I went to a preview showing of The Baader-Meinhof Complex last night, a docufilm that depicted the career of a band of lunatics on the fringe of the 1970's protest movement in Germany who killed a few dozen people before committing collective suicide in Stuttgart’s Stammheim Prison. The film feigned neutrality but was nonetheless merciless in its perspective: it became clear that these people were nuts and their politics delusional. But it was interesting to imagine them as actual human beings rather than as terrorist killing machines without personalities, which is how the media, denied access to them once they were captured, then portrayed them.
The film put me in mind of my student activist days at the Free University of Berlin 1963-1967. It was extremely difficult to awaken the students’ interest in the Vietnam War in 1964, given the degree of adulation in Germany for everything American. In addition to practically creating a German democratic state in 1949, the Americans had rescued West Berlin during the air lift, the Marshall Plan was admired, Kennedy’s speech in Berlin in 1963 was world-famous, and the Ford Foundation had largely financed the construction of the Free University in Berlin and West Berlin’s major public library, the Gedenkbibliothek at Hallesches Tor. And the enthusiasm for American pop music and culture among young people was irrepressible.
With the help of a German law student, I and a few fellow American students composed a flyer and started to distribute it in front of the F.U. Mensa (student union) at lunch hour, pointing out that as Americans we were critical of US policy in Vietnam and urging our German friends to get interested in the situation. It was the first anti-War protest action at the F.U. that I was personally aware of, and afterwards I learned there was a motion put before the Academic Senate to expel me from the University, which happily failed.
The protest movement escalated with astonishing rapidity, especially when it was discovered that students in America were actively protesting the war as well.
Rudi Dutschke’s SDS organization started in 1965. He and they all lived communally in a house down the road from where I lived, and they seemed to me at the time more interested in partying than anything else.