Terror and publicity

40 years after autumn 1977

Today’s terrorism calls to mind the feeling of fear and polarisation which put the West German state to the test with the wave of terrorist attacks in autumn 1977. But according to the current literature, its tactics can be traced much further back, and have their roots in the revolutions of the 18th and 19th centuries, closely linked to the development of the mass media and its audience. It is the reactions of the state and the public which make terrorism into a success or a failure. Can the responses to the terror attacks of 30 years ago serve as a formula for responding to terrorism today?

The Federal Republic of Germany and the Undeclared State of Emergency

In the section of the Deutsches Historisches Museum’s permanent exhibition on West Germany, there is a baby stroller which was used by the Red Army Faction (sometimes referred to in English as the Baader-Meinhof Gang) on 5 September 1977 for their attack on then-president of the Confederation of German Industry, Hanns Martin Schleyer. With the weapons which were hidden in the stroller, the terrorists opened fire, killing four of Schleyer’s armed escorts. Schleyer was kidnapped and later murdered. With the abduction of Schleyer, the RAF wanted to force the release of their imprisoned members. When, one month later, the hijacking of a plane by Palestinian sympathisers failed to force the West German government to give in to the terrorists, Andreas Baader, Gudrun Ensslin, and Jan-Carl Raspe committed suicide in Stammheim prison, where they were incarcerated. Earlier that year, in April, the RAF had shot dead Attorney General Siegfried Buback along with two other people, and in July the spokesperson of Deutsche Bank, Jürgen Ponto. 1977 thus formed the climax and the turning point in the radical leftist violence in West Germany, which was responsible for a total of 50 deaths.

The Reactions of the Victims Constitute the Success or Failure of Terror

In her 2017 book on the invention of terrorism, Carola Dietze shows that terror in modern times has developed as a political instrument in the societies of Western Europe and the USA. According to Dietze, the origins of this development can be traced back to the attack on Napoleon III by Felice Orsini in January 1858. Following Orsini, terrorism evolved into an option for political activists from a waning social and political movement looking for fresh support. Media reporting and international attention were a prerequisite, which from the mid-19th century led to copycat deeds in the United States and Europe. The attacks and the reaction to them are part of what motivates terrorist attacks. According to Dietze, the aim is to “humiliate a powerful opponent, to challenge the legitimacy of their power, and to provoke a response from them…. However that also means that the opponent’s reactions can be a powerful tool in the battle against terrorism.”

With their covert terrorist actions, the Red Army Faction sought to attack both the West German state, which they viewed as oppressive, and capitalism, which they saw as being immanently bound up with fascism. The acts of violence were intended to shock, but also to evoke sympathies, thus advancing their political objective. Above all though, their aim was to cause the system they were attacking to morally discredit itself through its reaction to the terrorism itself.

The Media as the Enabler of Terrorism

Following this logic, terrorists can be understood as advocates of a protest ideology which offers an alternative vision to Western society. That is just as true of the members and supporters of the RAF back then as it is of the combatants of Islamic State today. Regardless of whether we are talking about Andreas Baader or Anis Amri, a terrorist needs a stage from which to transmit his message to the world. A useful tool for this is media reporting, which provides terrorists with the attention they seek, and also spreads the fear they want to incite. Bettina Röhl, who looks at the RAF and the Federal Republic of Germany in her essay, describes the activities of the RAF as a “not harmless media product”. She goes on to conclude that “the media were the conditio sine qua non for the emergence and the perpetuation of the RAF, and they irresponsibly made the terrorists into cult figures: the Dallas, so to speak, of global revolution”.

Consideration of Human Rights

The reactions to terrorism within society and in the media constitute its success – today as in 1977. Are we going to change our way of life out of fear? Will the state that is being attacked compromise the fundamental human rights of its citizens in order to protect itself? In 1977, the government refused to give in to the demands of the terrorists. In doing so, they placed their democratic mission above the lives of those abducted. The considerations around human rights weighed heavily upon those involved: was is more important to protect one person, or the right to freedom? How could the right to freedom of opinion and expression be upheld when simultaneously trying to stop the spread of radical ideologies? The line that the Federal Republic of Germany was walking in 1977 was very thin. Because every critical statement made during the “German Autumn” was interpreted as support for the terrorists and became punishable by law, freedom of expression was under threat. Looking back, we can say that West-German society managed to make it through this age of terror without turning its back on the spirit of the constitution.