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I lived in Bremen, West Germany, in 1984 and attended high school (Hamburg Gymnasium) for about five months as an exchange student. As a moderate social democrat from Canada, I could not relate to the radical politics of Germany at the time. But I understood why many of my German friends and teachers saw certain aspects of West Germany as a continuation of fascist rule and for this reason many seemed to have some sympathy for the RAF. Every few weeks--I will never forget--an adult male came around the school looking for people who might be interested in "learning more the armed struggle." One of my friends claimed this man was really a recruiter for the RAF. I saw the film Baader Meinhoff recently and was very impressed--as the film says, many people in West Germany sympathized with the RAF. I like this review for many reasons, but I don't think it does justice to the strong feelings many young people in West Germany felt for the issues the RAF represented. And in some ways, not much has changed in Germany.

John Richmond

Toronto, Ontario, Canada

Apr 18 2010 - 10:15pm

Web Letter

Competent but unspectacular, Diego Gambetta's "review" of Stefan Aust's Baader-Meinhof exemplifies a dreary genre of prose: the extended summary of a book, almost entirely devoid of critical commentary or original insight about it or its subject matter, that masquerades as a "think piece." Alas, what's the point? We can read Aust, ya know, for the longer version of this long review.

I have always looked to The Nation's book reviews for something different and better, some glint of analytical engagement. This review surely disappoints this expectation, and perpetuates a kind of racket by which well-publicized texts by celebrity authors dominate public discussions of a topic. This is no criticism of Aust. He is a fine man, who has written a meticulously researched narrative history widely regarded as the essential reference work on the RAF. But, hello (!), it was a best-seller more than twenty years ago and has long existed in translation. Why use a new release of the text (modestly updated) for the American market to prompt this extended reflection on the Red Army Faction when, for decades now, scholars and other intrepid researches have broken new ground, empirically and analytically, in understandings of the RAF and its times? I've seen nary a mention of this fine work, lo these many years, in The Nation. So much for the little guy and gal, the meritocracy of ideas.

As to the review itself, two bones to pick: it is not appropriate to call the Baader-Meinhof Group (a k a Red Army Faction) "the Gang." This was a polemical term used by the right back in the day; it should be exiled from "neutral" discussions of the RAF's history. Second, the Gambetta review suggests that the West German state played fine and fair in its pursuit of the RAF, honoring civil liberties, due process, human rights, and the rule of law. Ample evidence indicates that the state was guilty in its own excesses in its war on the RAF: from sharply punitive prison conditions; to the creation of special, highly dubious counter-terror laws; to rhetoric creating a climate of hysteria; to gratuitous expansions of the security apparatus; to a prison regime of "micro-power" that might remind one of Guantánamo. These practices did not a neo-fascist state make, but they did make countless Germans of good will and judgment question whether, in the name of anti-terrorism, some of the authoritarian tendencies of the German past had returned. Gambetta entirely elides this drama, distorting both Aust and the history he means to encapsulate.

Substance aside, the problem with this "review" lies in its form (and hence, not with Gambetta). For mild shame, editors. If even The Nation abandons originality and rigor for the safe, pallid and publicist-driven, both it and we are doomed.

[The author, a former Nation intern, is a professor of history at New School for Social Research.]

Jeremy Varon

Brooklyn, NY

Mar 16 2010 - 12:16pm

Web Letter

What is with this long essay on the Baader-Meinhof gang whose chosen highlights from a book completely mirror a film that is never referenced? Not once? Stefan Aust had a direct hand in The Baader-Meinhof Complex, a film that is as visceral and powerful as any , but Oxford professor Gambetta plagiarizes the thrust and arc of the film for his review.

While basically being in agreement with Gambetta's thesis, the self-satisfied comfort about the nobility of the present German state and its wonderfully comforting penal system is rich--were the condemnations of the violent neoliberal state so off base?

Martin White

Salem, NY

Mar 6 2010 - 5:23pm

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