Translated for the first time into English, the history of the German autonomous anticapitalist movement is traced back to the 1970s in this firsthand account. Battling police in riot gear, the early members of the autonomous movement used military tactics that included barricading and hurling Molotov cocktails in protest. Dubbed the “Black Bloc” by the German media, those tactics were soon adopted by scores of anticapitalist groups across the globe. The dawn of the autonomous faction spawned a movement in which average citizens can reclaim their lives from governmental control. Political activists and anticapitalists will find updated historical context to the movement and the current state of the German autonomous movement in this updated chronicle.
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About the Author
Geronimo is the pen name of an activist for the German autonomous movement. George Katsiaficas is a visiting professor of sociology at Chonnam National University and a Fullbright Fellow. He is the author of The Imagination of the New Left and The Subversion of Politics. Gabriel Kuhn is a translator and the author of Life Under the Jolly Roger.
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Fire and Flames
A History of the German Autonomist Movement
By Geronimo, Gabriel Kuhn
PM PressCopyright © 2012 Respective Contributors
All rights reserved.
A TASTE OF REVOLUTION: 1968
"The material conditions for the realization of our destiny exist today. The development of the productive forces has reached a point that makes the end of hunger, war, and domination materially possible. All depends on the conscious will of the people to make their own history ..." (Rudi Dutschke, June 1967)
The year of 1968 marks AN important rupture in post-World War II history, both in West Germany and internationally. In 1966 — 67, West Germany went through a massive economic crisis when the so-called Economic Miracle ended. On the parliamentary level, the SPD and the CDU formed a coalition government. Together, they prepared an "emergency constitution," which, in case of a "state of crisis," would allow the suspension of all civil liberties and the implementation of an "emergency government" no longer controlled by parliament. The left-liberal public, trade unions, and students saw this as a frightening step toward an "authoritarian state": a "democracy" without democrats and without opposition.
Internationally, the year of 1968 was characterized by important political developments and strong student movements: in the United States, Italy, France, Spain, the Netherlands, Mexico, Japan, etc. The April 1968 Tet Offensive by the Vietcong against the U.S. imperialists challenged the worldwide belief in the invincibility of U.S. power and leadership. The events of May 1968 in Paris, with barricades and fights in the inner city, brought the bourgeois capitalist system in France to the brink of collapse. At the same time, the Prague Spring kindled hopes of a "socialism with a human face."
In this historical context, the West German student movement and the extraparliamentary opposition understood themselves as a part of an international revolutionary uprising.
The Student Revolt
In the early 1960s, the Sozialistische Deutsche Studentenbund (SDS) found it difficult to organize among the mostly complacent and conservative students. The SDS had been expelled by the SPD in 1961 for refusing to follow the party's complete integration into the bourgeois social and political system. Subsequently, the SDS became a gathering place for disillusioned left intellectuals from West Germany and West Berlin.
In the mid-1960s, the development of Marxist theory, the democratization of the universities, and internationalist solidarity were the priorities of the SDS. After the Algerian liberation struggle had been the international focus in the late 1950s, Algerian independence meant that other liberation struggles became increasingly important, particularly the one in Vietnam. In West Berlin, the SDS organized their first public international solidarity actions. New protest forms were developed that differed significantly from the ritualized "funeral marches" of the Adenauer era [German chancellor from 1949 to 1963] and turned protests into spaces of actual resistance and adventure. Rudi Dutschke, one of the most prominent SDS figures, propagated illegal mass action as a necessary means for individual and collective transformation. Students engaged poorly prepared police units in street-fights and turned into the prime enemy of the powerful and reactionary Springer media empire.
The developments in West Berlin came to a head when the shah of Iran, Reza Pahlavi, arrived for an official visit on June 2, 1967. Consistent with its internationalist commitments, the SDS organized protests against the reception of a mass murderer by German authorities. For the first time in the history of West Germany and West Berlin, the state security agencies engaged in an "emergency operation." More than ten thousand police were called in to protect the honorary guest, and several highways were closed off to guarantee the shah's safe passage.
