Letter from Berlin: Utopia or Auschwitz?

Letter from Berlin: Utopia or Auschwitz?

The German new Left was too close to the history it so desperately wanted to negate; it could not develop a sane or truthful relationship to the crimes and the cruelty of the Nazi era. Haunted by visions of the gas chambers, it believed that the only alternatives were the creation of a utopia or the recreation of Auschwitz.

May 1968 student protest against the German Emergency Acts (Wikimedia Commons)

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

by Hans Kundnani
Hurst & Company, 2009, 374 pp.

As an American, a Jew, a leftist, and a journalist who spent the past five months living in Berlin, I was continually fascinated—sometimes impressed, sometimes irritated, sometimes repelled–by the ways in which Germans were exploring their Nazi-era extermination of the Jews. There are numerous examples: Margarethe Von Trotta’s feature film Hannah Arendt, which focuses on the Eichmann in Jerusalem controversy, opened to critical acclaim. The Jewish Museum’s so-called “Jew in the Box” exhibit, in which ordinary Jews fielded questions about Jewish life and Judaism from interested, if largely clueless, museumgoers, elicited reactions from appreciation to disgust; it was premised on the (correct) assumption that, due to the Shoah, many contemporary Germans have never met a Jew. Less discussed—but, to my mind, equally startling—were the advertisements for the exhibit, which were plastered all over town; one proclaimed, in blunt black lettering reminiscent of street graffiti, “The Jews are to blame for everything.” Götz Aly’s 2011 book Why the Germans? Why the Jews? (soon to appear in English translation)—an attempt by a major German historian to answer the most vexing question in German history—was still discussed. And three months ago, Shakespeare and Sons, a popular English-language bookstore, sponsored a debate titled, “The German Left Wing’s Problem with Zionism.” Indeed, it became increasingly obvious to me that the German relation to the “Jewish question” (which some might call the “German question”) was inseparable from its relation to the history and practice of the German Left.

This is due to several intricately connected factors: first, a disproportionate number of Jews were members of the Left—Communists, socialists, trade unionists—in the Weimar Republic, and were targeted by the Nazi regime as leftists even before they were killed as Jews. Second, the Left has always defined anti-fascism as inextricably bound up with the struggle against racism of all kinds; though this principle has not, of course, always been realized in practice, many leftists assume that they are automatically inoculated against—that is, innocent of—anti-Semitism. (This was an article of faith in the former East Germany.) Third, the Nazis defined Bolshevism as part of a worldwide “Jewish conspiracy,” and made war on it as such; indeed, this is one of the ways in which it differed from the far-less-radical anti-Communism of the Western democracies. As the historian Dan Diner has written, “In Nazi eyes, Bolshevism was not the rule of a certain class or a form of dictatorship by a self-declared proletariat avant-garde, but was a rather a racial-ideological composite of ‘Jewish intelligentsia’ and ‘Slavic subhumans.’ As a result, the Nazis perceived the Soviet Union’s Bolshevik regime as a variant of Jewish world domination.” When I walked down Rosa-Luxemburg-Strasse (now, ironically, full of fashionable shops!), was I remembering a murdered Communist, or a murdered Jew, or both?

These are not merely historical questions that take us back to the Weimar or Nazi eras. They refer to a much more recent history, and indeed to the present. The still-tense question of the German Left’s relation to anti-Semitism—which since 1948 has also meant, of course, to Israel—was renewed by the publication in February of Wolfgang Kraushaar’s “When Will You Finally Begin the Fight Against that Sacred Cow Israel?”: Munich 1970: On the Anti-Semitic Roots of German Terrorism. This massive book, written by a prominent political scientist and historian at the Hamburg Institute for Social Research, explores a specific series of attacks, launched against Jews and Israelis within a short span in 1970, in which fifty-five people were killed and others injured. (The “sacred cow” quote comes from Dieter Kunzelmann, a founder of the “Palestine Faction” of the Tupamaros West Berlin, which based their strategy of attempted guerrilla insurrection in large part on the theories of Regis Debray. Interestingly, in an interview I recently conducted with Debray in Paris, he told me that he never intended for his theories, which he developed while in Latin America, to be taken up by leftist groups in the developed West.) The very title of Kraushaar’s book suggests how volatile the topic of leftist anti-Semitism remains—and the subtitle indicates that his analysis extends far beyond any specific group of assaults. Indeed, as Kraushaar told an interviewer for the taz (an irreverent left-wing daily), after the Six-Day War and the German Left’s turn toward anti-imperialism and Maoism, “Anti-Zionism became a foundational element of the Left’s understanding of itself. Beginning in 1969, this new self-understanding was set into motion.” Even some of those who have questioned Kraushaar’s specific findings of leftist culpability in each of the attacks have praised him for raising the broader, urgent question of anti-Semitism in the Left.

