Reflections on The Baader-Meinhof Complex
By Bryan Caplan
Normally I dislike movies based on true stories, but The Baader-Meinhof Complex was fascinating. It’s a history of the Baader–Meinhof gang, also known as the Red Army Faction – and as far as I can tell, the movie sticks very closely to the facts. [But I’ll still say: SPOILERS!]
Long story short: Beginning in the late sixties, a band of German Marxist-Leninists decides to move from talking about violence and murder against bourgeois society to actually practicing it. The leaders get a lot of attention, and an amazing amount of sympathy from the young. But they’re finally arrested, turn their trial into a circus, and kill themselves in prison.
Thoughts about the movie and the movement keep buzzing through my head, especially:
1. No one seems puzzled that a bunch of young German “idealists” in the sixties are avowed Marxist-Leninists. All the events take place after the Berlin Wall goes up, but neither the terrorists nor broader German society appear to have any cognitive dissonance.
2. Before Marxist-Leninists actually held power, it’s easy to see how they could get away with just denouncing the evils of the status quo: “How could socialism make anything worse?” (But never forget Eugen Richter’s precognition). What’s bizarre beyond belief is that latter-day Marxist-Leninists could get away with such rhetoric within sight of the East German border.
3. When I was a kid, I was baffled by the idea that hippies would be Communists, given the ultra-stodginess of the typical ruling Politburo. The least-bad explanation: For a Communist, being a hippie is just one more way to offend bourgeois society. It’s kind of like the Baader-Meinhof rejection of capital letters.
4. I came across a modern apology for Ulrike Meinhof. The chutzpah of this quote shocked even me:
Meinhof felt that it was her moral duty not only to see to it that this
would never happen again, but to go a step further and establish an
open and democratic society in Germany–a society where the freedom of
those who think differently is respected and where justice and equality
for all are the fundamental principles of political action… She was a fervent anti-fascist and as a gesture of defiance against the
West German government banning its political opposition to the left,
Meinhof became a member of the Communist Party.
<sarcasm>Yea, we shouldn’t take Meinhof’s Communist Party membership at face value just because she slavishly quotes Mao. Clearly, the reason she affilated with the builders of the Berlin Wall was to protest the illegality of the Communist Party in West Germany. I wonder why she didn’t protest the illegality of the Nazis by joining their party, too?! </sarcasm>
5. One standard take on groups like Baader-Meinhof is that they were driven to radicalism (typically Marxism-Leninism) by the Vietnam War and other polarizing events. The more I read about their history, though, the more inverted this story seems. They didn’t become Marxist-Leninists because they opposed the Vietnam War; they opposed the Vietnam War because they were Marxist-Leninists. They used anti-war rhetoric because pacifism was far easier to sell than totalitarianism to mushy-headed students. The same usually holds, I’m afraid, for left-anarchist opponents of the Vietnam War; see e.g. Chomsky’s notorious Hanoi speech. Even Rothbard was demented enough to cheer the fall of Saigon.
6. There are probably thousands of 20th-century movements that murdered more people than the Red Army Faction. What’s the point of singling them out? Because whenever similar movements succeeded – and many did – they turned out not to be wolves-in-sheeps’ clothing, but devils-in-wolves’ clothing. Those who do not remember the past… you know the rest.