For 44 days in the fall of 1977, West Germany’s Red Army Faction (RAF) held captive Hanns Martín Schleyer, a leading German industrialist. In exchange for letting Schleyer go, the RAF—a left-wing urban guerrilla organization—demanded the release of ten imprisoned members, including their leaders, Andreas Baader and Gudrun Ensslin.

From its founding in 1970 to its dissolution in the 1990s, the RAF robbed banks, assassinated prominent politicians, and bombed U.S. military bases, under-construction prisons, and the offices of the tabloid press. Its stated goal was to bring revolution from the third world to the first and overthrow the “fascist” Federal Republic in favor of an undefined socialist state. After the first wave of terror in the early 1970s, most of the RAF’s founding generation— including Baader, Ensslin, and Ulrike Meinhof—were behind bars, their successors acting on orders smuggled out through lawyers and paroled comrades.

Now called the German Autumn, the violent weeks in September and October of 1977 were the grim culmination of a decade-long battle between the Federal Republic’s homegrown terrorists and a panicked but resolute state. After Schleyer’s abduction, the Bonn government, headed by Social Democratic chancellor Helmut Schmidt, launched an unprecedented nationwide manhunt, tapping phones, shutting down train and bus terminals, erecting roadblocks. Suspected of providing a support network for the underground, the West German left—an assortment of New Leftists, militant anti-nuclear-energy activists, house squatters, and Marxist splinter groups—came under enormous pressure from the state’s security apparatus. Many of these leftists sympathized with the RAF, considering the militants as one of their own, even if they objected to the way the group employed violence. In mid-October the conflict escalated when a Palestinian group (friends of the RAF from Yemenese training camps) hijacked a Lufthansa airbus full of passengers, and flew the plane to Mogadishu, Somalia. The hijackers reiterated the RAF’s demands and, to prove they meant business, shot the pilot and pitched his body onto the tarmac. An elite West German commando unit stormed the plane the next morning, killing three hijackers and freeing all the hostages.

The following day, Baader, Ensslin, and another RAF inmate were found dead in their high-security cells—Baader from a pistol shot, Ensslin hanged with electrical wiring. The official cause of death was suicide; but according to much of the West German left, the RAF leaders had been “liquidated” by the state, their murders covered up with falsified evidence. Several days later, Schleyer’s corpse was found in a car trunk in France with three bullet holes in the back of his head, the same execution technique employed by the Nazis.

For anyone who lived through the German Autumn, the images remain vivid: Schmidt’s grave television addresses to the nation; the “wanted” handbills with blurry black-and-white photos of the fugitives; the public spaces crawling with police; and the eerie high-tech maximum security Stammheim prison near Stuttgart, its seventh floor constructed specially for these political prisoners. The violence—part of a broader pattern in West Germany in the ’70s—shook the state and terrified ordinary Germans who had overwhelmingly backed the Schmidt government’s efforts to crush the militants and their networks. With the administration accused of illegal surveillance, torture, and murder, Germany’s young democracy, created from the ruins of the Third Reich, faced the deepest crisis of its existence.

The government’s “drain the swamp” strategy was meant to deprive the underground of support. But in practice, it meant cracking down on the entire German left—searching squatted houses and co-ops, raiding private parties, questioning anyone in a train station with long hair or patched jeans, and detaining activists without charges. An increasingly paranoid left worried that the Sicherheitsstaat (security state) would stop at nothing to destroy it. West Germany’s independent-minded leftists, those who sided neither with the proponents of armed struggle (and their aggressive supporters) nor the state and society at large, were caught in the crossfire.

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Thirty years later the German Autumn remains remarkably present in contemporary German consciousness and culture. A dozen books have just appeared on the RAF, and there’s been a steady output of documentary and feature films and novels, as well as a play, a voluminous three-story exhibition, and even a T-shirt sporting the RAF logo (a machine gun against a red star). To mark the 30th anniversary of the German Autumn, newspapers carried pages of articles and reprinted the well-known photographs: Baader in leather jacket and sunglasses pinned to the asphalt by police officers; a poised twentysomething Ulrike Meinhof in a prim dress as editor of the radical monthly Konkret; and an array of smashed, bullet-riddled BMWs with sheet-covered corpses lying next to them. In addition, as the last of the currently imprisoned RAF members come up for parole, a fierce discussion is under way about the terms of their release, with victims’ relatives and former RAF members (already paroled) showing up on evening talk shows.

