How my relative became an involuntary suicide bomber

Exactly thirty years ago a (distant) relative of mine blew himself up with a bomb. No, he was not a suicide bomber and he didn’t fight for an Islamic state, but, in the words of his fellow travelers, he died “in the anti imperialist struggle for the front in Western Europe.” Johannes Thimme died on 20 January 1985 trying to set up a bomb at a center for space and flight research in Stuttgart. His partner survived and was subsequently imprisoned. This death was just a detail in the several decade long history of the RAF and other, similar movements across Western Europe which came to end by the 1980s. He was not a core RAF member, but rather described as a “Mitläufer” of the second generation of the organisation, building the bomb himself which would blow up prematurely.

Some ten years ago his mother, Ulrike Thimme wrote an impressive book about his path from a middle-class family to a member of the Red Army Faction, called a bomb for the RAF (Eine Bombe für die RAF). She describes the painful efforts to bring him back from his radicalism, but she also describes how the heavy handed response of the German state against sympathizers of the Red Army Faction contributed to their radicalization and eventual use of violence. Many members and followers of the RAF, as its counterparts in Western at the time came from middle class homes–some strict, some liberal, but the center of the prosperous post-war society.

USAFE HQ bombing 31 Aug 1981 by RAF U.S. Air Forces Europe

Bombing of US Air Forces Europe HQ in 1981 by RAF
source: U.S. Air Forces Europe

Today’s terrorism in Europe differs in many ways, the ideas underpinning it are religious, not leftist and the perpetrators rarely come from established middle class societies. Yet, it is surprising that in the debates today on the attack on Charlie Hebdo and other targets are devoid of a reflection of the past episodes of violence, in particular the “Years of Lead” (Anni di piombo) as they were known in Italy. While its social origins, the ideological framework that justified the violence in the eyes of the perpetrators differed, they can provide some useful lessons. Family histories themselves do not suffice to explain the turn to violence alone. Similarly the larger ideology of the left does not explain the use of force then, as focusing on Islam fails today. Instead, questions of alienation and cult of violence that provides easy answers needs to be explored. The understanding of Marxism of many of followers of radical left wing terrorist groups is as contorted as that of Islam of today’s terrorists. If today’s radicals order “Islam for Dummies” to find out about the religion in which name they claim to act, so did many of the leftists base their ideas on a very limited (but often very convoluted and impenetrable) view of Marxism.

Looking back might be a useful exercise in avoiding rash and simplistic conclusion and remind us that political violence has a rich and much neglected pre-history in Europe.

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