A fascinating precursor to Kraushaar’s book is Utopia or Auschwitz: Germany’s 1968 Generation and the Holocaust, by journalist Hans Kundnani, who has studied and lived in Germany, covered Berlin for the Observer, and is now editorial director at the European Council on Foreign Relations. Solidly based on historical research and a slew of original interviews, Kundnani explores the unresolved—indeed, tormented—relationship of the German far Left (also known as the extra-parliamentary Left or new Left) to the Holocaust, and convincingly argues that this was the basis for what would become the student movement’s increasingly obsessive attacks on Israel, its partnership with Palestinian terror groups, and its own turn toward terror. One of the great values of Kundnani’s analysis is that it never devolves into a simplistic tirade against the new leftists; on the contrary, Kundnani’s dialectical analysis makes us understand how tragic (if not also, at times, farcical) the far Left’s devolution into terrorism, and consequent self-destruction, was.

Equally valuable, Kundnani does not concentrate only on the relatively remote 1960s and 1970s. Instead, he also discusses the complicated relationships between German attitudes toward the Holocaust and German nationalism, reunification, the rise of the Greens, the peace movement, and the wars in the Balkans, Afghanistan, and Iraq. Key figures, from new Left activist Rudi Dutschke (for whom a Berlin street is now named) to former Foreign Minister and Green leader Joschka Fischer, are extensively analyzed, as is the troubled relationship between the German new Left and the Frankfurt School critical theorists. Kundnani does not concentrate on the very real accomplishments of the German new Left, such as its creation of a less authoritarian culture and its staunch opposition to the U.S. war in Vietnam. But given the book’s specific focus, this is intellectual history at its finest.

The German new Left, Kundnani argues, was fundamentally different from the new Left in France, the United States, and England. (And not only because the student movements in France and the United States had a very high proportion of Jews—which, obviously, could no longer be the case in Germany.) Emerging just two decades after the closing of the concentration camps, the German new Left developed two contradictory theses. First, it argued that, due to the large number of ex-Nazis still in power, and the even larger number never brought to justice, the Federal Republic was simply a continuation of the Third Reich; this belief would be used to justify any and all tactics against the state or those perceived to be representatives of it. At the same time, the activists believed they had made a clean break with the crimes of the previous generation—whether perpetrators, collaborators, or onlookers—which is to say, with their own parents. Each of these ideas had elements of truth, but each was also a severely flawed exaggeration.

It is true that the Federal Republic of the 1950s and ’60s, and even after, had been far from de-Nazified; there had been no real reckoning—institutional, judicial, intellectual, political, or moral—with the past. In the 1960s, West Germany’s president was Heinrich Lübke, who had worked with Albert Speer and used forced labor during the Nazi era; its chief of the Army was Heinrich Trettner, who had previously distinguished himself as a high-level Nazi officer fighting the Republicans in Spain and, then, the Dutch, French, and Italians, among others, in the Second World War; and (often prominent) ex-Nazis filled key institutions such as the judiciary and academia. As Israeli journalist Amos Elon observed in his 1967 book Journey through a Haunted Land: The New Germany, “former Nazi professors continue to teach, become deans, even rectors, and solemnly represent the spirit of their university in public. . . These men . . . constitute the most flagrant example of intellectual opportunism in our time.” Still, to equate the Federal Republic with Nazi Germany was a dangerous oversimplification; indeed, the story of the German far Left is a warning against the perils of making too-easy, and ultimately false, conflations between political events and eras instead of thinking about each political situation in fresh and specific ways. (The new Leftists never seemed to understand that, had they actually been living in a Nazi state, their criticisms of the government would have promptly landed them in concentration camps. “Repressive tolerance” is not a synonym for fascism, as victims of the latter can attest.)

