Archives for category: German History

and so it begins: I have been given leave in 2018/19 to write this book for Camden House.

Beyond Tomorrow. German Science Fiction and Utopian Thought in the 20th and 21st Century will make a major intervention in German Studies and a significant contribution to debates in Futures Studies and Comparative Literature/Film Studies.

In German literature and film, as well as in German Studies more generally, the key focus and main emphasis since the end of World War II has rightly been Vergangenheitsbewältigung [coming to terms with the past]. The argument put forward by scholars, writers and critics is that only by understanding, and working through, the consequences of National Socialism, the Holocaust, the death of millions, the uprooting of entire populations and the destruction of entire cities can we avoid making the same mistakes again. However, there is a risk that such a singular focus on the past bypasses the rapid developments in science and technology (eg AI; genetic engineering) that require a thorough understanding of, and critical engagement with, our new capabilities so that we can make the right choices for their direction and control.

The book demonstrates how writing about possible futures has helped, and continues to help, society to understand, anticipate and cope with the consequences of scientific and technological advances. It combines a discussion of German utopian thought with a survey of the German utopian/dystopian literary and cinematic tradition. Through a close reading of selected examples from around 1900 to the present day that represent key milestones and major artistic achievements, it explores how German writers and film makers respond to the question of how humanity can match its technological advances with a commensurate social, ethical, and moral progress. It examines their visionary responses to global challenges and plots the trajectory of this ongoing inquiry. Whether in utopian anticipation or beneath a dystopian guise, I argue that these works have global relevance and contain valuable strategies for Zukunftsbewältigung [coming to terms with the future]: by imagining inspiring or disturbing futures, they enable us to shape the future.

German Science Fiction is rarely translated into English, nor acknowledged in the Anglophone research literature on utopian and dystopian writing (cp. Gregory Claeys, Dystopia. A Natural History, 2017). Nor is it analysed within its overall context: the last major study in English, William Fischer’s The Empire Strikes Out: Kurd Lasswitz, Hans Dominik and the Development of German Science Fiction was published in 1984 and had a narrow focus on texts from the first half of the 20th century. German Science Fiction tends to reflect specifically ‘German’ concerns stemming from the country’s historical experience which in turn has given rise to specific fears and sensitivities about totalitarian control, the fragility of civil society, and the environment. Precisely because of this sensitivity, German writers’ awareness of the potential consequences of our promethean capabilities means they are particularly able to influence the moral and ethical debates about the direction and implementation of scientific and technological advances. I argue that their works offer vital cognitive and affective strategies that need to be more widely shared to contribute to the transnational debate about the choices we are facing today (cp. Yuval Noah Harari, Homo Deus, 2016).

The project is timely, given the recent flurry of dystopian novels in Germany, no longer just by established SF authors but also ‘mainstream’ authors such as Christian Kracht, Karen Duwe, Thomas von Steinaecker, Juli Zeh and Uwe Timm, the recent contributions to Futures Studies by German academics such as Harald Welzer, Lars Schmeink or Hans Esselborn, and the growing research focus in the UK on the challenges of the future (cp. the RCUK Big Ideas for the Future report).

My new monograph Writing the Revolution. The Construction of ‘1968’ in Germany is coming out this month.

Given that in the course of this book I criticise a number of academics for not laying their cards on their table, declare their agenda, or, as Jürgen Habermas would put it, formulate their ‘erkenntnisleitende Interessen’, I would like to outline my own.

Born in 1958, I was too young to understand what was going on around 1968, but I had a general awareness that a revolt was taking place. The Vietnam War was shown live on television and my older brother started to grow his hair and play records by the Rolling Stones. In school, the older students started to rebel against ‘authoritarian’ regulations and published a student newspaper that lampooned our teachers (some of whom, as everyone knew in my town, had been enthusiastic Nazis). Later, a teacher asked us to look at a flyer produced by the Socialist German Student League which included the (to me) pythonesque line ‘In der Institution liegt die Gefahr der Institutionalisierung’ (the institution contains the risk of institutionalisation). I became interested in politics, and enthusiastically supported Willy Brandt in his 1972 re-election campaign (the ‘Reiten für Deutschland’ election poster portrayed Willy Brandt and his foreign minister Walter Scheel riding an Easy Rider style motorbike while their conservative rival Franz Joseph Strauß was loading his gun). Returning from an exchange year in the USA, I successfully ran for president of the student council (Schülermitverwaltung). On leaving school, I became a conscientious objector (which required facing a hearing and making your case) and delivered meals on wheels instead of learning how to salute.

