A Moral Baseball Bat

More than elsewhere, the 1968 protests in Germany were a means of reckoning with the country’s past as well as a rebellion against the present. This has made German debates about the legacy of 1968 uniquely divisive. In Germany, right-wing detractors do not just hold 1968 responsible for the usual litany of sins from sexual lawlessness to moral vacuity; they also blame the 1968 generation for making impossible a healthy patriotism and for permanently disgracing the German nation.

The gas chambers are not the only reason why the Third Reich must long remain central to German self-conception.

Joschka Fischer in Kosovo in 1999. From welt.de.
  • Hans Kundnani. Utopia or Auschwitz. Columbia University Press, December 2009.

1968 was experienced by many as the beginning of a global revolution. That revolution never came—or perhaps, as Zhou Enlai said of the consequences of the French Revolution, “it’s too early to tell”—yet the sense of international solidarity was real. Students occupying buildings in Berlin were in contact with antiwar marchers in Berkeley and London; actions at Columbia seemed to be in sympathy and concert with those at the Freie Universität. But one thing set German youths apart from their counterparts in the US or the UK. Young Brits and Americans may have challenged their parents’ authority, but they also had to pay grudging respect to the “greatest generation.” Even if angrier members of the student left were given to calling their reactionary elders “fascists” in fits of pique, they nonetheless had to acknowledge that many members of their parents’ generation had fought to save much of Europe. Young Germans, by contrast, had to come to terms with the fact that their immediate forebears had committed unimaginable crimes. Their parents really had been fascists, and their rebellion accordingly targeted what they called the “Auschwitz generation.”

More than elsewhere, the 1968 protests in Germany were a means of reckoning with the country’s past as well as a rebellion against the present. This has made German debates about the legacy of 1968 uniquely divisive. In Germany, right-wing detractors do not just hold 1968 responsible for the usual litany of sins from sexual lawlessness to moral vacuity; they also blame the 1968 generation for making impossible a healthy patriotism and for permanently disgracing the German nation. Meanwhile, far-left defenders of 1968 go well beyond thanking the movement for doing away with oppressive social norms; they also credit it with Germany’s transformation into a truly democratic and pluralistic society.

So long as the debate remains couched in these adversarial terms, the pro-1968 view is more convincing. It is true, after all, that many aspects of the Nazi era persisted in the postwar years. At the levels of popular attitudes, political personnel, and even government policy, the Federal Republic had failed to make a clear break with the recent past. Senior Nazis like Hans Globke, who wrote the official commentaries on the Nuremberg Race Laws, again rose to prominence. Starting in 1953, Globke even served as chief of staff to the Federal Republic’s first chancellor, Konrad Adenauer. All-powerful Adenauer, in turn, did not just rule Germany in a semi-autocratic fashion; he also explained the need for good relations with Israel by insisting that “the world’s Jewry is a great power.”

The immense achievement of the Achtundsechsiger—the 68ers—was to puncture this steadfast silence about the Nazis. Much of the process was private. All over the country, earnest youths made family dinners distinctly uncomfortable by asking their parents what they did or failed to do during the Third Reich. But there were also public acts of rebellion. Kurt Georg Kiesinger, Germany’s chancellor, had joined the Nazi Party in 1933 and quickly ascended to a leading position in the foreign office under Hitler. In November 1968, as Chancellor Kiesinger was attending the annual conference of the Christian Democratic Party in Berlin, a young woman approached him, apparently to ask for his autograph. Suddenly, she shouted “Nazi Kiesinger, resign!” and smacked him in the face.

Over the next decade the left pushed through significant political, social, and cultural changes. The statute of limitations on murder was finally lifted, allowing German courts to prosecute a few of the worst Nazi war criminals. A law threatening landlords with imprisonment if they let an unmarried couple cohabit was repealed. Homosexuality was legalized. Perhaps some of these improvements might have come about even in the absence of student protests, but it seems clear that 1968 did contribute to turning the Federal Republic into the tolerant and stable democracy we see today.

All through this long “culture war,” criticism of 1968 has come almost exclusively from the right. Left-wingers often feel that any criticism of 1968 would be abused; best to keep to their corner and defend the youth movement wholesale. It is the great virtue, then, of Hans Kundnani’s Utopia or Auschwitz that it gives an unflinching critique of the Achtungsechsiger from the left. Though sympathetic to the generation’s aspirations and accomplishments, Kundnani shows that the 68ers suffered from deep pathologies that still shape Germans’ understanding of who they are.


