The anti-Semitism of the 68ers
This article is from Sign and Sight, which has ceased trading.
The anti-Semitism of the 68ers
Philipp Gessler and Stefan Reinecke talk with Tilman Fichter about the bomb planted in Berlin’s Jewish Community Centre in 1969
This summer, Wolfgang Kraushaar published “Die Bombe im Jüdischen Gemeindehaus”(the bomb in the Jewish Community Centre). The book reveals previously unknown information on the 1969 plot, and sparked a heated debate about anti-Semitism in the German Left in general and in the 68er movement specifically. According to historian Götz Aly, “the German 68ers were wretchedly similar to their parents.” Journalist Micha Brumlik pinpoints “the radical Left rebellion against their parents’ Nazi generation as a contradictory process of identification with them and their hatred of Jews.”
Kraushaar’s research revealed why the Berlin police had failed (or wanted to fail) in their examination of the case. Kraushaar identified Albert Fichter as the man who placed the bomb. Fichter was given the explosives – and this detail warrants further discussion – by an agent provocateur from the Berlin intelligence service who had long had the “Tupamaros West Berlin” under surveillance. Allegedly the bomb was tinkered with so it would fail to explode. Tilman Fichter, Albert’s brother, at the time chairman of the SDS (German socialist student group), explains in an interview why it was and still is taboo to talk about anti-Semitism on the Left.
taz: Mr. Fichter, you helped your brother Albert, who laid the bomb in the Jewish Community Centre in 1969, to escape from Germany…
Tilman Fichter: … yes, twice in fact, because he didn’t realise he was under surveillance.
Why did you help him?
Because he shared a flat with Dieter Kunzelmann, and I thought Kunzelmann was a difficult, unpleasant comrade whose influence on my brother was anything but positive.
What do you mean by “difficult and unpleasant comrade”?
We threw Kunzelmann and his “Kommune 1” out of the SDS in 1967 because he was always distributing leaflets which argued the opposite position to the SDS, on the grounds that he and the commune were anti-authoritarian. And he refused to abide by any resolutions, although the resolutions were arrived at in plenary meetings and were therefore relatively democratic. It also had to do with the happenings he staged, such as when he burned papier mache figures of East German leader Walter Ulbricht and US vice-president Hubert Humphrey on Kurfürstendamm boulevard. Nobody understood what that was supposed to mean. It was idiotic. But he saw himself primarily as an artist, not a political person.
Where was Kunzelmann living in 1969?
In a supposedly secret flat of the Tupamaros West Berlin which was known to everyone in the leftist scene. It was the time of the split in the Extra-Parliamentary Opposition (APO): Christian Semler founded the KPD/AO (German Communist Party/ Set-Up Organisation), Joscha Schmierer, who worked in the planning department in the Foreign Office during the Red Green coalition, founded the KBW, the West German Communist Federation, in Heidelberg. And the Trotskyists founded their mini parties.
Why did you think it was dangerous for your brother to share a flat with Kunzelmann?
It very soon became clear that Kunzelmann is an anti-Semite.
When did you realise this?
In November 1969, when we published his first letter to the public in our radical left-wing magazine883, the “Letter from Amman”. At the time I played down the letter, saying it was leftist anti-Semitism. If I read it again today I have to say: he’s an anti-Semite. Kunzelmann’s main word was “fight”, not “emancipation” or anything like that. He wrote: “Palestine is for the BRD whatVietnam was for the Americans. The Left has failed to comprehend this. Why? The Jew complex.” His argument was that because the Left was coming to terms with the causes of Auschwitz, it was failing to realise that the real enemy was sitting in Israel and that one should show solidarity with the Palestinians. This was a complete break in the highly complex debate taking place with the West German Left, which was critical of Israeli politics, but with an eye to the fact that the situation in Palestine after 1937/39 had been shaped by the Zionists trying to accommodate hundreds of thousands of European Jews. It was not a black and white issue. Kunzelmann blankly refused to accept this nuanced analysis. This was a break with the analytical tradition of the SDS, and an attempt to lead parts of the West German Left into a partisan struggle against the Jews in Germany.
Your brother Albert Fichter claims that Kunzelmann constantly referred to the “damn Jews” – did he do this in front of you too?
Not in front of me.
Apparently he said to Daniel Cohn-Bendit: “You’re nothing but a little Jewish pig.”
I could well imagine it. I just know that Kunzelmann’s writings at the time, seen from today’s perspective, do not qualify as leftist anti-Semitism, but as anti-Semitism tout court.
Why did so few left-wingers see this at the time?
