Deutsche Börse Photography Foundation Prize 2019 @ the Photographers’ Gallery

The Deutsche Börse Photography Foundation Prize

The Deutsche Börse Photography Foundation Prize acknowledges an international photographer for an outstanding body of work that has been exhibited or published in Europe in the previous twelve months. Projects are recognised for their major achievements and innovations in the field of photography and contemporary culture.

The DBPFP19 exhibition aims both to highlight and give platform to four very diverse artistic practices, which simultaneously display innovative, committed and engaged approaches to photography

Each year a long list is drawn up and then the panel of judges whittles it down to a list of four finalists. The winner of the £30,000 prize will be announced at a special award ceremony held at The Photographers’ Gallery on 16 May 2019.

N.B.

Note two things:

  1. books Several of the projects originated as books and the book versions are on display in display cases and can be bought separately at the Photographers Gallery shop. For exhibition purposes the books are dismantled and various elements of them blown-up, printed and variously displayed on the gallery walls, but it’s worth bearing in mind the bookish origins of most of the projects.
  2. projects The prize is not narrowly about photography, it is much more broadly about ‘achievements in the field of contemporary culture’, a very wide and loose definition.

This year’s four short-listed artists are:

1. Laia Abril for the publication On Abortion (Dewi Lewis Publishing, November 2017)

2. Susan Meiselas for the exhibition Mediations (exhibited at the Jeu de Paume, Paris, 6 February–30 May 2018)

3. Arwed Messmer for the exhibition RAF – No Evidence / Kein Beweis (exhibited at ZEPHYR|Raum für Fotografie, Mannheim, 9 September – 5 November 2017)

4. Mark Ruwedel for the exhibition Artist and Society: Mark Ruwedel (16 February–16 December 2018 at Tate Modern, London)

1. On Abortion by Laia Abril

Laia Abril was born in Spain in 1986 (aet. 33).

Over five years Abril has compiled a multi-layered, visual history of abortion. Her display starts with a row of photos of early contraceptive  devices and abortion equipment, so that you slowly move past a series of images of gruesome-looking implements which have been used to perform abortions through the ages.

Illegal Instrument Kit (2018) by Laia Abril © Laia Abril

Illegal Instrument Kit (2018) by Laia Abril © Laia Abril

The next wall features photographic portraits Abril has made of women who tell their traumatic stories of being denied abortions in their native countries, or the risks they undertook to travel to another country to have one.

Portrait of Marta, 29, Poland by Laia Abril © Laia Abril, 2018

Portrait of Marta, 29, Poland by Laia Abril © Laia Abril, 2018

Each of these start b&w portraits is accompanied by the subject’s story. This is Marta’s:

“On January 2, 2015, I travelled to Slovakia to have an abortion. [In Poland, abortion is illegal except in cases of sexual assault, serious foetal deformation, or threat to the mother’s life] I was too scared to take DIY abortion pills alone. What if something went wrong? So I decided to get a surgical abortion in a clinic abroad. I felt upset about borrowing money for the procedure, and lonely and frustrated because I couldn’t tell anyone what was happening. The hardest part was facing my boyfriend, who opposes abortion. All the same, I felt stronger and more mature afterwards.”

The damage done to individuals by lack of access to legal, safe and free abortion services is indicated by this grid of nine women who all died because of botched abortions or because abortions were denied them by the state, even in cases of extreme medical emergency.

Installation view of On Abortion by Laia Abril. Photo by the author

Installation view of On Abortion by Laia Abril. Photo by the author

At the end of the final wall is an information panel which lists some of the attacks, arson and murders carried out by anti-abortion activists in America over the past few decades.

The project, in the words of the curators:

addresses the marginalised position of women in past and contemporary societies, whilst exposing the many social triggers, stigmas and taboos that still persist around abortion and female health.

Towards the end is this strikingly clear, bright image.

Hippocratic Betrayal by Laia Abril © Laia Abril, 2018

Hippocratic Betrayal by Laia Abril © Laia Abril, 2018

The story behind it is:

“In February 2015, a 19-year-old woman took abortion pills in Sao Bernardo do Campo, Brazil, then went to hospital with abdominal pain. After treatment, her doctor called the police, who handcuffed her to the bed and forced her to confess. In Brazil, abortion is illegal under most circumstances and doctors are known to break their confidentiality code in order to denounce women who try it. Patients accused of attempting abortion have been detained in hospitals for weeks and even months.”

My opinion

A close reading of the criteria and aims of the exhibition suggest there is a tension – or a spectrum – running between pure photography-as-art at one end and photography subordinated to ‘committed and engaged’ achievements in contemporary culture at the other.

Of the four projects, Abril’s seems to me the most obviously political, certainly the most ‘committed and engaged’ and, what’s more, on a highly emotive and often harrowing subject.

On that basis – if the judges give weight to the ‘committed and engaged’ criterion – I’d be surprised if Abril doesn’t win.

2. aka Kurdistan by Susan Meiselas

Meisalas was born in the USA in 1948 (aet. 71).