The leaders of 1968 were obsessed by the thought that their parents had been Nazis. In a sense, this might have been liberating: What better excuse to rebel against authority and make the country anew? But Kundnani shows that, by and large, the young were frightened by this knowledge. They were their parents’ flesh and blood. If their parents, apparently normal people, had committed such terrible crimes, then how could they be sure that their genes would not propel them to the same actions? The right response, it seemed, was to conceive of the German political situation in the most radical terms: aim for Utopia so you don’t become guilty of a second Auschwitz.

To cast the world as a Manichaean choice between Utopia and Auschwitz was a dangerous distortion. The roots of the confusion lay in a misguided application of critical theory. Even before World War II, Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno had argued that fascist regimes, including the Third Reich, were examples of “state capitalism.” Given their internal contradictions, capitalist societies would have to rely on ever-increasing state coercion to avoid economic collapse—in other words, fascism was a necessary consequence of capitalism’s internal laws of motion, rather than an anomaly. Far-left students in Frankfurt and Berlin now appropriated this theory to suggest similarities between the Third Reich and the Federal Republic. In their view both were repressive regimes that relied on the manipulation of a conformist population by the mass media and “the culture industry.” What little freedom was left in the Federal Republic would soon fall prey to the dictates of economic necessity.

For the 68ers, the Federal Republic was merely a fascist state adorned by a democratic fig leaf. This idea, which for the most radical leaders of the student movement quickly grew into an obsession, was a potent justification for rebellion against the state. It allowed activists to leave behind more pedestrian concerns, like whether it might be somehow undemocratic to impose their own views on the rest of the population; in challenging the present order they were resisting a slide back to full-scale Hitlerism. The parallel to the Third Reich also implied that passive resistance couldn’t be enough. Didn’t the Auschwitz generation claim that, far from being convinced Nazis, they had merely followed orders? Together these responses to Germany’s past were taken to justify revolutionary violence—and, ultimately, terrorism.

Kundnani therefore questions whether the noble intentions of 1968 led to the right conclusions. Yes, the 1968 generation was genuinely haunted by Auschwitz. Yes, it forced at least some discussion of the Third Reich onto an unwilling public. But to a surprising extent it was precisely the 1968 generation’s obsession with Germany’s past that led it astray.


The revolutionary fervor of most far-left students quickly dissipated after Willy Brandt, a young and charismatic Social Democrat, was elected chancellor in 1969. Brandt, born as Herbert Frahm, had assumed his very name as a socialist resistance fighter against the Third Reich. In his inaugural speech he promised that his government would “dare more democracy.” Liberalizing reforms—from a penal system focused on rehabilitation to an expansion of educational opportunities—quickly followed. Then, on December 7, 1970, visibly overcome by emotion, Brandt went on his knees in front of the monument for the victims of the Warsaw Ghetto. Before long he had persuaded most young people that, to the extent that the past still persisted in the Federal Republic, democratic reforms were the way to overcome it.

Some members of the student movement remained unconvinced. As they grew increasingly isolated, they became increasingly radical. Take the case of Ulrike Meinhof. A well-known journalist in the 1960s, she wrote eloquent tracts against the Vietnam War and the many old Nazis who had made new careers for themselves in postwar Germany. During the first mass protests Meinhof supported the students, but from afar. When Germany’s tabloids waged an inflammatory war of words against the 68ers—a media campaign that contributed to the shooting of student leader Rudi Dutschke—Meinhof became increasingly important as the movement’s public defender. But then the revolutionary fervor of 1968 began to fade. Even so, Meinhof remained convinced that the Federal Republic was about to degenerate into fascism. Increasingly paranoid, she joined like-minded veterans of the student movement who had founded what they took to be an antifascist urban guerilla movement: the Red Army Faction (RAF).

As Kundnani demonstrates, this turn to violence took place not despite the 1968 movement’s obsession with Germany’s past but because of it. When the RAF unleashed a brutal campaign of far-left terrorism on the Federal Republic, they continued to justify their actions with a simple slogan: “Never Again Auschwitz!”