On June 2, two thousand people protested rather peacefully in front of the German Opera. Most of them were high school and university students that had been mobilized by SDS events at the Free University about the Iranian dictatorship. The protesters received the shah with chants of "Murderer," smoke bombs, and eggs. In response, they were first attacked by steel-bar-wielding Iranian secret service agents and then by German police, which brutally dissolved the protest. In the course of the events, the student Benno Ohnesorg was fatally shot in the back of the head. When false rumors started spreading about a police officer having been killed by a protester, the Berlin Senate declared a general ban on demonstrations in the entire city. The hostility toward the oppositional students, fueled by the state authorities and the Springer press, reached unprecedented heights.
The students installed their own investigative committee and disclosed the truth about the actions of the police and the death of Benno Ohnesorg. They formed council-like structures that organized numerous information events and managed — at least for some days — to create a counterdiscourse that challenged the state's strategies of exclusion and repression. The experiences with the Springer press led to the first discussions of direct action within the SDS and to a campaign under the slogan "Expropriate Springer."
The Student Revolt and the Extraparliamentary Opposition
Until 1967, the student movement was concentrated in West Berlin. It only spread to West Germany in 1968. That year marked both the peak of the movement — which had turned into a broad extraparliamentary opposition movement — and its demise.
In February, the "International Congress on Vietnam" gathered several thousand participants at the main lecture hall of the Berlin Institute of Technology. It was the zenith of years of internationalist solidarity work by the SDS and of support for the Vietnamese resistance struggle. One of the main efforts of the SDS was to counteract the propaganda of the West German media and to spread its own information about U.S. imperialism and the situation in Vietnam. At the congress, the SDS was perceived as a part of a worldwide revolutionary struggle that linked anti-imperialist liberation struggles in the "Third World" with socialist struggles in the industrialized nations. A common final resolution, adopted on February 17, stated that "the political opposition in this country is entering the transition from protest to resistance." It was discussed to provide supplies for the Vietnamese resistance and to sabotage U.S. Army facilities. As a long-term perspective, "Crush NATO" was proclaimed. The congress ended with an internationalist demonstration of more than ten thousand people. For the first time after Berlin's partition, the streets of the Western part were filled with red flags. Many protesters formed chains by linking their arms, inspired by France's Gauche Prolétarienne.
On April 11, there was an assassination attempt on Rudi Dutschke. It followed months of defamation against Dutschke by the Springer press. During the following Easter holidays, West Berlin and West Germany saw the heaviest street-fighting in their history, especially at barricades erected at Springer printing plants. In West Berlin, two thousand protesters tried to storm the Springer headquarters. Several delivery vans were set on fire. All in all, sixty thousand people partook in the protests, twenty-one thousand police were on duty, and over one thousand people were arrested.
The high number of protesters fuelled further discussions about the relationship between protest and resistance. In the May issue of the left-wing journal Konkret, Ulrike Meinhof wrote: "To protest means to state that you dislike something. To resist means to make sure that what you dislike disappears. ... During the Easter holidays, the line between verbal protest and physical resistance was crossed."
The Springer protests did not only involve university students but also high school students and young workers. For the first time, stronger links were created between the revolting students and other social groups. This was confirmed on May 1, 1968, when in West Berlin and various West German cities APO protests were organized next to the official May events of the Confederation of German Trade Unions, DGB. In West Berlin, forty thousand people joined the APO march. However, the political ties between the students and sections of the working class were short-lived. They could not be sustained during the fight against the provision of emergency laws. While "Emergency and Democracy" — a broad coalition of unionists, intellectuals, student representatives, and even individual SPD members — managed to mobilize sixty thousand people for a "March on Bonn" on May 11, the students' demand for a general strike was rejected by the workers' movement; only a few regional warning strikes could be organized. Despite strong student agitation outside the factories — inspired by the events in France — no close collaboration between students and workers could ever be established. Unlike in France and Italy, there were no revolutionary groups that the workers had formed themselves and it was difficult for the extraparliamentary opposition to gain a foothold in the factories. In the following years, the difficulties in working-class mobilization led to a variety of different strategies within the German New Left.
