By Ron Jacobs
May 28th, 2021
After my book on the Weatherman/Weather Underground Organization was published in November 1997, I did a couple brief tours supporting it; one to a couple cities on the east coast of the United States and the other on the west coast. The events were attended by a mix of college students, antiwar movement vets, some old Yippies, and a couple former Black Panthers. The bulk of the time at these events was spent in discussion of how and why Weatherman could have come into existence. For the most part, these discussions were intelligent and informational. However, an the event in Portland, Oregon—which took place at a volunteer-run Infoshop—was loudly interrupted by a guy a few years older than me who called me a Stalinist and a mass murderer. Fortunately, a couple of the punker volunteers convinced him to leave the building after he threw a bottle of soda at me. At an event in Greenwich Village, a couple of the attendees told me that the book should not have been published. When I asked them why, they said it would be better for the Left if that history was forgotten. My answer was simple. It’s important to study history and learn from it. Whether someone on the left thought armed struggle in the imperial heartland was right or wrong, the history of those who attempted to wage that struggle needed to be examined in terms that credited those involved with political reasons for making that choice.
Those experiences (and others that I don’t recall as clearly) proved to me that the publisher had done the right thing by publishing The Way the Wind Blew: A History of the Weather Underground. The same can be said for other books on the topic of armed struggle in the imperial North that have been published since then. These include numerous memoirs by former members of the groups involved, from the Black Liberation Army to the George Jackson Brigade in the United States. They also include numerous texts examining the phenomenon in the US and in Europe. Most recently among the latter (in English) is the book Remembering the Armed Struggle: My Time with the Red Army Faction (RAF) by Margrit Schiller.
Schiller was an early member of the RAF. Her memoir tells how her typical postwar West German youth evolved into membership in an urban guerrilla life of bank robberies, shootouts, prison and torture. It reminds the reader that the capitalist state does not retreat when it feels threatened as the government in Bonn obviously did. The author describes her journey from a household with parents who supported the Nazis during World War Two to an isolation cell in one of West Germany’s more notorious prisons. She went from arguing with her parents about leaving home at eighteen to working in an alternative drug rehabilitation clinic where she met politically-minded people her age. It was through some of her fellow workers that she ended up letting members of the early RAF borrow her apartment on occasion. She describes her relatively apolitical understanding being replaced with a Marxist understanding of the world, her anger at what she discovered and her growing attraction to the option presented by groups like the RAF.
I lived in West Germany during the first years of the RAF. I used to buy wine and wurst at the Kaufhof Department store RAF founders Andreas Baader and Gudrunn Enslin tossed Molotovs into months before the group was founded. I heard RAF leader Ulrike Meinhof speak at Goethe Universität while she was underground. The group set explosives in buildings I visited as the dependent of a US military member. The fear created by their actions and the response of the German authorities was real. The German media fed the frenzy. The ruthlessness the group presented to the outside world was part of the plan. Like the bombing of civilians from the air is meant to invoke terror, so is the setting off of explosives by groups like the RAF in areas frequented by civilians intended to terrorize the targeted population. In this instance that population was primarily those connected to the US military, the German police apparatus and the right-wing media.
Schiller’s narrative describes a life that was both made by her time and her decisions to take an active role in influencing those times. Few are spared. The German authorities use of torture methods designed to drive a person insane remind the reader of Germany’s very recent Nazi past; a past the postwar generation was determined not to repeat. It is also a reminder of the nature of incarceration in the modern carceral state that includes prisons like Guantanamo and Colorado’s supermax. This determination led some to the brink—a brink represented well by the history of the Red Army Faction. It was a group whose history extended through numerous personnel changes, different phases of the West German Left, and a couple of decades. Regret is expressed for some of her decisions, but not for the fact of the RAF’s existence or her decision to join.
Ron Jacobs is the author of Daydream Sunset: Sixties Counterculture in the Seventies published by CounterPunch Books. His latest offering is a pamphlet titled Capitalism: Is the Problem. He lives in Vermont. He can be reached at: [email protected].