The violent fringes of the 1968 movement eventually even invoked the name of Auschwitz to justify lethal attacks on Jews. Identifying fascism with capitalism, capitalism with the Federal Republic, the Federal Republic with the US, the US with Israel, and Israel with all Jews, they soon came to think of Jews as the true fascists. This may sound like the tortured logic of your average antisemite, but the RAF started from an unusual premise: it was precisely the concern with the injustices their parents had perpetrated against Jews that led these young Germans to kill more Jews.

On November 10, 1969, a day after a commemoration of the Kristallnacht pogroms, a ticking bomb was discovered in the Jewish community center in Berlin. As German historian Wolfgang Kraushaar has argued in a painstaking reconstruction of the events, it is virtually certain that 68ers had planned the attack.  Far from self-identifying as Nazis, the bomb-layers saw their intended victims as the true fascists. As they announced in a leaflet, “Shalom + Napalm”:

Every commemoration in West Berlin and West Germany reminds us that the Kristallnacht of 1938 is daily repeated in the occupied territories, in refugee camps and in Israeli prisons. The Jews, driven out by fascism, have themselves become fascists. In collaboration with American capital, they seek to exterminate the Palestinian people.

This perverse logic would be used to justify increasingly bloody attacks. A month later a bomb placed in the vicinity of the Berlin offices of Israeli airline El Al by the same group was discovered just in time. Then, on February 13, 1970, at about 9 PM, unknown perpetrators laid fire to a Jewish retirement home in Munich. When firefighters finally entered the heavily damaged building seven inhabitants, all of them concentration camp survivors, were found dead. Their murderers, most likely young German “antifascists,” were never caught.

The members of the RAF were led to their antisemitism in part by an unconditional identification with Palestinians, whom they saw as the victims of Israeli imperialism. In the early 1970s they picked up crucial skills in a Fatah training camp in Jordan. At times this unlikely alliance laid bare cultural differences, such as when female members of the group sunbathed naked in full view of their Muslim brothers-in-arms. Such differences did not, however, undermine their solidarity with Palestine.

It was on an airfield in Africa that the hostility to Israel among some members of the far-left found its macabre culmination. On June 27, 1976 an Air France plane carrying 260 passengers and crew was hijacked on its way from Tel Aviv via Athens to Paris. The flight was rerouted to Entebbe, Uganda. Once there, Gentile passengers were allowed to leave; only the eighty-five Jews on board had to stay. It was Wilfried Böse, a member of another far-left German terrorist group, who separated the Jewish passengers from the “Aryan” ones. One hostage, a concentration camp survivor, indignantly bared the registration number tattooed on his arm. Wasn’t Böse taking on the same role as the SS camp guards who separated those who would be allowed to live from those destined for the gas chambers? Böse denied any parallel. “I am no Nazi,” he declared. “I am an idealist!”


It is to Kundnani’s credit that the portrayals of the more moderate members of the 1968 movement appear just as vivid and captivating as the accounts of Böse and Meinhof. Perhaps the book’s most interesting character sketches come in the description of two figures who, though peripheral in 1968, later became the movement’s standard bearers: Gerhard Schröder, Germany’s chancellor from 1998 to 2005, and his foreign secretary, Joschka Fischer. It is through their biographies that Kundnani manages to really complicate the old terms of the debate about 1968.

Joschka Fischer made his name in the German left as a street fighter. In the 1970s, embracing an ideal of urban guerilla warfare that bears at least a family resemblance to the tactics of the RAF, he participated in numerous acts of violence. (To Fischer’s embarrassment photographs of him throwing stones at policemen were discovered and published during his tenure as foreign secretary.) He even knew Böse, the “antifascist” who separated Jews from non-Jews. But for Fischer, whose own support of the Palestinian cause had led him to participate at a PLO conference in 1969, the news of Böse’s actions in Entebbe provoked a remarkable political watershed. He now realized, as he later put it, that “those who emphatically set themselves apart from National Socialism and its crimes had almost compulsively repeated the crimes of the Nazis.”

Even after his political transformation, Fischer never dropped his preoccupation with Auschwitz. But he understood that it was all too easy to draw the wrong lessons from Germany’s past. An unflinching, less idealistic—that is to say, less utopian—view of the world was needed to think clearly about what the import of Auschwitz should be for the German left. For Fischer, as for left-wing intellectuals like Habermas, this worldview manifested itself in a reinterpretation of the Federal Republic. Instead of seeing the Federal Republic as standing in direct continuity with the Third Reich, he increasingly hailed its constitution as an anti-Nazi bulwark.

