Fear Eats the Soul: Water Benjamin and Baader Meinhof


Neither of the figures in my title – Walter Benjamin and The Baader Meinhof Group – are in any direct way associated with 1968 – indeed each brackets it in time. The one, Benjamin, was long dead by the time of the student and worker revolts, that would undoubtedly have thrilled him, even if they did not thrill his old friend Adorno, who called in the police on his revolting students. Benjamin’s adult thought emerges in the years of the Russian Revolution of 1917 and it reaches its final formulation in the dark days of Nazi rule, his death occurring in 1940. The resurgences of 1968 were never further away than then in that ugly moment of European-wide reaction. The Baader Meinhof Group clearly emerged out of the debates and actions of 1968, and individuals who were to become members of the group later undertook an incendiary action in the spring of 1968 – but the group itself, with its violent strategy of urban resistance - was only founded, or issued its manifesto and logo in 1970 and reached its highest point of notoriety or effect under its second generation in the ‘hot autumn’ of 1977. Benjamin was a figure of the past. But Benjamin was of the same generation as Hitler, three years younger than him, and dying five years before him. The Baader Meinhof Group and associates were famously labelled ‘Hitler’s Children’.

This paper explores whether they could better be called Benjamin’s children. It is not an examination of how Walter Benjamin or the Baader Meinhof Group acted in 1968, because it cannot be – but rather it is a tracing of lines of influence, of connections, intended and oblique, largely theoretical – in order to think about broader questions of modernity, avant gardism and political struggle. What happens in 1968 undoubtedly affects the way in which Benjamin is transmitted to a new generation of readers and activists. Benjamin is rediscovered, pirated, re-read, revolutionised or re-revolutionised. Perhaps this paper is a way of thinking about whether Benjamin became a sorcerer’s apprentice, just as did Adorno, though more graphically, according to the prosecutor in the trial against Adorno’s doctoral student Hans-Jürgen Krahl after the occupation of Adorno’s institute for social research in 1969: in teaching critical theory, said the prosecutor, Adorno had unleashed critical forces he was unable to control. Adorno’s retort: ‘I established a theoretical mode of thought. How could I have suspected that people would want to implement it with Molotov cocktails?’ Did Benjamin lay his own bombs and undermine quite literally his own anti-systemic mode of thought, in the subsequent actions of the Baader Meinhof Group?

There are direct connections from Walter Benjamin to the Baader Meinhof Group. It is no surprise the intellectual milieu of the late 1960s and after drew on German Critical Theory – and if Adorno had been a critical theorist who had allowed the thinking of radical negation, but proved himself to side with law and order in the end, then perhaps Benjamin, a victim of Nazism, who never achieved any official position in Germany or outside, might serve as a reference point or even a guide. Andreas Baader cited one of Benjamin’s final pieces of writing, ‘On the Concept of History’, from 1939 or 1940, several times in his ‘Letter to the Prisoners’, part of a 300-page ‘explanation of the matter’, presented by Baader, Ensslin, Meinhof and Raspe to the court at Stuttgart-Stammheim in 1976. Three of Benjamin’s theses were quoted in these documents for a court of law. Once again critical theory was in the dock. How was Benjamin made to speak from the grave to address the questions of political analysis and political practice in 1970s Germany?

For one, Baader cited Benjamin in relation to the question of, as he put it: ‘how to secure the specific form of revolutionary violence that is now historically possible and which corresponds to the institutional use of power’. Benjamin, for Baader, introduces the subject of revolutionary violence in a theoretical context and affirms it in practice – revolutionary violence is the only type of violence that can be commensurate with state violence. Baader continues his gloss on Benjamin by defining Benjamin’s revolutionary violence: it is a ‘concept that is directed towards revolutionary breakage’ and this violence is a recognition of the extent of reaction in Europe, which means that, according to Baader, ‘mass action only makes sense, when it integrates the experience of the front of the worldwide armed struggle’. In essence, the claim is that it is necessary to take up arms. This is the conclusion Baader draws from Benjamin – specifically from this thesis in ‘On the Concept of History’:

