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Utopia or Auschwitz: Germany’s 1968 Generation and the Holocaust, by Hans Kundnani.  New York: Columbia University Press, 2009.  374 pp.  $27.50.


As the German historian Norbert Frei puts it, 1968 is “over-commented and under-investigated.” This particularly holds true for German publications dealing with the West-German student movement coping with the Nazi past. Whereas scientists are only beginning to pick out the 1968 activists’ handling of the Nazi past as a central subject for investigation, the public debate on this topic is dominated by accusations, polemics, and self-justifications. Kundnani’s journalist-style monograph is a refreshing and stimulating exception. He formulates a clear hypothesis and, based on two main currents and its ramifications, traces the 1968 generation’s ambivalent handling with the role of their parents’ generation in Nazi Germany up to the present. Most of Kundnani’s sources are taken from secondary literature, which is only partially available in English. Supplemented with interviews he conducted with about 40 former student movement activists in Germany, Britain, and France, it is the well-contextualized, dense and compelling way Kundnani presents these sources alongside the theoretical threads that makes the book interesting for experts, as well as for a general public.

              Revolutionaries of 1968 in many western states based their thinking and acting on a credo Kundnani calls the “provocation thesis”: In acting against the state in such a harsh manner that provoked even harsher reactions, the democratic system would show its authoritarian character. Only this exposure would make the mass follow the vanguard in its revolutionary struggle. The West German 1968 activists, however, differed from their “comrades” around the world in one crucial aspect: In other western states, accusations of the political system as “fascist” had a more or less metaphorical character, whereas in West Germany former Nazis in fact were members of the government, judges, university professors, and, above all, their parents. Not distinguishing between these personal and mental continuities on the one side, and the structural break in the political system of Germany on the other side, the protagonists of the West German student movement, or, more precisely, “extra-parliamentary opposition” (Außerparlamentarische Opposition—APO), conceived the Federal Republic as a still fascist state. Kundnani calls this the “continuity thesis.”

              These two main theses were adopted by two conflicting groups. The first conceived of Germans as perpetrators, as deep-rooted Nazis. “Auschwitz” was the central point of reference in this national-skeptic concept. The second saw Germans as victims and sufferers. From this perspective, Germany only could evolve into a better society by being liberated from its “occupying powers”, i.e., the United States and the Soviet Union. In both of these concepts, however, the main evil lay in imperialism and capitalism. Furthermore, up to the dissolution of the rebellion, both concepts lead to the same conclusion: The current society would inevitably end up in a new, worldwide fascism unless a global socialist revolution occurred. Either Utopia or Auschwitz. And a second “Auschwitz” would be worse than the first. Therefore, the APO activists had to organize themselves as “resistance.” As members of the “resistance,” they consequently would be persecuted by the state. Indeed, at the highpoint of the rebellion from 1967 to 1968, police officers, media, and the public in many cases reacted in such a physically or rhetorically violent manner that it could be easily taken as confirmation of the APO activists’ view. Nazi analogies were used by all parties involved in the conflict. Some activists even perceived themselves as new “Jews.”

              It was in the aftermath of “1968”, that the pathologies of the APO activists’ concept of resistance manifested themselves in attacks of physical violence aimed at Jews. Most strikingly these outputs of “exonerating projection” (Dan Diner) were exemplified by the planned bomb attack on a commemoration of the Kristallnacht at the Jewish community center in West Berlin on November 9, 1969—the bomb did not explode, but only due to a technical failure—and the hijacking of an airplane on its flight from Tel Aviv to Paris in 1976, when Wilfried Böse, a member of the German left-wing terrorist group “Revolutionary Cells,” separated non-Jewish from Jewish passengers and kept the latter as hostages. Kundnani shows convincingly that this evidence of “exonerating projection” was a “logical development, albeit in extreme form, of ideas that have been at the center of the student movement since its beginning” (p. 92).

              Kundnani demonstrates how the above-mentioned Auschwitz-centered, national-skeptic concept and the nationalist concept were picked up as a kind of compass by prominent APO activists, as well as by peace and anti-nuclear-power activists. The latter fused with the leftist radicals, when they, throughout the late seventies, began to organize themselves first as an “alternative” movement and later as the political party “The Greens.”

              To non-experts of 1968, perhaps surprisingly, among the users of the nationalist compass Kundnani subsumes Rudi Dutschke, the charismatic unofficial leader of the SDS (Socialist German Students Union). Ulrike Meinhof, the widely known radical left journalist and co-founder of the terrorist group “Red Army Faction” (RAF), obviously used the nationalist and the national-skeptic compass alternately. As a user of the national-skeptic compass, Kundnani presents Joschka Fischer, co-founder of a street-fighting group named “Revolutionary Struggle” in the Frankfurt of the 1970s and in the late 1990s foreign secretary of the by then unified Germany. Even though Kundnani narrates the career of Fischer as a story of success, he does not omit to tell how long it took Fischer to accept parliamentary democracy. In the beginning of his political career, Fischer participated in the party system merely for strategical reasons. When he voted for an armed intervention in Kosovo in 1999, four years after the genocidal massacre in Srebrenica, he did it as a convinced democrat, as well as referring to Adorno’s imperative to arrange one’s thoughts and actions so that nothing similar to Auschwitz will happen. According to Kundnani, the national-skeptic compass, when used properly, shows the right direction.

Susanne Bressan

Zentrum für Antisemitismusforschung (Antisemitism Research Center)

Technische Universität Berlin