The Politics of the SDS
From 1965 to 1969, the discussions within the SDS consisted mainly of exchanges between the centers of SDS activism, namely West Berlin and Frankfurt, on the one hand, and "provincial" SDS towns like Hamburg, Kiel, Cologne, Marburg, Heidelberg, Tübingen, and Munich, on the other. Politically, the central line of conflict ran between the "traditionalists" and the "antiauthoritarians."
The "traditionalists" included all currents that followed the orthodox communist wing of the workers' movement. When, in September 1968, the Deutsche Kommunistische Partei (DKP) was founded, a successor to the old Communist Party of Germany, KPD, banned in 1956, practically the entire SDS groups of Marburg and Cologne joined.
The "antiauthoritarians," on the other hand, rooted themselves strongly in critical theory, left communism, and anarchist critiques of Marxism. This meant not simply digging out marginalized elements of the German workers' movement's history. At numerous congresses and teach-ins, the antiauthoritarians developed new theoretical approaches and laid the foundation for a new political praxis. Theory took on the form of a tool shed, with practical usefulness as the main criterion and plenty of room for improvisation. To provoke social tension was more important than dogmatic doctrine.
The best-known speakers of the antiauthoritarians were Rudi Dutschke (SDS Berlin) and Hans-Jürgen Krahl (SDS Frankfurt). Dutschke's ideas were strongly influenced by the Situationist International. He had joined the SDS in the mid-1960s as a member of the group Subversive Aktion. Krahl's ideas were based on his discussions with Horkheimer and Adorno at Frankfurt's Institute of Social Research.
Popular expressions of the antiauthoritarian tendency were the actions of Berlin's Kommune 1. Its members practiced provocative forms of communal living, ridiculed Free University professors as "narrow-minded fools," attacked the U.S. vice president with pudding, threw paint bombs, distributed flyers that called for the burning of shopping centers, and staged "Moabit Soap Operas" that ridiculed the courts [many political trials were held in the Berlin suburb of Moabit, also home to a notorious prison]. The politics of the Kommune 1 were a permanent call to action, not only to fight the state and society, but also to change oneself. Eventually, the Kommune 1 members were expelled by the SDS Berlin. Traditionalists, in their characteristic "objective rationality," accused them of "voluntarism, escapism, and pretense" (Mosler).
However, the antiauthoritarian positions of Dutschke and Krahl prevailed at the Twenty-Second Delegates' Conference of the SDS in Frankfurt in September 1967. They stated in their common presentation: "Many SDS comrades are no longer willing to accept notions of abstract socialism that have nothing to do with their daily lives. ... Being rejected within one's own institutional milieu demands a guerrilla mentality if we do not want assimilation and cynicism to be the next steps."
In the wake of the conference, antiauthoritarian notions of "Here and Now" and of Herbert Marcuse's "Great Refusal" dominated the actions of the student movement and the extraparliamentary opposition. It proved difficult, though, to organize on this basis. The vagueness of the antiauthoritarian current reflected the origins of the student revolt. A lack of political clarity was common within the left. Sometimes it was little more than a diffuse but very compelling idea of emancipation that drew people to the streets and barricades.
The limits of the APO's mobilizing potential became evident in the anti-Springer actions of May 1, 1968, and in the fight against the emergency laws. At the same time, the SDS started to break apart and was no longer able to formulate any convincing orientation and strategy.
In early November, following a court case against a radical lawyer, one thousand APO activists won a street-fight against the police in West Berlin. The "Battle of the Tegeler Weg" was seen by many as a night of revenge for the brutality they had suffered at the hands of the police during many years. However, the militant confrontation with the state could not provide any political perspectives.
The Demise of the SDS
At the 1968 SDS Delegates' Conference in Hanover, the increasing ideological divisions within the organization made constructive debate impossible. Especially in the traditional centers of the APO, West Berlin and Frankfurt, second-tier SDS members demanded a solution to the organizational crisis. Addresses by factions of the SDS Berlin and the SDS Heidelberg already outlined the programs of the future K-groups Kommunistische Partei Deutschlands — Aufbauorganisation (KPD-AO) and Kommunistischer Bund Westdeutschland (KBW). The concepts were heavily criticized by the antiauthoritarians (Krahl: "The SDS does not stand in the tradition of the communist workers' parties!"), but dissolution could no longer be prevented. Under the impression of workers' strikes in September 1969, the Marxist-Leninist party concepts had become compelling for many radical students. Revolutionary parties were considered the necessary means to achieve real social transformation in West Germany.