She is an internationally acclaimed documentary photographer who’s been working for five decades, whose subjects have included war, human rights and cultural conflicts such as the sex industry and the visual representation of women.

She takes an immersive approach, spending long periods of time with her subjects. In addition to photographs, she produces essays and artworks, audio and film installations.

Meiselas has been working on a long-term project titled Kurdistan: In the Shadow of History, offering a multi-layered history of the Kurds. It has not been a happy history. The Kurdish people are spread across an area which overlaps the four states of south-east Turkey, northern Syria, northern Iraq and eastern Iran, what were once described to me as four of the most brutal regimes on earth.

Map of Kurdistan © The Washington Times

Map of Kurdistan © The Washington Times

It was seeing reports of Saddam Hussein’s genocidal attacks on the Kurds in the late 1980s that inspired Meiselas to visit the area in the early 1990s. Here she began to document the atrocities committed by the Hussein regime, including mass executions, tortures and rape.

Taymour Abdullah, 15, the only survivor of village execution, shows his bullet wound, Arbil, Northern Iraq, December, 1991 by Susan Meiselas © Susan Meiselas

Taymour Abdullah, 15, the only survivor of village execution, shows his bullet wound, Arbil, Northern Iraq, December, 1991 by Susan Meiselas © Susan Meiselas

Thus began a process which has continued for the past thirty years, with Meiselas continuing to work with Kurdish diasporic communities to document their experiences and gather visual evidence – documents, family photos, maps, mementos and personal stories – to give shape to a collective memory of Kurdistan.

Destroyed village along the Hamilton Road, Northern Iraq, 1991 by Susan Meiselas © Susan Meiselas

Destroyed village along the Hamilton Road, Northern Iraq, 1991 by Susan Meiselas © Susan Meiselas

The work itself consists of two walls of colour photographs showing destroyed villages, exhumed graves, and family members mourning the dead.

Another wall has been turned into an enormous map of the Middle East and Europe, into which pins have been driven at locations where Kurdish diasporas exist (London, Berlin) and from these pins hang photos, documents, brochures and pamphlets telling their stories, complete with photos of themselves, family members alive and dead and so on. A sort of archive of memories.

And, on the fourth wall there is a film installation which, on parallel screens, intersperses photos Meiselas has taken with historic photos and footage of people and places from the region, alongside personal testimony from Kurdish survivors as well as Meiselas herself.

Installation view of Kurdistan by Susan Meiselas. Photo by the author

Installation view of Kurdistan by Susan Meiselas. Photo by the author

My opinion

Between 1987 and 1991 I worked on Channel Four’s international affairs TV programme. I was the assistant producer in charge of stories from Asia, defined as all the countries from Japan to Israel and including the two most populous nations on earth, China and India.

But it was the Middle East which kept making the news and my stint coincided with the end of the Iran-Iraq War (20 August 1988) and the first Gulf War (2 Aug 1990 – 28 Feb 1991).

During this time I got to know quite a bit about the Kurds and their culture. In fact, on one occasion I was driven to a ‘safe house’ in West London to meet Jalal Talabani, leader of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan who was at that point on the run from Saddam Hussein’s assassins, for an interview and to persuade him to appear on British TV to put the case for Kurdish independence. He agreed so I was his minder and organiser for that appearance. Later, he went on to be elected the first post-Saddam President of Iraq, serving from 2006 to 2014.

I remember to this day producing the section of the show which covered Saddam’s gassing of the village of Halabja on March 16, 1988. At least 5,000 people died as an immediate result of the chemical attack and an estimated further 7,000 people were injured or suffered long term illness. What a bastard he was. That weekend I produced the part of the show where we interviewed a poison gas expert describing the effects on the body of the nerve agents Tabun and Sarin – the burning lungs, the seared skin, the agonising pain as you go blind – and then a regional expert explaining why Saddam launched the attack and what he hoped to gain (to terrorise the local Kurdish population into stopping their support for the Kurdish peshmerga guerrillas who had recently taken control of the region).

The full history of the Kurds is long and complicated. Just the story of the past thirty years, from the persecutions of Saddam, through the chaos of the Iraqi Civil War, and then the eruption of ISIS into Kurdish territory in 2014, right up to last week’s news that Kurdish forces played a key role in taking the final ISIS stronghold in Syria – is a tortuously complicated story which requires a lot of explaining.

So I know a bit about Kurdish political history, I’ve met Kurdish political leaders and regional analysts, I’ve been following developments there for 30 years or so – but I felt ambivalent about this display. Gathering the stories of Kurdish survivors is clearly an important contribution to their oral history. Bringing the story of this brutally repressed people to a wider audience is obviously a very worthwhile cause.

And yet I felt ambivalent about the actual products which you see on display, the layout and content of the exhibition. Take the photos of men showing off the scars from beatings and tortures they received from Saddam’s forces – or of Middle Eastern women standing next to a mass grave of their menfolk. These are stock images of stock subjects.