Lots of them couldn’t believe their ears! They simply weren’t prepared for that sort of thing. It was the equivalent today of a group of young men in the taz standing up and saying the oppression of women is progressive. It’d take weeks for you to figure out what was happening among the editors – and that’s how it was for us. At first we just couldn’t believe our ears. I didn’t make any friends by saying this was leftist anti-Semitism.
What was the reaction in 1969 among the radical Left to the plot to blow up the Jewish Community Centre? As Wolfgang Kraushaar appropriately puts it, this was Kunzelmann’s attempt to regain his authority among the militants…
… yet he failed utterly. In Kunzelmann’s diary, which is now in the hands of the Hamburg Institute for Social Research, he wrote – and he’ll be kicking himself now because it was his vanity that made him write it – that he was on the verge of desperation because the German Left was not prepared to support his campaign with the PLO against the Jews. Kunzelman never made the distinction between the Jews in the diaspora and the State of Israel. This is why he was completely on his own in the radical Left.
The fact that the attack targeted Jews in Germany as Israelis and also the date, November 9, leave no doubt that it was an act of anti-Semitism. The radical Left in no way supported Kunzelmann – but it barely recognised this as a clear instance of anti-Semitism. Why not?
It’s absolutely astonishing. The fake bomb was not taken very seriously at all back then. As I remember it, I was one of a very few to react it, with my article “What is anti-Semitism?” in Agit 883 (underground paper -ed). For a long time the subject was not breached on the Left. To put it rather cynically: as usual the friends of East Germany put the blame on the Right. That was their standard response to anything that was complicated in any way. And in this instance the anti-authoritarian Left seemed to be content to accept this line of argumentation.
And why the date, November 9, the anniversary of the pogrom in 1938?
My brother writes in his “confession” in Kraushaar’s book that he didn’t even know the significance of November 9 at the time. He was apparently so full of LSD that it didn’t even dawn on him. The commune members didn’t discuss things analytically or with a view to history. Their lives were all about the struggle. When you read this today, you recognise echoes of the thirties and the movement in Germany whose focal point was also the struggle, or “Kampf”.
The bomb was supplied by the intelligence. Did you know that at the time?
Yes, I was aware that the bomb was provided by intelligence agent Peter Urbach. Kunzelmann let himself be supplied with defect bombs from the stockpiles of the German intelligence. And anyway it was a fake.
Was the bomb in the Jewish Community Centre a fake? Wasn’t it rather a bomb that failed to explode?
I call that a fake bomb. It couldn’t explode.
But only because of a technical defect.
All bombs that came from Urbach had this technical defect. They couldn’t explode. Another fake bomb was later found in Kunzelmann’s freezer. The intelligence irresponsibly tried to smuggle these things into the student movement. But one way or another, Urbach’s superiors were aware they didn’t want to plant any active bombs – unlike a few months later when Peter Urbach provided the first generation of the RAF with real weapons.
Has that been proven?
Yes. But it has yet to be found out who was behind the attempt to arm the student movement. Peter Urbach now lives in the USA, under protection and with a false name. He could clear things up at least partially. But no one has ever tried.
But we still don’t understand. Why did the Left fail to understand how scandalous the attack was back then?
At that time we faced a twofold challenge. On one side we were fighting the US war in Vietnam. There were demonstrations nearly every day – it’s almost impossible to imagine this sort of thing nowadays. We were permanently in action. On the other hand the extra-parliamentary opposition had just split. I made the mistake of thinking that this New Left could still be held together, and joined the editors of Agit 883. That was completely idealistic. Then in early 1970 I abandoned the attempt when I saw these city Tupamaros were just using me. Agit 883 informally belonged to Dirk Schneider. He was later uncovered as a Stasi agent active in the Green Party exectutive.
So the continual mobilisation was what prevented people from seeing this anti-Semitic attack. But why did almost it take decades for the Left to start talking about it?
It was taboo.
What was taboo?
It was taboo to say there could be something like anti-Semitism on the Left. Because the Left had been a victim, because it had suffered together with the Jews in the concentration camps, it never thought it possible that this problem could also exist in its own ranks. I was severely criticised at the time, even by comrades I still think highly of today. They said, “Tilman, you shouldn’t make such a big thing of it. We can settle this internally.” When I started discussing it openly with my article on anti-Semitism I was treated like a bit of a renegade, as if I were eroding solidarity on the Left, and opening a can of worms that had to be cleared up among ourselves. But it was never cleared up. That was the problem.
