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When revolutionary fervor is tempered with time

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By Richard Cohen
Tuesday, January 12, 2010

To the columnist's obligation to provide a 10-best list of 2009 films, I punt by offering just one. It is "The Baader Meinhof Complex," which Anthony Lane, the film critic for the New Yorker, said he saw "three or four times." When I saw it, I thought that once was enough. Yet the movie lingers because, to me, it is only incidentally about the 1970s-style radicalism of Andreas Baader and Ulrike Meinhof, and more about how wrong I was when I was young.

The movie portrays the sudden bloody rise and just as sudden bloody fall of the Red Army Faction, or the so-called Baader-Meinhof Gang, in what was then West Germany. Neither Baader nor Meinhof thought they were leading a gang, although they did rob banks and kidnap rich people and set buildings afire with abandon. Instead, they believed they were leading a revolution, one that would start in their own country and spread elsewhere. It would fight fascism, imperialism, Zionism, bourgeois values of all sorts -- casual sex was a kind of a revolutionary act -- and America in all its evil manifestations, particularly its vile war in Vietnam.

Meinhof was the more interesting of the two. She was a wife, a mother and a journalist. Her radicalization came in June 1967 when the shah of Iran, Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, visited West Berlin. The shah was seen as both a tyrant and a puppet of the Americans and so he was greeted by left-wing protesters. A melee ensued, with pro-shah goons, armed with staves, wading into the peaceful demonstrators. The police did nothing. The next day, at yet another demonstration, a policeman shot a protester to death. That single act seemed to vindicate the radicals' argument: Germany was a brutal, fascist state.

Actually, the radicals were on to something. Former Nazis were ensconced in government and commerce. A new generation was expressing its disgust at the older generation. The shah was a fitting target. The Savak, his secret police, was notorious for torture. The Iranian regime was the product of American foreign policy. "Shah, murderer," the demonstrators shouted. They had a point.

Now it is many years later and the shah has long been replaced by the ayatollahs. The children of the old demonstrators would be entitled to now shout "ayatollah, murderer," but Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei does not come to Berlin. It's hard to say which regime has killed more people, but at least the shah's did not threaten to obliterate Israel and have hissy fits about America. That ought to count for something.

As for the cop who shot the protester, he came to personify the supposedly fascist West German government. His name was Karl-Heinz Kurras. He was exonerated of the killing -- an accident, he claimed -- and eventually returned to the West Berlin police force. Years later, it was revealed that he was a communist and a secret agent for the East German regime. He was hardly the fascist pig of the radical imagination.

In the movie, as in real life, the Red Army Faction spouted mindless revolutionary claptrap. They were also responsible for about 30 deaths. Yet, for a while, they had the support of some prominent intellectuals and about 25 percent of Germans under the age of 40. They aligned themselves with the Palestine Liberation Organization, underwent mayhem training in the Middle East and never paused to consider that the Palestinian cause was a product of what their parents had done to the Jews of Europe. They had an odd way of atoning for that.

The enthusiasm of youth -- the impatience with complex explanations, the exuberant energy that obliterates history and mocks the past -- is one of life's enduring cliches. So, too, is the conservatism and caution of age, often (mis)characterized as a gerontological disease, a consequence of arteriosclerosis or some such thing. Both cliches, as is usually the case, contain a measure of truth.

As it happened, I had cheered for the German left (although not the crazies) and had cheered, too, for the Iranian revolutionaries -- and all that came of it was the murder of innocent Germans and an Iran that went from bad to bad -- or maybe worse. You might think that the lesson is that the more things change, the more they remain the same -- but it isn't. To paraphrase Louis XIV -- "l'etat c'est moi" -- the cliche is me. I've changed.

cohenr@washpost.com


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