Utopia or Auschwitz: Germany’s 1968 Generation and the Holocaust
By Hans Kundnani

The best political book I read in 2013 actually came out in 2009 – I am afraid my finger is a long way from the pulse of contemporary publishing. Hans Kudnani history of Germany’s 1968 generation tells an extraordinary story: the revolt of the children of the Nazi generation against a world where Hitler’s willing and unwilling executioners were all around them.

On first reading, the West German left of 1968 should have been anti-fascist. But it was not so simple. Although Kundnami has some sympathy with students confronting a brutal police force and unpunished war criminals, he rightly sees their belief that fascism grew out of capitalism as dangerously idiotic. The ideology had two consequences. First it downplayed the responsibility of the German people for Nazism and ignored the specifically German features of the European fascist movement – most notably anti-semitism and Auschwitz. Second, by seeing West Germany as a continuation of Hitler’s Germany, and all capitalist states as potentially fascist, it authorised violence.

One of the oddest things about reading today’s right-wing websites is the diabolical power conservatives who are – to put it politely – less than hinged ascribe to the quasi-Marxist ideas of the Frankfurt group. I doubt they have ever read Theodor Adorno. If they had, they would know that almost at once he saw “left-wing fascism” in the student movement – and was screamed down by juvenile revolutionaries for his prescience. So it proved at least with some. The German terrorist groups despised democracy, glorified murder and targeted Jews – just like their parents. (Although this time around they said they were fighting the “imperialist Zionist conspiracy” rather than the Jewish Bolshevik conspiracy.) Meanwhile Andreas Baader led a genuine cult of the personality. In true Hitlerian fashion, he persuaded his gang to commit suicide in their prison bunkers rather than submit.

Others broke away. The most notable was Joschka Fishcer, a hero of mine, who renounced the worst ideas of his youth, and came to see anti-fascism as mandating an absolute opposition to crimes against humanity in our own age. As a Green minister in power in the late 1990s, he took an enormous political risk in committing his party to supporting NATO air strikes against the Serb militias slaughtering Kosovo Albanians.

For most, however, 1968 produced a righteous indifference made up of pacifism and indolence in equal measure. The crimes of Germany’s past meant that it should do little or nothing beyond Germany’s borders. It may seem bizarre to see that thoroughly bourgeois conservative Angela Merkel as the successor to radical students of 40 years ago. But in her unwillingness to intervene decisively in the Euro crisis or to support French and British military action against dictators about to massacre their populations, she is their child. Maybe it will take a shock as great as the eruption of the violence of the 1968 generation to shake her and mainstream German opinion out of their complacency. One does not have to look at the Eurozone too hard or for too long to guess that another volcano is about to blow.

There are two other superb books on 1968 and Germany: The Baader-Meinhof Complex by Stefan Aust and Paul Berman’s Power and the Idealists. Kundnani stands out because of its coolness. He does not argue a polemical case but writes as if he is examining a revolt as remote as the Albigensian heresy. Detached, thorough and well written, Utopia or Auschwitz is a history of a left-wing generation that learned – or ought to have learned – that all alternatives to the slow and frustrating procedures of democracy are worse.