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.
The West German student movement was deeply influenced by Third World national liberation movements from the Vietcong to the PLO. In the book, I argued that this sense of solidarity with national liberation movements came above all from that part of the student movement that was less interested in the Nazi past and the Holocaust – and above all from Rudi Dutschke, the figurehead of the student movement, who had grown up in the GDR and thus had few of the hang-ups about the Nazi past that many of his comrades from the West did. However, even people like Dutschke – who, I argued, tended to see Germany almost as a Third World country in needs of its own national liberation movement – talked obsessively about “resistance” (Widerstand in German), which had always slightly puzzled me. It now seems to me, however, that when people like him used the word, they were probably thinking of resistance against racism and imperialism rather than Nazism. In other words, within the student movement there were two competing concepts of “resistance” that corresponded to the two currents.
This has become clearer to me since Klimke’s book, which compares student protest in West Germany and the United States in the 1960s. In a particularly fascinating chapter called “Black and Red Panthers”, he shows how, from the mid-sixties onwards, young left-wing West Germans increasingly identified with the Black Power movement, just as they had earlier identified with national liberation movements in the Third World such as the Vietcong. For example, Bernward Vesper, the son of the Nazi poet Will Vesper and a key figure in the student movement, was deeply influenced by an encounter with Stokely Carmichael at a conference on “Dialectics of Liberation” in London in July 1967. In identifying with African-Americans – one leaflet stated bluntly that “their resistance struggle is also our resistance” – these young, mostly middle-class West Germans often wilfully ignored the huge differences between them and African-Americans.
Probably the best example of this elision between these two different concepts of “resistance” was the famous column entitled “From Protest to Resistance” that Ulrike Meinhof wrote for konkret after Rudi Dutschke had been shot in April 1968. In it, she invoked two Black Power activists who had spoken about “resistance” at the Vietnam congress in West Berlin a few months earlier and suggested the West German student movement should now also turn to more radical methods. It seems to me that the ambiguity inherent in the concept of “resistance” facilitated the use of violence in West Germany because it allowed the New Left to apply Third World methods (e.g. guerilla warfare) in a First World country. But, perhaps even more interestingly, it also offered young West Germans whose parents were responsible for Nazism a way of escaping their own identity and imagining that they were part of the same struggle as oppressed people in faraway parts of the world.