In the early 1980s, Fischer decided to enter electoral politics. He joined the Green Party, which had only recently emerged from a heterogeneous peace movement, tenuously uniting nationalist anti-Americans, conservative opponents of nuclear energy, and anticapitalist 68ers under the slogan: “Never again war!” Within a few years, he was the party’s star.

Over the next two decades, Fischer’s skepticism about the far left’s most convenient fictions located him firmly on the “realist” wing of the Green Party. Throughout his political career he remained at odds with the party’s more “fundamentalist” wing, which refused to accept the legitimacy of existing institutions and remained unwilling to cooperate with established political parties. In the spring of 1999, a few months after the Red-Green coalition (Social Democrats and Greens) installed Fischer and other members of the 1968 generation in high office for the first time, these tensions came to a breaking point. Fittingly, the occasion was a debate about the lessons Germany should draw from the past. The government, along with other NATO countries, planned to use military force to protect Kosovar Albanians against Serbia. Fundamentalists within the party were outraged. On their view Germany’s history mandated pacifism. Fischer, by contrast, derived from his own understanding of German history an imperative to stop genocide by whatever means necessary.

“I didn’t just learn ‘Never again war,’” he told activists at a tense party conference, “I also learned, ‘Never again Auschwitz.’” In the end Fischer narrowly prevailed over the fundamentalists in his party. Under his leadership—and in the name of Auschwitz—German planes assisted in bombing Serbia. It was the first offensive mission of the German Army since World War II.


Gerhard Schröder was, if anything, an even more adamant champion of the Kosovo operation than Joschka Fischer. But whereas Fischer justified Kosovo because he thought Auschwitz had continuing relevance for Germany’s left, Schröder advocated a more active German foreign policy because he wanted to move beyond the left’s preoccupation with the past.  From his perspective, Kosovo, perhaps even more than a chance to prevent genocide, was an opportunity to show that a reunified Germany would no longer be hampered by neurotic hang-ups about the Third Reich.

At the time of the Kosovo debate, the German media portrayed Fischer and Schröder’s stance as a betrayal of their erstwhile ideals. But it is now clear that Fischer’s repudiation of pacifism was intimately connected to 1968. The same might be said of Schröder’s position, though for contrasting reasons. Fischer, influenced by one part of the student movement, based his imperative to stop genocide on the specter of Auschwitz. Schröder, influenced by another part of the student movement, based his assertion of German “normality” on a different cause: left-wing nationalism.

For many decades the historiography of 1968 remained as divided as the wider political debate about the student protests: right-wing historians criticized the internationalist 68ers; left-wing historians criticized the nationalist opponents of 1968. As a result, it has been widely overlooked that some of the leading 1968 protagonists were more motivated by the desire to overcome Germany’s division than by shame about Germany’s past. This is especially true of Rudi Dutschke, an early hero of the student movement who was nearly killed by a far-right assassin in 1968. The US and the Soviet Union figured in Dutschke’s writings not as liberators from Nazism but as occupiers who had divided Germany. In 1973, for example, Dutschke criticized Brandt for making peace with Germany’s Eastern neighbor. In Dutschke’s eyes, any attempt to atone for Germany’s wartime crimes in Poland and the Soviet Union should have been subordinated to a much more pressing goal: the “socialist reunification” of Germany. The emphasis explicitly lay on the nationalist element, for while Dutschke dreamed of uniting workers on both sides of the German border, he dismissed the idea of a Europe-wide socialist movement as a mere “abstraction.” Concerning the Third Reich, Dutschke remained conspicuously silent.

This was less atypical of the 1968 generation than might at first be obvious. Despite all of the talk about the past, strong currents in the movement were always strangely indignant about the idea that Germany was specially responsible for the Third Reich. Meinhof, despite her genuine interest in the crimes of the Nazis, came to equate Auschwitz with the Allied bombings of Hamburg and Dresden. Testifying in defense of Horst Mahler, the RAF’s most prominent lawyer, who eventually became a neo-Nazi, she made her reasons explicit: “Unless we acquit the German people of fascism—because people really didn’t know what was going on in the concentration camps—we will never be able to mobilize them for our revolutionary struggle.”

