Opinion: Learning From Germany′s Autumn of Terror | Germany| News and in-depth reporting from Berlin and beyond | DW | 05.09.2007
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Opinion: Learning From Germany's Autumn of Terror

Germany's autumn of terror happened 30 years ago, but the lessons learnt are still relevant today, says DW's Daniel Scheschkewitz.

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The autumn of 1977 was a traumatic one for Germany. The days between the RAF's kidnapping on Sept. 5 of Hanns Martin Schleyer, president of the Federation of German Industries, and the discovery of his body on Oct. 19, plunged the country into a state of emergency. The militant, left-wing group staged the abduction in a bid to blackmail the state into releasing 11 members of its group who were in prison in Stuttgart-Stammheim for numerous bomb attacks.

Daniel Scheschkewitz

Daniel Scheschkewitz

Tens of thousands of police officers spent weeks searching for the kidnappers and their hostage. Politicians called for the death penalty. Captains of industry, judges and politicians were considered prime terrorist targets. These weeks marked a watershed for post-war Germany.

Terrorism is a useful tool for political activists who lack influence -- be they the left-wing rebels of Germany's Red Army Faction, al Qaeda fanatics or the Taliban. An act of terrorism is, literally, the last resort of the self-righteous revolutionary who has lost all sense of moderation and humanity. Then, potential targets are not just the captains of industry, judges and politicians, but anyone who simply happens to be in the wrong place at the wrong time -- from the businesspeople and tourists milling around the World Trade Center on Sept.11, 2001 to the passengers on a Madrid commuter train and the crowds packed on to a double-decker bus in London in 2005.

Unfailingly, terrorism unleashes panic, whether its target is US imperialism or the "pig state" invoked by the RAF.

When their back is against the wall, societies tend to turn to overreact, employing such standard defense mechanisms as revenge. Anyone who remembers the mood in Germany in the fateful autumn of 1977 will recall the loud clamors for a reintroduction of the death penalty -- and how these calls seemed as excessive a reaction as the US-led attack on Iraq as retaliation for Sept. 11 seemed four years ago, notwithstanding the substantial differences between RAF and Islamist terrorism.

RAF terrorism was a targeted attack against those it saw as "arch capitalists." This was the group's derogatory terms for all those who bore any degree of responsibility in democratic, free-market West Germany. To the RAF, they were "guilty," and victims such as the driver who died in a hail of bullets during Schleyer's abduction, were merely collateral damages. In contrast, the terrorism of al Qaeda might be highly precise in terms of its execution, but it claims lives randomly. Its victims are citizens of the free world. To the RAF, the enemy was the German state. To the jihadists, the enemy is the western world, with all its freedom of belief and rampant consumerism.

Then and now, a society need to show terrorists that it will not be blackmailed. Germany paid a high price for refusing to release the RAF terrorists held in Stammheim -- the life of Hanns Martin Schleyer. Those in charge of negotiations that fateful autumn -- including former Chancellor Helmut Schmidt -- are personally indebted to the Schleyer family. But they believed that the decision they made to sacrifice his life was justified, because they maintained the state's integrity and stability.

In 2007, a similarly steadfast line needs to be taken when innocent hostages are taken by the Taliban in Afghanistan or gangs of rebels in Iraq. Whether it comes in the form of kidnappings or suicide bombings, terrorism can only be dealt with by remaining strong. Negotiations and concessions are grist to the mill of international terrorism.

But remaining strong is far from easy. Thirty years ago, the accusations that Germany's left was made up of "intellectual desk criminals" was an inappropriate as today's attempt to blame Islam for the actions of fanatical Islamist terrorists. Only when religious freedom endures, even in times of terrorist threats, will freedom serve as proof of western strength. And only when the state's protective measures stop short of restricting individual freedoms will citizens start to show a long-term willingness to defend society's values, liberal laws and democracies -- an important principle to remember when the specter of terrorism is looming large.

As the West continues to fight its war on terror, the lessons learnt 30 years ago seem more relevant than ever.

Daniel Scheschkewitz was DW-RADIO's US correspondent and now works as a special correspondent (jp)

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