Villagers watch exhumation at a former Iraqi military headquarters outside Sulaymaniyah, Northern Iraq, 1991 by Susan Meiselas © Susan Meiselas

Villagers watch exhumation at a former Iraqi military headquarters outside Sulaymaniyah, Northern Iraq, 1991 by Susan Meiselas © Susan Meiselas

Obviously a project like this is well-intentioned and has involved a lot of people in numerous forms of collaboration, in telling their often harrowing stories of persecution or uplifting stories of survival.

But, in my experience, accounts like this run the risk of making the horrors of war and genocide in this region seem like inexplicable nightmares, unless and until you make the hard effort to understand the Realpolitik which lies behind them.

The twin drawback of lots of ‘political’ art is that, whatever its good intentions, it tends to rely heavily on images, and on the testimony of the kinds of people who are available to give testimony, who are keen to have their stories heard. Thus it is easy to take photos of weeping mothers and bleak-eyed family members around a mass grave – and it is easy to take extensive accounts of how this or that family survived the attack on their village, the gassing, the roundups for interrogation, made a long trek into the mountains or managed to flee the region altogether.

But the risk is that these sad images and sad stories have the tendency to create an over-simplified dichotomy between the good and the bad, dividing people into sheep and goats. On the one hand are the inexplicable evil bastards who rape and torture and murder and gas and exterminate (represented here by stock photos of defaced images / posters/ paintings of Saddam) – on the other, the weeping mothers and crying children and shell-shocked men standing beside mass graves which are only now being opened up to reveal their grim contents.

But people aren’t black and white, people are a complex mix and if 20th century history teaches us anything, it is that ordinary boring people can be bullied and persuaded to do, and accept, almost anything.

To be more specific, the Kurds themselves are divided into many factions. They have created numerous militias and fighting forces which have proved themselves very effective and with whom the West, in particular America, has allied itself over the past 20 years – but which are themselves no angels.

The area is riven by religious, ethnic, nationalistic, political and militia-based divisions which look set to destabilise it for the foreseeable future.

And, once you’ve gotten familiar with the subject, the stories you really want to hear are not the stories of the men, women and children who escaped to make new lives in Berlin and London, it is the thinking of the leaders, the generals and the politicians who created this mess. It’s in the minefield jungle of conflicting nationalistic and security aims that some kind of compromise and peace has to be thrashed out.

If you want to understand why this kind of thing happens, and are genuine about trying to prevent it happening again, then listening to lots of weeping women isn’t enough. You need to undertake a thorough study of the landscape, the geography and climate and natural resources of the area (because half the time it comes down to fighting over natural resources – water, oil, farmable land), and then of the long, bitter histories of the warring peoples who have lived there.

Only then do atrocities like this become at least comprehensible, and only as they become comprehensible and analysable, can you gather the evidence and arguments to try and stop them happening again. There’s no way to avoid inexplicable atrocity. But if the atrocity turns out to be explicable – if it can be seen as part of a way of government based on terror, as a way of controlling fierce ethnic divisions – then at least that’s a start to thinking about how the international community should deal with governments based on terror, and begins to provide suggestions on how to police ethnic divisions.

I liked the idea of the enormous map with the pamphlets hanging from it as a thing, as an object – but then I love maps of any kind.

The film projections included lots of evocative old photos of Kurdish peasants taken in the late 19th or early 20th century.

All of the photos are taken with great clarity and all-too-vividly capture the horrible traumatic experiences of the victims.

And partly because the room is darkened to allow us to see the projections, the whole thing has a powerful sensaround feel to it.

And maybe all of this, maybe even the mere existence of a people called the Kurds, will come as news to a lot of the gallery goers.

But for me, personally, I didn’t think this display explains to any visitor why the history of the Kurds has been so troubled, exactly what challenges they face, and the best ways forward to some kind of peaceful solution.

3. RAF – No Evidence / Kein Beweis by Arwed Messmer

If women protesting against illiberal abortion laws, and the sorry plight of the Kurds are both likely to prompt sympathy – or righteous anger – from the enlightened gallery-goer, then this project by Arwed Messmer is much more problematic.

To state the facts:

The Red Army Faction (German: Rote Armee Fraktion), also known as the Baader-Meinhof Gang was a West German far-left militant organization founded in 1970. Key early figures included Andreas Baader, Gudrun Ensslin, Horst Mahler and Ulrike Meinhof. The West German government as well as most Western media and literature considered the Red Army Faction to be a terrorist organization.

The Red Army Faction carried out a series of bombings, assassinations, kidnappings, bank robberies and shoot-outs with police over the course of three decades. Their activity peaked in late 1977, which led to a national crisis that became known as the “German Autumn”. The RAF has been held responsible for thirty-four deaths, including many secondary targets, such as chauffeurs and bodyguards, as well as many injuries throughout its almost thirty years of activity.

