When Threads Wear Thin: The West German Radical Left and Palestinian Groups at the End of the 1970s
By Joseph Ben Prestel
During the 1970s, ties with Palestinian groups occupied a prominent place in activities of the West German radical left. An increasing criticism of Israel along with an interest in newly emerging, leftist Palestinian groups had begun to manifest itself in the Federal Republic in the wake of the 1967 war. Towards the end of the 1970s, however, a number of publications began to criticize the relations with Palestinian groups. For several authors of the radical left, the heyday of support for the Palestinian cause seemed to have passed and a need for a new, more critical engagement appeared necessary. In this blog post, I read these dynamics as part of a wider historical constellation that brought local developments together with the decline of Third Worldism, the Lebanese Civil War, and the rise of Islamist movements. From this perspective, the shifting trajectory of relations between West Germany’s radical left and Palestinian groups points to a specific manifestation of changes that are often associated with the “1979 moment.”
A series of events fueled a reflection about the nature of cooperation with Palestinian groups in the West German radical left during the second half of the 1970s. Most prominently among these events figured the hijacking of an Air France flight from Tel Aviv to the Ugandan airport of Entebbe in 1976 by members of the West German Revolutionary Cells and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine – Special Command. News about the role of the two German hijackers, Wilfried Böse and Brigitte Kuhlmann, who were reported to have selected Jewish from non-Jewish hostages, led to a debate in the Federal Republic. Especially publications of the Jewish community, such as the Berliner Allgemeine Jüdische Wochenzeitung, reflected on the continuities of anti-Semitism in Germany. Entebbe also contributed to a criticism of the cooperation with Palestinian groups in the radical left. An article in the periodical links argued that Böse and Kuhlmann had become an instrument of Arab governments and “foreign interests,” which they themselves would barely understand. Moreover, the text continued, the operation had failed to pay attention to the German legacy of anti-Semitism. The author concluded, “Palestinian organizations that do not exclude every German from armed operations against Israel inflict a heavy damage on the anti-racist character of the Palestinian revolution.”
While Entebbe barely led to a sustained discussion of anti-Semitism in the radical left or a clear break with “revolutionary violence,” it contributed to an increasingly critical discussion of support for Palestinian groups. In his analysis of publications of the radical left, Martin Kloke has argued that the Palestine solidarity committees, which had mushroomed at West German universities, already began to show fissures at the middle of the 1970s. According to Kloke, the committees increasingly split up into competing splinter groups. A series of articles from 1982 reflects the growing critical engagement in the radical left with its ties to Palestinian groups at the end of the decade. In the same year in which Israeli troops laid siege to Beirut, the Frankfurt-based periodical Pflasterstrand published a special issue entitled “Palestine – A Nightmare of the German Left.”
Shifting relations between the radical left and Palestinian groups were, however, far from a one-sided, West German story. The study of Palestinian sources highlights the existence of a pronounced interest in the radical left during the early 1970s. This interest weakened as the decade came to a close. Since the mid-1960s, Palestinians had played a pivotal role in forging the ties between the two sides. Palestinian students at West German universities organized protests, spread pro-Palestinian chants at demonstrations, and published a wide array of pamphlets and periodicals in German and Arabic. Periodicals that appeared in Lebanon, such as the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine’s al-Hurriyya, the PLO Research Center’s Shu’un Filastiniyya, or the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine’s al-Hadaf also reported in detail on the bourgeoning support for the Palestinian cause in West Germany. Readers in Beirut could study images of demonstrations in Heidelberg, Frankfurt, and West Berlin or read about organizations such as the League against Imperialism (Liga gegen den Imperialismus), the Marxist Student Association Spartakus (Marxistischer Studentenbund Spartakus), or the Socialist German Student Union (SDS).
