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March 2004
The Limits of Violence

By Richard Huffman


When I marched in the November 30, 1999 anti-WTO rally here in my hometown of Seattle, the brutal tactics and sporadic yet stunning violence by the Seattle Police felt eerily similar to a catastrophic Berlin protest a generation ago. On June 2, 1967 tens of thousands of young Germans, many of them students at Berlin’s Free University, lined up on Kaiser Wilhelm Strasse early in the evening to protest a visit by the Shah of Iran. By the end of the night, a young pacifist lay dead in an alley, shot by an accidental discharge from a cop who had trained his gun at the student’s head. Benno Ohnesorg’s death would be the unfortunate catalyst for a distressing movement that offers powerful relevance for young Americans today who are considering violent means to effect social change.

After the rally, thousands of angry, frustrated students converged at the Berlin offices of the Socialist German Student Union, which was the leading student organization at the time. Gudrun Ensslin, a young woman with an intense demeanor, screamed to the crowd, “This fascist state means to kill us all! We must organize resistance. Violence is the only way to answer violence. This is the Auschwitz Generation, and there’s no arguing with them!” The leader of the Student Union, firebrand organizer “Red” Rudi Dutschke, was sympathetic to Ensslin’s goals but proposed decidedly different tactics to achieve them. Instead of violence, he advocated for “a long march through the institutions” of power, to create radical change from within government and society by becoming an integral part of the machinery.

Students of modern German history know how these twin philosophies played out over the coming decades. Ensslin helped to form the Red Army Faction, popularly know as the “Baader-Meinhof Gang” (see preceding article). During the next decade Ensslin, intent on bringing a form of Socialist Revolution to Germany, and the 50 or so young Germans who joined her and her boyfriend Andreas Baader, left a trail of destruction through Germany unmatched since the Soviet Army paid a visit in 1945. They blew up buildings and killed American soldiers. They killed the leading justice on the West German Supreme Court. They kidnapped and later murdered Germany’s most noted industrialist, a man who roughly occupied the place Bill Gates holds in the U.S. today. They helped highjack a Lufthansa jet. They blew up the German embassy in Stockholm.

A whole other generation of young Germans chose to take up Rudi Dutschke’s call to action instead. They would be instrumental in the rise of Greenpeace and environmental consciousness in Germany, and would go on to found the progressive Green Party in 1979. Twenty years later the Green Party would be sharing control of the German government.

It’s clear that the Baader-Meinhof Gang and their adherence to violence made a considerable impact on German society; but for a socially-concerned citizenry this impact was wholly negative. Prior to the Baader-Meinhof era, West Germany didn’t even have a true national police force. In response to their terror campaign, the BKA, which later became the German equivalent of the FBI, was built up to massive proportions, with the full power to investigate citizens in ways that John Ashcroft can only dream about. The German government passed sweeping laws that restricted the rights of average citizens, and instituted loyalty oaths for all civil service jobs. Random general searches of citizens’ homes on a block by block basis became common.

In many ways this was exactly what Gudrun Ensslin, Andreas Baader, and their fellow Revolutionaries hoped would happen. They expected that the German state would respond with disproportionate violence and repression; they believed the proletariat population would be shocked from their complacency and would spontaneously rise up, following their lead into glorious Revolution. It didn’t quite work out that way. Rather the German population, angered and frightened by the violence, applauded their government’s repressive response. Seeing the ease in recent years in which President Bush and John Ashcroft were able to pass the Patriot Act and implement repressive programs such as CAPPS II in the wake of the violent shock of the events of September 11 leads me to the unavoidable conclusion that cause-based violence only begets widespread government repression. And this repression invariably is supported by the very population being repressed.

But if that violent subset of the German generation, which found its voice after that tragic 1967 Berlin protest, offers an effective primer on the limits of violence as an effective means of social change, other members of this same generation have shown how a steady, committed “long march through the institutions” can bear fruit.

Last February, when thousands of people were marching in streets across the U.S. against President Bush’s headlong rush towards war, similar protests were held across the globe. Perhaps the most remarkable march was held in Berlin. Nearly one million Germans took to the streets, not to condemn their government, but to praise it for choosing to not participate in an unjust war.

So how did it come to be that one of America’s most powerful allies and one of the world’s leading democracies chose to suffer the wrath of America by staying out of the war? Because a generation of people chose to heed Rudi Dutschke’s call three decades ago. They became civil servants. They got elected to local offices. They became involved in socially progressive causes. They founded and guided the Green Party into becoming a true force in German politics, eventually putting the party in the position to share power with the SPD (Germany’s equivalent of the Democrats) in a coalition government. They took positions of power in the upper echelons of German government, like Joshka Fischer, who became Germany’s Foreign Minister (the equivalent of Colin Powell). And when the opportunity came for a bold choice to stand up to oppressive American pressure to support the coming war, Germany’s government was well represented with members of Rudi Dutschke’s generation, ready to fulfill his legacy, and take a strong stand on behalf of social justice and against unjust aggression.

Richard Huffman is the former director of Advocacy for the Seattle-based Progressive Animal Welfare Society (PAWS).


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