The SDS had been pro-Israeli, at times even Semitophile, before 1967. Why did it turn a blind eye to this anti-Semitic aberration?
No, you’re assuming something there. The SDS was always on very good terms with leftist Zionist groups, even long before 1969. The SDS saw itself as a support group for the leftist Zionists in Israel that had been against the Israeli occupation policy since 1967. At a key SDS congress in 1967, comrades from Heidelberg had submitted a resolution that the SDS should break off all ties to Israel. I was there! Rudi Dutschke intervened and threatened that if that went through, if the Maoists mobilised a majority, then the Berlin contingent would get up and leave. Rudi was very clear that it shouldn’t come to a vote. He was on very good terms with leftist Zionist circles, and held no anti-Semitic positions. It didn’t come to a vote, and the question was deferred. Then came the attack on Rudi, and with it we lost our most reflective friend of the Israeli Left. For as long as the SDS continued to function, he prevented the West German Left from taking an openly anti-Israeli stance.
Some of the sympathisers of the SDS back then – Günther Maschke, Reinhold Oberlercher, Horst Mahler und Bernd Rabehl – are now more or less open anti-Semites.
Or at least right-wing nationalists.
Don’t their biographies point to a long-standing if disavowed anti-Semitic undercurrent in the movement?
I can’t say if that was always the case with Mahler and the others. I didn’t know them well enough. Those are five people out of roughly 3,000 in the hard core of the SDS. It’s appalling that there were people like Mahler at all in the New Left. But we’re talking about an infinitesimal minority in the student movement back then, you’ve got to keep that in mind.
Did the SDS make mistakes back then?
Good question. I’d say it was a mistake that Rudi didn’t insist that the Israeli occupation policy and the growing anti-Semitism in parts of the student body be discussed at the student conference in 1967. Instead we kept the question from the agenda with tactical manoeuvres. We didn’t take the subject of underlying anti-Semitism in the German Left at all seriously. That was a mistake.
One of the major impetuses for the 68er movement was its rejection of the pall of silence surrounding acts committed by their parents. Then in 1969 an anti-Semitic act was committed within its own ranks, or to be more exact: on its margins – and everyone was evidently so busy with the revolution or Vietnam that they didn’t see it?
Yet the contradiction remains. We have to free ourselves from the idea that the second generation after the Holocaust, the children of the perpetrators, would have been able to simply cast off the inheritance of their parents with a sweep of the hand. There was an unconscious relationship of delegating between generations – perhaps the younger generation’s eternal comparison of Israel with the Nazis was an unconscious attempt to qualify their parents’ guilt…
Maybe for some people.
Some social psychologists even see the street battles of 1968 as an attempt by the children to recreate the violence experienced by their parents. Is there anything in that?
I think that kind of speculation doesn’t get you anywhere. It just turns the facts upside down. My experience was: German society was full of violence after 1945. That violence didn’t come from us. In January of 1952 for example, SDS students demonstrated against the new films by Veit Harlan, who’d made the hate film “Jud Süß” under the Nazis. They got severely beaten up. Another example: We wore shirts and ties to the anti-Shah demo on July 2, 1967, and were chased by the police. It’s a wonder there weren’t three or four deaths, and that only Benno Ohnesorg was shot and killed. The violence was in society. There was violence among the Berlin police and the population as a whole. At the time it was a real hate-society. When we demonstrated against the US Vietnam policies, 80 percent of the population was against us. Nowadays you can’t start to imagine what it was like! For us students it was like running the gauntlet.
A lot of people went underground. Did you ever toy with the idea?
No. I was about ten years older, I finished high-school at night school and I’d spent time at sea. My motto was: rebellion is justified, but we’re going to lose. When you’re in the minority, you can’t force your opinions onto the majority. That was the subject of a lot of my discussions with Rudi Dutschke. He was the only one I could talk to about things like that. Rudi understood my position, even though he thought it was wrong. In the mid sixties, the majority of society didn’t want to think about the taboo of genocide. Yet culturally, the student movement was a lot more successful than I’d thought was possible.
So you never wanted to go underground?
No, I was always against making yourself illegal – just like I was against the RAF and the idea that the first RAF generation had been murdered in Stammheim prison in Stuttgart. It took a long time for the German Left to take a critical look at itself. It’d had its back against the wall for a long time, and didn’t have the chance to think about itself.
That also goes for the Left’s relationship to Kunzelmann. In fact after 1969 it should have been clear he was an anti-Semite. Nonetheless he was a representative for the Alternative List (AL) in the Berlin state parliament in the 1980s. Why did the AL think they could win the elections with Kunzelmann?