Even the very fervor with which the 1968 generation accepted a Marxist interpretation of the Third Reich can be seen as an attempt to downplay German agency. After all, the decision to see the Third Reich as a state capitalist system that was brought about by inexorable historical processes turns Germans into victims rather than perpetrators. And to describe the US and Israel in the very same terms as the Third Reich surely helped to alleviate the feelings of shame that Germans felt before their liberators and their victims. On this view, the 68ers’ insistence on the similarities between Nazism and the present world was but a trivialization of the past rooted in psychological necessity.

Schröder’s stance on Kosovo was deeply influenced by this largely forgotten tradition. So were many other aspects of his chancellorship. In 1998 the novelist Martin Walser called Auschwitz a “moral baseball bat” wielded by outsiders for their own purposes. Germans, he demanded, should draw a “concluding line” under their preoccupation with the past. Asked what he thought of the speech, Schröder implicitly endorsed it and even echoed the oft-repeated insinuation that Germans were not allowed to speak their mind freely: “A writer must be allowed to say things like that, but the chancellor can’t.”

Perhaps the most striking example of Schröder’s lack of concern for the past came in the run-up to the Iraq War. Schröder, in the middle of a difficult reelection campaign, decided to seize upon the overwhelming unpopularity of Bush’s foreign policy for electoral gain. In a fiery campaign speech, he declared his outright opposition to the looming war. Given the Federal Republic’s traditional policy of cooperating with the US wherever possible, this was a clear break with the past. But it was Schröder’s nationalist rhetoric, not his sensible opposition to the Iraq War per se, that indicated the true novelty of his stance. In his speech, echoing the anti-Americanism of the student movement, the chancellor roundly criticized the “American way.” In the future, Germany would insist on its own interests like any other normal country. It would, Schröder promised to the dismay of his foreign secretary, follow the “German way.”


Kundnani is not alone in assaulting left-wing pieties. His book builds on recent German historical research that complicates our image of 1968. First the nationalist side of the student movement was emphasized; then the problem of far-left antisemitism. These days German papers are full of accounts of sexual abuse perpetrated by teachers from the educational wing of the ’68 movement, who claimed they were trying to liberate children. Part of the book’s value lies simply in making accessible to American readers specialist research that has so far been the preserve of German speakers. But Utopia or Auschwitz is also the first book to explore systematically how the 1968 generation’s relationship to the past led to a particular set of pathologies that have continued to shape the German left. While some of the connections Kundnani makes are well-known, the overall picture that emerges is new. It should challenge the self-understanding of left-liberal Germans today.

Anyone who wants to see the Federal Republic as safe from the contaminations of the Third Reich is tempted to posit a clear moment of rupture. For German conservatives that moment came at “zero hour,” the collapse of the Third Reich in 1945. Given the obvious imperfections of postwar Germany, this view was unacceptable to the German left. The idyllic version of 1968 filled the gap. It became a more radical version of “zero hour”—a cathartic moment of national renewal, enabling linear progress to extend indefinitely into the future.

That’s why the story about the redemptive heroism of a whole generation of good Germans—the story Kundnani sets out to destroy—remains so seductive even to moderate left-wingers. Yet if Kundnani is mostly right, the idealization of 1968 is mostly wrong. Far from making the country anew in its own image, the 1968 generation was itself shaped by all the contradictions of postwar Germany. 1968 was no more the hour of rebirth than 1945.

Most Germans will think that this revised view of 1968 renders an overly harsh judgment on the Federal Republic. After all these years of consolidated democracy and heartfelt torment, should the Third Reich still be taken to explain Germany’s present? Can we never hope for a time when Auschwitz is safely relegated to history books and public memorials? No wonder that the likes of Walser are asking for a “concluding line” to cordon off the past from the present—and that they have largely succeeded in shaping the self-understanding of a younger generation of Germans.

But a realistic view of 1968 need not lead to so pessimistic a conclusion. The 68ers who insist they made Germany anew and the young Germans who clamor for an arbitrary concluding line have more in common than they think. Aspiring to purity, both groups are in search of an elusive moment of redemption. They therefore fail to see that Germans might have reason to be proud of the Federal Republic even though it has been shaped—and, yes, contaminated—by the legacy of the Third Reich.

The gas chambers are not the only reason why the Third Reich must long remain central to German self-conception. Another is that the history of the Federal Republic has been, to a considerable degree, the history of Germany’s complicated, protracted, and imperfect attempts to come to terms with its past. If Germans were to stop engaging with the Third Reich, they would no longer understand much of Germany’s postwar history—even episodes like 1968 which, for all their flaws, rank among the country’s highest achievements.

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