Tony Judt’s 1968

In the latest essay in the series that began with the extraordinary piece, “Night”, that I mentioned in a previous post, Tony Judt shares his memories of 1968 and its aftermath on the NYRB blog. I particularly liked his description of the “unutterably serious” revolutionaries he came across on a visit to West Germany and their attempts to purge the Nazi past through free love:

The notion that a twenty-year-old in Western Europe might exorcise his parents’ guilt by stripping himself (and his partner) of clothes and inhibitions—metaphorically casting off the symbols of repressive tolerance—struck my empirical English leftism as somewhat suspicious. How fortunate that anti-Nazism required—indeed, was defined by—serial orgasm. But on reflection, who was I to complain? A Cambridge student whose political universe was bounded by deferential policemen and the clean conscience of a victorious, unoccupied country was perhaps ill-placed to assess other peoples’ purgative strategies.

I didn’t experience 1968 first hand as Judt did – in fact, I wasn’t even born in 1968. But when I was doing research for my book on Germany’s 1968 generation, I had exactly the same sense of alienation (to use an appropriately Marxist term) from these intense revolutionaries that Judt (who is, incidentally, exactly the same age as Joschka Fischer) describes. In any case, much of what Judt writes resonates with my view of the soixante-huitards. The only point he makes that I was unsure about was the idea that the West German revolutionaries were less theoretical than their French comrades; my impression was that the student movement in the Federal Republic was more influenced by theory than its counterparts almost anywhere else.

I also liked Judt’s previous post in which he talks about his “intense sentimental education” in Israel in the sixties. He spent summers on a kibbutz and served in the Israeli army on the Golan Heights immediately  after the Six-Day War. Interestingly, he says that living in Israel at that time made him “immune to the enthusiasms and seductions of the New Left” – whereas his non-Jewish comrades in Britain, France or West Germany dreamed of a socialist Utopia, he had in effect experienced one first hand. Many among the 1968 generation, Jews and non-Jews, turned against Israel in the aftermath of the Six-Day War. What makes Judt’s increasing disillusionment with the Jewish state unusual is that it was based on direct experience rather than ideology.

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