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?

Continue reading


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.

Continue reading

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.

Continue reading

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.

Continue reading

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.)

Continue reading

The rhetoric of resistance

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


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

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.

Continue reading

How it all began


Speaking of iconic images of the West German student movement, this is one of the most famous photos in the history of the Federal Republic. The student lying on the ground is Benno Ohnesorg, who has just been shot dead by a West Berlin police officer on 2 June, 1967. The woman cradling Ohnesorg’s head is Friederike Dollinger, at the time a history student and now a schoolteacher in Munich (the taz had a nice story about her a couple of years ago). The students had been protesting against a visit to West Berlin by the Shah of Iran.

Continue reading

Not talking about the weather


Since there won’t be any pictures in my book, I thought I’d use this blog to show a few important images from the story of Germany’s 1968 generation – some of which I mention in the book. To begin with, here’s the famous 1960s poster whose visual style also influenced the cover of my book a little. The caption reads: “Everyone’s talking about the weather. We aren’t”. It’s an iconic image in Germany – it’s actually in the Haus der Geschichte, the German national history museum, in Bonn – but is little known in the UK or the US. The first time I saw it – and, I think, the first time I heard about the West German student movement – was when Iived in Berlin in 1992 with a guy who had grown up in East Germany and had a black and white photocopy of it on his bedroom wall.