The subject of historical cognition is the battling, oppressed class itself. In Marx it steps forwards as the final enslaved and avenging class, which carries out the work of emancipation in the name of generations of downtrodden to its conclusion. This consciousness, which for a short time made itself felt in the ‘Spartacus’ was objectionable to social democracy from the very beginning. In the course of three decades it succeeded in almost completely erasing the name of Blanqui, whose distant thunder [Erzklang] had made the preceding century tremble. It contented itself with assigning the working-class the role of the savior of future generations. It thereby severed the sinews of its greatest power. Through this schooling the class forgot its hate as much as its spirit of sacrifice. For both nourish themselves on the picture of enslaved forebears, not on the ideal of the emancipated heirs.

Baader sought a justification for breaking with reformism in Benjamin. He found a ‘fundamental’ point here. He translates Benjamin’s paean to hatred into acts of hatred. It understands ‘the spirit of sacrifice’ to mean complicity in acts of destruction. Baader’s commentary on this citation is as follows: ‘This definition by Benjamin is fundamental. Since the conception of a utopia that presents itself as socialist can only ever be the attempt to make the revolution attractive like a commodity and to await its boomtime. The revolution however is real only as a negation of what exists, as its destruction.’ Baader signals his impatience, one he shares with Benjamin, who in 1940 longed for the sudden and seemingly impossible end to fascist rule. The revolution cannot be awaited. The revolution is also, according to Baader, not something attractive and desirable – it is a negation, a hard schooling, a bloodbath. Such a concept is far from another tradition which sees revolution as carnival, as unfolding. This is the hard and nasty business of political change, a harshness borne not just by the bourgeoisie but also by all.

Baader finds justification of his – or of terrorist practice – in Benjamin’s attack on Social Democracy. The act of revolution is an act of destruction – it is not the painting in the sky of bright pictures of tomorrow, a tomorrow that of course never comes. Baader glossed the thesis further: ‘the more capital organises itself and plans (its cycle) via the state the more one experiences how power comes only from the barrel of a gun; the problem: the articulation of an action that forces on the development, […] and the creation of a political military action by a revolutionary avant garde, which directly intervenes in the crisis here and appropriates its course, forces the crisis’s resolution for the benefit of the offensive.’ Benjamin’s call for the recovery of the forces of ‘hate’ and ‘sacrifice’, excites Baader. Here is a theory of revolution that emphasizes negativity – but not just Adornonian negativity in thought. It speaks of hate and destruction and breakage, of sacrifice and horror. Baader comments in relation to his contemporary Germany: ‘destruction, the smashing of capitalist relations of production – economic, military, cultural, ideological. The function of utopia is, according to all experiences of it, a form of arrangement with the bad present, or put another way, to make bearable for oneself one’s bad conscience about one’s own inactivity.’ Benjamin is drawn by Baader here into the realms of strictly anti-utopian thinking. His animus against capitalist society is presented as absolute. No compromise is conceded. Smashing, breaking, and refusing to image the future. Turned to the past. Acts of revenge for previous and ongoing enslavement. These are indeed the catalysts of Benjamin’s critique. But there is also a way in which Baader misunderstands Benjamin and his equally productive, rather than destructive, drive. Misunderstanding is evident in Baader’s commentary on the following thesis by Benjamin:

The class struggle, which always remains in view for a historian schooled in Marx, is a struggle for the rough and material things, without which there is nothing fine and spiritual. Nevertheless these latter are present in the class struggle as something other than mere booty, which falls to the victor. They are present as confidence, as courage, as humor, as cunning, as steadfastness in this struggle, and they reach far back into the mists of time. They will, ever and anon, call every victory which has ever been won by the rulers into question. Just as flowers turn their heads towards the sun, so too does that which has been turned, by virtue of a secret kind of heliotropism, towards the sun which is dawning in the sky of history. To this most inconspicuous of all transformations the historical materialist must pay heed.

