Political violence is a phenomenon in all historical ages, but we have become somewhat unaccustomed to it in the West given that things were fairly quiet for several decades until the new threat of jihadi terrorism emerged. Europe has had more political violence than the US, and on a bigger scale, peaking in the 1970s and ‘80s, the most famous case in recent years bring Anders Breivik. In 2015 there was some minor political violence as a response to the refugee inflow: in The Netherlands a city hall was stormed by the local populace and had its windows broken, and in another village the car of a Green Left city counselor was set alight and his house was pelted with eggs and bricks. In Germany, many buildings that were to be used as potential refugee centers were torched before they could be used, and in 2016 over eight thousand Antifa mobilized in Berlin to protest a G8 meeting, resulting in weeks of unrest, hundreds of injuries, and millions in property damage. More recently, Alternative for Germany party offices have been burned and one leading AfD politician was beaten to death. In Bulgaria, private militias have been mobilized and patrol the border to keep immigrants from entering through Turkey. In Italy, far-Right activists have shot at African immigrants on several occasions since 2015, injuring several, the most notable being Luca Traini.
Americans are also getting more accustomed to political violence ever since Antifa, an originally German movement that has existed since the 1920s, started gaining popularity in the US. Charlottesville was, of course, a major street brawl unlike anything we have seen anywhere in the West for a while, mobilizing a thousand or so far Right activists against a multitude of Antifa. But there have also been several street battles in Seattle, Portland, Berkeley, and elsewhere. Several GOP party offices have also been arsoned in recent years, and the shooting of Congressman Steve Scalise in 2017 points to an increasing climate of political violence in the US, predominantly perpetrated by the far Left. Since 2015, we have seen an upsurge of political violence in Europe and America. To put this in context, I would like to offer some examples of post-war political violence, to contrast and compare with current developments.
The worst post-war Antifa excesses in Germany came in the form of the Red Army Faction (RAF), also known as the Baader-Meinhof gang, which culminated in the abduction and assassination of the leader of the President of the German Employers’ Association, Germany’s leading industrial labor organization. Over the course of their existence, the RAF killed 34 people and carried out 296 bombings. Through a series of kidnappings and bombings in the autumn of 1977, they sowed national chaos and brought the country to its knees. The RAF was possibly funded by the Soviet Union.
Other far Left terrorism in Europe was happening in Italy during the 1970s, mainly conducted by the Brigate Rosse in Italy. These anni di piomo (years of lead) were characterized by increasing levels of violence, including murder, between Communist guerrillas and an increasingly strong far Right. 428 people were killed and some 2,000 were injured during this period. The Brigate Rosse’s most infamous actions were the bombing of an Italicus train in 1974, killing 12 and injuring 105, and the murder of Italian Prime Minister Aldo Moro in 1978. Some 12,000 Leftist militants were arrested for acts of violence during this period, ranging from street brawls and assassinations to bombings and hostage-takings. During this period, in an interesting parallel with today, many politicians either underestimated or deliberately downplayed the threat of the Red Brigades, speaking of them as “phantoms” and focusing primarily on neo-fascist groups, despite the fact that fewer than 200 fascists were arrested for acts of violence at the time. The 1970s was basically a low-intensity civil war in Italy. Things became so chaotic that by 1974, the CIA considered aiding a fascist coup in Italy, just to keep the Communists out of power – something that had almost happened in 1970 when former members of Mussolini’s Fascist Party and special forces veterans plotted a coup (Golpe Borghese) that was called off at the last minute.
In The Netherlands, a few far Left actions stand out, such as the Kroningsrellen/Slag bij Blauwbrug in 1980, when over 100,000 Communists and far Left sympathizers rioted in Amsterdam. 11,000 police and military police were mobilized and battled the protesters for fourteen hours. At its peak, the authorities considered mobilizing the army to put down the riots. It was the biggest battle in peacetime in The Netherlands to date and did extreme damage to the center of Amsterdam. In 1986, a contingent of several hundred Antifa attacked a gathering of a Right-wing party, the Centrumdemocraten, and set the building ablaze with Molotov cocktails. The local population responded by attacking the Antifa, resulting in 60 injured. There was also the RaRa (Revolutionary anti-Racist action), which conducted a series of bombings targeting companies that did business with apartheid South Africa from 1983 until 1994. Their most notable attacks were the bombing of the house of the Interior Minister, Aad Kosto, and the bombing of the Interior Ministry itself in 1993, which destroyed the entire building. In 2002, leading candidate Pim Fortuyn was murdered by a Leftist activist, thus preventing The Netherlands from gaining a more Right-wing, populist government.
