Scenes Resembling Civil War

Fire and Flames: A History of the German Autonomist Movement

By Michael Mccanne
The New Inquiry
January 3rd, 2013

Before “the cancer of occupy,” there were Germany’s Autonomen; a new translation of Fire and Flames, a history of the struggle, shines a light on this proto-Black Bloc.

Six years before the Chernobyl disaster, several thousand people occupied the construction site of a nuclear waste facility in the forests of West Germany. Within days they had built a makeshift encampment and were holding general assemblies and demonstrations. Local farmers donated food, which was prepared and shared communally, and local politicians and celebrities came to give speeches. The occupiers for their part represented a broad cross-section of West Germans: environmentalists, suburbanites, students, Leftists, pensioners and local farmers united to prevent the waste holding facility’s construction. They built wooden lookout towers, walls, and communal lodges, and the occupied site started to resemble a festive medieval village. The encampment was called, “The Free Republic of Wendlend,” after the area’s traditional name.

A month later, in the early hours of June 4, 1980, nearly 8000 riot police, including the paramilitary Bundesgrenzschutz (Border Police), poured out of the wooded darkness and announced the site was to be evicted. It was the largest police mobilization in Germany since the Second World War. As had been decided in their general assemblies, the Wendlenders sat down peacefully, but suffered terrible brutality anyway at the hands of the police. By the end of the day the site was cleared of occupiers, and the remains of the village carted away.

The Wendlenders chose explicitly non-violent forms of resistance, but the West German authorities attacked, undeterred by moral force or persuasion. A year later, when the government restarted construction of a nuclear power plant at Brokdorf near the North Sea, perhaps they expected the same peaceful acquiescence. What they found instead was quite different.

Opposition groups called a large protest and nearly a hundred thousand came; many attempted to storm the building site and occupy it. As the police tried to drive protesters away with clubs and water cannons, they were attacked with stones and Molotov cocktails, mostly hurled by youths in black ski masks and motorcycle helmets. By the end of the day, protestors had breached all but the last inner fence of the construction site and destroyed a water canon truck with petrol bombs. The authorities were stunned by the protesters’ ferocity, and the fight at Brokdorf revealed a new radical force in the cracks of West German society.

Today, the German media uses the word Autonomen as a catch-all for militant anarchists, and it is easy to oversimplify the German Autonomous movements because they didn’t represent a unified group or ideology. In the English speaking Left, the West German Autonomen are best known as innovators of the “black bloc,” a tactic for mass militancy in which participants dress in black, hide their faces and wear pads or helmets to ward off police clubs or rubber bullets.

In the 1990s, when autonomous activists joined the burgeoning “Anti-globalization movement” in Europe, they brought the black bloc to demonstrations against transnational, neo-liberal organizations like the IMF and World Bank. When those summits and counter demonstrations occurred in Canada and the United States through the later 1990s, North American anarchists adopted the German Autonomen’s style and tactics, donning black masks, storming security fences and smashing corporate windows.

In the past year, autonomists and anarchists played a key role in the beginnings of Occupy Wall Street, and many signature modes of OWS reflect those tendencies: non-hierarchal organizing, general assemblies, affinity groups, direct action over representation, and a refusal to dialogue with established powers. And Occupy’s militant wing (what Christopher Hedges called “the cancer” and Jonathan Mahler labeled “ The Menace”), appeared in various Occupy demonstrations, as groups of young people with their faces covered, sometimes dressed in black, offering active resistance when the police tried to evict encampments or sweep protesters off the street.

It is always tempting to draw direct historical comparisons between past and present social movements. But one has to situate the Autonomen’s strategies and tactics in the context of the 1980s and the topography of West Germany to determine which practices are applicable to contemporary struggles and which are particular to history. PM Press’s new translation of Fire and Flames (published as Feuer und Flamme in 1990) offers that context by placing the German autonomous movement alongside the various groups and events that defined their horizon of possibilities. There are chapters on the plethora of leftist groups that predated the Autonomen (the Marxist-Leninist K Groups, the Spontis, the urban guerrilla movement and Italy’s Autonomia), and the book follows German autonomous theory as it transferred from group to group and evolved. The book is a classic history of the movement (alongside George Katsiaficas’ The Subversion of Politics), and in it the pseudonymous author Geronimo sketches the Autonomen’s peripatetic rise in the militant wings of the social movements of their time. The release of Fire and Flames, alongside the debates about “black bloc anarchists” in the Occupy Wall Street movement, gives impetus to examine the German Autonomen in their historical context.