To this Baader adds the sentence: ‘Benjamin pronounces on the bourgeois values in the proletarian revolution’. Baader sees as a pointer to the presence of bourgeois values Benjamin’s indication of the presence of ‘fine and spiritual’ things as part of the struggle –here manifested in the attitude of the proletariat, in its confidence, courage, humour, cunning and endurance ’ rather than in terms of booty. The implication is that the presence of ‘fine and spiritual’ things, even in this form, in the form of an attitude, indicates that the proletariat has been corrupted by the bourgeoisie. Is this because Baader cannot accept the presence of anything spiritual? Is it only the material world of action that counts and which he juxtaposes to the world of spirit? Baader continues: ‘gramsci said the same thing succinctly: the proletariat is the inheritor of classical German philosophy’. To that extent, so the implication, the German working class is trapped in bourgeois thinking and thus inhibited as revolutionary actors. It is a curious misreading, as Benjamin is not actually condemning the proletariat to the mistaken bourgeois values, but rather identifies a set of new ones peculiar to working class struggle, which make him hopeful about class-based resistance, which will ever rise up again as long as classes exist. But it is not surprising: Baader has to misread it this way. He needs to negate everything, including the working class, in a way that was not necessary or desirable for Benjamin. For Baader, the German working class is nothing but corrupted. In fact, it was Engels who first made the claim about the German working class being the inheritor of classical German philosophy, in his book on Ludwig Feuerbach, when he observed the German working class’s ‘unimpaired’ ‘aptitude for theory, which produced the opportunity for alliances between the proponents of the new science and the most advanced, if abject, social forces. As Engels put it: ‘Only among the working class does the German aptitude for theory remain unimpaired. Here, it cannot be exterminated. Here, there is no concern for careers, for profit-making, or for gracious patronage from above. On the contrary, the more ruthlessly and disinterestedly knowledge proceeds the more it finds itself in harmony with the interest and aspirations of the workers. The new tendency, which recognized that the key to the understanding of the whole history of society lies in the history of the development of labor, from the outset addressed itself by preference to the working class and here found the response which it neither sought nor expected from officially recognized knowledge. The German working-class movement is the inheritor of German classical philosophy.’

But for Baader, perhaps for understandable historical reasons, there is no such optimism about the German working class, nor about classical German philosophy, as a mode of analysis that might flow from theory into practice through the working class, in its quest to understand the social totality. Baader quotes a final thesis from Benjamin’s ‘On the Concept of History’:

The tradition of the oppressed teaches us that the ‘emergency situation’ in which we live is the rule. We must arrive at a concept of history which corresponds to this. Then it will become clear that the task before us is the introduction of a real state of emergency; and our position in the struggle against Fascism will thereby improve. Not the least reason that the latter has a chance is that its opponents, in the name of progress, greet it as a historical norm. – The astonishment that the things we are experiencing in the 20th century are ‘still’ possible is by no means philosophical. It is not the beginning of knowledge, unless it would be the knowledge that the conception of history on which it rests is untenable.

This is the thesis that most lends itself to the legitimation of abrupt, sudden and emergency action, such as that carried out by the Baader Meinhof Group. The ‘emergency situation’, states Benjamin, is already here and we are charged with bringing about ‘a real state of emergency’ in response to it: our emergency should cancel out the emergency that has become the norm within which we exist, or survive barely. Baader glossed this with the following: ‘to be the protagonist of class confrontation in the metropoles, away from the history and defeats of the proletariat, away from its subordination to the imperialist state here via the social democracy that is bought by US capital and the unions ruled by the CIA – to be motor of the revolutionary proletarisation of society.’ For Benjamin the emergency situation that he confronted was fascist rule, which had been ushered in by social democracy and other putative opponents who had not felt compelled to expel fascism from participation in the usual political process. For Benjamin it is the leaders of the political organisations that have found an accommodation with fascism. As he puts it: ‘the politicians in whom the opponents of Fascism had placed their hopes have been knocked supine, and have sealed their downfall by the betrayal of their own cause’. Their members might comply – and Benjamin does mention that the German working class have been ‘corrupted’ – specifically by the idea that they were swimming with the tide of progress, specifically technological progress, a legacy possibly of that which Engels addressed earlier. In essence, though, it is the political establishment that makes its accords with capital and with fascism. Who otherwise could be addressed by Benjamin’s claim that ‘the task before us is the introduction of a real state of emergency’, which will improve ‘our position in the struggle against fascism’?

