Revolt into Style: Images of West German "Terrorism" from 68-77

Rupert Goldsworthy

In an era when renewed acts of political violence such as bombings and hijackings have changed many people's lives worldwide, images coded as terrorist pervade a variety of cultural contexts. In this paper I examine images related to the violent left-wing 1970s West German group the Rote Armee Fraktion, also known as the Baader-Meinhofs (I choose the latter of the two terms for its greater familiarity in English-language discourse). I want to discuss these images in propaganda, the media and popular culture. I argue that our associations with imagery relating to this group have shifted over time due to a confluence of cultural forces. 

An analysis of such patterns across various geographies reveals how a society handles very problematic imagery and how state power and particularl cultural groups interact with it. Each intersection of visuality and the code of radical or terrorist here reveals different functionings of the visual. This offers an opportunity to problematize and refine theoretical understandings of what happens to imagery of radicals and terrorists and discuss whether such images can retain political or oppositional valence. The interstitiality and hybrid nature of imagery relating to the Baader-Meinhofs provides a nodal point to allow us to interrogate a wide network of discourses surrounding the visual--including those of taxonomy, legitimation and commodification.

One of the problems of talking about imagery and terrorism is that we are working with two terms that need to be closely interrogated and teased out. To discuss imagery, its sources and possible associations we need to begin by accepting that any perception we have now of imagery relating to West Germany in the era of 1968 to 1977 is coded and clouded by the later lenses of cinema, television, print media and the web. Such images are defined in relation to a wider context. Despite this, particularly two-dimensional print imagery is continually signalled to signify certain events or "quoted" to support a narrative, used to suture an argument's blindspots. Here is documentary proof. Here is ocular forensic evidence. One needs to be wary of the flawed theoretical rhetoric and the attempt at closure inherent in presenting any particular image as "evidentiary." When discussing images of West German terrorism from this period we need to note we are already involved in a complex web of earlier associations, framings and discourses and that this web of meanings also remains semanticly in play. Images which are coded to relate to "terror" are immediately crowded by the ghosts of older narratives from National Socialism or Vietnam and also by newer visual economies like 9/11 or Abu Ghraib. Our mental memory banks hyperlink continually between these other internal associative visual records of the visceral and sensational.

Around images coded as "terroristic" we are coercively enjoined by various agents of socialization to react in particular ritualized ways and to respond performatively to what is signified as the tragic, the barbaric or the unimaginable. In such a setting, imagery of any kind is clearly never just a mute document of an event but also weapon and talisman.

Terminology like terrorist or radical is fraught with difficulties in regards to defining any singular or universal meaning. I begin for now by making a heuristic distinction between groups and individuals defined as radicals--those who advocate violent means to achieve social justice--and those defined by the media or state as terrorists--those who actually bomb. The media tend to conflate the two terms and there is much seepage between these categories in popular culture.

We should consider the agenda of particular news media channels in the construction of a taxonomy of terror. Media theorist Daniel Boorstin used the term "pseudo-event" to describe the media's continual need to "invent" copy to fill broadsheets. In relation to this, Herman and O'Sullivan note the development of what they term "the terrorism industry" and "terror experts" during the early 1970s. They claim that "institutions and individuals somewhat involved with the government" began to be "engaged in the production and sale of informational-perspectival output"--that is to say, promoting the state's agenda. 

In the context of West Germany it would appear that certain photographic images relating to the left-wing student movement were already coded as terroristic by the mainstream media for years before the American army bases bombings or kidnappings which began in 1972. The Springer Verlag began a smear campaign using the rhetoric of terror from 1967 onwards against West German SDS leader Rudi Dutschke although Dutschke was by all accounts non-violent and clearly advocated non-violent means. Springer continually referred to Dutschke in relation to "Meinungsterror" (ideological terror) and tabloid photographs of his face became sensationalized and made notorious over time as his likeness was repeatedly signified "Rudi the Red Terror."

Springer Verlag tabloid newspaper headlines from 1967-68

One might venture that this discourse was introduced by the German right-wing media to erase a notion of the "non-human" still haunting the West German news--other ghosts of "Old Europe"--Nazi war criminals still at large and undetected within West German society. The Kiesinger-Beate Klarsfeld story is one high profile example of such a story. Clearly the German press already installed this rhetoric and set of social constellations within a wider discourse prior to the wave of self-styled "Stadtguerillas" of the early 1970s. In such a theater, "left-wing terror" whether or not it physically existed yet, was already invoked by the media and used as a loose signifier for the oppositional and the imaginary. The "monstrous" was enjoined into the construction of a moral panic.  Such a location becomes a site for excess in meaning and for wild projection. It can clearly be shown that the West German media, specificly the Springer Verlag, and also various state agencies (who in the early 1970s covertly provided the Baader-Meinhofs with weapons) deliberately created a climate of "media terror" and provided a potential for a performance of monstrosity.

