A fascinating intellectual history of the 1968 generation of radicals in West Germany charts their descent into the very thing they professed to loatheby David Aaronovitch / January 27, 2010 / Leave a comment
Utopia or Auschwitz: Germany’s 1968 Generation and the Holocaust By Hans Kundnani (Hurst and Company, £16.99)
A traveller on the London tube, glancing up from his or her book, may read a series of short aphorisms or poems, supposedly sponsored by Transport for London and the office of the (Conservative) London mayor. At the moment one of these is a quotation from Friedrich Engels, in life a frequent visitor to the city and, in death, the co-occupier with Marx, Lenin and Stalin, Mao or Fidel, of a million revolutionary banners and posters. It reads, “an ounce of action is worth a ton of theory.”
The book that I looked up from was Hans Kundnani’s lucid and fascinating exposition of the intellectual history of the 1968 generation of the German left, a book that shows, contrary to Engels’ assertion, that ideas can have primacy, and that—in certain circumstances—an ounce of theory can move a ton of action. ?
On 2nd June 1967 in West Berlin, a student, Benno Ohnesorg, was shot dead by a panicking policeman during a demonstration against the visit of the Shah of Iran. (Later, though unconnectedly, the policeman proved to be a Stasi agent) A week later, in Ohnesorg’s home town of Hanover, the radical students’ organisation, SDS, held a big conference to discuss state violence and the response to it. Seven thousand people attended at one time or another, and one of the speakers they heard was the radical Frankfurt philosopher, Jürgen Habermas.?Habermas, though sympathetic, wanted to warn against the idea, fostered by Marcuse among others, that direct action on the part of students could provoke a reaction that might help bring about a social revolution; a revolution for which there was little appetite in West Germany. Habermas was heard, but the fiery unofficial leader of the student radicals, Rudi Dutschke, was much more to the gathering’s taste. Habermas, he said, was too much the theorist and too little the activist. Now, in advanced capitalism, a vanguard movement could, by its actions, create a revolution.
Dutschke and Habermas left but, as Kundnani relates, so worried was the philosopher about the implications of Red Rudi’s speech that he turned his car around, and drove back to Hanover. In the post-midnight hall, in front of a few hundred people, Habermas warned that Dutschke’s position held the danger of degenerating into “left-wing fascism.” He was booed…