In his detailed history of 20th century terrorism Blood and Rage, author Michael Burleigh, while writing about left-wing terrorist groups in Germany that sprang up in the late 1960s/early 1970s, suggests that the young, urban middle-class men and women who were part of these groups were suffering from a guilty conscience.
They were the children of parents who had lived in Hitler’s Germany, during his racist, violent regime, as supporters or silent observers. However, when their children entered their late teens and early 20s in the 1960s, they felt an overwhelming sense of guilt and awkwardness after realising how their parents had remained silent as Hitler went about constructing his fascist dystopia based on megalomaniacal delusions about racial superiority and mythical glory.
As a response to this guilt, many children of otherwise docile and orderly middle-class Germans plunged into radical political action, like restless teens consciously indulging in ideas and acts that they knew would offend and disturb their parents.
By the 1960s however, (West) Germany had begun to retreat and rebound from its Nazi past and had become a strong democracy, a robust economy and an ally of its former enemies, the United States and Britain.
So when left-wing German radicals began targeting German politicians, businesses and some US military and business interests, Burleigh is of the view that they were trying to overcome their guilt of being the offspring of parents whom they had suspected of supporting fascism and Nazism.
This is an intriguing theory and an interesting way to look at and understand left-wing terrorism and radicalism that emerged in Germany and Italy in the 1960s/’70s. Both the countries had witnessed fascist dictatorships in the 1930s and 1940s.
This theory can also be applied to the present-day dynamics of activists associated with parties like Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaaf (PTI) and its closet ally, the fundamentalist Jamaat-i-Islami (JI).
The activistic ranks of both the parties are studded with urban middle and some lower-middle class young men and women who have recently been at the forefront of whipping up anti-West/anti-US sentiments in the country and are quick to explain everything — from Islamist terrorism to political corruption — as consequences of ‘American imperialism’ and hegemony in the region.
One can safely assume that these activists are the children of parents who sided with those regimes and parties in Pakistan that (during the Cold War) were vehemently anti-left and had taken pro-US stances in America’s Cold War tussle with the former Soviet Union.
Jamaat-i-Islami, (JI’s) links with the US during the Cold War have never been a secret. But till the 1980s when young JI activists were known to actually attack anti-US rallies held by leftist groups, today the children of these activists are perhaps the most enthusiastic anti-US radicals and the most likely to set fire to a US flag.