Fire and flames: A history of the German autonomist movement

German autonomen

Fire and Flames is no detached academic study, but a passionate, hands-on, and engaging account of the beginnings of one of Europe's most intriguing protest movements of the last thirty years. An introduction by George Katsiaficas, author of The Subversion of Politics and an afterword by Gabriel Kuhn, a long-time autonomous activist and author, add historical context and an update on the current state of the Autonomen.

Fire and Flames was the first comprehensive study of the German autonomous movement ever published. Released in 1990, it reached its fifth edition by 1997, with the legendary German Konkret journal concluding that "the movement had produced its own classic." The author, writing under the pseudonym of Geronimo, has been an autonomous activist since the movement burst onto the scene in 1980-81. In this book, he traces its origins in the Italian Autonomia project and the German social movements of the 1970s, before describing the battles for squats, "free spaces," and alternative forms of living that defined the first decade of the autonomous movement. Tactics of the "Autonome" were militant, including the construction of barricades or throwing molotov cocktails at the police. Because of their outfit (heavy black clothing, ski masks, helmets), the Autonome were dubbed the “Black Bloc” by the German media, and their tactics have been successfully adopted and employed at anti-capitalist protests worldwide.

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Fire and Flames_ A History of t - Geronimo.epub3.96 MB
Fire and Flames_ A History of t - Geronimo.mobi3.51 MB

Comments

Entdinglichung
Dec 1 2012 11:17
Quote:
their tactics have been successfully adopted

?

solidariedade
Dec 1 2012 12:54

Yeah I thought the same. Plus this intro is a bit cringewhorty, but I guess totally appropriate to the subject matter. I still remember my uncle being beat up by a bunch of autonomen somewhere in the 90s. He was a lefty-liberal with a rock band. FFS hand

EDIT: I am in no way implying that the book is bad. It's actually a quite good document, I just find this intro funny.

working class s...
Dec 1 2012 14:56

The intro was from the publishers PM Press.

Black Badger
Dec 1 2012 16:02

Which, since it is a predominantly Marxist project, is continually trying to poach whatever they can from anti-authoritarians to claim as their own...

solidariedade
Dec 1 2012 22:12
working class self organisation wrote:
The intro was from the publishers PM Press.

Yes I assumed it was a publisher's blurb.

klas batalo
Dec 2 2012 04:00
Black Badger wrote:
Which, since it is a predominantly Marxist project, is continually trying to poach whatever they can from anti-authoritarians to claim as their own...

you mean PM Press?

Black Badger
Dec 2 2012 06:07

Yes

altemark
Dec 2 2012 18:32

Bigs up to Gabriel Kuhn for taking care of the translation of this book. Bought it at the sthlm anarchist bookfair, and think I learned a lot about the movement as a whole from the perspective presented in the book.

georgestapleton
Dec 3 2012 13:52
Black Badger wrote:
Yes

Err PM was started by Ramsey Kanaan, Craig O'Hara and a few others formerly of AK. Both Ramsey and Craig are, as far as these distinctions go, anarchists not Marxists. Although these distinctions are pretty useless.

But yeah odd to hear PM being called Marxist. It's about as Marxist as this site.

editted to add: The book is great, a fun read, informative and insightful. My only criticism would be (ironically given the above odd comments) that it doesn't really talk about the marxists around the autonomen that much. If there is anything good on SDS, the Marxist Group, the K-groups etc. in English I'd like to know.

ocelot
Dec 3 2012 14:20

Black Badger's world is truly upside down. The German autonomen of the 1980s would have predominantly self-indentified as Marxists (probably less than 5% would have self-identified as anarchists), with the main ideological tendency being the "Anti-Imperialist" or Anti-Imps. The main point of reference for whom, was fairly uncritical support for the RAF.

As for PM as a "Marxist" project (let alone one trying in Machiavellian or Leninist fashion to rewrite history in the case of the Autonomen), what George said. Not only are Rammo and Gabe still anarchists, they both continue to enthusiastically promote "lifestylist" cultural trends like straight-edge, hardcore punk and veganism that most of us of that generation left behind as something for "the kids", decades ago (and that would at best bemuse, at worst render apoplectic the kind of Leninoid orthodox Marxists BB seems to populate his/her imagination with). Also, Pffft...

Haven't read F&F. Be a bit disappointing if they don't really go into the socio-political basis of Anti-Imp and other specific Marxist-hybrid cultural forms that made the Autonomen alternatively inspiring, mystifying, sometimes hilarious, occasionally maddening and/or facepalm-tastic, but always unique.