In Japan during the 1970s, the Japanese Red Army (JRA) was determined to bring Communism to Japan, and was the most well-known group out of a broader Communist underground there. Their most infamous actions were the Lod airport massacre in Tel Aviv, killing 26 and injuring 80. They allied with the Palestinian Authority and Hamas during the 1980s and shifted most of their activities to the Middle East. The JRA was active all over the world, including occupying an oil platform in Singapore as well as the Japanese embassy in Kuwait, and storming the French embassy in The Netherlands in 1974, killing a policewoman. Their last action was the 1988 bombing of a US Army barracks in Naples, killing five.
In Spain, the First of October Anti-Fascist Resistance Groups (GRAPO) was formed in 1975 to try to overthrow the Falangist government and introduce Communism; it remained active until 2006. They killed 84 and injured several hundred others in their time. Their most famous act was the abduction and assassination of Francoist politician Antonio Urquijo and General Villaescusa.
And in the US, there was the Weather Underground, a violent offshoot of the Students for a Democratic Society, which carried out a series of bombings across the US in response to the Vietnam War, although they were careful to avoid inflicting casualties in their attacks (several of their own members died in a premature explosion, however). Nevertheless, they remained a nuisance to the American authorities for nearly a decade, including successfully bombing the Pentagon, the State Department, and the US Capitol. Perhaps their greatest influence, however, occurred after the group disbanded, when several of its former members gave up terrorism and became prominent in the mainstream American Left (something that happened with several of their European terrorist counterparts as well); it is well-known that Weather’s former leaders, Bill Ayers and Bernadine Dohrn, helped to launch Barack Obama’s political career in Chicago during the 1990s .
In South America, far too many far Left guerrilla groups have existed to recount here, the most notorious being the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). To date it has killed some 20,000 people in attacks over the course of the Colombian Civil War (1964-2017). The most recent political violence in South America was the attempted murder on now-President Jair Bolsonaro last year. One could argue the most successful far-Left terrorists were Hugo Chávez and Fidel Castro; but when a group takes power, is it still a terrorist organization? And conversely, if they are, was Pinochet as well?
Violence on the scale of the above-mentioned groups coming from the Right is rarer. I have never come across any violence on the Right comparable to that of the RAF or Brigatte Rosse. Yes, there have been Breivik and Timothy McVeigh, but these men acted alone and only carried out a single attack. Indeed, most political violence on both sides is perpetrated by lone wolves, not organized groups. Such attacks are usually not as impactful as the others, as a group implies the potential to continue attacking even when one or more members are arrested or killed. When most of the RAF’s original members were arrested, a second generation arose to carry on in their footsteps, and paralyzed German society. McVeigh never came close to paralyzing the US, and Breivik only succeed in giving the Left a stick with which to beat the Right, and did not otherwise affect Norwegian politics significantly.
Unlike Right-wing groups, Leftist groups usually conduct violence on a structural level for years. For example, ecoterrorist groups, which are arguably on the Left, such as the Animal Liberation Front and Earth First, have conducted over 2,000 arson and bombing attacks in the US. For contrast, I have listed all the political violence coming from the post-war Left in The Netherlands; I found only one far Right bombing during the same period .
The bigger examples of organized political violence on the Right include a small network in Germany called the NSU (Nationalsozialistischer Untergrund), which had 3 members and killed 10 people, mostly Turkish shopkeepers, between 2000 and 2007. There was also The Order in the US, which was led by Robert Mathews; although they only carried out one assassination and never affected American society as a whole, they conducted a series of high-profile robberies during 1983 and ’84 which it has been alleged funded elements of the American far Right for years afterwards. And then there is the Atomwaffen Division, which has been tied to 5 murders (mostly of its own members), but these killings weren’t organized by the group as such but were rather impulsive actions by people who were members.
There is one very interesting case that is arguably from the far Right, but in its presentation and actions was merely criminal. No political goals were ever announced and the perpetrators have never been caught. This is the Bende van Nijvel, and the reason that some claim they were on the Right is because of the suspicious actions of the Belgian authorities surrounding them. The Bende van Nijvel was a gang of 3 who carried out violent robberies from 1982 until 1985. In the process, they killed 28 people and injured 40. Their attacks were purposefully brutal, including the execution of children at close range. They were very heavily armed with military-grade gear, including body armor, and never went after big hauls. Their biggest hit netted $35,000 in today’s dollars. One popular narrative about them is that these men were part of a GLADIO stay-behind unit (a secret NATO organization that existed throughout Europe during the Cold War that was intended to act as a guerrilla army in the event of a Soviet invasion), and were members of the Rijkswacht (the Belgian version of SWAT). Responding to growing Communist sympathies in Western Europe, it seems these men wanted to either terrorize the political class into taking more autocratic measures, or were acting under orders from Belgian intelligence or security officers to foment a justification for turning Belgium into a police state, which in turn would have allowed for the repression of the Communist and socialist parties. It is widely known that GLADIO units planned robberies as training exercises.