Furthermore, it is impossible for the far Left’s two main theories to peacefully coexist; for if one has been raised, educated, and indoctrinated in a presumably fascist state, how can one have broken cleanly with it? And aren’t such claims of rupture—of having “mastered” the past, of having emerged from a fascistic system magically unscathed—exactly what the generation of the perpetrators claimed? (One hundred and fifty years after the abolition of slavery, American democracy is still marred by racism and racist institutions.) Indeed, just like their parents, the ’68ers would later repress their own dark decade—the years of terror from the late ’60s to the “German Autumn” of 1977—leading writer and Left activist Peter Schneider to later lament, “As far as dealing with our own past is concerned, the sons barely did better than the fathers.”

All these unresolved anxieties and desperate claims about the all-too-present Nazi past endowed the German student movement with an almost unique fierceness (though the Left in the other defeated Axis countries, Italy and Japan, would also turn to terrorism), and lent it what Kundnani calls its “strange mixture of guilt and moral superiority.” Whereas the French new Left was inspired by the heroism of the Resistance, and the American new Left by the brave dignity of the Civil Rights Movement, the German new Left was haunted by visions of the gas chambers: it believed that the only two alternatives for Germany were, quite literally, the creation of a utopia or the recreation of Auschwitz. Shame, guilt, fury, and fear, rather than pride or hope, were far more common in the communes and classrooms of Berlin than in those of Berkeley or Paris. “Whereas young people in some other countries were driven by a dream of creating a better society, in West Germany they were driven by a nightmare,” Kundnani writes. “The student movement in West Germany was essentially a defensive movement.”

Frankfurt School theorist Max Horkheimer famously wrote, in 1939—that is, in the midst of Nazi terror, but before the actual genocide: “Whoever does not want to speak of capitalism should be equally silent on fascism.” The student activists seized on this analysis with gusto, for it allowed them to evade the terribly distinctive elements of German fascism—that is, the fanatical anti-Semitism that resulted in genocide—and reduce Nazism to a mere variant of capitalism. “Thus, paradoxically, although the student movement spoke of Auschwitz in its rhetoric, at a deeper level it actually tended to marginalize the Holocaust,” Kundnani observes. There was nothing particularly original in the new Left’s (or Horkheimer’s) equation of capitalism with fascism; in fact, it recalled the German Communist Party’s conflation of Social Democracy with fascism in the Weimar era—a disastrous analysis that split the Left and contributed to the Nazi victory. (Soon thereafter, Social Democrats and Communists would meet each other in Dachau.)

And conveniently, the new Left activists ignored the ethical demands that Horkheimer made after the war. In the wake of the Shoah, he wrote: “We Jewish intellectuals who escaped death by torture under Hitler have only one task: to help see to it that such horrors never recur and are never forgotten, in solidarity with those who died under unspeakable torments. . . . Their death is the truth of our life; to express their despair and their longing, we are there.” Certainly they evaded Theodor Adorno’s insistence that Auschwitz had changed the moral landscape of the world and created “a new categorical imperative”: one to which Germans, of all peoples, must pay heed. Indeed, as the student movement became increasingly hysterical—attacking professors, stifling freedom of speech in the universities, mocking the rule of law as a mere bourgeois facade—its relationship with the Frankfurt School theorists ruptured, sending Adorno in particular into depression. (In the summer of 1969, he died of a heart attack. A fascinating series of letters between Adorno and Herbert Marcuse, in which they argue with increasing hostility over the student Left, was published by New Left Review in 1999.) Horkheimer would charge that the student activists had an “affinity to the mindset of the Nazis”; Adorno accused them of “degenerating into an abominable irrationalism”; Jürgen Habermas, at a meeting before the main organization of student radicals in 1967, chided the young activists for what he called “left-wing fascism,” which earned him jeers from his erstwhile comrades. Of course, the student movement in other countries could be accused of the same anti-democratic tendencies. But, again, Germany was different: it had the none-too-distant memory of the Nazis’ attack on the universities, on intellectuals, on freedom of speech, on rational discourse, and it knew—or should have known—where political intimidation and the cult of violence could lead.