Entdinglichung
Dec 3 2012 16:23

as far as I know, there aren't any good studies in English about the groups mentioned, there are some good studies in German e.g. the one by Michael Steffen on the KB or by Günther Gellrich on the GIM (both available online) but none of them have been translated

Entdinglichung
Dec 3 2012 14:44
ocelot wrote:
Black Badger's world is truly upside down. The German autonomen of the 1980s would have predominantly self-indentified as Marxists (probably less than 5% would have self-identified as anarchists), with the main ideological tendency being the "Anti-Imperialist" or Anti-Imps. The main point of reference for whom, was fairly uncritical support for the RAF.

Anti-imps and Autonome were in a way overlapping scenes but my perception (as a participant 20-25 years ago) was, that most people perceived the two scenes as something different, the "dominant marxist theoretical approach" in the Autonomen was not the moralistic and pro-RAF Anti-Imp stuff but some Operaist derived theories e.g. from the journal Autonomie - Materialien gegen die Fabrikgesellschaft and their successors from the Materialien für einen neuen Antiimperialismus ... my perception was, that there were more than 5% self-identified Anarchists in the scene ... but the majority of Autonomen probably wasn't to much into political labels, theories, etc.

Entdinglichung
Dec 3 2012 14:51
georgestapleton wrote:

editted to add: The book is great, a fun read, informative and insightful. My only criticism would be (ironically given the above odd comments) that it doesn't really talk about the marxists around the autonomen that much. If there is anything good on SDS, the Marxist Group, the K-groups etc. in English I'd like to know.

the Marxist Group was in the same way around the autonomen as e.g. Sparts, MLPD, Marxists-Reichians, etc.: pestering how shitty the Autonomen are, unless they adopt the MG's mode of speaking

georgestapleton
Dec 4 2012 12:54
Entdinglichung wrote:
georgestapleton wrote:

editted to add: The book is great, a fun read, informative and insightful. My only criticism would be (ironically given the above odd comments) that it doesn't really talk about the marxists around the autonomen that much. If there is anything good on SDS, the Marxist Group, the K-groups etc. in English I'd like to know.

the Marxist Group was in the same way around the autonomen as e.g. Sparts, MLPD, Marxists-Reichians, etc.: pestering how shitty the Autonomen are, unless they adopt the MG's mode of speaking

1. Yeah but the difference is that the MG was (at least according to Angelus) big, where as the sparts have always been tiny.

2. Marxist-Reichians? I've never come across these, but sounds amazing

georgestapleton
Dec 4 2012 13:05

Also, for what its worth this thread has made me go and buy Utopia or Auschwitz which is the only book I've found in English on the 68-on left in Germany apart from Fire and Flames, books on the Greens and books on the RAF. Thought I'd flag the book up because I haven't heard anyone mention it.

Entdinglichung
Dec 4 2012 13:32
georgestapleton wrote:

2. Marxist-Reichians? I've never come across these, but sounds amazing

a cult, mainly in Freiburg but also with branches in several other German and Austrian university cities around its guru Fritz Erik Hoevels, a former SDS activist who claims, that he is the only person who has a correct interpretation of the writings of Marx, Engels, Lenin, Trotzki, Freud and Reich, ... moved during the mid-80ies to the far right, e.g. calling for votes for the FPÖ and the German Die Republikaner, advocating tattooing of people with HIV, in favour of rigid "population control", paranoid hatred of feminists and other "enemies of sex", support for Saddam Hussain (in 1991, one of their leaflets said that "it is more likely to watch Yetis copulating than to watch Kuwaitis at work") and Milosevic, etc. ... now mainly operating under names like Bund gegen Anpassung (Alliance against Conformity), some of its labels/fronts:

- Ahriman-Verlag, Freiburg
- Bund zur Verbreitung unerwünschter Einsichten (BzVuE)
- Initiative Neue Linke (Österreich) (INL)
- Marxistisch-Reichistische Initiative
- Arbeitskreis Antiklerikalismus
- Gruppe für Aufklärung
- Demokratie und Selbstbestimmung
- Verein zur Aids-Verhütung

their logo

Entdinglichung
Dec 4 2012 14:27
georgestapleton wrote:

1. Yeah but the difference is that the MG was (at least according to Angelus) big, where as the sparts have always been tiny.

several thousands vs. ~ 100 ... but a Spart has a 24 hours day while an MG member spends a few hours daily in pub, is studying sciences at Uni or works somewhere

georgestapleton
Dec 4 2012 15:21

That is a kickass logo. And you've just explained three times over why MG > Sparts.