The Wirtschaftswunder (or economic miracle) transformed West Germany from the ruins of the Second World War into a major economic power and a bulwark against Eastern European Communism. Workers and trade unions were integrated into the national reindustrialization project, and quality of life and work prospects rose for West Germans through the 1940s and 1950s. Guest workers were enticed from Turkey, Italy and Greece to fill out the depleted work force, and industry boomed, backed by huge investments from the United States.

But the economic miracle faltered in 1975, shaken by high inflation and rising unemployment. The recession accompanied a crisis in the country’s young democratic institutions and the New Left movement, which seemed to implode and fracture. Geronimo starts his short book by saying, “The Autonomen of today can be only understood in the context of the New Left’s history” and goes on to detail the rise of student and neo-Marxist movements that characterized 1968 in West Germany. By the mid-1970s, however, these groups were all but dissolved, either through recuperation or brutal repression by the Federal Police. Some went underground and took up “anti-imperialist” armed struggle, which reached its disastrous crescendo in the 1977 German Autumn, with the Red Army Faction’s kidnapping and murder of industrialist Hans Martin Schleyer and the failed hijacking of a Lufthansa jet by a joint German-Palestinian commando. The subsequent repression unleashed by the West German state cast a pall over the country, and it seemed the period of political militancy in West Germany was finished.

Despite this, a new way of political struggle emerged in West Germany in the blighted urban centers and on the fringes of various social movements. It arose as a rejection of the “alternative movement’s” self-satisfied activism and armed struggle’s grim futility, instead extending the anti-authoritarian and anti-bourgeois tendencies that emerged in 1968. It developed haphazardly as a synthesis of influences (the squatter movement, radical feminist and environmental tendencies, the punk scene and the praxis of Italy’s Autonomia and the Metropolitan Indians) into the West German autonomous movement.

As young West Germans increasingly turned to urban social centers as hubs of political activity (as opposed to workplaces or universities), they formed frameworks to interlink their various milieus. In Frankfurt, Hamburg, Munich and West Berlin, autonomous groups squatted empty houses, started radio stations, organized demonstrations and published journals promoting the autonomous position, many of which Fire and Flames quotes from directly. Their political and organizing practices reflected a distrust of representative democracy, favoring instead direct action, direct democracy in the form of general assemblies, and a politics of the first person. On this point Geronimo writes, “They were strongly influenced by the ‘No Future’ attitude of the time, confronted bourgeois norms of control and domination and turned their own needs into a central political issue.”

By 1981, a unique political subculture developed, the seventies militant styles (coveralls, motorcycle, helmets, bandanas) fused with punk rock (leather jackets, studs, combat boots, balaclavas, and of course everything in black.) The West German press dubbed them the “black bloc” and wrote about the movement in sensationalist fragments: hooded youths, toughs, violent criminals, hooligans, chaoten. The iconic black balaclava was dubbed the Hasskappe (or hate cap). To them, the Autonomen were a dangerous mixture of militant politics and youthful nihilism, a rejection of political participation and the promises of Western European capitalism. But the Autonomen found liberatory promise in negation.“Freedom,” a 1981 autonomous thesis appended to Fire and Flames states, “is the short moment between throwing a rock and that rock hitting its target.”

Many Autonomen had developed their tactics as activists in the anti-nuclear movement’s militant wing. The West German coalition government of liberal and conservative parties viewed industrial infrastructure as integral to Cold War policy and began building nuclear power stations and related facilities with little input from the populace. Shut out of the political establishment, communities formed Bürgerinitiativen (citizen’s movements or BI) in the late 1970s to address these issues. They organized the protests and occupations at Gorleben and Brokdorf, in which many autonomous activists participated.

After the government announced they would expand a NATO runway at the Frankfurt Airport in 1980, a broad coalition of citizens groups and left wing political parties, inspired by Wendlend and Brokdorf, occupied the building site and built a small village of wooden huts. When police evicted the occupation, widespread unrest broke out. One reporter wrote, “A 15-year debate about plans to extend Frankfurt International Airport into nearby woodland erupted this month into scenes resembling civil war. Hooded youths barricaded freeways, catapulted steel pellets at police, and hurled Molotov cocktails – all in the name of ecology.”  To continue this level of confrontation, the citizen’s groups and their Autonomen allies organized weekly ”Strolls” for years to come, assembling every Sunday, circumnavigating the perimeter and attempting to tear down the security fences and reoccupy the site when the opportunity arose.