Parallel to this media and state construct we should also consider the Baader-Meinhofs' early use of visual rhetoric in the construction of their imagery. We should also not forget that many within the group had worked in the media. Source imagery adopted by the Baader-Meinhofs in the early construction of their public identity reveals a similar pattern of fabrication and a projection onto a third party, invoking a powerful mythic figure who is not present. This pattern is apparent in their graphics and communiqués. Can we establish origins for the Baader-Meinhofs' own graphic style? There emerged during the late 1960s an "underground" visual gestalt that denoted "Radicalism." This gestalt can be seen in graphics, logos and propaganda relating to particular groups such as the U.S.'s Black Panthers or leftist urban guerillas such as Uruguay's Tupamaros or Italy's Red Brigades. These images often used the red star of communism, the gun and a circle representing the globe to suggest the group's involvement in a global leftist guerilla war.

from l-r, starting from top: Rote Armee Fraktion logo 1970; Black Panthers newspaper logo, 1968; Tupamaros logo, late 1960s; Brigate Rosse logo, late 1960s, Che 1965 (courtesy Estate of A.Korda); USSR logo 1920s, Hamas logo (date unknown); Vietcong flag, 1970s; Weather Underground logo, 1970s: Palestina poster, West Germany, 1970s; Soviet hammer and sickle logo, 1920s; Black Panther logo, 1968; Fatah logo, c.1970; Cuban poster, 1968 (based on Emory Douglas design for Black Panther Party); Basque ETA logo, 1970s; Palestinian-German group, early 1970s; UDA mural, Belfast 1970s; Black Panthers poster 1968; SDS Days of Rage poster 1969; IRA mural, Belfast 1970s

This iconography was adopted by the Baader-Meinhofs in their logo and graphics in an attempt to suggest their involvement in this international struggle. As art historian Robert Storr notes, the Baader-Meinhofs' struggle "was based on the Maoist notion that the triumph of the revolutionary Third World over the reactionary First World depended on bringing the battle from the margins to the center of the empire." Can we say that parallel to adopting the "cause" of the Third World, the Baader-Meinhofs also appropriated a visual lingua-franca of "Radicalism" that was earlier constructed by these other groups? If it can be argued the Baader-Meinhofs' graphics attempted to create a sub-brand spinning off from this "global brand" of radicalism, what does this ask us about the international resonance of this type of imagery? What is the role played by the Baader-Meinhofs in the formation and dissemination of a free-floating transcultural visual gestalt denoting the "Radical?"

Storr points out the Baader-Meinhof group's attempt to posit a relation to a global violent activism of the post-1968 era.  But we should note the disparity between economically-stable industrialized West Germany and the struggles of guerilla groups in Third World nations. Despite the adoption of a visual rhetoric and tactics of other earlier groups the Baader-Meinhofs sought deliberately to further a style signifying "radicalism" originated by groups like the Tupamaros or Italy's Brigade Rosse. The German group clearly co-opted and adapted this pre-existing style. But while trying to help foster this transcultural, global grammar of the radical they also blurred perception of what was already existant. 

In relation to this earlier idea of the "monstrous," one early Baader-Meinhof-related image is useful to gaining an understanding the group's attempts to posit their involvement in "global resistance ."

“Freiheit für alle Gefangenen” poster, Holger Meins, 1970

This offset screen-print poster from 1970 was made by Holger Meins, a film student who joined the Baader-Meinhofs the same year. The image is remarkable on many levels--as an object expressing the rhetoric of the era, for its graphicly cleverness and also as chilling precursor of future events. (Meins himself later died in jail on hunger strike in 1974).  The image of a sunflower "exploding" in bloom printed in a primitive hippie-esque style. On close inspection the flower is assembled from a hand grenade and bullets, and the names of various terror and radical groups. The text below reads "Freiheit für alle Gefangenen" ("Freedom for all prisoners"). The flower is symbolic harbinger of future growth (Mao's "Let a thousand flowers bloom") and, here, of imminent violence (the bullets ready to fly). Circling the bullet petals are the names of various left-wing groups involved in struggles in Burundi, Chile, Brazil, Japan, Uruguay, Palestine, Vietnam the U.S., Guatemala, Mozambique, Guinea and Cape Verde. The message clearly suggests all the "political" prisoners from these groups should liberated from jail by violent means. However we should note the groups involved activism of many different shades. They range from those which included community initiatives (i.e. the Panthers' free breakfast programs) to those who made spectacular bank robberies (Tupamaros) or bombed (Weathermen). What is interesting is how various ideological leftist struggles, national liberation movements and armed community groups are conflated, how the visual rhetoric here implies all these groups share a common violent goal. The poster implies all these cells are ideologically linked beyond the release of their prisoners. This was even in 1970 somewhat misrepresentative. 

