Paul Hockenos Weighs In Again

American journalist Paul Hockenos weighs in on the "wrenching, introspective" public debate in Germany on the legacy of ’68, as it’s called here. I’ll resist the urge to quote the entire piece, but here’s the heart of his argument:

Those who went the way of the revolutionary left were far smaller in number. Some formed their own sectarian Marxist-Leninist parties (the K-Gruppen), while even fewer (among them Joschka Fischer) took the path of anarcho-syndicalism. Just a handful – a tiny minority of a tiny minority – threw in their lot with armed struggle, the most prominent of those urban guerrillas being the Rote Armee Fraktion (Red Army Faction / RAF).

It is little wonder that commentators like [Goetz] Aly, Gerd Koenen, Stefan Aust, and Wolfgang Kraushaar come to negative and cynical conclusions about the student revolt when they focus so exclusively on the 68ers’ most radical bi-products [sic] like the K-Gruppen and the RAF. (It is also not surprising that all these figures had themselves been active members in the most sectarian of the leftist groups.) True, these small groupings had their roots in the student movement and the new left – but, in contrast to the reformists, they were the ones that failed to learn from the movement’s dogmatism of attitude and crudity of judgments: evident in its ultra-leftism, its illusions about the working class, its skewed analysis of the Federal Republic as a proto-fascist state, its macho male ethic, and its insensitivity (to put it no higher) to Jewish issues.

The current debate in Germany is further disabled by the fact that it completely misses the post-1968 grassroots campaigns that had the greatest impact on the republic: the Bürgerinitiativen that during the 1970s linked up to become the powerful "new social movements": the women’s, the environmental, the anti-nuclear energy, and the peace movement. These mass movements, the biggest Germany had ever seen, mobilised millions of ordinary Germans: young and old, urban and rural, men and women – in stark contrast to the middle-class, university-based ’68ers and the radical splinter groups of the ’70s.

The citizen’s initiatives and the new social movements introduced the republic to grassroots activism, anti-authoritarianism as practical experience, participatory democracy, and the complexity of gender relations….

It is astounding how little present this chapter of the Federal Republic is today in Germany’s public discourse and memory. While there was extraordinary – and, for me, inexplicable – media hype around the thirtieth anniversary of the "German autumn" (the peak of RAF terror) in 2007, there was barely a word said about 1977 as the year that tens of thousands came together at Kalkar along the Lower Rhein and other nuclear sites to protest against atomic power.

Why are the new social movements so marginalised in Germany’s discourses today?

An excellent question, that!  Here’s my answer, in three parts:

  • Baader, Meinhof, & co. are brands, just like Che Guevara.  They’re buy-triggers, and it’s the bottom line that counts.
  • Editors of German broadsheets form an exclusive, insular clique dominated by middle-class former ’68ers.  They all went to university, and most at least flirted with thinking about supporting the RAF.  The mass movements, as Hockenos points out, were broad-based organizations featuring lots of people (the non-university educated, the rural) whose opinions and experiences are, to judge by what I read, unknown and completely irrelevant to editors of upscale German newspapers.
  • The RAF story features exciting stuff: Safe houses! French intellectuals!  Shootouts!  Hostage-taking!  Hard to find high points like that in the patient, grass-roots organizing of large-scale protest and direct-democracy movements.

This is not to excuse the German media, of course. It’s a gross disservice to public discourse and to Germany’s image for the media landscape to be so dominated by the dull, whiny has-beens of the RAF.

3 thoughts on “Paul Hockenos Weighs In Again

  1. Intersting essay. Is this really true, that Germany neglcts it’s social history to this extenet? The US does not, I think. I see very little lionisation of the Weather Undergound and similar groups in the US.

    Of course these groups were squashed far more quickly in the US than in Germany and Italy, and as a result there was less total violence and less romanticism of them.

    It was interesting to see Weatherman Bill Ayers come to the public eye recently as a ‘friend’ of Barak Obama. Ayers was the son of a major industrialist and very possibly a terrorist but legal help from his family allowed him to avoid most legal punishment. There were the usual denunciations of this (and of him) but when I looked him up in wikipedia a very curious picture of Mr. Ayers emerged.

    He is unaplogetic about his fomenting of violent revolution and at the same time a prominent (and apparently effective) expert on education reform who headed Chicago Mayor Rich Daley’s school reform program for several years. He doesn’t engage in violent revolution himself any more but has been publically supportive of the idea, and at the same time chosen a profession which most people regard as a peaceful occupation. In a sense he seems to be living a split life.

    I guess I think he should have gone to jail, but having got away with murder he does seem to have led an not unworthy life. Would I send him in jail today if I could? Hmmmm, that’s an interesting question….


  2. So true, so very true. Sadly, after their “march through the institutions” the old 68-ers (wannabe or real) have developed into a well-nigh impenetrable cultural and social force. Some of my colleagues (in fact, the most patriarchal ones — ‘course they’re all guys) align themselves with that set and, heck, am I counting the years until they retire!

    Most of my mild romantic admiration of the RAF and co. (look, I grew up with graffiti screaming “Isolationshaft ist Folter”) went out of the window with some of the excellent TV documentaries done last year on the anniversary of “der deutsche Herbst”. Depressing to think that so much egocentric banality could pass for revolution then.


  3. Why are the new social movements so marginalised in Germany’s discourses today?

    Since when are they? Isn’t there an Eva Herman for every Christian Klar, an Alice Schwarzer for every Stefan Aust, and a Thea Dorn for every Michael Buback?

    I swear, this sort of debate is almost always without substance. There is a type of person that says: “Isn’t it warm and sunny today?” and there’s a type of person that says: “The question of weather is so marginalized in the intellectual discourse today.”


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