Helter Skelter, German Style3
In the fall of 1969, the day before the November ceremonies commemorating Kristallnacht, Jewish cemeteries in Berlin were desecrated with graffiti such as “Al Fatah,” and “Shalom and Napalm.” In the Jewish community center on Fasanenstraße, a bomb was discovered. Young advocates of armed struggle increasingly saw themselves as fighting a vague and omnipresent enemy—imperialist, capitalist, Zionist. Members of the Red Army Faction even began to draw strange analogies, likening themselves to Holocaust victims. The ultimate perversion came in the summer of 1976, when an Air France flight from Tel Aviv to Paris was hijacked by members of the PFLP working together with two German members of the Revolutionary Cells, Winfried Böse, and Brigitte Kuhlmann. The plane eventually landed in Entebbe, where the hijackers singled out the Jewish and Israeli passengers, releasing the non-Jews.
Was this moral dissolution inevitable? Kundnani is admirably restrained in his verdicts and he prefers to let the facts speak for themselves. But it is clear he believes that, as a premise for political action, the “continuity thesis” proved disastrous: It blinded an entire generation on the German left from seeing any distinction between present-day democracy and the fascist past, and it encouraged them to conceive of political struggle in absolutist terms, condemning their enemies as latter-day Nazis even to the point of imagining themselves as Jewish victims. He agrees with the historian Dan Diner’s argument that the attempts on the German radical left to invoke the Third Reich amounted to an “exonerating projection” and a “relativization” of Nazism. But this may not be altogether fair. There were, after all, powerful continuities between past and present, and it is in part thanks to Germany’s postwar Left that the silence was eventually broken. There is also greater meaning to the Adorno-Horkheimer theory of fascism as pathological modernity than an illicit effort to relativize Nazi brutality. Surely the RAF and other militants understood the continuity thesis in too crude a fashion. But a theory is not wholly refuted by the errors it may inspire. The alternative would be to fix Nazism as an incomparable standard of evil. But how can one sustain the watchword, “Never Again Auschwitz” if one is forbidden in principle from drawing comparisons? The incomparable is also the irrelevant.
It is a crucial lesson of Kundnani’s book that the more responsible members of Germany’s left, such as Jürgen Habermas and Joschka Fischer, understood that the continuity thesis was mistaken. Still, there are many sorts of continuities and not all comparison can be dismissed as psychological evasion or relativization. In the 1990s Fischer, by then a seasoned politician who had long ago abandoned his ragged sweaters, was one of the most vocal advocates for finally shattering the postwar taboo on German military action in foreign territory. When the Serbs attacked Kosovar Albanians in 1998, it was Fischer who prevailed against the more pacifist members of his own party to insist that Germany should contribute to the NATO campaign. “I didn’t just learn ‘never again war,’” he explained. “I also learned, ‘never again Auschwitz.’”