Utopia or Auschwitz? Germany’s 1968 Generation and the Holocaust

An illuminating study shows how the politically conscious young of postwar Germany reacted to their parents’ sins

By Oliver Kamm, March 4, 2010
Felix Enslinn, son of a founder of the German Red Army Faction (RAF), at the exhibition, RAF — On Imagining Terror, he co-curated in Berlin in 2005

Felix Enslinn, son of a founder of the German Red Army Faction (RAF), at the exhibition, RAF — On Imagining Terror, he co-curated in Berlin in 2005

By Hans Kundnani
Hurst, £45 (pb: £16.99)

Among the greatest achievements of Western diplomacy since 1945 is the creation of a democratic Germany from the ruins of barbarism. But, for Germany's immediate postwar generation, the sins of their parents and grandparents dominated their political thinking. The knowledge of such crimes gave urgency to the participation of the German baby-boomers in the radical protests of the 1960s.

The revolutionaries advocated not only social change and the abolition of militarism: they sought a purgative transformation of Germany. The choices they imagined were those of the title of Hans Kundnani's excellent work of recent political history: Utopia or Auschwitz.

There were two great ironies in this political movement, however. Kundnani traces them with astuteness and with mastery of his source material. First, the 1968 generation saw terrible historical resonance in war, and also urged the memory of Auschwitz. Yet, in their political maturity, some Germans came to see that renouncing military force in all circumstances might merely encourage the worst of rulers.

That dilemma is exemplified in the political career of Joschka Fischer, a revolutionary who became Foreign Minister in the Red-Green coalition that took office in 1998. To the fury of his radical allies, Fischer accurately gauged the character of the regime of Slobodan Milosevic in Serbia. As Kundnani quotes him, Fischer learnt not only "Never again war" but also "Never again Auschwitz" - and in the campaign of xenophobic violence against Albanian Kosovars, Fischer saw an augury of National Socialism.

Fischer represented the gaining of political wisdom of the postwar generation. As Foreign Minister, he was an intellectually honest seeker for a just Israeli-Palestinian settlement and a determined opponent of Milosevic's depredations. His political turn came with the Entebbe hijacking in 1976. Kundnani gives a powerful vignette in which Fischer defends the Israeli action to his comrades and insists that the German terrorists who took part in it deserved to die.

Fischer was, in that respect, different from those afflicted by the second irony of the Germany's radicals. In ostentatiously rejecting their parents' political quiescence, some parts of the German radical Left crossed over to unabashed antisemitism under the thin veneer of anti-imperialism. The Baader-Meinhof terrorist gang came easily to that perverted ideology. Ulrike Meinhof defended the massacre of Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics as "anti-imperialist, anti-fascist and internationalist".

The collective insanity of a movement that ostensibly wished revenge on Nazism yet ended up embracing it is a salutary and bloody tale. Kundnani's is a model account of this Frankenstein's monster and a fascinating intellectual history. Yet he stops short of the greatest irony of the radical generation. The government in which Fischer served was an indifferent one because Chancellor Gerhard Schröder was an unprincipled, mediocre figure, who lacked the idealism of the pioneers of the Federal Republic: Konrad Adenauer, who allied German conservatism with the liberal west rather than authoritarian nationalism, and the Social Democratic Kurt Schumacher, who resolutely opposed Communism.

Liberal democracy, rather than its revolutionary alternative, marked the true break in Germany's political history.

Oliver Kamm is a leader writer and columnist on The Times

Last updated: 3:16pm, February 18 2011