This interest is particularly curious because both the Federal Republic and the German left (past and present) have every reason to want to forget the German Autumn. The state’s overreaction and heavy-handed response brought out its worst. Rather than reach out to its radical critics, it criminalized them and treated the entire left as terrorist collaborators, which fueled suspicion, even among non-leftists, that the state had indeed murdered the RAF prisoners.

As for West German leftists, in retrospect their failure to distance themselves from the ultra-left RAF is embarrassing, as is their paranoia about a proto-fascist Federal Republic. The greater left waited far too long to criticize the underground, whose activities produced no progressive social change, but justified the state’s creation of an extensive high-tech security apparatus to spy upon, infiltrate, and harass left-of-center activists. Today almost no one believes that Meinhof, Baader, and Ensslin were murdered (numerous investigations have concluded that they took their own lives, though new evidence indicates that all of the cells were bugged, that officials knew of the prisoners’ plans to commit collective suicide, and that they did nothing to stop them.)

One of the few positive consequences of the German Autumn was that it prompted many radical leftists to revaluate their solidarity with the “comrades in the underground” and the cause of revolutionary Marxism in general. The German Autumn marked the end of an era for the radical German left, one that began with the demise of the student movement in 1970. Radical activists at the time—like the 30-year-old anarchist Joschka Fischer—understood the events of the German Autumn as incontrovertible proof of the senselessness of armed struggle as a political strategy in the Federal Republic. (Fischer’s personal epiphany came in the aftermath of the riots following the prison death of RAF-founder Ulrike Meinhof, a year before the German Autumn.) It was time, Fischer concluded, for the left to reconsider its relationship to violence and, implicitly, revolutionary socialism.

As difficult as it was to initiate this discussion about political violence, it began in earnest after the German Autumn and ultimately it—not the clampdown—was responsible for delegitimizing the guerrilla groups and draining their support. (A pivotal moment in this process was the founding of Die Tageszeitung, a left daily that is still being published.) The ideology of the 1970s underground, as well as its goals and means, is so discredited today that there aren’t even any tiny splinter groups willing to imitate them, as there had been throughout the 1980s and even into the 1990s.

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So why all the public attention? Most obviously, the topic is sexy, sensationalist, and commercially attractive: Germany is not that different from the United States, and on-the-run revolutionaries in leather jackets with pistols tucked into their jeans is good business for film, magazine features, and fashion. The darkly romantic, against-all-odds, ultra-authentic, everything-or-nothing guerrilla ethic remains alluring, and doesn’t require identification with armed struggle or Marxism of any sort. Some of these cultural products are worthwhile, like Volker Schlondorff’s fine film, The Legend of Rita, which explores the RAF’s affinity to Eastern Bloc communism, and Christian Petzold’s (unfortunately untranslated) Die innere Sicherheit, about life in the underground for the teenage daughter of a couple wanted by the law. Also, many of the new books constitute serious scholarship, like the prodigious work of Hamburg social historian Wolfgang Kraushaar. But while there are legitimate artistic and scholarly issues here, it is surprising how much attention the popular culture is paying to the events of the German Autumn and that it continues to fascinate.

The hype, however, isn’t entirely apolitical. Some German leftists (very often of a younger generation) are still attracted to the idea of effecting radical social change in a cataclysmic burst rather than through the tedium of grassroots organizing or gradual social movements—the processes that are essential to progressive social change in liberal democracies. As much as the German left has changed since the late ’70s and as critically as it has distanced itself from the RAF and its like, there persists a mythical aura around Baader-Meinhof as the true believers who fought the good fight in its purest form. Baader, Meinhof, and Ensslin are still considered heroes in some left-wing circles, even though their unsuccessful assault on the state cost the lives of 57 people and ended in disaster for the German left.

This romantic fascination with RAF is unfortunately not without tangible implications for contemporary progressive politics in Germany. For one, the ever-present specter of the urban guerrilla movement effectively delegitimizes utopia-inspired, extraparliamentary projects—even nonviolent ones. Implicit in current discourse—and explicit in conservative argument—is the claim that ideal-driven causes in the name of domestic social justice, global justice, and alternative forms of democracy inevitably lead to political violence. The anti-globalization group Attac, for example, suffers from this stigma. Decidedly nonviolent, Attac is often mentioned in the same breath as the RAF or, still more absurdly, jihadist groups.

