Published September 3, 2012
1968 generation , film
I recently read Quinn Slobodian’s book Foreign Front, which I was reviewing for the TLS. It is mainly about the role that students from Africa, Asia and Latin America played in the West German New Left in the 1960s and the complex relationship between intellectuals in the West and revolutionaries in the Third World. But it also includes a discussion of the early work of the German filmmaker Harun Farocki. I’d known Farocki was of Indian origin. But until reading Slobodian’s book, I hadn’t realised that his father was a supporter of Subhas Chandra Bose, the Indian nationalist leader who went to Berlin during World War II and formed an alliance with the Nazis. That fact makes Farocki a particularly interesting figure who links the story of Germany’s 1968 generation with the story of the Indian independence movement.
Continue reading ‘Farocki’s father’
I was pleased to see a review of Utopia or Auschwitz in the journal Holocaust and Genocide Studies, which is published by the United States Holocaust Museum. The reviewer, Philip Spencer, raises the interesting question of whether the West German student movement misunderstood Theodor Adorno and the Frankfurt School’s interpretation of the Nazi past. Spencer says the Frankfurt School had a “sophisticated” view of the Holocaust as a “radical break” whereas the student movement “over-generalized” the Holocaust so that it became “only one case of genocide among many”. I think this is basically right. But it also seems to me, though perhaps I didn’t bring this out clearly enough in the book, that the tension between these two views of the Holocaust existed within the work of Adorno himself. So perhaps the student movement didn’t so much distort Adorno as read him selectively.
Continue reading ‘Adorno and the Holocaust’
In a previous post I said that my book, Utopia or Auschwitz, was meant to be a story of one example of utopian thinking by a particular group of people at a particular time in a particular place rather than a critique of utopian thinking in general. Although I thought the story of the Achtundsechziger illustrated some of the dangers of utopianism, I didn’t want to make generalisations based on it. However, since I wrote the book, I have been thinking more about utopianism in general. In particular, I recently read an interesting essay by Michael Walzer (editor of Dissent and author of Just and Unjust Wars) who argues that although utopian aspiration can be dangerous, it is also essential in order to check liberal democracy’s inherent tendency towards authoritarianism and hierarchy. “Without the steady pressure, or, better the intermittent uprisings, of men and women in pursuit of some ideal of justice, liberalism will give us only oligarchs and plutocrats”, he writes.
Continue reading ‘Utopianism and liberalism’
I’ve been fascinated by Horst Mahler – who, it has just emerged, may have been a Stasi informant in the 1960s – since I wrote a profile of him for The Times in 2003. The son of a Nazi, he became a socialist lawyer in the 1960s and represented leaders of the West German student movement such as Rudi Dutschke. After its collapse, he founded the Red Army Faction (RAF), the West German left-wing terrorist group, and spent the whole of the 1970s in prison until he was released with the help of another young left-wing lawyer named Gerhard Schröder. Just after Schröder became Germany’s Social Democrat chancellor in 1998, Mahler became a neo-Nazi and represented the far-right NPD. He is now in prison serving a seven-year sentence for denying the Holocaust – a criminal offence in Germany. But what, if anything, does his strange political journey tell us?
Continue reading ‘German ideology and pathology’
For a while now, I’ve wondered whether there is a shift taking place in Germany’s attitude to the Nazi past. It seems to me, although it is of course diffcult to prove this in a scientific way, that, rightly or wrongly, Germany increasingly sees itself as a “normal” country for which Nazism and in particular the Holocaust is no longer of special relevance. So when I was in Berlin this week, I was interested to see the cover story in the magazine of the weekly newspaper Die Zeit about attitudes to the Nazi past among German teenagers. The headline was: “Was geht das mich noch an?” or “What’s it got to do with me?” The analysis was based on an attitude survey of 14-19 year-olds, most of whom affirmed the importance of ongoing remembrance. But, more worryingly, teachers interviewed for the article also said their students were often uninterested in the Holocaust or even, when shown photos of mass executions, expressed sympathy for the perpetrators rather than the victims.
Continue reading ‘What’s it got to do with me?’
