There is currently an exhibition in Holland about the love affair between the poet Paul Celan and Diet Kloos, a Dutch woman who had been a member of the resistance during World War II. I’ve written before about Celan – one of the most important figures in post-war German literature. However, until now I didn’t know much about Kloos, an oratorium singer whose husband was executed by the Nazis in 1945 after being tortured in front of her. Celan and Kloos met in Paris in 1949, when Celan was studying at the Sorbonne and Kloos at the conservatory in The Hague. The exhibition is based on the 12 letters that Celan sent Kloos during the following year (Kloos’s replies have been lost). The correspondence also includes three of Celan’s early poems, including his most famous, “Todesfuge” (“Deathfugue”, as John Felstiner translates it), which was written in 1944 and published in 1948.
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.
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?
Perhaps no other place in Germany embodies Adorno and Horkheimer’s idea of the “dialectic of enlightenment” more than Buchenwald. The concentration camp, which I visited for the second time last weekend, is located on the Ettersberg, a hill just five miles away from Weimar – the home of German classicism. It therefore provides a particularly powerful illustration of the intimate connection between German culture and German barbarism. In fact, in 1937 the camp was literally built around an oak tree at which Goethe is supposed to have sat and discussed literature and life when he lived in Weimar in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century. In a sense, therefore, Buchenwald – which President Obama visited last year – stands, more than any other concentration camp or death camp, for Nazism as a Zivilisationsbruch, or civilisational break.
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.