As nine more lives are added to an obscenely high European body-count courtesy of another angry young man dangerously detached from the empathetic interaction that enables civilised societies to function, it’s worth remembering Europe has been here before. That yesterday’s atrocity in Munich should have been carried out on the fifth anniversary of Andres Breivik’s chilling slaughter of 77 innocent people in Norway may imply this is all a recent development stretching back not much more than a decade. Granted, it’s certainly a barbaric new phase in the story; yet, while motivation, mission and cause may differ, even the location of the latest in 2016’s roll-call of indiscriminate assassinations already has, of course, a prominent blood-stained blot on its post-war history.
Forty-odd years on, it’s easy to forget those small groups of anarchists that sprang from the turbulent political maelstrom of 1968, those graduates and beneficiaries of expanding educational opportunities in an increasingly affluent Europe; whilst some simply settled for university sit-ins, placard-waving demos or forming idiosyncratic prog-rock bands, others crossed a line that carried them beyond the paramilitary pale. Prominent members of The Baader-Meinhof Gang (or Red Army Faction), ETA and the Red Brigades were the children of German Nazis and Spanish and Italian Fascists, taking the traditional rebellion against their parents to a gruesome new level. Confronted by ruling elites still containing veterans of the discredited regimes that had plunged the world into global conflict thirty years before, they viewed the post-war Western European democracies as a sham and embarked upon campaigns of terror that spanned the 70s.
But all were usurped by an outside organisation, Black September, a Palestinian group whose most infamous moment came with the massacre that marred the Munich Olympics of 1972.
Although it was effectively an isolated incident on European soil that had no parallel for decades, what the Black September group managed in 1972, taking eleven Israeli athletes hostage and eventually murdering them in the middle of the Olympic Games, an event that was supposed to show the world how far Germany had come since 1945, was something new. The world was watching and Black September were acutely aware of that. Although they were secular nationalists and religion had no real part to play in the atrocity they executed, they exploited media attention to their advantage in ways that subsequent terrorist groups where religion is employed as a cause have learned from.
Black September were far more organised and far more ambitious than their European contemporaries, becoming expert in the hijacking of aircraft in particular; indeed, they continued to perpetrate such attacks long after the likes of the Baader-Meinhof Gang had been imprisoned and/or killed. Whilst all this was going on in mainland Europe, Britain had its own terrorist problem in the shape of the IRA; whilst sharing little in terms of motivation with their continental comrades-in-illegal arms, the impact of the IRA on 70s Britain ran parallel with events in West Germany, Italy and Spain, giving the impression that Europe as a whole was at war with itself. The authorities responded to the new professionalism of terrorism by forming anti-terrorist agencies that specified in the unprecedented challenges facing the continent; one positive outcome was that countries confronted by these challenges co-operated to keep the anarchy under control, arguably cementing European unity with greater effectiveness than the Common Market and EU ever have.
While the more concise and focused demands of ETA and the IRA had an eternal attraction to some that made it possible for their ranks to constantly regenerate when death and imprisonment robbed them of long-term leaders, their 70s contemporaries seemed to belong to a particular post-war moment that burned itself out. However, having a mere two dominant terrorist organisations to lock horns with and then eventually neutralising their threat may have made the agencies formed to combat them quite complacent in other areas.
Just as the end of the Cold War provoked a false sense of international security, the respective ceasefires of ETA and IRA activities appeared to close a chapter on a particular kind of organised terrorism that modelled itself on an actual army, prompting a slight smugness and guard-lowering on the part of the authorities; it also possibly blinded them to the growth of ‘virtual’ armies that were far more inclusive and far more attractive to the disturbed individual in the bedroom.
There’s a sad irony that events in France and Germany should bookend a week in which the future of nuclear deterrents and Trident in particular has been vigorously debated. The astronomical cost of such weapons and the belief of governments in their vital importance both feel like a hangover from a completely different century now, a century of nation states whose enemies were other nation states. The threats posed by the national arsenals gathering dust almost seem an abstract irrelevance in a fluid, less rigid era of mass migration, rootless international identity and the unforeseen resurgence of faith over nation as a means of self-identification. All your aspiring Hitler, Stalin or Mussolini now needs is a computer and a gun. This is twenty-first century ‘Punk Rock’ war; anyone can do it – on public transport, on the street, in the mall.
© The Editor