Date of Award


Document Type

Campus Access Thesis

Degree Name

Master of Arts (MA)



First Advisor

Maria John

Second Advisor

Paul Bookbinder

Third Advisor

Elizabeth McCahill


The Ghosts of Empires Past is a study of Cold War neo-imperialism and its effects on left-wing terrorist organizations of the 1970s. Specifically, this is a study of the reasons why Cold War neo-imperialism led to a rise of particular forms of violence among leftist terrorist organizations of the time. By focusing on the example of the German Red Army Faction (RAF) and its allied organizations, this thesis argues that the international military, economic, and governmental interventions by the dual-powers limited opportunities for democratic participation in a multitude of recovering nations and regions thus popularizing violent means of political change. In response to the rise of American and Soviet influence during the Cold War and the establishment of a dual-power system in that time, which stratified the globe into a first (US aligned), second (Soviet-aligned), and third (non-aligned) world system, left-wing organizations like the RAF sought to expose this increasing political and military presence, as well as the differences between the rhetoric and the realities of American and Soviet policies. Across the globe, New Left organizations like the RAF set out most especially, to expose how this world system amounted to a form of neo-imperialism, and thus proved no better than forms of dominance exerted by empires past. New Left groups soon found that traditional means of protest and revolution were decreasing in effectiveness due to the size and scope of Cold War governments, militaries, and police forces. The writings of journalist and RAF member Ulrike Meinhof and others demonstrate that the violent actions taken by the RAF and its allied groups, were a direct response to US and Soviet policies and presence across the third world, which they interpreted and experienced as neo-imperialist. Contrary to long-standing assumptions that New Left violence in the 1970s was mere youthful rebellion, this thesis demonstrates that the writings, targets, and goals of the Red Army Faction and their international peers in Palestine, Northern Ireland, and the United States clearly indicate a common denominator in the rise of secular, left-wing terrorism during the Cold War was American and Soviet neo-imperialism.


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