RAF No Evidence/Kein Beweis (2017) by Arwed Messmer © Arwed Messmer: research, concept and editing; source: German Federal Archives, 2018

RAF No Evidence/Kein Beweis (2017) by Arwed Messmer © Arwed Messmer: research, concept and editing; source: German Federal Archives, 2018

Messmer’s display derives from a massive book, a copy of which is available to leaf through on a table in his exhibition room. According to the Photographers’ Gallery:

Messmer’s project repurposes images, documents and other source materials commonly used in police investigations and crime-scene reconstructions that he researched in German state and police archives. Messmer’s new and surprising ‘narrative’ examines how images once used as evidence in criminal cases can now provide a unique insight into our understanding of history. The installation highlights the early period between 1967 to 1977, showcasing images from the student protests in 1968, police re-enactments and an extensive collection of investigative, forensic and documentary photographs ranging from the mundane to the surreal.

RAF No Evidence/Kein Beweis (2017) by Arwed Messmer © Arwed Messmer: Compilation design and editing of the photographic material. Source: AM_PHS_SCHUPO_FILM 1933_19A_20A Berlin Police Historical Collection Kurfürstendamm, Berlin, 12.04.1968

RAF No Evidence/Kein Beweis (2017) by Arwed Messmer © Arwed Messmer: Compilation design and editing of the photographic material. Source: AM_PHS_SCHUPO_FILM 1933_19A_20A Berlin Police Historical Collection Kurfürstendamm, Berlin, 12.04.1968

In the German Autumn of 1977, I was 16 and punk rock was exploding across England. (It wasn’t the only thing that was exploding: here is a list of all the IRA attacks carried out in 1977 – long, isn’t it? If you didn’t live through that era you can’t imagine what it was like to turn on the evening news and read about a new terrorist attack in Northern Ireland, mainland Britain or Europe every night.)

The Clash’s first single White Riot was released in March that year and it seemed a completely appropriate soundtrack to an era of street disorder, to the terrorist shootings, bombings and assassinations which were the routine background to our lives. Baader, Ensslin and other members of the group had been arrested and imprisoned as early as 1972 but this didn’t stop other members of the extended group carrying out terrorist acts throughout the 1970s.

On 17 October 1977, in what came to be called the ‘Death Night’, Ensslin, Baader and Jan-Carl Raspe were found hanged in their cells at Stammheim Prison. The press ran features about the gang and I pinned atmospheric black-and-white photos of these university-educated would-be revolutionaries up on my bedroom wall, along with all the other symbols of the political chaos of the time.

As to Messmer’s display, this is on four walls of one room. On wall is dominated by an enormous blow-up of a black and white photo of student protester Benno Ohnesorg lying dead having been shot by Germany police during a student demo in June 1967, one of the increasingly violent events which crystallised the belief among some students that they, too, needed to take up arms in order to overthrow the West German capitalist, imperialist, patriarchal state.

Installation view of RAF – No Evidence / Kein Beweis by Arwed Messmer showing the bog photo of the death of Benno Ohnesorg and, on the bench in the foreground, the enormous book which the display is based on. Photo by the author

Installation view of RAF – No Evidence/Kein Beweis by Arwed Messmer showing the bog photo of the death of Benno Ohnesorg and, on the bench in the foreground, the enormous book which the display is based on. Photo by the author

Along the next wall are full-length mug shots of twenty or so student activists protesting at the state funeral of Reichstag President Paul Löbe in August 1967. They’re dressed in all kinds of comical outfits, some wearing make-up, so that it looks more like a parade of clowns and hippies than dangerous radicals. It was still the late ’60s. Hey, hey we’re the Monkees.

RAF No Evidence/Kein Beweis, 2017 by Arwed Messmer © Arwed Messmer: research, concept and editing; source: Berlin Police Historical Collection, 2018

RAF No Evidence/Kein Beweis, 2017 by Arwed Messmer © Arwed Messmer: research, concept and editing; source: Berlin Police Historical Collection, 2018

Jump forward ten long years to the period just before the Death Night.

The most evocative or eerie or disturbing element in the display, while at the same time being strangely banal, is an entire wall of photos taken inside the cells of Meinhof and Baader at Stammheim Prison at the time of their deaths.

What struck me was how comfy the cells look, with toothbrushes and rolling tobacco lying about and the walls packed with shelves full of books. It looks a lot like my son’s room at university, only tidier.

I noticed books by the usual suspects lying around, works by Marx and Lenin, of course, and then by the supposedly ‘softer’ Western Marxists such as Gramsci, Lukacs and Walter Benjamin.

Freedom through armed, anti-imperialist struggle.

Compared to other prison cells I’ve read about, compared to the Nazi death camps or the barracks in Russian gulags, this looks like the lap of luxury: hot and cold running water, as many books as you want and even – to my amazement – record players (I noticed a copy of Bob Dylan’s Blonde on Blonde in Meinhof’s cell).

RAF – No Evidence/Kein Beweis by Arwed Messmer showing the wall of photos depicting the inside of the Baader - Meinhof cells at Stammheim Prison

RAF – No Evidence/Kein Beweis by Arwed Messmer showing the wall of photos depicting the inside of the Baader – Meinhof cells at Stammheim Prison

My opinion

Does this installation offer a:

new and surprising ‘narrative’ [which] examines how images once used as evidence in criminal cases can now provide a unique insight into our understanding of history?

