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  1. Ideas
15 December 2023

Germany’s new years of lead

The radical centre is paving the way for its own demise.

By Quinn Slobodian

Just over 50 years ago a social democratic chancellor came to power in Germany on a wave of reformist enthusiasm and hopes for more progressive politics. Willy Brandt’s promise was to “dare more democracy”, and he skilfully channelled part of the energy of the insurgent student movement into support for his Social Democratic Party (SPD), which governed in coalition with the market-liberal Free Democratic Party (FDP).

His job was made immediately more difficult by two intrusions. One was the spate of bombings, assassinations and kidnappings by the far-left Red Army Faction dubbed by the media the Baader-Meinhof Group. The other was the hostage-taking by members of the Palestinian militant group Black September at the 1972 Munich Olympics that ended with a shootout in which nine Israeli hostages and a West German police officer were killed; two Israelis had been killed earlier.

A crackdown followed. More than 150 legal Arab residents of Germany were summarily deported and a vast manhunt for members of the RAF faction put to use novel forms of surveillance and dragnet stop and searches. The official in charge, Horst Herold, was known as “Commissar Computer” for his use of databases and correlation, a first run at many tools of intelligence-gathering used today.

The government took drastic actions, including barring from federal employment (including professors and schoolteachers) anyone with a history in left-wing organisations who refused to swear loyalty to the “free democratic constitutional order”. Left-wing bookstores were raided, publications censored and outlawed. Amnesty International protested what it saw as the overstepping of human rights in the solitary confinement used for left-wing militants who it deemed political prisoners.

But what looked like the betrayal of democratic principles to some was defended by others as the opposite. The catchphrase used by politicians was “militant democracy”. The refrain was that Bonn, the capital of West Germany, must not be Weimar, the place where the constitution of the Republic was written. As Brandt put it, Weimar had been “ground to pieces between the large National Socialist Party on the one side and a large Communist Party on the other”. The Communist Party, a powerful force in neighbouring Italy and France, had already been outlawed on these grounds in 1956. The need for a radical centrism justified betraying some of the principles of free speech and free political organisation.

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The crackdown of the left had found its most gleeful cheerleader in the most widely circulating newspaper of the day, Bild. Its publisher, Axel Springer, who had divorced his Jewish wife in 1938 and joined a paramilitary Nazi motorist club, encouraged the conflation of all left-wing protest with dangerous thuggery. Activists blamed the right-wing press for fomenting murderous anger at young student activists. After the socialist Rudi Dutschke was shot in 1968, they carried protest signs that read “Springer Shot Too”.

[See also: Christmas in Hamburg]

One person who expressed concern over the public hysteria fomented by the combination of state overreach and tabloid sensationalism was the author Heinrich Böll. In a novel later adapted into a film by Margarethe von Trotta, The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum, he traced the fate of a woman who is falsely accused by the tabloid press of terrorist sympathies and transgressions, leading to her eventual emotional breakdown and murder of the journalist who is persecuting her.

Böll’s willingness to defend civil freedoms even when that position was unpopular helped to cement his international reputation. When the Green Party created its own single party foundation in 1997, it took his name. Around the same time, the Heinrich Böll Foundation began to award an annual Hannah Arendt Prize for Political Thought to honour those who worked in the tradition of the namesakes of both the lecture and the foundation. This last week, the foundation withdrew from the ceremony to give the prize to the Jewish American author Masha Gessen. The reason given was the analogy Gessen drew in a New Yorker essay between the plight of the residents of Gaza – where 90 per cent of the population has been displaced in the last two months and more than 15,000 noncombatants have been killed – to the liquidation of Jewish residents of ghettos in occupied Europe.

This latest news came on the heels of bans on protests in Berlin in support of a ceasefire in the Israel-Hamas war and many other cancellations and postponements, including of a talk by a member of the artist group Forensic Architecture in Aachen, a museum exhibition in Saarland by the artist Candice Breitz, the granting of a prize named after another West German author, Peter Weiss, to Sharon Dodua Otoo, and another to the Palestinian author Adania Shibli at the Frankfurt Book Fair, a site of some of Böll’s own activism in defence of free speech. A 2019 resolution by the German Parliament conflating support for the boycott, divestment, sanction (BDS) movement with anti-Semitism, though having no legal weight, has been interpreted by many as requiring state-funded institutions to sever relationships with academics who have spoken out and support of a nonviolent resolution to the conflict. Most startling is the fact that many of these cultural producers, such as Eyal Weizman of Forensic Architecture, and Breitz, are Jewish themselves. As Naomi Klein quipped on Twitter, “At this rate, Germany is going to run out of Jewish intellectuals to ban.”

As for Axel Springer Press? It’s flourishing. This week the media conglomerate, which includes Politico and Insider, announced that it was the first press to make an arrangement with OpenAI, meaning that ChatGPT would now train itself on its stream of publications. The same week the company’s chief executive, Mathias Döpfner, hosted a podcast with the German Jewish rapper Ben Salomo with the headline “Free Palestine is the new Heil Hitler”, making the same false conflations that were the stock and trade of the Springer Press a half century ago.

In Germany as Italy, the 1970s were referred to as the days of lead. It is hard not to see those years as having returned. But this time it’s even worse. In the 1970s there was no equivalent of the AfD, a party founded by ordoliberal economists in opposition to Angela Merkel’s policy in the eurozone crisis which now makes Islamophobia and opposition to non-white immigration its primary platform. Polls show that if national elections were held next week, the AfD would take nearly a quarter of the vote, 6 per cent more than the governing SPD.

While the radical centre focuses on stamping out signs of solidarity with a Gazan population whose homes, schools, hospitals and archives are being pounded into dust and placing itself in a tiny global minority opposing a ceasefire, the right grows ever stronger. The current version of militant democracy may help pave the path to its own dissolution.

[See also: What it means to be German]

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