The Black Bloc: Autonomous Movement(s) in Europe

April 24, 2024
Jessa Mellea  —  CEP Intern

Left-wing extremism and terrorism remain a significant form of ideologically motivated violence. Transnational connectivity and loose, leaderless networks—both offline and online—are key elements of this milieu’s operations. As with other extremist and terrorist phenomena that use these structures, this organizational structure presents challenges to security authorities. This blog is the fourth in a short series in which CEP aims to highlight the distinguishing characteristics of this extremist and terrorist movement and address individual case studies. Previous blog entries in this series can be found here, here, and here. 

The Autonome (Autonomous) movement, sometimes categorized as a subculture, ideology, or network of groups, exemplifies the fluidity of the left-wing extremist milieu in Europe. Despite being officially recognized as a threat by German and Austrian domestic intelligence agencies, this extremist phenomenon is little known outside of this context. The autonomous scene is internally highly diverse and has inspired offshoot groups with similar ideologies, as well as ideologically opposing groups that co-opt autonomous tactics and visuals. 

Autonomous groups make up a significant part of the left-wing extremist scene in German-speaking countries in Europe. While the name derives from the Italian worker’s movement Autonomia Operaia, the Autonomous movement emerged in its present form in 1980s Germany. The movement grew out of the “Spontis,” an anti-authoritarian youth movement that emphasized organizational autonomy. 

Autonomous ideology is highly malleable and rarely articulates a uniform, concrete set of political goals. In general, autonomists reject the state in its entirety, advocating instead for the freedom to have a wholly self-determined life, sometimes called “first-person politics” (Politik der ersten Person). This complete rejection of the state includes the dismissal of communism and socialism as viable political options, as both typically involve state structures as the formal expression of their ideological tenets. Violence is often considered a legitimate, and even necessary, form of political action, particularly against the state. Violent actions are justified as defensive actions against perceived state oppression. 

The Autonomous scene broadly overlaps with many other subcurrents of the left-wing extremist milieu. Publications and adherents often endorse anti-fascist, anarchist, and other progressive movements and groups, emphasizing the need for solidarity actions with marginalized groups. While autonomists align with the movement’s principles of individual autonomy and liberation from oppression based on race, sex, and class, the movement remains ideologically heterogeneous and has splintered over certain political issues. Some left-wing extremist groups also take on multiple monikers, such as “Autonomous anti-fascists,” illustrating how these strains of ideology regularly intermix. 

In accordance with their anti-authoritarian beliefs, autonomists coalesce in loose groups that are not governed by hierarchies or strict structures. As with many other elements of the left-wing extremist milieu, groups are not static but form and re-form semi-spontaneously. While some autonomists make efforts to create networks to coordinate activities, traditional autonomists have historically struggled to organize themselves on a larger scale. 

Autonomists typically adopt a distinctive aesthetic style at protests and other demonstrations. Wearing all black clothing and often masks, adherents form a “black bloc.” Demonstrations frequently turn into violent riots or clashes with the police—notably, at the 2017 G20 summit in Hamburg

Freiräume, or “free spaces,” are also a central component of the Autonomous movement. These groups declare free spaces as sites where autonomists can live according to their ideals outside of the power of the state and without surveillance, often manifesting as squats in abandoned buildings or shared living situations. The largest free spaces are typically in cities with a large autonomous presence, such as Berlin and Hamburg

These free spaces have been frequent vectors of violence, typically provoked by real estate companies’ threats of eviction or perceived state incursions into the free space. Autonomists have responded to the construction of new buildings near free spaces with property damage and destruction of construction equipment. When one free space house in Berlin was facing eviction in 2020, the occupants barricaded themselves inside the squat and hundreds of supporters protested outside, some of whom attacked police forces and vehicles with stones, bottles, and improvised incendiary devices. In 2021, violence broke out again when residents of a free space refused to allow a fire inspector entry into the house and police attempted to enter by force. 

Since the early 2000s, the “post-Autonomous” scene has emerged as a slightly more structured but ideologically similar movement. Groups such as the Interventionistische Linke (Interventionist Left, or IL) aim to bring many factions of the radical left into a strategic alliance. Like the Autonomous movement, the post-Autonomous scene does not articulate a concrete ideology or have a clear organizational structure. Some groups, including IL, have several spokespeople who interact with media and reporters. Generally, the post-Autonomous scene neither endorses nor condemns political violence. Rather, it has attempted to bridge the gap between radical left-wing groups and mainstream leftist political organizations. 

The Autonomous movement has also inspired similarly structured right-wing movements. The Autonome Nationalisten, or Autonomous Nationalists (AN), a neo-Nazi movement that originated in the 2000s in western Germany, strategically took on the structures, tactics, and aesthetics of left-wing extremist movements. This shift was tactical, aiming to recruit more young people to the movement and prevent police infiltration. Much like autonomists, members of the movement form a “black bloc” at demonstrations and even wear traditionally left-wing symbols, such as clothing featuring Che Guevara or keffiyehs. The movement is characterized by its militancy and particularly extreme ideology. 

Despite the Autonomous movement’s loosely-defined ideology, it and its offshoots have had a notable impact on both the left- and right-wing German-speaking European extremist milieu. Due to its nebulous and insular nature, understanding the Autonomous scene and preventing its violence remains a challenge for security authorities.

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