It is unknown whether the Bende van Nijvel were actually GLADIO or if they were acting on their own, or on orders from someone else, but as these attacks were not replicated in any other GLADIO countries, it is likely they acted on their own initiative. Although there is another version of the story which more deeply implicates the Belgian state: according to this version, a far Right mercenary group called Westland New Post (WNP) was involved, and it had been commissioned by the Belgian intelligence services to surveil and report on many of the shops that later became targets of the Nijvel gang. This version of events claims that the group consisted of WNP members who had been involved in the killing of several Jews, including a double murder in a synagogue and the murder of two Jewish jewelers, for which the perpetrator, Eric Lammers, was later executed. These WNP members allegedly became intelligence assets for the Belgian state in return for a pardon. At least one military intelligence officer had infiltrated the WNP and shared NATO intelligence documents with them, mainly having to do with Communist infiltration, which the WNP then published in its magazine, Althing. The leader of the WNP, Paul Latinus, was found dead in 1984 under suspicious circumstances. Another member was executed for the murder of a Jewish couple. A third was likely executed by his accomplices after their last raid. The police deduced this from a burnt-out car and shell casings they found in woods near the scene, believing that someone wanted none of the perpetrators around to confess anything. In this version of events, the Nijvel gang would still have had the same motive of turning Belgium into an anti-Communist police state. This is generally not disputed, nor that the Nijvel gang likely had far Right sympathies; what is disputed is who exactly the perpetrators were, how they got their heavy weaponry, and who they were affiliated with.
The Belgian state, or at least part of its security forces, is suspected also because the investigation was handled extremely poorly. Crucial evidence, such as fingerprints, constantly went missing, leads were not pursued, and police units responding to attacks by the gang would very easily give up pursuit or even refuse to engage the gang altogether, despite the fact that the units in question were heavily-armed Rijkswacht units. Also, several guns used in the attacks were found in a Brussels canal, and they bore the marks of the Gendarmerie-Politie, which lends a great deal of credibility to the idea that a rogue Rijkswacht unit was behind the Nijvel gang. We will probably never know for certain.
Another case of arguable organized far-Right terrorism was irredentist SS Colonel Otto Skorzeny’s post-war mercenary company. Skorzeny had been the commanding officer of several Brandenburger special operations units, and famously led the assault to liberate Mussolini from captivity in 1943. After the war, he escaped from prison and fled to Spain, using his expertise and gathering a number of former SS and Wehrmacht officers to found the private security firm, the Paladin Group. One of their first actions was to help train the Egyptian army to fight Israel in 1952. As the group expanded, it began providing combat teams made up of former SS, French Foreign Legion, and other veterans who were sympathetic to the far Right. Paladin worked for the Palestinian Liberation Army as insurgents against Israel, for the Greek regime of the Colonels, in Francoist Spain (mainly in counter-insurgency operations against the ETA), for Salazar’s Portugal (mainly in the colonial wars in Africa, securing strategic locations), Pinochet’s Chile, and apartheid South Africa. These state-actor sponsorships put it outside the realm of what would normally be called terrorism, as their death squad-like operations received the sanction of legitimate regimes. A similar organization was the Aginter Press, made up of French veterans of the Algerian War who continued their anti-Communist crusade after the French surrender, mainly in the employ of Portugal, fighting in its colonies against revolutionaries sponsored by the Soviet Union.
The historic pattern on the Left is organized cells conducting extensive terror campaigns, whereas historically on the Right we mainly see lone wolves and state-sanctioned mercenary groups made up of former soldiers. And it should be noted that a lot of the political violence during the Cold War involved the CIA or the KGB. In our time, both bombings and mercenaries seem to have fallen out of fashion among indigenous groups, and have been replaced by street brawls between amateur organizations on both sides, with frequent involvement by the general public. Political violence has become an amateur sport, with extremely unpredictable participants. Steve Scalise’s would-be assassin, for instance, was a mild-mannered Boomer who one day simply decided to wipe out the Congressional Republican leadership. And indeed, the lack of organization, planning, or structure seems to be a common feature of today’s violence. Wear a MAGA hat and you are liable to be assaulted. Stand for a populist party in Germany, and you may be beaten to death. And for the moment, there is more violence coming from the Left. No offices of Leftist parties have been arsoned recently, and wearing an “I’m with her” shirt doesn’t carry the risk of a beating. Given that this has generally been the case historically as well, I expect this trend of escalation by the Left will continue.