Much like their West German counterparts, Palestinian publications often portrayed the ties to the Federal Republic in the context of Third World solidarity. Following the 1967 war, Palestinian groups like Fatah and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine had begun to adopt strategies that appeared successful in Vietnam. As global solidarity campaigns were part of these strategies, the idea of portraying the “Palestinian Revolution” as the “next Vietnam” took root. Around 1970, articles about support for the Palestinian cause in West Germany appeared along reports on the colonial wars in Mozambique and Angola, the Vietnam War, or the Black Panther Party. A look at Palestinian periodicals suggests that the concept of Third World solidarity began to lose in prominence around the middle of the 1970s; articles on the “Third World” and “revolutionaries” around the globe became less frequent. The Beirut-based, pro-Palestinian newspaper al-Safir, for instance, published its last “Third World” section in 1975, shortly before the outbreak of the Lebanese civil war. The war in Lebanon and news from the occupied territories in the West Bank and Gaza now drew more attention, while articles discussing the West German radical left’s support for the Palestinian cause thinned out.
Reading these dynamics as part of a wider “1979 moment” highlights that they were more than a phenomenon of just two historical contexts. Historians have observed a demise of Third Worldism in several countries during the same period. In his study of the global career of the Third World concept, Christoph Kalter has noted that it had lost much of its attraction as a radical leftist concept by the late 1970s. The rise of Islamism that scholars have pointed to in other places, such as Egypt, during the same period also resonates with the West German-Palestinian story. Studies of Palestinian history have highlighted the increasing importance of Islamist groups like the Kutla Islamiyya, in Palestinian student activism towards the end of the 1970s. Rather than focusing on cooperation with leftist groups in Western European countries, this formation stressed the importance of pan‑Islamic ties.
Despite the centrality of this global constellation, the trajectory of relations between the West German radical left and Palestinian groups also represents a specific variation of the wider dynamics of the late 1970s. Specificity in this context often arose from local particularities. For a number of contemporaries, for instance, the radical left had failed to pay attention to the legacy of anti-Semitism in West Germany. Henryk M. Broder wrote in Die Zeit in 1981 that the proponents of the radical left in the Federal Republic remained “the children of their parents.” Local developments in the Middle East could also conflict with the global imaginary of the radical left. As the first news of the Entebbe hijacking emerged in June 1976, a quite different event occupied the headlines of al‑Safir. One year into the Lebanese civil war, Christian militias had just begun an assault on the Palestinian refugee camp of Tall al-Za‘tar northeast of Beirut. The battle of Tall al‑Za‘tar lasted for more than a month and resulted in hundreds of deaths. From the perspective of Palestinian publications in Lebanon, Entebbe was hardly as relevant as Tall al-Za‘tar during the summer of 1976.
The potential tensions between local developments and the radical left’s global imaginary did not remain hidden to contemporaries. In its criticism of the Entebbe hijacking, the magazine links argued that the operation had directed attention in West Germany away from the events in Tall al-Za‘tar: “The hijacking superimposed the counterrevolutionary attempt to eradicate the Palestinian people in the mass media.” The events of Entebbe had “obscured” a “decisive battle” in Lebanon, the author continued. In this way, the cooperation with Palestinian groups appeared out of touch with dynamics in the Middle East.
The shifting relations between the West German radical left and Palestinian groups, thus, not only reflect changes that are frequently associated with the “1979 moment,” including a crisis of Third Worldism, the Lebanese civil war, and the rise of Islamist movements. They also highlight the interplay between these changes and local developments. Ultimately, the West German-Palestinian story illustrates a conjuncture of dynamics on different scales and in geographically distant localities. It highlights how events in Entebbe, Tall al-Za‘tar, the West Bank, and Frankfurt can come into view as part of a historical rupture that affected European and Middle Eastern history at the end of the 1970s.
 Detlev Claussen, “Terror in der Luft, Konterrevolution auf der Erde,” links 9 (1976): 6-8.
About the author
Joseph Ben Prestel is assistant professor (wissenschaftlicher Mitarbeiter) of modern history at Freie Universität Berlin. Joseph’s research and teaching focus on global and urban history as well as the histories of Europe and the Middle East during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. His first monograph Emotional Cities: Debates on Urban Change in Berlin and Cairo, 1860-1910 was published with Oxford University Press in fall 2017 (see here).
Citation: Joseph Ben Prestel, When Threads Wear Thin: The West German Radical Left and Palestinian Groups at the End of the 1970s, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 08.08.2018, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/12156