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”.
Many of the young people who protested elsewhere in the world in 1968 had similarly utopian aspirations. But what made their counterparts in West Germany different was that they were also haunted by the Nazi past. I picked the title because it seemed to me to encapsulate this unique mentality of Germany’s 1968 generation. In particular, by making this contrast between an abstract idea (Utopia) and a specific place in the real world (Auschwitz), I was trying to capture the way the thinking of the 1968 generation in Germany developed in the space between an imaginary future and an all-too-real past. As I put in the book: the Achtundsechziger “did not merely dream of a better world as some of their counterparts in other countries did; they felt compelled to save Germany from itself. It was an all-or-nothing choice: Utopia or Auschwitz.”
As the story develops, however, it becomes clear that the choice between Utopia and Auschwitz is not quite as simple as it initially appears to the Achtundsechziger. Although Utopia and Auschwitz initially seem almost like antonyms, it soon becomes apparent that they are not so far apart from each other as one might at first think. Thus the 1968 generation’s thinking turned out to be more influenced by the thinking of their parents, the so-called “Auschwitz generation”, than they realised (I argue, for example, that there was an undercurrent of anti-Semitism within it). Conversely, Nazi thinking had utopian elements. In fact, Auschwitz itself in a sense epitomised their dream of a racial Utopia: Sibylle Steinbacher has shown how, situated within a part of Poland that was annexed to the German Reich rather than just occupied, it was originally meant to be a “model town” – the showcase of the Nazis’ plans to “Germanise” the East.
A pivotal moment in the story when this complicated relationship between Utopia and Auschwitz first becomes apparent comes when Jürgen Habermas – who sympathised with the student movement but was also troubled by its increasing use of direct action – debates its leaders at the congress in Hanover that took place after the death of Benno Ohnesorg in June 1967. Habermas famously said that Dutschke’s calls for the deliberate, systematic provication of state violence represented a “voluntarist ideology” that during the revolutions of 1848 would have been called “utopian socialism” and could now be described as “left-wing fascism”. Habermas’s intervention – and the story of the Achtundsechziger as a whole – illustrates the way that utopianism can turn into fascism. However, I did not intend to suggest that utopianism automatically leads to fascism. In other words, the book wasn’t meant to be a critique of utopian thinking in general but rather of the German 1968 generation’s particular version of it.