In 2001 Germany’s conservative opposition suggested exactly this connection between progressive idealism and political terror when it tried to force Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer’s resignation from the ruling coalition of Social Democrats and Greens. Photos from 1973 came to light in which Fischer, then an anarchist, attacked a Frankfurt cop. Moreover, one of the RAF fugitives apparently spent a night in Fischer’s co-op. More was at stake than Fischer’s political future. The bigger prize was to link the “radical” red-green government with violent radicalism. In the end, the charges linking Fischer to the RAF didn’t stick. Fischer apologized for the incident and kept his job—but the intimation remained that even moderate Green ideas can end in terror.

Secondly, the contemporary shadow cast by the RAF obscures the much more important work of the nonviolent extraparliamentary movements of the 1970s and ’80s—such as the women’s movement and the environmental, anti-nuclear-energy and peace campaigns. Known as the “new social movements,” these activists mobilized literally millions of German citizens and brought about genuine democratic and social change in the republic. Despite their enormous impact on the political culture of the Federal Republic, today these grassroots mobilizations, which took parliamentary form with the creation of the Green Party in 1980, are conspicuously underrepresented in public discourse. While just about any German who watches television could name five or six terrorists active in the 1970s, he or she would be hard pressed to name a single leading figure of the powerful new social movements other than the late icon of the peace movement, Petra Kelly, perhaps, or the feminist Alice Schwarzer.

This distortion of the collective memory works to the advantage of national conservatives. Preoccupation with the urban guerrillas effectively discredits idealistic extraparliamentary causes and marginalizes the legacy of the 1970s social movements. Ultimately this phenomenon is an extension of the post-1960s “culture wars,” which the left won. Although the 1967–1970 student revolt and its successors in the new social movements failed to alter the political and economic foundations of the Federal Republic, they permanently transformed attitudes toward gender relations, morality, sexual orientation, citizenship, work, and religion. Germany today is indebted to these movements for helping facilitate its liberal metamorphosis and making it a more open, worldly, and democratic place. Yet this debt is often overlooked. Conservatives, hoping to take back lost ground, gladly see the debt diminished in the country’s collective consciousness. The German-born Pope Benedict XVI explicitly blames the West German student movement for undermining Christian morality in the country.

At the heart of the issue is the contested terrain of the anti-establishment, countercultural uprising on West German campuses in the late 1960s. Both the urban guerrillas and the new social movements sprang from the student revolt. In its aftermath, the vast majority of activists joined Willy Brandt’s Social Democrats or moved on to an array of progressive projects, from squatting houses and founding rural communes to community-based projects concerned with the environment and women’s rights. When these initially local initiatives grew and then banded together countrywide, they became the new social movements. Only a tiny handful of former student-movement activists—several hundred in total—took to the underground. (Writer Heinrich Böll called the RAF “six against 60 million.”)

Yet it has become virtually axiomatic today to portray the German Autumn as the natural outcome of the student movement. This is the argument of one of the period’s most highly respected chroniclers, Gerd Koenen, himself a former student rebel. A recent two-part TV documentary directed by another RAF expert and former Konkret editor, Stefan Aust, does the same thing. They portray the student-movement leader Rudi Dutschke as the RAF’s intellectual father, with violence integral to his creed. Koenen and Aust are not alone. Even Kraushaar, the pre-eminent historian of postwar German social movements, often emphasizes the lines of continuity rather than the numerous discontinuities between the student uprising and the urban guerrilla movements. They read the ethic of the 1970s militancy—with its anti-Semitism, anti-Americanism, and fanaticism—back into the student movement.

This is unfair and historically inaccurate. There is plenty to criticize about the “68ers”: their revolutionary pretensions, their distance from the masses, their blinkered pro-Arab sympathies, and the macho ethic of its male leaders. But the sins of West Germany’s 1970s radical left were not theirs, even if the seeds of those excesses can be located in the student revolt. The seeds of the new social movements and the Green Party are there, too, and provided a genuine source of new political growth.