The American historian Moishe Postone has observed of the German new Left, “No western Left was as philo-Semitic and pro-Zionist prior to 1967. Probably none subsequently identified so strongly with the Palestinian cause.” Israel’s victory in the Six-Day War, and its subsequent occupation of the Palestinian territories, is generally seen as the main cause for this turnaround. This was, no doubt, a tremendously powerful factor. But the Western Left’s turn to Third Worldism in general, and Maoism in particular, is also germane, and often underplayed in analyses of this period; it was, I would argue, the Six-Day War combined with the Western Left’s abandonment of its native working classes in favor of the “wretched of the Earth” that created the perfect storm. In 1967, Rudi Dutschke urged “the complete identification” with “revolutionary terrorism . . . in the Third World.” This complete identification would often lead, alas, to the uncritical embrace of states such as Mao’s China, then in the throes of the murderous Cultural Revolution, Pol Pot’s Cambodia, then in the throes of an auto-genocide, and Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, which would offer refuge to its “comrades” from Germany’s Red Army Faction. Revolutionary terrorism, indeed.

The German new Left, in particular, turned with alacrity to the Palestinian cause, which replaced the Vietnam War as the German student movement’s main focus—or what Kundnani rightly calls its “obsession.” As Postone would note, “What was termed ‘anti-Zionism’ was in fact so emotionally and psychically charged that it went far beyond the bounds of a political and social critique of Zionism.” German new Leftists flew to Palestinian military-training camps (though apparently the Spartan, sexually repressed lifestyle they discovered there was not to their liking) and, at home, attacked Jewish and Israeli targets with bombs and fires. These acts were, of course, carried out by a tiny, if influential, minority. On a far broader scale, though, the German new Left not only criticized Israel for the Palestinian occupation but also often vilified the country, with unrestrained fury, as fascistic and genocidal. Reading some of their savage, hate-filled dispatches is a chilling experience, and reminds one of Julius Streicher.

The focus on Israel served what the historian Dan Diner has called “exonerating projection”: an attempt to evade the criminality, and uniqueness, of the Nazi regime by projecting its policies onto its former victims. At the same time, in another instance of weird transference, the student activists insisted that they were the “new Jews.” (Is there a German word for chutzpah?) The ugly denouement of all this venom would be the June 1976 Palestinian-German hijacking of an Air France plane to Entebbe, Uganda, where Jewish and Israeli passengers were “selected” from the others for possible execution—a hideous re-enactment of the Nazi selection of the Jews for extermination. And the ’68ers could not even claim that they were following orders.

Entebbe was, in a sense, the beginning of the end. Kundnani writes that this event—though arguably no more grotesque than others, such as the murder of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics—encouraged a shocked reappraisal of the tactics, the goals, the analysis, and the very ethics of the German new Left among Joschka Fischer, then a far-Left militant himself, and some of his comrades. And it was not just the Left’s anti-Semitism, its servile obedience to the Third World, or its romanticization of violence that was re-thought. Something even more difficult, more disturbing, and more fearsome began to emerge: the realization that the Nazi ethos was embedded not in the institutions of the Federal Republic but in the activists themselves. As if enacting a Greek tragedy, the greatest fear of the young German radicals had come to pass: far from liberating themselves from the older generation, the Left activists had inherited its most hateful traits. Fischer would later note that Entebbe showed that the German new Left “had almost compulsively repeated the crimes” of its parents. The response was, thankfully, dialectical, as the new Left began to formulate more sober, humble, and realistic ideas about the responsibilities of postwar Germans, rather than embarking on hysterical attempts to negate the nation’s past. This process was not just an internal one, for it was aided by external factors too: the repressive, bloodstained trajectories of too many revolutionary movements in the Third World had become clear, and could no longer serve as inspiration for the Western Left. (For more on this, readers would do well to turn to Paul Berman’s Power and the Idealists: Or, the Passion of Joschka Fischer and Its Aftermath.)

