red army faction:
the german autumn and its cultural fallout
In 2003, when Berlin curators announced plans for a blockbuster show about the Red Army Faction, alert signals went off across Germany.  The Rote Armee Fraktion (RAF) had splintered off from the New Left in the late 1960s.  Their efforts to redress Nazi crimes devolved into a campaign of homegrown terror in the German Autumn of 1977-- a season shadowed by hijackings and suicides, the proliferation of most-wanted posters, and the reinforcement of state surveillance.  Memories of these events still trigger strong reactions, even decades later.  Whereas broadcast media first answered to the demand that the Baader-Meinhof "revolution" be televised, today novels, plays, museums, and films recode this past moment and raise urgent questions about culture in an age of terror.The Far Left's armed struggle drew the attention of many artists and writers, especially in its first decade. Since the RAF's demise, central figures such as Elfriede Jelinek and Gerhard Richter have taken up the traumas of German terror in their works. 

Gerhard Richter Funeral (1988)
In turn, prominent European thinkers, including Jean Baudrillard, Slavoj Zizek, and Alain Badiou have celebrated RAF radicalism.  Some have linked RAF actions to the impulses of the Situationists, surrealism, and Dada, venturing a parallel between terrorism and performance art.  Others have contested these returns, warning against a mythology of militancy. What are lessons of the German Autumn?  RAF leaders Ulrike Meinhof and Gudrun Ensslin might have attempted a great leap forward for feminists, but the Far Left's adjacency to anti-Semitism corrupted their program. The culture that has followed in their wake shifts the complex margin between the political vanguard and the aesthetic avant-garde that has marked European modernity.With the recent reemergence of terrorism (including the newly disclosed links between German nationals and the Islamic Jihad Union), artists and writers have opened new channels into this problem. Like the collapse of communism, the turn to terrorism provokes a crisis for the Left and calls for new aesthetic strategies and commitments.
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Copyright 2007. Charity Scribner. All rights reserved.
        

Author
In 2005 Charity Scribner was appointed
the Class of 1954 Career Development
Professor of European Cultural Studies at
The Massachusetts Institute of Technology