As with the Meiselas, I felt the display gave you the opposite of history and the opposite of understanding. I appreciate the aesthetic unity of the project; I appreciate in particular the visual uniformity of style and subject matter of the prison cell photos. Having them cover two walls does create a real sense of claustrophobia (tempered, as I’ve mentioned, by envy at their cracking book collection).

But the installation as a whole doesn’t, I think, begin to convey the mad craziness of the times and the power and persuasiveness of the anti-capitalist, anti-imperialist, student slogans which rang on in universities across the western world and continued to inspire the plane hijackings, the kidnapping and assassination of bankers and industrialists, or just the random acts of violence which dominated the decade.

The most illuminating thing I’ve read about the terrorist movements which raged through the 1970s are the relevant chapters of The Seventies Unplugged by Gerard DeGroot (2010). It’s a popular and non-scholarly book, but it’s impact lies in the interviews with ex-members of the terrorist groups in Italy, France and Germany who, to a man, feel nothing but shame and regret for the harm, damage and deaths they caused. The chapter in it about the Red Army Faction (pp.111-121) will tell you more about their motivation, their activities, and the regrets of the former members than anything in this display.

4. Artist and Society by Mark Ruwedel

Ruwedel was born in 1954 in America (thus two of the four entrants are Americans). His is the most straightforward display. After the bewilderingly complex moral, social and political issues raised by the multimedia installations, it’s quite a relief to come to a display in a photography exhibition which consists simply of… photographs.

Classic black and white photos of American landscapes and the American scene.

“Typical American House“, Nevada Test Site, Yucca Flat, Apple II Test Site, 1995 by Mark Ruwedel © Mark Ruwedel, 2018

‘Typical American House’, Nevada Test Site, Yucca Flat, Apple II Test Site, 1995 by Mark Ruwedel © Mark Ruwedel, 2018

The four walls of this room display beautifully composed, nicely framed, richly evocative black and white photos of a) abandoned houses in the desert b) the relics of military testing in the desert c) distinctively American houses lining Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles, and d) rivers running through ravines.

Hells Canyon (1999) by Mark Ruwedel © Mark Ruwedel, 2018

Hells Canyon (1999) by Mark Ruwedel © Mark Ruwedel, 2018

Reading the wall labels you discover these images are indeed collected into sets which have names:

  • Dusk a series showing empty houses and shacks in the bleak empty desert under the twilight sky
  • Pictures from Hell awe-inspiring landscapes which generations of settlers evocatively named Helltown, Devils Gardens, Hells Hollow or Devils Land
  • We All Loved Ruscha his homage to the artist Ed Ruscha, which recreates shots included in Ruscha’s 1966 book, Every Building on the Sunset Strip
  • Crater which depicts nuclear test sites in Nevada

I like going on long walks in the country, and I’ve been a fan of land artists like Richard Long from the moment I learned about them in the 1980s, and I am a big fan of the J.G. Ballard aesthetic of how Western civilisation is already living amidst its own ruins – so I warmed most of all to Ruwedel’s shots of eerily deserted bomb test sites.

Ruined old shacks in the desert I’ve seen loads of times; picturesque photos of canyons you can see in tourist promos for America’s national parks etc… but the strange metal and concrete shapes built by military forces for reasons long forgotten and long since abandoned… they do it for me every time.

Nevada Test Site 1995 by Mark Ruwedel © Mark Ruwedel, 2018

Nevada Test Site 1995 by Mark Ruwedel © Mark Ruwedel, 2018

Not to be outdone by the bookish competition, Ruwedel is also interested in the craft of photographic printing and the photograph-as-object, and this is demonstrated by a number of his hand-made artist’s books which are on show in a glass display case. Stylish.

My opinion

If the prize were awarded solely of the basis of photography – on a photographer’s skill in choosing great visual subjects, on the quality of composition, the framing, and the creation of atmosphere, I think Ruwedel would win the Deutsche Börse Photography Foundation Prize hands down.

But it isn’t. A ‘committed and engaged approach’ is a key criterion for winning the prize, and seen from a political-cultural perspective Ruwedel is the weakest entrant.

The Messmer project is, in my opinion, the next weakest in that the images he has dug up from the archives are certainly intriguing and often striking (the mugshots of 1967 protesters dressed as clowns and freaks) but you had to know a bit about the subject matter first for it to really make sense.

The Susan Meiselas I have already discussed at length, and I suppose is worthy, thorough, deeply engaged, but – in my opinion – flawed.

Which leaves Laia Abril as the likely winner, for several reasons. One is the universal applicability of her subject – the politics of sexual reproduction, the issue of control of women’s bodies, by definition affects at least half the world’s population.

But it’s not just about the emotive subject matter, and her evident commitment to it. It’s also about her skill as a photographer. The emotion Abril gets into the gaunt, haunted portraits of her abortion-traumatised women makes a lasting impact that grows in the memory. Just that one photo of handcuffs attached to a metal bedstead is hard to forget, both as a story, and because it is such a skillful visual composition.