Kundnani sees the German peace movement of the 1970s, and the subsequent formation of the Green Party, as both a refutation of the German past and a continuation of it. On the one hand, the peace movement rejected German militarism; on the other, it was intensely nationalistic and viewed itself as a victim of American imperialism—or, in Green co-founder Petra Kelly’s words, a “colony.” Like the ’68 movement, it was energetically critical of American imperialism but tended to downplay the crimes of non-Western regimes, especially in the Middle East. And its pacifism—which is, I must admit, reassuring to those of us still made nervous by the sight of German soldiers with guns—would be sorely tested with the emergence of the new wars of the 1990s, especially in Yugoslavia. As Kundnani observes, “The proliferation of regional conflicts in the early 1990s presented a particularly difficult issue for the Greens because it in effect forced them to choose between two of their most fundamental . . . principles—pacifism . . . and a commitment to human rights.”

In a particularly useful section, Kundnani delineates the Greens’ debate over Bosnia, which pitted pacifists who insisted on “never again war” against those who, like Daniel Cohn-Bendit—a German-Jewish leader of the May ’68 movement in France and self-described “child of D-Day”—supported armed intervention against the Serbian campaign of ethnic cleansing. Kundnani also charts Fischer’s transformation on this issue; shaken by Srebrenica as he had previously been by Entebbe, the future foreign minister moved from a stance of “never again war” to one of “never again Auschwitz.” These dueling positions would be revisited, though in different ways, in the arguments over Kosovo, over NATO’s post-9/11 overthrow of the Taliban in Afghanistan and, to a lesser extent, over the U.S. invasion of Iraq. What Kundnani makes clear is that, on all sides, these debates concerned not just the immediate issues at hand; on a deeper level, these were arguments about what lessons postwar Germans believed they should learn from the Holocaust and about what, if anything, they therefore owe to the world.

In my months in Berlin, I was sometimes struck by how anxious Germans are about inhabiting a “normal” country. In a March interview in Der Spiegel, for instance, the first question put to former Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder was, “Sind wir eine normale Nation geworden?” (“Have we become a normal nation?”). Ironically, the only other country I can think of that is so obsessed with normalcy is Israel, though for obviously different if not completely unrelated reasons.

I also sometimes sensed a sort of plaintive undertow, an unstated question about the Shoah from well-meaning Germans that sounded something like this: “With all our memorials, our monuments, our commemorations, our archives, our books, our revised curriculums, our trials, our reparations payments: Can’t we get the Holocaust right?” The question is understandable, but the answer of course is: no. Genocide—and the unfathomable, mad sadism at its heart—can never be made right, completely understood, or laid to rest; Adorno’s warning about the hubris and impossibility of “mastering” the past should be heeded still.

In 2000, when debates about Berlin’s proposed Holocaust memorial were swirling, then-Minister of Culture Michael Naumann made a plea for a sense of humility in approaching the past. He wrote:

“How could it have happened?” will remain the central quest: The question implies some sense that Germany’s history should have prevented us from generating a catastrophe of this magnitude. That it failed to do so affords some insight into the inexplicable depths of the genocide. “The destruction of European Jewry,” the historian Saul Friedländer has written, “may pose a problem insoluble with the tools of historical analysis and understanding. . . We know in great detail what happened; . . . but we are incapable of grasping the deeper dynamics of the phenomenon.” To know that and if possible to accept it, one thing is needed: the will to remember.

The German new Left was too close to the history it so desperately wanted to negate; it could not develop a sane or truthful relationship to the crimes and the cruelty of the Nazi era. Yet for each generation of postwar Germans, such a relationship will always—should always—be fraught. Still, it is a very good sign that in today’s Germany, there are possibilities other than utopia, which can never be achieved, or Auschwitz, which remains the unhealable wound.

A different version of this essay was originally published, in German, in Die Tageszeitung (Berlin) in April.

Susie Linfield recently completed a term as the Holtzbrinck Fellow at the American Academy in Berlin. Her book The Cruel Radiance: Photography and Political Violence has been translated into Italian and will soon appear in Turkish. She is an associate professor of journalism at New York University, where she directs the Cultural Reporting and Criticism program.

Socialist thought provides us with an imaginative and moral horizon.

For insights and analysis from the longest-running democratic socialist magazine in the United States, sign up for our newsletter: