UC Santa Barbara > History Department > Prof. Marcuse > Courses > Hist 133c Homepage > 133c Book Essays Index page > Student essay

Varon, book cover

To Live and Die in the West

Book Essay on: Jeremy Varon, Bringing the War Home: The Weather Underground, the Red Army Faction, and Revolutionary Violence in the Sixties and Seventies
(Berkeley: UC Press, 2004), 311 pages.
UCSB: HD90. R3 V37 2004

by Syna Saberi
December 5, 2008

for Prof. Marcuse's lecture course
Germany, 1945-present
UC Santa Barbara, Fall 2008

About the Author
& Abstract
and Links
Plagiarism Warning & Links
Google Books

About Syna Saberi

I am a fourth year History major studying the Cold War and the Middle East. I have traveled to the Middle East and Europe on multiple occasions and in September of 2007 I spent a week in Russia. I choose to write about Varon's book because it covers many aspects of the Cold War and revolutionary ideologies that are still prevalent today, especially when considering the RAF's connection to the PLO, and terrorism connected to the fallout from the Cold War.

Abstract (back to top)

What caused a group of young educated middle class kids to turn from protest to violent revolutionary action? Why in West Germany, where it seemed that those involved were giving up prosperous futures to do so? Jeremy Varon’s book and this paper examine what motivated these youths and how they failed. “they were also destructive … the RAF converted the tantalizing sense of possibility into a dogmatic insistence on the imminence of revolution … on militancy into the degeneration of critical thinking and the glorification of violence …” (Varon p. 290-1). The original actions and eventual disillusion of the members of the RAF is examined in this book as well as by various philosophers and intellectuals of the era from across the political spectrum. The ideals of protest became lost within the ideals of resistance, and with that the connection with the realities of other peoples’ situations was lost as the RAF became more obsessed with the idea of itself than the ideas the founding members once stood for.

Essay (back to top)

“Protest is when I say this or that doesn't suit me. Resistance is when I ensure that what doesn't suit me no longer occurs.” (Varon p. 41). Jeremy Varon uses this quote more than once in his book about revolutionary violence. Bringing the War Home is a book about how dissent within democratic societies became systematically violent and began costing many people their lives. Varon delves into the histories available to understand how groups that were founded by intellectual college students, that had witnessed and participated in many peaceful protests, began turning to violence and destruction in hopes of uniting their countrymen to overthrow what they came to believe were thoroughly corrupt and evil governments. The Weathermen and the Red Army Faction became outwardly violent and terroristic organizations in the wake of what they saw as moral injustices. Varon argues that these extremely similar groups formed in the wake of the anti-Vietnam War movement, because they were disaffected by non-violent tactics, he argues that in embracing violence they eventually lost touch with their own stated purposes, morals, and goals, which led to their eventual downfall. Citing various intellectual analyses from philosophers, witnesses, and members Varon describes how the ideas of the groups eventually overshadowed their actual abilities and functions. The philosopher Herbert Marcuse is the most often cited as evidence that many thought that violence was in some cases a viable method of dissent yet both groups failed to interpret their own socialist/Marxist standpoints correctly in order to achieve any real success. In the case of the Weathermen they failed, as middle class intellectuals versed in leftist ideology, to connect with the proletariat working class that they had wanted to mobilize to start their revolution. Many in the New Left movement thought that violence was the only way to show their governments the errors of their ways, and they had some support from various leftist intellectuals as they formed their violent protest organizations. Yet the RAF's methods of gun fighting, kidnapping, murders, and bombings showed that their actions were a refelection as well as a country's Nazi past. In embracing violence as they did they lost one of the core foundations of their ideology.

“For us there was no future. Revolution was the future.” (Varon p. 37). This quote from a University of California at Santa Barbara student from 1971 shows that many college students saw the country in a state of serious transition, one that would need to be facilitated by a large uprising. Many in America saw the inequalities of capitalism, especially in terms of race, and believed that a Marxist style uprising was in many was at hand. Yet Varon cites Marcuse's 1964 book One-Dimensional Man saying that the vast prosperity brought by capitalism in post-war period had in many ways numbed the anger felt by disenfranchised individuals. “With few exceptions, citizens extended their loyalty to “the whole,” to the entire system they credited for their prosperity, security, and comfort.” (Varon p. 45). This serves to explain why any idea of revolt against a capitalist society and imperialist government had to come from the subjugated races, and in the later 1960s “Marcuse also saw a hint of genuine revolutionary promise from the New Left, whose activism derived largely from ethical and existential bases.” (Varon p. 45).

Both of these groups were very much affected by the War in Vietnam, mainly the idea of anti-imperialism allowed them to spread a message of malcontent among the populace who was uninterested in the poverty afflicted areas of their own society.

The RAF began somewhat as a response to the shooting death of a student during a protest of a visit by the dictatorial Shah of Iran. Varon describes not just the act of shooting a protester, but the reaction of the right wing media to decry the students for forcing the police to kill in self-defense. The attempted murder of student leader, Rudi Dutschke, which was sparked by inflammatory right wing media newspapers, also catalyzed many members of the New Left in Germany to step up their opposition. Varon cites German Philosopher Jürgen Habermas criticizing the beginnings of violent opposition on the left. Habermas compares the struggles of the left in Germany to those in Vietnam, Cuba, Brazil, and many other countries with a socialist struggle and states that their situation is too different to be in line with the revolutionaries here and to seek death as they do is “masochistic”. (Varon p. 73).

While the transition from peace to violence within the groups was mostly covered in the second chapter, which is highly dedicated to the Weathermen, Varon still uses Marcuse to analyze their motives.”…Today, it seems a crime to talk about change while one's society is transformed in to an institution of violence, terminating in Asia the genocide which began with the liquidation of the American Indians…there is a level on which even the unintelligent action against them seems justified. For action smashes, though only for a moment, the closed universe of suppression.” (Varon p. 89). The Weathermen to this thought to heart and believed that when white racists saw white and black people protesting together they would be shocked in a way words may never have been able to reach them. Following the Weatherman's Days of Rage, a rather small but extremely violent and destructive act of anti-imperialist anarchy, the state became more suspicious and overbearing on just such activities. The United States used the idea of the “silent majority” to counter the largest anti-Vietnam War protest in history and Varon states “The French public's overwhelming preference in the 1977 to watch a qualifying match for football's World Cup rather than the news…of the extradition of an attorney for the Red Army Faction to Germany typified this refusal of meaning for Baudrillard.” (Varon p. 140-1). Jean Baudrillard, the French philosopher that Varon cites, says that simply mobilizing the masses to get out and protest in many ways is overestimating their actual power. Though by the end of the war in 1975 Varon mentions a ceremony in which “… North Vietnamese officials personally thanked scores of anti-war activists.” (Varon p. 150).

The members of the Red Army Faction committed multiple acts of terrorism, kidnappings and murder in their fight against what they saw as an increasingly fascist looking state. Their previous analogies between the shared traumas of Vietnam and Germany had shifted to completely focus on the abuses of their capitalist state. Andreas Baader, Ulrike Meinhof, and Gudrun Ensslin founded the RAF after the latter two had freed Baader from a prison term he was serving for lighting small fires in a department store. The fires were originally symbolic of the napalm used in Vietnam by the Americans; Baader said that he was being punished for something so small when something so huge was going unchallenged. These small fires were the spark of what would turn into the deadliest West German terrorist organization. The RAF would go on to bomb the U.S. Army Supreme European Command in Heidelberg, on May 24 1972; in 1977 the failed kidnapping of Jurgen Ponto ended in his murder, and again in 1977 they kidnapped and murdered Hanns Martin Schleyer following the deaths of the imprisoned founders of the group. Schleyer was a capitalist, the head of two influential social groups, a member of the CDU, and had been a Nazi party member and a mid-ranking SS official in Czechoslovakia under Reinhard Heydrich (comparisons between the assassination of Heydrich and Schleyer are later made by Varon and will be covered shortly). The Schleyer incident is considered by many to be the climax of the RAF's existence, attacking the modern manifestation of a system they saw as corrupt while at the same time forcing the nation to remember its Nazi past. Varon cites Walter Boehlich and the failure of Germany to denazify itself as a cause for the RAF's existence. “Hitler's children aren't the political criminals, but rather Schleyer's children. It isn't what happened under Hitler that motivates them, but what the Schleyers of this world do today…that they represent a democratically organized society just as easily as they did a fascist society; that they have remained…on top; that they are implicated in a continuity, which wouldn't be the case if fascism had been apprehended as the horrendous crime that it was.” (Varon p. 199).

Following 1977 some of the RAF's former members lost respect for the organization, “Horst Mahler broke with the RAF in 1974 … following the events of 1977, he described the RAF as a symbol of the weakness of the socialist left … its violence made apparent the left's failure to develop power through legitimate and politically constructive means.” (Varon p. 200). Unfortunately the RAF's actions began a vicious cycle of action and retribution from the state and the police. Members were known to carry guns so they wouldn't be arrested and therefore fire fights with police were common, as were deaths. They rallied against the government's authoritarian ways yet their actions prompted the government to clamp down harder on its citizen rights in order to deal with them. Once in prison the founding members of the RAF constantly complained of physical and mental abuse in prison in the form of extreme isolation.