Black Badger
Aug 17 2014 21:35

excerpted from a recent review:

The Autonomen, originators of the internationally notorious Black Bloc, often enjoy something like legendary status in the US, certainly at least since Seattle. Being autonomous (meaning most of them are not connected to one specific political tendency, being adherents, to varying degrees, of different strains of Marxism and anarchism) and primarily self-identified as being against certain manifestations of domination, they can be all things to all observers. This is both a strength and a weakness. The strength is that as a self-organized formation, they have no formal membership; their coherence as a recognized tendency is not based on ideological conformity, but on an informal affinity of strategies, tactics, and actions. The weakness is that politically, they are not really coherent; perhaps that's why American anarchists like them so much.
Fire and Flames was the first attempt to situate the Autonomen within the history of the German radical left and, as an initial gesture, it's decent. Not great, but a decent first try. The pseudonymous author was taken to task when the book first appeared in 1990 for several omissions and blind spots, the most notable of which was the dearth of women activists, both as a separate tendency allied with the autonomous scene, and as an integral part of it. Cutting him a little slack, readers need to remember that most first efforts are usually tentative and incomplete, so this history needs to be judged as a contribution to the broader understanding of autonome (anti)politics, both in German and in English. At least Geronimo has the decency to admit his shortcomings.
In German there are dozens of articles, books, and pamphlets about the Autonomen, some of them even by supporters, if not participants. Most of them reflect the political interests of the authors, and, because of the diverse politics that make up the scene, are often analytically uneven. Geronimo seems not to have begun a trend of self-critical analysis from within the broader history and context of the radical left, which is unfortunate; that would be more interesting to read than a chronicle of self-congratulatory reports of various actions, which comprises the bulk of the aforementioned material.
In English there are really only two books on the Autonomen: this one, and The Subversion of Politics (first published in 1997, reprinted in 2006 by AK) by George Katsiaficas, who, incidentally, wrote the introduction to this translation. The latter, while more rigorous in its analysis as well as taking other European antecedents and counterparts into account, and using a much more academic methodology, also suffers from its own inadequacies. Neither author examines the history of how the West German APO (Außerparlamentarische Opposition, extra-parliamentary opposition) formed the basis for the distinctive organizational refusal of representation and an acceptance of political pluralism that characterize the Autonomen. In addition, and more pointedly, neither examine how and why activists in the radical left on the border of the GDR (the former East Germany) had an almost inevitable distrust toward/disgust with Marxist-Leninist structures, analyses, and even terminology. The lack of a similar history of Real Existing Socialism directly bordering either Italy or the Netherlands (the two other main areas of Katsiaficas' study) made an activist tendency analogous to the Autonomen in either place unthinkable in the 1980s and '90s.
Geronimo, like other autonome authors, takes the experience of a large APO and living next door to Real Existing Socialism for granted; he obviously sees no need to explain it. For this reviewer, however, an outside observer with a life-partner who is a veteran of the scene, the absence of this vital cultural component left me dumbfounded. The other aspect that remains under-examined is the historical distrust of social democracy among German radicals (due primarily to the shameless repression of the German revolution of 1918-19 by Social Democrats in power, enlisting the arch-reactionary proto-fascist Freikorps to smash the Berlin-based Spartakus Rebellion as well as the more anarchist-influenced Bavarian Räterrepublik), which also underpins the refusal of the Autonomen to engage with any sort of party politics, verging on an explicit rejection of the state. Add to that a cynical Denazification process that occurred in both the West and the East as soon as the war was over, which resulted in many former Nazis being returned to the state apparatus of both countries, and the matrix of a rejection of Marxist-Leninism (especially as embodied in the GDR) and Social Democracy meant that the formation of a radical left that had to look elsewhere was both unique and inevitable.
But it's probably impossible to write a good short history of the Autonomen, placing them firmly within this context of a specifically German non-Stalinist activist left; a radical/anarchist analysis of the full politico-cultural context would take at least several pages to explain. And even if it were written -- and in English -- it's doubtful that fans of the Black Bloc would get much out of it. Let's face it: preferring form over function, most street activists drawn to the various non-German versions of the Black Bloc probably don't care about the history of the Autonomen or how and why West German radical activists started to mask up. Protecting a mobile PA system from being smashed or confiscated by the cops is just not awesome enough; it's much more exhilarating to declare Social War and Make Total Destroy.