In West Berlin, the radical movement disintegrated extremely fast. Hardly any of the grassroots committees founded by the APO in 1968 — in universities, high schools, factories, and neighborhoods — still existed, especially in the area of production. Most student activists shied away from the "tedious" daily work in the factories. Eventually, this caused deep alienation between the university and the factory committees, which led to different APO factions and the formation of cadres. The attempt to reestablish a common platform at a conference in late 1969 failed.
Eventually, the traditionalist current of the SDS became basically absorbed by the DKP, while the antiauthoritarian camp was deeply divided — some left their antiauthoritarian convictions behind and founded Maoist and even Stalinist parties, others continued to eschew all forms of centralist and dogmatic organization. The situation was further complicated by SDS women founding their own independent organization and forming the basis for the emerging autonomous women's movement.
Militant Grassroots Currents
Several grassroots currents were part of the uprisings of the late 1960s but never connected to the SDS. They consisted mainly of independent university students, high school students, apprentices, and young workers. They were militant and mainly operated on the street:
The grassroots currents had many names and could be found in many places: drifting hash rebels in West Berlin, Black Panther Committees around Frankfurt, White Rose and deserter groups around Hamburg and Hanover, the Socialist Patients' Collective in Heidelberg. Their actions were diverse as well: supporting deserted GIs and German soldiers, attacking facilities of the Allies, engaging in direct action against reformatories, prisons, and psychiatric institutions, sabotaging arms production for the Portuguese colonial regime, removing files from diplomatic missions of state terrorists, stealing and publishing secret documents, interfering with the investigative apparatus of the police, arranging money for alternative projects (K.H. Roth).
Excerpted from Fire and Flames by Geronimo, Gabriel Kuhn. Copyright © 2012 Respective Contributors. Excerpted by permission of PM Press.
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Table of Contents
Translator's Note and Glossary,
Preface to the English-Language Edition,
I. THE EMERGENCE OF AUTONOMOUS POLITICS IN WEST GERMANY,
A Taste of Revolution: 1968,
La sola soluzione la rivoluzione: Italy's Autonomia Movement,
Left Radicalism in the 1970s,
II. THE MAKING OF THE AUTONOMEN IN THE 1980S,
The Antinuclear Movement: 1975-81,
The Squatters' Movement in West Berlin: 1980-83,
The Struggle Against the Startbahn-West,
The Isolation of the Autonomen in the German Peace Movement,
III. A FEW SKETCHES OF THE AUTONOMOUS MOVEMENT DURING THE FINAL YEARS OF THE WEST GERMAN REPUBLIC,
Class Movements and Mass Movements,
Between Balaclavas and Birkenstocks: The Autonomous Movement and the Greens,
Autonomen, Anti-imperialists, and the Urban Guerrilla,
The Antinuclear Movement of the 1980s,
In Hamburg There Is a Beautiful Hafenstraße,
In West Berlin There Is a Wonderful Kreuzberg,
Wrong Shots at the Startbahn-West,
Attacks on the Autonomous Women's Movement,
The IMF and World Bank Summit,
Appendix: "Autonomous Theses 1981",
What People are Saying About This
"Some years ago, an experienced autonomous activist from Berlin sat down, talked to friends and comrades about the development of the scene, and, with Fire and Flames, wrote the best book about the movement that we have." —Düsseldorfer Stadtzeitung für Politik und Kultur
"I highly recommend that all radicals acquire this book and study it." —www.vancouver.MediaCoop.ca
"Before 'the cancer of Occupy,' there were Germany's Autonomen; a new translation of Fire and Flames, a history of the struggle, shines a light on this proto-Black Bloc." —www.TheNewInquiry.com