In Baader’s gloss though what is at stake is avant gardism or vanguardism - being the protagonist in a scenario in which the proletariat is wholly lost to the grip of US capital and the security services. Of course such an attitude was not specific to the Baader Meinhof Group. Even the leader of the German student movement in the late 1960s, Rudi Dutschke, and presumably many of those he led, thought that the working class of the developed world, and more so in Germany than anywhere, was bought-off or still fascistic at its core. And perhaps, in Germany, more than anywhere else the working class was still caught, to the exclusion of revolutionary politics, between the political forcefields of reformism, given how strong and effective that tradition had been historically, and fascism, given how devastating and total that system had been more recently. That Germany remained a land of prejudice and conformity, in part but powerfully, because so psychically internalised, was one theme of Fassinder’s 1974 film, which provides the title of this piece: Fear Eats the Soul. That is was tendentially fascist – or fascisizing – was the thesis of the omnibus film about the funeral of Hans Martin Schleyer, kidnapped by the RAF, as a bargaining tool for the release of Baader and his comrades, and then murdered, and the funerals of Baader, Gudrun Ensslin and Jan-Carl Raspe. In this film Fassbinder interviews his mother, discussing her penchant for authoritarian rule.

Benjamin wrote his theses on the concept of history from within the rule of Nazism. But he carried over into them a set of images that he had used since the beginning of the 1930s, prior to Nazi victory. In the theses he writes, as we have seen, of the use of terror to end a greater terror that presents itself as normality. He also wrote of breaking open the continuum of history or arresting it, of shock, of breaking through the picture of history, of grasping a memory that flashes up at a moment of danger, of a world in which ‘one single catastrophe’ ‘unceasingly piles rubble on top of rubble’. In 1931 he had devised, similarly, in response to the brutality of capital, a brutal figure. The ‘destructive character’ is a type without memory, opposed to repression in its political and psychic senses, who – causing havoc by cutting ways through, by liquidating situations – removes the traces which sentimentally bind us to the status quo; in order to make possible the formulation of experience according to revised tenets of existence in modernity. The destructive character rejects past traces, has abolished ‘aura’ and with it sentimentality about things, including the self. The destructive character would doubtless live, if he could, in the new glass and steel environments designed by Adolf Loos, the Bauhaus and Bruno Taut with their ‘rooms in which it is hard to leave traces’. ‘Erase the traces’, as Brecht insisted in a poem in his 1926 lyric cycle ‘Handbook for City-dwellers’. For those traces, the monograms, screens, knick-knacks on mantelpieces are also tied up with possession; and so signal class society. Brecht details: ‘Erase the traces’, rather than have someone else efface them. Living traceless lives is useful for political fugitives or terrorists on the run. Sometime between the spring and the autumn of 1933 Benjamin wrote a short reflection titled ‘Experience and Poverty’, which considered the new reality, which was the shocking world of war. Twentieth century warfare had unleashed a ‘new barbarism’ in which a generation that went to school in horse-drawn trams stood exposed in a transformed landscape, caught in the crossfire of explosions and destructive torrents. This was no lament for the old days, for those were unliveable for the propertyless and the habits engendered by the cluttered and smothered interiors were unsustainable. ‘Erase the traces!’ Benjamin repeated in this essay and invent a ‘new, positive concept of barbarism’. Benjamin heralded the honest recorders of this newly devalued, technologised, impoverished experience: Paul Klee, Adolf Loos, and the utopians Paul Scheerbart and Mickey Mouse. In all of these the brutality and dynamism of contemporary technology was used, abused, mocked and harnessed. Benjamin’s promotion of explosions, barbarism, lack of sentiment was an emulation or squatting of the enemy’s methods, tools and modes of address. So, for example, Benjamin argued that ‘impoverished experience’ can be overpowered only if the fact of poverty is made into the underpinning of a political strategy of a ‘new barbarism’ that corresponds faithfully to the new realities of the constellation of Masse and Technik. But Benjamin’s strategy was aesthetic-political, just as his theses on the concept of history addressed the idea of the image or picture of history. These metaphors cannot be so simply translated into practical action. Or rather they import themselves only at specific, charmed revolutionary moments. As he put it in one of the culminating theses:

