If you’ve been reading the papers over the last few years you could be forgiven for thinking that we’re in the midst of an unprecedented surge of terrorist activity. Every day, the press is full of tales of bomb plots and terror threats. Government announcements constantly inform us of the need for new laws and new powers to deal with a rising tide of violent extremism. Yet if you consider the number of successful terrorist atrocities that have been carried out in the West since the turn of the millennium, though the scale of attacks like those of 9/11, 7/7 and Madrid may have increased, the number has dropped significantly.
The 1970s were the heyday of Western terrorism. In the UK we had the IRA and various other Irish paramilitary groups launching a string of attacks from pub bombings in Guildford and Birmingham to attacks on military bases in Aldershot and the assassination of much-loved royal uncle Lord Mountbatten. The US had the left-wing Weathermen and pro-civil rights Black Panthers attack government buildings and police. Canada saw kidnappings by Quebec independence organizations. France had far right racist groups launch a string of bomb attacks against immigrants alongside campaigns by far-left organizations, with Italy and Greece likewise suffering numerous attacks by left and right-wing extremists. In Holland there were numerous hostage-takings by Indonesian terrorist groups from the Maluku Islands throughout the decade. Spain suffered from the rise of the Basque separatist movement ETA, which continues to plant bombs to this day.
In Germany, despite the country being in the midst of its post-WWII military occupation and division, they were particularly hard hit. As if the massacre of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics by Palestinian terrorists, recently depicted in Steven Spielberg’s Munich, home-grown terrorists also thrived. The most infamous of these was the communist paramilitary group the Red Army Faction, better-known by its early name, the Baader-Meinhof gang. Formed in 1970, the gang committed a number of attacks during the early part of the decade, from murdering policemen to bombing US army barracks, before things began to escalate. The group continued its campaigns right up to the 1990s, throughout Germany’s slow move towards reunification and rehabilitation, before officially disbanding only as recently as 1998.
Based on the bestselling nonfiction book by leading German journalist Stefan Aust, this exploration of the gang’s actions and the police efforts to thwart them may have been dramatized and as a result partially fictionalized, but its impact is all the greater for that. It seems that Germany is now coming to terms with its recent past as, following the success of The Lives of Others back in 2007 – looking at the role of the secret police in communist East Germany – The Baader-Meinhof Complex follows that Best Foreign Language Film Oscar-winner as Germany’s official entry for the 2009 Academy Awards.
Where this could have been a simple tale of terrorists running amok, it instead morphs into a look at the psychology of an entire country as postwar Germany sought to rediscover a national identity that had been so horrifically tarnished by Nazism and then forcibly suppressed by occupation. Just as The Lives of Others brought a forgotten part of Germany’s past to the world’s attention and allowed Germans to come to terms with it in the process, so too does The Baader-Meinhof Complex. An intriguing exploration of a fascinating, forgotten aspect of Cold War Europe.