One of the strangest illusions among Germany’s Achtundsechziger – about whom I write in my book, Utopia or Auschwitz – was the idea that they were the “new Jews”. In the late sixties, as members of the protest movement in West Germany came under increasing attack from their parents’ generation – the so-called “Auschwitz generation” – they began to imagine that they had somehow taken the place of, or were being treated like, the European Jews killed in the Holocaust. (Alain Finkielkraut has written eloquently about this in relation to the soixante-huitards – the French equivalent of the Achtundsechziger. He points out in his book The Imaginary Jew that their slogan “Nous sommes tous des juifs allemands” (“We are all German Jews”) – an expression of solidarity with Daniel Cohn-Bendit – suggested that “Jewish identity was no longer for Jews alone” and that “every child of the post-war era could change places with the outsider and wear a yellow star”.)
In my book, Utopia or Auschwitz, I argued that Germany’s 1968 generation had a tendency to relativise the Holocaust. For the Achtundsechziger – the children of what they themselves called “the Auschwitz generation” – Nazism was a kind of negative moral reference point. As a result, they saw the possibility of a recurrence of the Holocaust in a whole range of other events and threats around the world, from the Vietnam war in the sixties to ethnic cleansing in the Balkans in the nineties. But in making such comparisons, they consciously or unconsciously relativised Auschwitz, which became a free-floating signifier rather than a specific historical event that happened in one place at one time. The story of Germany’s 1968 thus raises a historiographical (or perhaps even philosophical?) question: was the Holocaust unique? Or can it be compared to other historical events? If so, to what exactly, and how, can it be compared?
In a recent post, I referred to Tony Judt’s collection of essays, Reappraisals. Reflections on the Forgotten Twentieth Century. A few weeks ago I read the introduction to the book, “The World We Have Lost”, which is in the first place a quite brilliant defence of the importance of history, in particular the dark history of the twentieth century. But what made it particularly thought-provoking for me is that it articulates a particular question that has been on my mind recently but that had I been unable to formulate clearly, that is: what relevance should the lessons we in the West and in particular in Europe have drawn from the twentieth century have for the world in the twenty-first century?
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.
Will Self delivered a brilliant lecture on W.G. Sebald and the Holocaust in London last night. Self, who has written before about his affinity with the German writer who spent most of his life in East Anglia, suggested – if I understood him correctly – that Sebald was unique among non-Jewish writers in post-war Germany in facing the Nazi past and in particular mourning the Jews murdered in the Holocaust. Speaking beneath a screen displaying Gerhard Richter’s haunting, blurry portrait Onkel Rudi (above), he said Sebald’s novels and essays constituted a “literature of atonement” that set him apart from other post-war German writers such as Günter Grass and Martin Walser (I was slightly surprised to hear a British writer who doesn’t read German even refer to Walser, a figure who is not much known here). Perhaps most interestingly, to me at least, he suggested that the reason for this was that Sebald moved to Britain in the sixties instead of remaining in Germany.
This is interesting in a morbid kind of way. The Springer corporation yesterday gave Israel the original blueprints for the Auschwitz death camp. Apparently, Springer, which publishes Bild, Germany’s biggest-selling tabloid, acquired them last year. Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is in Europe for discussions with George Mitchell, accepted them on behalf of the country. The blueprints, which include sketches of for the original concentration camp (Auschwitz I) and the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp (Auschwitz II) that was built later, will now be displayed in Yad Vashem.
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.
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.
Since I visited Israel for the first time in April, I’ve been thinking a lot about where legitimate criticism of Israel ends and anti-Semitism begins. I’m currently reading an excellent German anthology (includes essays by Tony Judt, Jeffrey Herf, Gerd Koenen etc.) on the debate about whether there is such a thing as a “new anti-Semitism” (especially on the European left but also in the Islamic world). It’s a theme that also runs through my book, Utopia or Auschwitz, which tells the story of Germany’s 1968 generation. In fact, the book is among other things a case study of how one small group of people went from criticising Israeli policy to attacking Jews.
They were the children of murderers. They were revolutionary optimists. They went from protest to resistance. But within them was an abominable irrationalism. The struggle continued. They went on a death trip. But they were given a lifeline. They made peace. There was a new republic. They won power. They fought a war against the past. History returned. They found a German way.