary life of violence, in order to effect the destabilization of the imperial and capitalist state. Though Meinhof herself was not a leader, the press used her name in the group’s public moniker. (The group eventually came to identify itself as the Red Army Faction – RAF.)
Newly elected Chancellor Willy Brandt is portrayed in the film as a reformist who is genuinely interested in solving the underlying social causes of the youth insurgency. However, through the story he is compelled to take increasingly authoritarian steps, as members of the Baader-Meinhof Group fail to respond to his rhetorical olive branches. While the filmmakers seem to agree that there are deeper social causes of the violence, what Brandt is never able to influence is the psychology of radicalism (and, I posit, anti-culture) that exploded in his time.
In reviewing the movie, Christopher Hitchens stresses this psychological element. He points out that it was the parents of this generation who fought for Adolf Hitler and exterminated millions of Jews. The postwar shame of the Germans was felt primarily by this WWII generation, but (and Hitchens does not say this explicitly) their uncertainty about themselves enabled a radical break by their children.
America’s leftist terrorism never reached the level of violence or support that the RAF did, or cognate groups in Italy and Japan did. But the U.S. certainly had a significant 20-something protest against everything society had to offer them, advocating similar philosophy (if not praxis) and similar rejection of their parents’ generation. How can this be, if America did not carry the post-war shame of the Axis? Despite V-day celebrations, America did not experience the pride of conquest or even of righteousness. The war was horrible, and many were mainly relieved that it was over. Furthermore, American redefinition as a superpower only expressed itself, in a way, as a dialectic with Soviet ascension to the same status.
The anxiety of the 60s generation was certainly juxtaposed to their parents’. This anxiety, which is where 1960s/70s Germany, France, Italy, and the US fit together, was about a world that could no longer justify itself to itself. The Allies had won the war – the next step was not only to win the peace, but to create a peace. Churches had been bombed out, but more importantly for the postwar generation, they had been vacated, too.
Wars have been wreaking havoc on religion in the West ever since the Reformation, when the political question became inseparable from the religious question. Since then, war and religion, or war and culture, have been part and parcel. The Thirty Years’ War, the Napoleonic Wars, WWI, and then WWII, were wars from which religion, and culture, never recovered. Their postwar settlements were primarily political and concealed the raging cultural problems that had been released beneath.
The new political settlement of the postwar period created significant cultural anxiety in western Europe, whose sudden collapse from leadership was a moral crisis. The children found nothing justifiable when they turned to introspection. The WWII generation in Europe, as in America, was unable to transmit its culture to its children.
A scene in The Baader-Meinhof Complex makes the point clearly. After a Gudrun Esslin terrorist act, her parents are interviewed, and they themselves admit to feeling a sort of existential freedom from the violence. Melding this French postwar philosophy with German social analysis, the Baader-Meinhof group saw its only certainty in a kind of psychological self-gratification that justified itself in moral terms of social justice, but expressed itself as the rebellion of countermorality. Surely good would arise out of rejection. In dialectical thinking, what could be otherwise? This shoddy social analysis had been corroding the German mind for years, and the sudden break in history caused by WWII destroyed the terms by which one generation could believe in its activity, and the next could learn from it.
Perhaps Americans were less infiltrated by dialectical thinking, but is it any wonder that a major war could lay bare our own cultural weakness as well?
Bryan Wandel works in government finance and has studied history, accounting, and religion. He is a member of the editorial board at Humane Pursuits. Bryan’s writing has appeared at Comment Magazine, First Things, and elsewhere.