Altogether, regarded as a socio-political art project, I think Abril’s one really does show the fullest, most rounded breadth and depth – ranging from photos of the horrible implements used in back street abortions, to the stark images of women affected by repressive legislation here and now.

If I were a gambling man, I’d bet that Abril will win the prize on 16 May.

Curator

Curated by Anna Dannemann from The Photographers’ Gallery.


Related links

Reviews of other photography exhibitions

The Seventies Unplugged by Gerard DeGroot (2010)

This is a popular history of an unpopular decade. It doesn’t attempt to be a comprehensive overview but instead looks at the years from 1970 to 1979 through 50 representative stories, told in short sections – hence the sub-title ‘A kaleidoscopic look at a violent decade‘.

It’s a light, easy read, like a sequence of interesting magazine articles. DeGroot has an appealingly open, lucid style. He tells his stories quickly and effectively and doesn’t hold back on frequently pungent comments.

The three opening stories each in their way epitomise the end of the utopian dreams of pop culture of the 1960s:

  • the Charlie Manson killings (overnight hippies became scary)
  • the death of Jimi Hendrix (after four short years of amazing success and innovation, Hendrix admitted to feeling played out, with nowhere new to take his music)
  • the marriage of Mick Jagger to Bianca Pérez-Mora Macias (the street-fighting man turns into a leading member of the jet set, hobnobbing with Princess Margaret in Antibes etc)

These eye-catching and rather tired items are obviously aimed at a baby boomer, pop and rock audience and I wondered whether it would all be at this level…

70s terrorism

But it gets more meaty as soon as DeGroot begins an analysis of what he considers the 1970s’ distinguishing feature: political violence. In almost every industrialised country small groups of Marxists, visionaries or misfits coalesced around the idea that the ‘system’ was in crisis, and all it needed was a nudge, just one or two violent events, to push it over into complete collapse and to provoke the Glorious Revolution. They included:

  • The Angry Brigade (UK) – bombed the fashionable boutique BIBA on May Day 1971 and went on to carry out 25 bombings between 1970 and 1972.
  • The Weather Underground (US) 1969-77, carry out various violent attacks, while living on the run.
  • The Baader-Meinhof Gang / Red Army Faction carried out a series of violent bombings, shootings and assassinations across Germany, peaking in its May Offensive of 1972.
  • ETA – between 1973 and 1982 responsible for 371 deaths, 542 injuries, 50 kidnappings and hundreds of other explosions in their quest for independence for Spain’s Basque country.
  • The dire events of Bloody Sunday when British paratroopers shot dead 13 unarmed protesters, a decisive recruiting sergeant for the IRA, which embarked on a 20-year campaign of bombings and shootings, euphemistically referred to as The Troubles leavnig some 3,500 dead and nearly 50,000 injured.
  • Palestinian terrorists (the Black September Organisation) kidnapped then murdered 11 Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics in September 1972.
  • The May 1978 murder of former Italian Prime Minister, Aldo Moro, by the Red Brigades. During the 1970s Italy suffered over 8,000 terrorist incidents, kidnappings, bombings and shootings.

These Marxist groups:

  • concluded that, after the failure of the student movements and the May 1968 events in France, non-violent revolution was doomed to failure; therefore, only violence could overthrow the system
  • modelled themselves on Third World liberation movements, on Mao’s peasant philosophy or Che Guevara’s jungle notes – neither remotely relevant to advanced industrialised nations
  • were disgusted with the shallowness of Western consumerist society, they thought violent spectacles would ‘awaken’ a proletariat drugged with fashion and pop music, awaken them to the true reality of their servitude and exploitation and prompt the Revolution:
    • partly because it would make the people realise the system is not all-encompassing, does not have all the answers, is not monolithic, is in fact very vulnerable
    • partly because violent acts would goad the authorities to violent counter-measures which would radicalise the population, forcing them to choose – Reaction or Revolution
  • also thought that violent action would purify its protagonists, liberating them from their petit bourgeois hang-ups, transforming them into ‘new men and women’ ie lots of the terrorists were seeking escape from very personal problems

BUT, as DeGroot so cogently puts it – after detailed analyses of these movements – they all discovered the same bitter truth: that political violence only works in the context of a general social revolt (p.29). Terrorist violence can catalyse and focus a broad movement of unrest, but it cannot bring that movement into being. A few bombings are no replacement for the hard work of creating large-scale political movements.

The terrorists thought a few bombs and assassinations would provide the vital catalyst needed to ‘smash the system’, the dashing example of a few leather-jacketed desperadoes with machine guns would be all that the deluded proletariat required to wake them from their consumerist slumber, rise up and throw off their chains.

But the great mass of the people didn’t share the terrorists’ millenarian delusions and so these gangs ended up simply creating fear, killing and maiming people, in Ireland, Italy, Germany and Spain, for no gain at all.