Following the deaths of the founding members in prison in 1977, the group went on committing various violent acts from the remainder of its underground network. Going through two more generations and incarnations the group officially disbanded in 1998. Varon states “a social-psychological perspective compounds the irony of the state's response to the RAF. Jorg Bopp … provides a complementary portrait of the New Left's more vociferous opponents…In Bopp's formulation, state and public opposition to the New Left was partly a form of compensatory antifascism directed against a displaced object. Guilt, not an abiding commitment to democracy, drove the condemnation of young insurgents. The “courage of intolerance” masked “ignoble revenge.” (Varon p. 289). The vicious cycle began with the guilt about Germany's Nazi past, which triggered harsh reactions to the Left, and these harsh reaction prompted some members of the Left to be more violent while pointing and saying how the government's repressive ways were getting worse.

The revolutionary fires of possibilities in the 1960s were quenched not by the compromise between a people and its government, but by the escalation and repressive nature of the state against the protesters. This led to violence which slowly but surely distanced the revolutionaries from the large masses of people whom they hoped to recruit. The failure of the weathermen to connect with the working class they hoped to represent was mirrored by the RAF's lack of ability to accept moral responsibility for the deaths and destruction it had caused. They had become isolated because of their violence and their isolation made them lose their ideals.

Bibliography and Links (back to top)(links last checked 12/x/08)


  • Gitlin, Todd. “Jeremy Varon. Bringing the War Home: the Weather Underground, the Red Army Faction, and Revolutionary Violence in the Sixties and Seventies.” American Historical Review 110 (2005). The History Cooperative. 2005 16 Oct. 2008 http://www.historycooperative.org/journals/ahr/110.4/br_105.html.
    Gitlin gives a favorable review of Varon's approach and praises him for showing how the violence revolution lifestyles can be tempting in its methods. Gitlin does criticize Varon's examination of Marcuse and Baudrillard as not fully explored enough
  • Suri, Jeremi. “Bringing the War Home: the Weather Underground, the Red Army Faction, and Revolutionary Violence in the Sixties and Seventies. By Jeremy Varon.” Journal of American History 92 (2005). The History Cooperative. 2005. 16 Oct. 2008 http://www.historycooperative.org/journals/jah/92.1/br_140.html.
    Much like Gitlin's review Suri praises Varon for his ability to put readers into the political atmosphere of the times and the jolt their beliefs to understand those of the Weathermen and the RAF. Perhaps the only real criticism in the review is Varon's initial focus on the Weather Underground and not the RAF.

Web Sites

  • Wikipedia “Red Army Faction” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Red_Army_Faction
    The Wikipedia article does a good job of presenting a basic history and set of ideals for the RAF but not nearly as thoroughly as Varon's book. The article also makes note of one of the former members' antisemitism initially in the group but also after he became a far right wing holocaust denier.
  • Arm the Spirit, “A Brief History of the RAF” http://www.hartford-hwp.com/archives/61/191.html
    This article attempts to glorify and idolize the actions of the founding members of the RAF, almost selling them as West German heroes, but fails to acknowledge their social failures as well as ignoring the possibility that the deaths in the prisons could have been suicides.
  • German Guerilla, “Armed Struggle in the Federal Republic-A Timeline” http://www.germanguerilla.com/red-army-faction/raf_timeline.html
    This article gives an accurate and detailed timeline of events from 1967 until 1988 of revolutionary activities that either directly or indirectly involved the RAF.
  • J. Smith, André Moncourt. Daring To Struggle, Failing To Win: The Red Army Faction's 1977 Campaign Of Desperation http://books.google.com/books?id=0vs0iONnxWYC
    This book focuses on mainly the second generation of the RAF, specifically the incident in which Hans Schleyer is kidnapped and murdered. It also makes note of the effect the alleged suicides had on the remaining RAF members as well as a retrospective look at all that was accomplished during the life of the RAF as a viable terrorist organization.
  • Yonah Alexander, Dennis A. Pluchinsky. Europe's Red Terrorists: The Fighting Communist Organizations http://books.google.com/books?id=mdNcZ_pmpUUC
    This book splits its focus on several different leftist organizations, including the RAF and the Red Brigade. It explores the tactics, dispensed literature, the attacks performed, and examines the RAF founders' experiences in prison, specifically the hunger strikes. It also explores how the RAF was dealt with by the Federal Republic as well as by foreign governments.

(back to top)

Any student tempted to use this paper for an assignment in another course or school should be aware of the serious consequences for plagiarism. Here is what I write in my syllabi:

Plagiarism—presenting someone else's work as your own, or deliberately failing to credit or attribute the work of others on whom you draw (including materials found on the web)—is a serious academic offense, punishable by dismissal from the university. It hurts the one who commits it most of all, by cheating them out of an education. I report offenses to the Office of the Dean of Students for disciplinary action.

prepared for web by Harold Marcuse on 12/x/08; last updated:
back to top, to Hist 133c homepage, 133c Book Essays index page; Prof. Marcuse's Courses page; Professor's homepage