The appropriation of a visual grammar related to these groups in a poster printed in another continent renders their names emblematic and mythologizes their identities. We need to consider what is kept, what gets lost or evacuated in such a re-situating. Whilst the poster acknowledges the power of these "signs" and appears to endorse their struggles, this appropriation brings into question issues like authorization. This co-opting or citing of another's struggle--whatever the intention--begins a chain of re-assignment that springs up around uncopyrighted visual symbols, particularly those which are presented as oppositional.

We also see a similar pattern of re-assignment and loss of agency around the Baader-Meinhofs themselves after their terror campaign and arrest in 1972. The group had aimed to instrumentalize mainstream media channels to publicize their views through violent display. They argued "the revolution wouldn't be built through political work, but through headlines." Through their bombings they wanted to create media spectacle, promote a climate of terror and a crisis in visual authority. In such a setting the visual became a site for intense contestation over power and meaning-assignment. After the group leaders' arrests the media focus shifted to the group's visual appearances and to narratives of transgression and abasement.

Through these deliberate media constructs on both sides--staged spectacles of horror and violence and of identification--the German conflict developed from 1970-77 an unusually high visual presence in the press as various elements attempted to dominate the discourse and develop the climate of panic and fear. Media photographs of bombings, hunger strikes, kidnap victims with the group's logo and dead prisoners eschew any coherent reading or interpretation. It could be argued that in such a climate the West German media "psychologically terrorized" the public by generating catalogs of imagery with deeply troubling subconscious associations to broader historical narratives. 

Herman and O'Sullivan compare the amount of killings related to the Baader-Meinhofs between 1970 and 1979 (thirty-one people, mainly the group themselves), the disproportionate coverage they received in the West German press and the media's refusal to apply the same evidential standards to worldwide state violence over the same period. It has been argued that the "theater of terror" created around the Baader-Meinhofs aimed to discredit the left-wing student movement in West Germany and serve to allow for implementing new levels of state surveillance and control. The West German media's exaggeration of the Baader-Meinhof threat allowed the state to do this although the group's actual threat was clearly comparatively minor in world terms.

Within the ongoing flow of media-initiated myths during the 1970s the Baader-Meinhofs enacted and/or were presented to be the embodiment of the "red terror" archetype that the media installed earlier around Dutschke in the late 1960s. We should note the ability of the media to "psychologically terrorize" the public by enfolding Baader-Meinhof imagery with broader visual narratives with deeply troubling subconscious associations? Can we say West Germany in the post-war era was haunted by the visual grammar of Holocaust imagery? Is there intertextuality between the "horror imagery" of the emaciated Baader-Meinhofs on hunger strike in jail with images of concentration camp victims or those under colonial regimes? Can we think about certain public images acting as cracks in a society's facade that threaten to rupture the domestic? How did certain media channels deploy certain types of framing on some imagery to erase others and regulate a society?

The Baader-Meinhofs' earlier appropriation of identities and ideologies slightly parallel later patterns.  The West German media reassign meaning around the identity of the group themselves. Later, in a wider cultural field, a further de-connotated Baader-Meinhof "visual identity" develops, a hybrid identity mutated from both group and the media's presentation. It appears as a sloppy signifier amid a mass of competing discourses--mainstream, state and counternarrative--which attempted to link to, define and reassign association with the group. 

A further question, one that needs to be addressed more fully elsewhere, is how and why Baader-Meinhof imagery--such as their portraits and graphics--has become codified and re-enfolded into a broader visual language of mass culture over time? How much is the continued presence of Baader-Meinhof imagery in contemporary pop culture and fine art related to Gerhard Richter's famous 1988 paintings of the group? (Richter's cycle of 15 paintings relating to the Baader-Meinhofs were bought for allegedly 3 million dollars by New York's MoMA in 1996). What is the intention and cultural role of fine artists, filmmakers or graphic designers who later appropriate Baader-Meinhof-related imagery within commercial settings. In one sense the reproduction of imagery using the connotative charge of left-wing radicalism in a setting such as an art museum creates a strange dichotomy. Imagery promoting violent anti-capitalism is re-contextualized in cutting-edge artworks that become currency in a high-end capitalist cultural marketplace, traded and collected by the very cultural demographic--industrialists--who were targets of these left-wing terrorists. What does this dynamic ask to us about the need to create cultural currency around this subject and of the relationship between ownership and the need to assimilate the oppositional?