Sixties radicals and the Holocaust

Submitted by Matthew on 16 April, 2010 - 3:27 Author: Stan Crooke

Stan Crooke reviews Utopia or Auschwitz – Germany’s 1968 Generation and the Holocaust by Hans Kundnani.

Kundnani argues that the wave of radicalism which swept through (parts of) Germany in the mid to late 1960s had an “ambivalent relationship” to the country’s Nazi past, and that this “ambivalent relationship” also found expression in the “Red-Green” coalition governments elected in 1998 and 2002.

German radicals of the 1960s differed in some basic aspects of their politics from their counterparts in other European countries. They were more influenced by the writings of the Frankfurt School of philosophy (Horkheimer, Adorno and Marcuse) and their concept of “repressive tolerance” — society might appear to be liberal in its toleration of dissent, but this was really just a facade for its essentially repressive nature.

The role of revolutionaries, it followed, was to stage provocations which would push the state into taking repressive measures. This would expose the true nature of the state, thereby destroying illusions in the supposed liberal nature of late capitalism.

The working class had effectively been ‘bought off’ by capitalism and integrated into capitalist society. The agent of revolutionary change was therefore to be found in Third World national liberation movements and marginalised groups in the metropolis (such as migrant workers or delinquent youth).

Unlike their political counterparts elsewhere, German radicals also directly confronted the question of the Nazi Holocaust. Their parents had failed to prevent genocide — or had even condoned it. And ex-Nazis still held key political, judicial, military and financial positions in West Germany.

The radicals were “torn between the dream of a socialist Utopia and the nightmare of the Holocaust,” writes Kundnani. They “wrestled with the question of what it meant to be German after Auschwitz.” They saw themselves confronted with “an all-or-nothing choice: Utopia or Auschwitz.”

In fact, though, the radicals’ relationship to the country’s Nazi past (and, as some of them saw it, Nazi present) was problematic.

Terms such as “Holocaust”, “Auschwitz” and “Nazis” were bandied around so liberally that the uniqueness of the Nazi Holocaust disappeared from view. Some radicals went a stage further and argued that revolutionary struggle would be possible only when Germans stopped having “hang-ups” (sic) about Jews.

The simplistic notion of “anti-imperialism” with which the bulk of the radical left in Germany operated in the late 1960s also resulted in a particularly crude “anti-Zionism” which overlapped with anti-semitism. This was hardly consistent with the commitment to eliminating all leftovers of fascism in contemporary German society.

Kundnani also argues that there was a substantial streak of German nationalism amongst the German radicals. While there certainly was such a streak, Kundnani arguably vastly overestimates its significance.

That the left supported movements of national liberation in the remaining colonies is not evidence, as claimed by Kundnani, that the left was nationalistic in outlook. It simply means they recognised the right of peoples to be free from colonialism.

Nonetheless Kundnani’s analysis will sober up anyone who thinks that “anti-Zionism” is necessarily a different beast from anti-semitism, and that being of the left necessarily provides immunity from anti-semitism.

The second part of Kundnani’s book, however, is not only less readable but also less convincing.

Kundnani runs through the last thirty years of German history, covering the campaigns against nuclear power and the deployment of Cruise and Pershing II missiles, German unification, the emergence of “Red-Green” coalitions at regional and national level, and the evolution of German foreign policy under those governments.

This overlaps with occasional snapshots of the later politics of some of the leaders of the student movement, and a much longer, but not particularly accurate, description of the rise of Joschka Fischer to the position of Germany’s Foreign Minister.

Kundnani’s bibliography indicates that he has read Jutta Ditfurth’s The End of the Greens — Farewell from Hope and Christian Schmidt’s We Are the Berserkers — Joschka Fischer and his Frankfurt Gang. But the Fischer who inhabits the pages of Kundnani’s book is far removed from the Fischer whom Ditfurth and Schmidt knew and describe so mercilessly in their writings.

Kundnani argues that the foreign policy pursued by the “Red-Green” coalition government gave expression to two different responses to the Holocaust. The responses led to the same conclusion — support for German involvement in NATO military actions — but, claims Kundnani, for very different reasons.

On the one hand, Fischer regarded the Holocaust as something which placed a particular obligation on Germany to take action to prevent another genocide. Hence his support for German intervention in Kosova.

On the other hand, the SPD Chancellor Gerhard Schroder embodied an approach to the Holocaust (supposedly) represented by student leader Rudi Dutschke. Schroder wanted to see Germany as a “normal” country that had overcome the Holocaust and its Nazi past. Like any other “normal” country, Germany should take part in NATO military action.

This argument is unconvincing on a number of levels, not the least of which is the assumed continuity of political thought between the Frankfurt anarchist Joschka Fisher and the German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer, and a similar assumed continuity of political thought between Rudi Dutschke and (of all people!) Gerhard Schroder.

Add new comment

This website uses cookies, you can find out more and set your preferences here.
By continuing to use this website, you agree to our Privacy Policy and Terms & Conditions.