#explore power mondays: Object(s) of desire – A history of power # 2 Helmet, German state police

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object(s) of desire – a history takes us on a (non-chronological) treasure hunt through the centuries for objects that symbolise power and ponders what they mean in today’s world.

Today, we look at a police helmet, part of the equipment of the German SEK, “Spezialeinsatzkommando” (earlier also known as “Sondereinsatzkommando,”
but that sounded perhaps a tad too much like the eponymous SS unit tasked to exterminate Hungary’s Jews).

The helmet
represents state authority at its most coercive, but also at its most
fragile. 

The SEKs are special
response units of the German State Police (under the authority of each “Land”) founded, together with their
federal counterpart GSG9
, at the beginning of the 1970s as a response to the
fiasco of the 1972 Munich Olympic Games (11 Israeli athletes and coaches were murdered in a hostage taking by a Palestinian commando).

SEKs mission then: to fight terrorists. In
its early days, its units were often used to suppress violent left-wing
demonstrations. More recently, SEKs’ focus of operations has been on hostage
crises, as well as on interventions against organised crime. 

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Wanted – Terrorists of the Red Army Faction in the 1970s

Starting with the murder of the student Benno Ohnesorg in 1967 in West Berlin, the West German student movement had become increasingly politicised, often violently clashing with state authority, which not seldom retaliated in a clumsy,  disproportionate fashion. In 1970, a small radicalised minority opted for armed fight – the Red Army Faction (RAF) was born.

Terrorists of the RAF couched their activities in terms of a resistance fight. For this to succeed, they had to paint the German
Federal Republic as a fascist state, a mere follow-up organisation of Nazi Germany. Police in riot gear, “faschistische Bullenschweine” (fascist cop pigs) clubbing protesters was water on the mill of the RAF and its sympathizers.

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Helmut Schmidt in the tabloid BILD, September 1977 “We will win against the terrorists. Never before have we had so much freedom, so many rights, so much social security. We will not let murderers destroy this.”

The RAF adopted a conscious strategy of escalating violence, hoping to trigger brutal counter-reactions by the state, something which succeeded quite well. Up until the Deutsche Herbst, the German autumn (an existential crisis for the still very young democratic Germany), which brought, among other things, the kidnapping and murder of Hans-Martin Schleyer, president of the Confederation of German Employers’ Associations, they had had considerable support in society. According to an Allensbach Poll from 1971, every 20th person would have been ready to hide a wanted terrorist for a night. 

To this day, depicting an opponent as all-powerful and crushing is a narrative skilfully exploited by a number of terrorist groups or by states aiming at destabilising a strategic adversary. It takes careful handling of image and message to counter such representations.

Exhibit from “RAF – Terrorist Violence”, 21 November 2014 to 26 April 2015, Deutsches Historisches Museum, Berlin

Helmet SEK Baden-Württemberg, Göppingen, 1977. © Polizeihistorischer Verein Stuttgart e. V.; Foto: Bernd Eidenmüller

Johanna M

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