Sukhdev Sandhu is fascinated by an account of German Sixties radicals who turned to violence
By Sukhdev Sandhu
Published: 5:00AM GMT 02 Jan 2010
Karl Marx once claimed that shame was a revolutionary feeling. The generation of West Germans who came of age in the Sixties, and whose political struggles are brilliantly brought to life in Hans Kundnani’s Utopia or Auschwitz, certainly felt ashamed. Since the start of that decade, when news broadcasts of the Eichmann trial had punctured the culture of silence that had developed around the Holocaust and brought into people’s living rooms an endless litany of the foul crimes committed in their name, it seemed to many that post-war German society was built “on top of a pile of corpses”.
A blunt question, asked by the philosopher Theodor Adorno in 1966, was “whether, after Auschwitz, you can go on living”. He went on to argue that, faced with the infernal immensity of what had gone on in the death camps, “mere survival calls for the coldness, the basic principle of bourgeois subjectivity, without which there could have been no Auschwitz; this is the drastic guilt of him who was spared”. This “drastic guilt” led younger West Germans to fear that, deep within themselves, there existed the demon seed of fascism.
In order to exorcise these traces of “little Hitlerism” they embarked on a radical reassessment of the moral hygiene of the increasingly prosperous state in which they lived. Socially conservative, increasingly bureaucratic, authoritarian by instinct: the Federal Republic, they decided – in what Kundnani calls the “continuity thesis” – shared the same mindset as pre-War fascism. This perception drove a growing body of college students, Leftists and activists to embark on a movement that was at least as moral as it was political, less a version of the utopian projects being hatched in Paris or Berkeley than a last-ditch salvage operation to save Germany from itself.
This position was sometimes couched in melodramatic and even self-pitying terms. It wasn’t unknown for radicals to describe young West Germans as the “new Jews”. It also led to a good deal of reading: Kundnani portrays them as anxious worrywarts who spent all their free time poring over Habermas and Marcuse. But it also led to a siege mentality, a sense of apocalyptic survivalism even, such that the idea of using violence against the state – its officials, military centres, media representatives – became commonplace.
Kundnani is very acute on the international contexts for this bloody turn. West Germans, used to seeing the United States as their protector, were appalled by the nightly carnage in Vietnam carried out in the name of anti-Communism. They sought inspiration from global resistance movements, publishing translations of American Black Power texts, looking up to non-aligned regimes in Albania and China, drawing on the Maoist notion of the “Long March through the institutions” to explain their decision to use university campuses as pivotal sites for intellectual regime change, modelling themselves on the urban guerrilla tactics of the Tupamaros in Uruguay.
Just as important as Vietnam was Israel. The Six-Day War, and its quashing of Arab nationalist aspirations, made many young Germans turn against the Jewish state, which they regarded as being almost as imperialist as the US. One of the most discomfiting, but also valuable, aspects of Utopia or Auschwitz is its refusal to whitewash the recurring strains of anti-Semitism evident among sections of German radicals. Bombs were planted at Jewish community centres in Berlin, graveyards desecrated, old people’s homes set on fire. Support for Palestinian liberation soon curdled into support for hijackings and the assassination of “selected” Jewish passengers on an Air France flight held at Entebbe in 1976.
Perhaps it was that moment, even more than the prison suicides of Andreas Baader and Gudrun Ensslin in 1977, that catalysed German radicals into rethinking their goals and strategies. The second part of Kundnani’s book traces the steady emergence of “constitutional patriotism” among intellectuals and the challenges they faced in trying to adapt their political beliefs to better suit the emergence of the Green movement. Reunification too, when it arrived, brought East Germans who weren’t Left-wing insurgents in waiting, but were keen to embrace consumer capitalism.
Auschwitz or Utopia is a timely publication. The success of The Baader Meinhof Complex film, together with a broader resurgence of interest in Left-wing radical groupings of the Sixties and Seventies, has created an appetite for such exemplary syntheses of high-end political journalism and academic scholarship. It’s a narrative that, given the comparative sturdiness of the German economy in the face of global recession, Kundnani might easily have portrayed in triumphalist terms. Instead, he points out that Joschka Fischer, photographed attacking a policeman in Frankfurt in 1974, has recently been inveighing against the state of emergency created by a new terror movement: radical Islam.
Utopia or Auschwitz: Germany’s 1968 Generation and the Holocaust by Hans Kundnani
320pp, C Hurst, £16.99 T £14.99 (PLUS £1.25 p&p)