The consciousness of exploding the continuum of history is peculiar to the revolutionary classes in the moment of their action. The Great Revolution [of 1789] introduced a new calendar. The day on which the calendar started functioned as a historical time-lapse camera. And it is fundamentally the same day which, in the shape of holidays and memorials, always returns. The calendar does not therefore count time like clocks. They are monuments of a historical awareness, of which there has not seemed to be the slightest trace for a hundred years. Yet in the July Revolution an incident took place which did justice to this consciousness. During the evening of the first skirmishes, it turned out that the clock-towers were shot at independently and simultaneously in several places in Paris.

In 1931, in a radio lecture on the Bastille prison, Walter Benjamin associates conspirators and artists. The Bastille was a place of incarceration for people who had upset state security. There were two classes of prisoner held there; those who were accused of conspiracy and treason, and those more numerous inmates who were writers, engravers, book dealers and binders, all people who had propagated books that offended the king or his favourites. Prisoners disappeared from between its walls as swiftly as they had appeared, subject as they were to the whims of the powerful. The storming of the Bastille, home at that moment to just sixteen prisoners, was the first visible act of destruction of the French Revolution, and it occurred, insists Benjamin, because of the arbitrariness of its punishments. What was released then into the French post-revolutionary cosmos was a ragged band of writers, artists, artisans and conspirators. In short, a low-life bohemia of gossip-mongerers, art-peddlars and revolters, who dispersed into the fertile air of a new class-rule. Having occupied the same space of confinement, they forged a bond that bore offspring. For it was from their ranks that the avant-garde was born. No longer ‘at home’ in the prison, these homeless rebels agitated and aggravated from inside the vaster prison of the bourgeois world; opposed to that world, but inside it, they figured a place apart.

The Baader Meinhof Group found themselves some hundred years later in Stammheim – and there was to be no liberation, no storming on the part of an activated and revolutionary class keen to overturn the existing order. Instead there was only death. The vanguard perished. Its major act had been to translate a modernist desire for interruption, shock and smashing into the streets in the very specific conditions of post-nazi Germany and consumer boom. Unconvinced that consumer-applianced, psychologically-authoritarian working classes would revolt, Baader Meinhof Group sought - through bombs and kidnapping - to shatter the terms of everyday life. Such shattering of the terms of everyday life is what art only dreams of achieving.