  • The terrorists were not personally transformed; more often than not they felt guilt – it is quite moving to read the clips from the interviews and memoirs of surviving gang members which DeGroot liberally quotes – some obstinate millenarians to the end, but quite a few overcome with regret and remorse for their actions.
  • The proletariat did NOT suddenly wake from their slumber and realise the police state was its oppressor, quite the reverse: the people turned to the police state to protect them from what seemed (and often was) arbitrary and pointless acts of violence.
  • Worst of all, the gangs found themselves trapped on a treadmill of violence, for a terrorist organisation cannot go ‘soft’ or it loses its raison d’etre: ‘an organisation defined by terror needs to kill in order to keep mediocrity at bay.’ (p.155) Often they kept on killing long after realising it was pointless.

It’s 40 years later and none of the terrorist groups listed above achieved their goals. The opposite. They wanted to provoke a reaction from the Right and they did. Along with the broader political and cultural movements of the Left, they did provoke a profound counter-response from the Right, epitomised (in the Anglo-Saxon countries) by the elections of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, leading to and/or reflecting a profound and permanent shift to the right in all the economically advanced countries.


State terror

All that said, terrorist violence was dwarfed by state violence during the period.

  • I had never read an account of the Bangladesh Liberation War of 1971: ie West Pakistan sending its army into East Pakistan/Bangladesh with the explicit purpose of slaughtering as many civilians as it could. It beggars belief that the head of the Pakistan Army said, If we kill three million the rest will do whatever we want. In the event, well over a million Bangladeshis were murdered. 10 million fled to India, before Mrs Gandhi was forced to intervene to put an end to the massacres, and out of this abattoir emerged the new nation of Bangladesh.
  • On 11 September 1973 in Chile General Pinochet overthrew the communist government of Salvador Allende, who was strafed by planes from his own air force inside the presidential palace, before committing suicide. Pinochet’s dictatorship (1973-90) was characterised by suspension of human rights with thousands being murdered, and hundreds of thousands imprisoned and tortured.
  • The Vietnam War dragged on and on, the Americans incapable of ‘winning’ but the North Vietnamese not strong enough to ‘win’. Anywhere between 1.5 and 3 million died, hundreds of thousands in America’s savage bombing campaigns. Nixon finally withdrew all US forces in 1974, leaving the South to collapse into chaos and corruption before being overrun and conquered by the communist North in 1975, leaving scars which haunt America to this day. And Vietnam.
  • Up to 500,000 people were murdered during the brutal eight-year rule of Ugandan dictator, Idi Amin (1971-79).
  • The brutal military dictatorship of the Colonels in Greece lasted from 1967 to 1974, supported by America while it suppressed democracy, human rights and a free press. The dictatorship only ended when it supported the military coup of Nikos Sampson on Cyprus, designed to unite the island with mainland Greece but which prompted the disastrous invasion of the north of the island by the Turkish Army, leading to the partition of Cyprus which continues to this day.
  • Between 1975 and 1979 the Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia (which the Khmers renamed Kampuchea) murdered some 2 million of its own citizens, a quarter of the country’s population, in its demented drive to return the country to pre-industrial, pre-western peasant purity.
  • The June 16 Soweto uprising in 1976 saw tens of thousands of black South African schoolchildren protesting against Afrikaans, the language of their white oppressors, being made the compulsory language of education. The apartheid authorities responded by unleashing their dogs and shooting into the crowds, killing 176 and wounding around 1,000. When anti-apartheid campaigner Steve Biko was murdered in the custody of the SA police, a crime which galvanised opinion in South Africa and abroad, leading to the book and film about his life, and an intensification of sanctions against South Africa.

Social issues

Racism Vast subject. DeGroot concentrates on the UK and mentions Enoch Powell’s River of Blood speech in April 1968. I hadn’t realised Powell remained quite so popular for quite so long afterwards, well into the 1970s he polled as the most popular British politician, and DeGroot points out the regrettable rise of racism in the 1970s, from David Bowie and Eric Clapton to the founding of the National Front (est. 1967), which prompted the response of Rock Against Racism (est. 1976) and the Anti-Nazi League (est. 1977). A lot of marching, chanting and street fighting.

Drugs Year on year, heroin killed more young Americans than the war in Vietnam. Marijuana use had become widespread by the mid-1970s, with one estimate that 40% of teens smoked it at least once a month. DeGroot’s article describes the way all the government agencies overlooked the fact that cocaine was becoming the big issue: because it was predominantly a white middle-class drug, it was neglected until it was too late, until the later 1970s when they woke up to the fact that Colombian cartels had set up a massive production and supply infrastructure and were dealing in billions of dollars. ‘While Reagan strutted, Americans snorted’ (p.271)

Feminism Another vast subject, which DeGroot illuminates with snapshots, generating oblique insights from some of the peripheral stories in this huge social movement:

  • The high profile ‘Battle of the Sexes’ tennis match between the 55-year-old former world number one and male chauvinist, Bobby Riggs, and 29-year-old women’s number one Billie Jean King. King won and to this day meets women who were young at the time, and who tell her that her example made them determined not to be put off by men, but to go for their dreams.
  • I had never heard of Marabel Morgan and her hugely bestselling book, Total Woman, which takes a devoutly Christian basis for arguing that the path to married bliss is for a woman to completely submit herself to her husband’s wishes. DeGroot makes the far-reaching point that the weak spot in feminism is that a lot of women don’t want to be high-powered executives or politicians, but are reasonably happy becoming mothers and housewives. Moreover, feminists who routinely describe being a mother as some kind of slavery, seriously undervalue the importance, and creativity, and fulfilment to be gained from motherhood.

