Whaling and shooting


“If you want to understand the RAF [Red Army Faction], you have to read Moby Dick”, Stefan Aust said in an interview with the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung that was published in 2007. Herman Melville’s great American novel was an important text for the West German terrorist group, about whom I write in my book, Utopia or Auschwitz. The members of the group seemed to have imagined themselves as the crew of the Pequod, the whaling ship in the novel – though it is not clear how many of them had actually read it apart from Gudrun Ensslin, who had studied German literature. It was Ensslin who came up with the idea of giving them codenames taken from characters in the novel, which they used in correspondence with each other while they were in prison in the early 1970s. Paraphrasing Andreas Baader, one might say they saw whaling and shooting as the same thing. But what exactly does reading Moby-Dick actually tell us about the RAF?

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Farocki’s father

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 was familiar with Farocki and knew he 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  – the subject of my book, Utopia or Auschwitz – with the story of the Indian independence movement.

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Adorno and the Holocaust

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.

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Utopianism and liberalism

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.

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German ideology and pathology

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?

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What’s it got to do with me?

Holocaust Memorial

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.

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Moments of redemption

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.)

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