I want to end with some words on recycling. The politicisation of aesthetics that Benjamin theorised as the 1920s’ practice and contribution to revolutionary struggle was invoked as a direct feed into the class struggle in the 1960s. 1968 was a recycling, a return, a re-spinning of a previous revolution or revolutionary moment of the 1920s, as it played out in art, an art that had been politicised. As a vignette of this consider the filmwork of Harun Farocki, who began making films in 1966. His first films were made collectively while he was a student at the Berlin Film and Television Academy, challenging thereby the ethos of the sole genius creator. Farocki’s films were directly political in theme: the title of one, an agit-prop film, from 1968 translates as On Some Problems of the Anti-authoritarian and Anti-imperialist Struggle in the Metropolitan Areas, Using West Berlin as Example, or Their Newspapers. This short film thematised the manipulative ideological role of the Axel Springer newspaper concern, in a highly politicised West Berlin – Springer’s press was a key player in the ideological war of the 1960s and was blamed by the left for inciting an assassin to target Rudi Dutschke in April 1968, when he was shot in the head and chest after its calls to readers to ‘eliminate the trouble-makers’ and ‘stop the terror of the young Reds’. The political temperature of the time is evidenced in the film by documentary shots of demonstrations and debates – documentary was valued as the mode of accessing the data of social reality and there was a rich tradition of the left to draw on as precedent. The film made parallels between military repression in Vietnam and ideological oppression in Germany. Bombs fall onto the Vietnamese, bundles of newspapers thud onto the streets of West Berlin. A twin assault – violence towards Vietnamese bodies, violence towards German minds. Both forms distort. At the film’s close activists turn those words into weapons, as cobblestones are wrapped in Springer’s newspapers in preparation for the street fighting. These were the days in which students occupied the film academy in Berlin, the red flag hoisted above the building, now unofficially renamed, in homage to the 1920s political avant garde, ‘The Dziga Vertov Academy’. Once order was restored, the occupiers, Farocki amongst them, were expelled from the film academy.

Farocki continued to work on political film outside the institution - one film NICHT löschbares Feuer [Un-extinguishable Fire] (1968/69) - exposed the atrocities of the Vietnam War in its concentration on Dow Chemicals, the makers of Napalm: its key line – ‘When Napalm is burning, it is too late to extinguish it. You have to fight Napalm where it is produced: in the factories’. This was another way of bringing the violence of the imperialists back to the cities – as image – and then as mass strategy. The film analysed the class perspectives of workers, engineers, students and bosses in relation to the production of Napalm. It demonstrated how the division of labour obscured the situation and prevented knowledge. The film was the vehicle for diffusing knowledge about the effects, profits, uses and meaning of Napalm. Two films from 1969, made with the Socialist Filmmakers Co-operative West Berlin, were titled Ohne Titel oder: Nixon kommt nach Berlin [Untitled or: Nixon Comes to Berlin] and Anleitung, Politizisten den Helm abzureißen [Instructions For Stripping a Policeman of His Helmet]. This was film as weapons, self-consciously using documentary in a Brechtian fashion, drawing on the resources of modern media with its barrage of techniques, such as montage, selection, distance and foregrounded manipulation or artifice – that which Brecht claimed needed to be constructed in order to be truthful – all in the pursuit of politicising art. What we see in the Baader Meinhof Group’s return of Benjamin some ten years after this is a spin too far. What Benjamin represents, in actuality, is the modernist avant garde, the revolutionary moment of October 1917 as reflected into aesthetic policy. But the Baader Meinhof Group turn this political aesthetics back again into politics – which might mean that another key aspect of Benjamin’s analysis – the stand-off between the politicisation of art – in communism – and the aestheticisation of politics - in Fascism - is of relevance. Though to pursue that line gets close to the now fashionable revisionist position directed not just at the ‘terrorist left’ but at the generation of 1968 in general. It is a line even purveyed by 1968ers about themselves. Take for example former Maoist Götz Aly whose new book Unser Kampf – a play on the title of Hitler’s famous tract – compares the ‘illiberalism’ of the 1968 generation to that of the generation of 1933, both being mass movements that are opposed to parliamentary democracy and the values of the Enlightenment. Both movements, according to Aly, and much of the existing German left, were anti-Semitic. The children of mass murders ran after the mass murderer Mao, in the final offshoot of European totalitarianism that is 1968, Aly claims of himself and his friends in an article titled ‘Back to Rudi Dutschke’s Pram’. The point is that Benjamin’s metaphorics of explosions was an aesthetic translation of political possibility, that was the political violence of 1917, a violence predicated on the possibility of a mass movement that alone could end the existing violence of war and capitalist rule. It translated this energy into revolutionary art and revolutionary theory, which was dependent on political, social and political prospects for change. The Baader Meinhof Group ran it back the other way – they took the metaphorics of explosion from art, from the avant garde, and retranslated it into political practice.


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