Published October 23, 2010
Tags: 1968, London
Although Paul Celan is my favourite poet, I was somehow unaware of his poem, “Mapesbury Road”, which refers to a street that is about five minutes from where I live in north-west London and was written in 1968 immediately after the death of Martin Luther King and the attempted assassination of West German student leader Rudi Dutschke. As I learned from a fascinating programme on Radio 4 about the short poem last week, Celan’s paternal aunt Berta Antschel – one of the few relatives of his who had survived the Holocaust – lived in a flat in the eponymous street, where Celan visited her in April 1968 and wrote the poem, which was published posthumously in the collection Schneepart in 1971. Like most of Celan’s late poems, it is incredibly dense with compound words (e.g. “Mitluft”, which Michael Hamburger translates as “co-air”) and therefore difficult to decipher. As George Steiner says in the programme, Celan’s poems are “on the other side of our current horizons”.
Continue reading ‘Celan in London’
Yascha Mounk’s review of my book, which appeared in n+1 (a hip Brooklyn-based magazine set up by novelist Benjamin Kunkel) last week, was one of the most illuminating and thought-provoking I’ve read. Mounk brilliantly explains the argument of the book but also makes several points that I guess were implicit in the book but which I hadn’t seen quite so clearly until I read his review. Perhaps the most interesting relates to post-war Germany’s search for what he calls a “moment of redemption”. For the West German centre right, this moment was 1945, which they thought of as “zero hour” – in other words what Mounk calls a “clear moment of rupture” with the Nazi past. The Achtundsechziger, on the other hand, rejected this idea of a clear break and devoted much energy to pointing out the continuities between the Third Reich and the Federal Republic. (They were to some extent right; they went wrong, I argue in the book, when they went from the individual to the structural level.)
Continue reading ‘Moments of redemption’
The central argument of my book, Utopia or Auschwitz, is that there were two distinct and contradictory currents within the West German student movement and more broadly within the West German New Left that viewed at the Nazi past in diametrically opposite ways: on the one hand, a current that put engagement with the Nazi past and in particular the Holocaust at the centre of its idea of German identity and saw Germany as a nation of perpetrators; and on the other hand a current that sought to draw a line under the Nazi past and in particular the Holocaust and saw Germany as a nation of victims. The first, more familiar current tended to think of its “struggle” as “resistance” – a key concept among the Achtundsechziger – against fascism. But since the book was published – and in particular since reading Martin Klimke’s excellent book The Other Alliance, which I recently reviewed for the TLS – I’ve realised that those belonging to the second, less familiar current used another quite different concept of “resistance” that was derived not so much from the Nazi past as from black and Third World liberation movements.
Continue reading ‘The rhetoric of resistance’
My colleague Justin Vaïsse has just published an illuminating new history (it was published in French a few years ago but just came out in English) of the American neoconservative movement , which, he argues, can be divided into three distinct phases. First, between 1967 and the mid-seventies, it was a movement of left-wing New York intellectuals who were preoccupied with domestic issues and in particular critical of liberal social policy. Second, from the mid-seventies through to the end of the eighties, it was a movement of centrist Democrat activists who opposed the isolationist turn of the party on foreign policy under McGovern and Carter but also rejected Kissinger’s policy of détente with the Soviet Union. Finally, from the mid-nineties onwards, it was a movement of right-wing Republicans who believed in a “neo-Reaganite” foreign policy and in particular in the use of American power to promote democracy in the post-Cold War world – including, of course, in Iraq.
Continue reading ‘Neoconservatism and the New Left’
Since my book, Utopia or Auschwitz, was published last year, several people have asked me about the title. What exactly did I mean by Utopia and what was I trying to say about utopianism and its relationship with Nazism? At one level, the Utopia of the title stood simply for the aspirations that the 1968 generation in Germany shared with protest movements around the world in 1968. But I also had in mind a more specific meaning that Utopia has in Marxist theory. Marx and Engels coined the term “utopian socialism” in the nineteenth century as a contrast to their own version of socialism, based on dialectical materialism, which they called “scientific”. In the twentieth century, however, Marxist thinkers attempted to revive and reclaim the concept. In particular, Rudi Dutschke, one of the leaders of the West German student movement, was deeply influenced by Ernst Bloch, who developed the idea of “concrete Utopia”.
Continue reading ‘Utopia/Auschwitz’