Archives for posts with tag: German student movement

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.

It is 45 years ago to the day that one of the leading figures of the German Student Movement was shot in West Berlin. He survived, but had to retire from the limelight and died 11 years later from the long-term effects of the attack. It is a moot point whether the movement and the country as a whole would have taken a different direction had the assassin missed his target. He didn’t, and the New Left had both a martyr and an excuse for its ultimate failure. 15 years ago, I contributed a chapter to Gerard de Groot’s book ‘Student Protest. The Sixties and After’ (London / New York 1998). In it I quote Rudi’s simple message:

Our life is more than money. Our life is thinking and living. It’s about us, and what we could do in this world … It is about how we could use technology and all the other things which at the moment are used against the human being.… My question in life is always how we can destroy things that are against the human being, and how we can find a way of life in which the human being is independent of a world of trouble, a world of anxiety, a world of destruction.


Following the global celebration of their 40th anniversary in 2008, the 68ers, especially in Germany, have increasingly been portrayed as a generation that has overstayed its welcome. With the portrayal of their increasing infirmity (of body if not of mind) comes a general disassociation with their former ideals and once radical political agenda. The revolution has not taken place, certainly not in the way they had imagined. What was once perceived as dangerous and strangely attractive to broad sections of German youth has become embarrassing, decidedly old-fashioned, and, in spite of occasional sympathetic portrayals in film or on TV, almost inexplicable to later generations.
Whilst their presence in the media has somewhat diminished, the 68ers have not yet disappeared from political and cultural debates: especially their literary production continues unabated, though, as will be argued, a new quality has entered their work. Their writing is deeply reflective, especially of their own increasing sense of being strangers in a strange land. The generation that hoped to die before they got old, that coined the phrase ‘Trau keinem über 30’ has left its ‘Prominenzphase’ during the Red-Green Coalition government from 1998 to 2005 and entered uncharted waters, a stage in life when one has one last chance to admit mistakes, forgive if not forget, and remember one’s defining moments in the light of a lifetime’s experience.
The texts I have chosen to illustrate my argument are Uwe Timm’s ‘Freitisch’, Friedrich Christian Delius’s ‘Als die Bücher noch geholfen haben’, Jochen Schimmang’s ‘Das Beste, was wir hatten’ and Bernd Cailloux’s ‘Gutgeschriebene Verluste’ (which made the longlist of the Deutscher Buchpreis 2012). Each of these writers has charted the history of their generation and its ever-changing ‘Befindlichkeit’ over decades, and their work continues to attract broad attention.
My paper argues that these chroniclers of their generation remain committed to the cause: the project of Germany’s ‘politische Alphabetisierung’ (H.M. Enzensberger), and an aesthetic programme that evolved out of the spirit of ’68. One last time they evoke the ‘Aufbruch einer Generation’, a movement that is unequalled in terms of its radical approach, but now with a wistful focus on its unfulfilled promise.

Paper for the AGS Conference in Cardiff, 3-5 April 2013