The silent majority

This leads nicely into his consideration of the rise of the ‘silent majority’ and then the Moral Majority. The phrase ‘the silent majority’ had been around since the 19th century (when it referred to the legions of the dead). It was Richard Nixon’s use of it in a speech in 1969 that prompted newspaper and magazine articles and its widespread popularisation. Nixon was trying to rally support from everyone fed up with student protests, campus unrest, long-haired layabouts, the spread of drugs, revolutionary violence and the rest of it.

The Moral Majority was founded as a movement as late as 1979, from various right-wing Christian fundamentalist organisations. If you’re young or left-wing it’s easy to assume your beliefs will triumph because they’re self-evidently right. I found this section of DeGroot’s book particularly interesting as a reminder (it is after all only a few short, but thought-provoking articles, not a book-length analysis) of the power and numerical supremacy of the people who didn’t want a violent revolution, didn’t want the overthrow of existing gender roles, didn’t want the destruction of business in the name of some dope-smoking utopia, who largely enjoyed and benefited from capitalism, from a stable society, an effective police force, the rule of law and notions of property which allowed them to save up to own their own home, a large fridge-freezer and two cars.


Science and technology

Space race I was galvanised when I read JG Ballard’s remark, decades ago, that the Space Age only lasted a few years, from the moon landing (Apollo 11, July 20 1969) to the final Apollo mission (Apollo 17, December 1972). As a teenager besotted with science fiction, I assumed space exploration would go on forever, the Moon, Mars, and then other solar systems! DeGroot’s account rams home the notion that it was all a delusion. He is critical of NASA’s insistence on manned space flights which cost hugely more than unmanned missions. The retirement of the Space Shuttle in 2011 was another nail in the coffin into which fantasies of interplanetary flight have been laid.

Environment Through the prisms of the dioxin disaster at Seveso and the major nuclear incident at Three Mile Island, DeGroot makes the point that environmentalism (along with feminism, anti-racism and gay rights) was one of the big causes of the 1970s, virtually non-existent at the start of the decade, enshrined in law across most industrialised countries by the end.


The economy and industry

This is the big, big gap in this book: it’s entertaining enough to read articles about Mohammed Ali or Billie Jean King or the early computer game, Pong – but it’s a major omission in a history of the 1970s not to have sections about the 1973 oil crisis, the resulting three-day week, the extraordinarily high level of strikes throughout the decade, leading up to what many people thought was the actual collapse of society in the Winter of Discontent (1978/79) and, beneath it all, the slow relentless shift in western nations from being heavily-industrialised, heavily-unionised economies to becoming post-industrial, service economies.

Big shame that DeGroot didn’t bring to these heavyweight topics the combination of deftly-chosen anecdote with pithy analysis which he applies to other, far less important, subjects.


The end of the world

I grew up in the 1970s, into awareness that the world could be destroyed at any moment, the world and all life forms on it, destroyed many times over if the old men with their fingers on the button made a mistake. DeGroot goes into detail about the effectiveness of the doctrine of Mutually Assured Destruction and the sequence of meetings and agreements between America and the USSR – the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks and Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaties – which were reported with breathless excitement throughout the decade.

What he doesn’t convey is the moral climate this created, or rather the immoral climate, of living in a world where you, all your loved ones, and everything you held dear could, potentially, at any moment, be turned to glowing dust.

The threat of complete global destruction provided the grim backdrop against which a steady stream of horrific news about dictators and tyrants, about massacres and holocausts, was garishly lit by the smaller-scale murders and bombings of the IRA or ETA, all creating a climate of violence and futility. Mix in the oil crises of 1973 and 1978, the widespread and endless strikes, the high unemployment and the fundamental economic crises which afflicted all Western countries throughout the 70s, and you have a decade of despair.


Music of anger

My biggest disagreement with DeGroot is about the significance of punk rock (1976-78). For a start, he mixes up the American and British versions, which reflect completely different societies, mentioning Blondie and the Clash in the same breath. The British version was genuinely nihilistic and despairing. Television or the Ramones always had the redemptive glamour of coming from New York; the English bands always knew they came from Bolton or Bromley, but turned their origins in dead-end, derelict post-industrial shitholes into something to be angry or depressed, but always honest about.

Like so many wise elders at the time, DeGroot loftily points out how musically inept most of the self-taught punk bands were – as if rock music should only be produced by classically-trained musicians. He completely fails to see that the music, the look and the attitude were the angry and entirely logical result of growing up into the violently hopeless society which our parents had created and which, ironically, he has done such a good job of portraying in his long, readable, and often desperately depressing book.

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