Many of these environmental coalitions splintered over what constituted acceptable resistance to police violence and whether or not to compromise with the authorities. The anti-nuclear movement’s legalist wing joined the liberal political establishment, and the radical wing took what they had developed tactically and organizationally in the ecological struggles to assist the second wave of the squatter movement developing in the abandoned zones of West German cities.

Berlin today is the fashionable city of Europe, and the Kreuzberg neighborhood is slowly transforming into a sort of east east-Williamsburg. Among empty parks and industrial buildings, boutique restaurants and chic cafes have opened over the past few years, gentrifying what was once an almost ungovernable zone. But in the decades before the 1990 reunification, the Wall bordered Kreuzberg on three sides, all but cutting it off from the rest of the western zone. Turkish guest workers and their families lived among rows of empty houses and factories, some still bombed out from the war. West Berlin’s unique status under de jure allied occupation, deep within East German territory, meant that residents were exempt from military service, and young men came from all over West Germany to live and study there as a way of avoiding conscription. The city had never recovered from the war’s depopulation and these young people moved into the abandoned buildings that littered the city.

By the late 1970s, large sections of Kreuzberg were squatted and squatter’s councils coordinated social reproduction and eviction defense. These practices spread to other cities, and in 1981 Hamburg squatters took over an entire street along the Elbe River called Haffenstrasse. When the city government tried to evict Haffenstrasse in 1986, Autonomen and residents built barricades out of cars and burning rubble and fought off the police for several nights. Over the years the authorities launched several more failed attempts to evict the street and eventually negotiated to sell the property to the occupiers, resolving years of strife. After the Wall came down most of the squatted buildings in Kreuzberg were legalized into cooperatives, normalization succeeding where police repression had failed.

Despite several large events, such as the 1987 anti-Reagan demonstration and the 1988 anti-World Bank Summit, the Autonomen lost most of their focus and power through the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. The reduction of squatted spaces, though legalization or eviction, put pressure on individuals within autonomous circles to meet their daily needs outside the movement, and the reliance on spontaneous organizing models had a diminishing effect of its own. Action committees, formed to prepare for this or that demonstration, dissolved after each street battle, and this endless reconstitution of forces caused burnout and dissipation.

Their commitment to militancy at all costs reduced their political position to mere escalation, which never coalesced into a strategy for dual power or even revolution. The Autonomous Theses of 1981 said it explicitly,” we want to dismantle and destroy—to formulate affirmative ideals is not our priority.” Without any overarching goal or ideal, their identity became a macho fixation: fighting the police, distrusting outsiders and eschewing tactics perceived as weak or legitimate. The authorities, for their part, developed their own tactics (kettling for example), and by 1989, clashes between riot cops and Autonomen approached the level of choreography. In Fire and Flames, there is clear criticism on this point, “militancy had always defined the Autonomous movement, but particularly after the Startbahn began operating in 1984, it often turned into mere ritual and increasingly into individual gesture.”

By the mid-90s the Autonomen had atomized into a disparate collection of housing cooperatives, anti-gentrification committees and anti-fascist groups, occasionally gathering to disrupt IMF or G8 meetings with small-scale black blocs, but never regaining that early, fractious momentum.

Still, the Autonomen remained an almost mythological phenomenon, percolating through the decade’s various social struggles. They materialized from the abyss of the modern industrial state, transforming anger and alienation into moments of collective power: a ghost at the feast of the post war economy. When Ronald Reagan stood at the Brandenburg Gate and gave his famous “Tear Down This Wall” speech, it was under conditions of de facto martial law, with all demonstrations banned and thousands of Autonomen kept at bay by police barricades.

The Federal Republic of Germany is gone, and Germany today is the cornerstone of the European Union, defined by finance capitalism fused with policing power. It has grown more potent and dynamic, able to absorb riot and financial crisis alike. A unified Germany led to a unified Europe, melded out of free markets, consumerism and law and order, as if it has always been. But for a brief moment, like that of a stone in midair, the Autonomen shook the stability and permanency of that system.

When a radical political movement is taken out of its context, it is easy to dismiss as a youthful revolt or failure. But Fire and Flames refuses these notions, and repositions the Autonomen as part of an evolving struggle in post-war Germany. The book’s brief history ends at 1989, but the currents of autonomous and radical thought continue, influencing current situations and social movements. The West German Autonomen showed the potential of militancy, and its pitfalls. The new generation of autonomists will have to learn from them and create a force that is not merely disorder within the system but a world outside of it.

Back to Geronimo’s Author Page | Back to Gabriel Kuhn’s Author Page| Back to George Katsiaficas’ Author Page