W Germany Responds to Terror in the 1970s

I am reading descriptive–historical works about government’s responses to terror attacks (and other forms of both violent and non-violent dissent) for a book manuscript I am writing, and am struck by these “Gee, doesn’t this sound familiar” passages from Peter Katzenstien’s 1990 monograph West Germany’s Internal Security Policy: State and Violence in the 1970s and 1980s.


West German Police.  Source: Wikimedia commons.

[Three distinct waves of W German terrorism (1970-2, 1974-77, 1984-6)] triggered a set of political responses that shows a remarkable degree of coherence during the last two decades… Important elements of the organizational structure and operative mission of the West German police have changed from a military to a civilian model informed not by the image of fighting a civil war, but of controlling mass protest and surveying clandestine operation (p 1).
How many attacks were there?  Estimates vary widely,
[b]but the most conservative… counts over 3,000 incidents between 1968 and 1987… In the period 1967-72… police counted more than 90 shootings and bombings.  Between 1970 and 1979 government figures report 649 left-wing terrorist attacks with 31 persons killed, 97 injured, and 163 seized as hostages…  And, at a minimum, terrorists accounted for 30 bank robberies which netted in excess of 5 million deutschmarks.  Between 1980 and 1985 the total number of terrorists incidents committed by both the Right and the Left increased to 1,601  (pp 1-2).
How many dissidents produced this mayhem?
In the absence of reliable data on the number of terrorists in the Federal Republic, the West German media typically repeat the the 1980s government estimate of about 20 activists, 200 sympathizers who may help by providing money, apartments, or automoblies, and a supportive social mileu variously estimated at between 2,000 and 20,000 from which sympathizers and activists are apparently often recruited (p 2).
And how did the West German government respond?
The seriousness with which terrorism is treated in the Federal Republic is revealed by another statistic.  While about 15,000 crimes against state security, including among others terrorism and public demonstrations, account for, at most, one-third of one percent of all criminal acts, between 5 and 10 percent of all police personnel in the Federal Republic are assigned to state security divisions of the police force (p 3).
[T]he crucial development in the 1970s centered on the growth of a large, sophisticated, computerized information system that stored data on a growing number of West Germans.  After an initial, technocratic euphoria about entirely new dimensions of police work had passed, the West German police still was equipped with new instruments of gathering, storing, retrieving and evaluating vast sets of data on particular social groups or suspects…  In the words of Major Elliott, an expert on terrorism in the US Army, in the 1970s West German law enforcement agencies began “the conduct of what I would call preemptive intelligence.”  The growing social distance which the reorganization of the police appeared to have imposed was thus countered by much more indirect forms of surveillance [than the cop on foot patrol had provided prior to then]  (pp 17-8).
The new technological capacities of the police have created new forms of police work that have transformed relations between the police and society… Surveillance of potential suspects or of demonstrators suspected of violence and undercover activities  have become accepted methods of police work (p 20).
after its legalization in for the purpose of intelligence surveillance in 1968, wiretapping by the police has become a relatively routine affair (p 35).
Ten amendments to the criminal code, passed between 1970 and 1989, have granted the police and the judiciary an increasing number of instruments to respond to the rise and persistence of terrorism… Furthermore, the Bundestag also changed the criminal code between 1974 and 1976: to make it easier to arrest those suspected of terrorist crimes (p 32).
[One article, 88a, was later rescinded]  The purpose of Article 88a was to punish giving support and approval to violence through word and deed (p 33).

What was the impact?

More intrusive if less overtly repressive policing domestically proved to be of limited use at the height of West Germany’s second terrorist wave in 1976-77.   More than 100,000 police officers and members of West Germany’s various security organizations were trying to catch two or three dozen terrorists who had decided to wage open war on the Federal Republic (p 48).
The new forms of police surveillance have created considerable strains on the German notion of the lawful state.  Numerous pieces of legislation dealing with questions of internal security have been one result; numerous security scandals another… Broadly speaking, political principles and legal norms aim, on questions of internal security, at granting government agencies the right to act in defense of public order rather than securing the rights of individuals against an intrusive state (p 46).
West German terrorists, furthermore, adapted to the new police procedures, and in the 1980s the police have learned remarkably little about the structures, mindset and strategy of the groups operating in the underground (p 66).

Say it ain’t so.

I trust the similarities to the Bush and Obama administration’s responses to the post 9/11 era are self evident.


About Will H. Moore

I am a political science professor who also contributes to Political Violence @ a Glance and sometimes to Mobilizing Ideas . Twitter: @WilHMoo
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