My introductory seminar on German literature at the University of Hamburg in 1978 was conducted by Klaus Bartels, a 68er turned academic, with a selection of contemporary novels. It did not even occur to us first year students that this was a far cry from what our predecessors would have had to grapple with – the old syllabus of middle high German and Goethe having become optional. As a counterpoint to any romantic notions about the glorious 60s, my other academic guide was Dietrich Schwanitz (of Der Campus fame) who kept us grounded with his sarcasm.

While there was no sign of the 68ers in the Audimax where they had displayed the Unter den Talaren, Muff von tausend Jahren banner ten years before, there was still something of their anarchic spirit in the air – there were regular semester-long strikes, a variety of communist student groups (MSB Spartakus, Marxistische Gruppe) tried to get our attention, and the arts and humanities applied a very relaxed assessment practice: there were no marks on one’s ‘Scheine’ (certificates of achievement, which merely stated that one had taken part), nor was there a ‘Zwischenprüfung’ (an exam after the first four semesters) to determine whether one could progress to intermediate and advanced seminars. Indeed, students from all years, first semesters and veterans of 20 semesters attended any seminar of their choice, and smoking was absolutely required unless one was into knitting.

Outside campus, an alternative lifestyle had established itself in the Abaton Kino, Wohngemeinschaften, the Hafenstraße squats, vegetarian restaurants, and the countercultural Auenland, a venue for live bands with a notorious drug scene. The late 1970s were an odd mixture of second-hand experiences – the protest against the building of a nuclear power plant in Brokdorf near Hamburg, the Rasterfahndung against Red Army Faction terrorists, even the odd demonstration in front of the American consulate with helicopters flying low above us felt like someone else’s battles.

So why am I writing a book about the afterlives of 1968? The disclosure above already hints at a certain sympathy for the liberating and iconoclastic elements of the German Student Movement, a fairly typical attitude among Germans of my generation and recently immortalised in Gerhard Henschel’s Bildungsroman (2014). Nevertheless, for many years the 60s were completely off my radar while I completed a PhD with a thesis on English Romanticism and English Science Fiction, and then switched to teaching German language and current affairs in the UK. Yet what began to intrigue me, and has kept me intrigued over the last twenty years, is the on-going and accelerating production of texts, films, music, art and research that engages with this brief period in German history. With my research interests focused on the intersection of utopian, political and romantic thought, the German Student Movement is a fascinating manifestation of this nexus, its distinct blend of epiphany and subsequent loss so similar to the romantic period.

My own role in the construction of ‘1968’ may complicate matters – as an academic teacher, author of articles and book chapters, conference organiser and volume editor, I have contributed to the literature that I propose to analyse. At the same time, my familiarity with this vast body of works and their authors will, I hope, become useful in guiding the reader through the maze of publications.

I should stress that this book is not about the events of that bygone era – Anglophone readers interested in the events may wish to turn to Hans Kundnani’s Utopia or Auschwitz. Germany’s 1968 Generation and the Holocaust, (2009), or Timothy Scott Brown’s West Germany and the Global Sixties. The Antiauthoritarian Revolt, 1962-1978, (2013); those able to read German are spoilt for choice –, but rather about the edifice that has been constructed on top of these events by the media, writers and academics.

Why is this construction so important? While the generation of 68ers is leaving the stage, their erstwhile disruption, their belief in fundamental change, is endlessly re-examined, amplified, mythologised and instrumentalised. The ‘unity of thought, feeling and action’, the clarity of purpose associated with the cypher ‘1968’ has become a holy grail, an obsession for a cultural elite of intellectuals, writers, journalists, and opinion makers. The resultant myth of ‘1968’ has invaded the imagination of many through the writings of the few. This process cannot go on indefinitely – decisions have to be made whether a unified Germany can ‘move on’ from ‘1968’, by either accepting the tenets of the movement as a moral touchstone or by rejecting them as romantic relapse. This is not just important for insider debates in the German media, academia or literature, but for Germany’s political elites. The construction of ‘1968’ into something both unassailable and unattainable has dominated debates for almost five decades and arguably stymied the country’s ability to play its part on the global stage. My research will enable readers to see this process more clearly.