Because it didn’t take the subject seriously. In 1984 when I raised the topic of anti-Semitism on the Left again, it came to nothing. Now Kraushaar is trying it again – and I’m afraid it still won’t lead to anything. Together with the others I excluded Kunzelmann from the SDS. But I have to admit, I never really took him seriously. I always thought of him as a dangerous clown. And that’s still how people on the Left think. They should stop trying to play down the problem and call anti-Semitism by its name. But I don’t think we’ll be able give this problem the attention it deserves.
Why was Kunzelmann so popular?
In fact I don’t think he was so popular. He was physically a wreck because of all the drugs he took. It was only when he went to prison that he finally got a grip on himself. But I’ll put the ball back in your court: The press always found him interesting and played along with him. For the press he was a lot more attractive than the SDS and its serious discussions. Kunzelmann said: “I rub shit in your face.” He was full of bawdy jokes, in the tradition of Luther somehow. But he was also abawdy anti-Semite. He always read Bild Zeitung, and complained that the Left didn’t understand that Bild was the best paper of all: “They always write nice things about me” (Bild Zeitung is often held responsible for the death of Rudi Dutschke, on account of the virulent hate campaign mounted by the paper – ed). That was all he cared about. For us on the other hand, Bild Zeitung was a threat. A hate paper.
Did you criticise your brother for what he did?
It was only on Christmas 2001 that he told me he was the one who carried the bomb into the Community Centre. When he told me we had a long argument.
But your brother says you know he’d laid the bomb as early as the 1980s…
Yes, but that’s wrong. The first I heard about it was in 2001, after our mother died. He told me about it, and explained why he was only telling me then. At all costs he’d wanted to prevent our mother from finding out about it. She’d been active against the Nazis and considered herself a friend of Israel. My brother certainly felt shame at what he’d done. I told him. “Abi, what you did isn’t anti-Zionist, it’s anti-Semitic.” He agreed that it was totally wrong, but maintained it was an anti-Zionist action. I said: “If you act against the Jews in the diaspora and hold them responsible for the Israeli occupation policy, then you’re doing exactly what the neo-Nazis do, namely equating the Jews in the diaspora with the Israelis.” It took a long time for that to sink in. Three days later we were at the place of a mutual friend from the youth movement. My brother asked our friend if he also thought what he did was anti-Semitic. All our friend said was: “Of course it was.” Now my brother accepts that, but it took a while.
What do you mean “youth movement”?
The Boy Scouts, but the religiously unaffiliated ones. By the way, that’s another thing the 68ers haven’t ever dealt with. A whole lot of people in the Berlin SDS came from the Boy Scouts or the“Bündische Jugend” youth movement. But no one’s ever talked about that.
In 1969 you helped your brother escape to Sweden. Would you have done that if you’d known he was the one who planted the bomb on November 9?
No. I wouldn’t have helped him if I’d known. I’d have left him on the street, to his own defences. I told him that, too. I wouldn’t have handed him over to the police, you don’t do that to your own brother. But I wouldn’t have helped him. That would have been bitter for him – and for me too.
How do you get on with him today? Do you feel he deceived you?
No, we get along fine. To be honest, I’m happy I didn’t know about it for so long. That way I could help him. He’s my brother after all.
And why does he write that you’ve known about what he did since the 80s?
I also thought I knew about it. But then we sat down and thought about it, and came to the conclusion that I hadn’t known. All I knew was that he was part of the Tupamaros West Berlin. He was also on one of the first RAF wanted posters – wrongly so. And just a couple of weeks ago he told me something else: the fake bomb was wrapped in Tommy Weisbecker‘s coat – and he came from a Jewish family. His father – as far as I know – was imprisoned in Buchenwald concentration camp for being a Jew and a communist. And Dieter Kunzelmann, that scumbag, should explain once and for all why he’d had the bomb wrapped in Weisbecker’s coat. Tommy’s father was a dentist, and Tommy broke into his safe to steal gold, on order from the Tupamaros. Imagine! The Nazis had been the ones to take all the gold from the jaws of their Jewish victims. What kind of mind has Kunzelmann got? He could have sued me as far back as 1984. But he didn’t. And he knows perfectly well why not.
The article originally appeared in German in die tageszeitung on October 25, 2005.
Filed under: 68ers, germany | 3 Comments
Tags: 1968, Albert Fichter, antisemitism, berlin, Dieter Kunzelmann, germany, Kommune 1, Tilman Fichter, Tupamaros West Berlin, Wolfgang Kraushaar