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Where are the New Social Movements in German collective memory?

Paul Hockenos is an American, Berlin-based author and political analyst who has written about Europe since 1989. His new book Joschka Fischer and the Making of the Berlin Republic: An Alternative History of Postwar Germany is a both a lively biography and a gripping history. He shows how the grassroots movements that became the German Greens challenged and changed the republic’s status quo, making postwar Germany more democratic, liberal, and worldly along the way.

In Germany, the 40th anniversary of the peak of the countercultural, anti-establishment student movement (1968), has opened with a barrage of criticism of the movement itself-particularly of the radicalism and supposedly “anti-democratic” 9780195181838.jpgstands that “the students” took at the time. Although I disagree fundamentally with the ’68 bashing in fashion at the moment in Germany, I’m not particularly surprised to see it. Because the 1967-1969 student movement was so full of contradictions, one can find quite a bit in the student rebels’ rhetoric and build a convincing one-sided case using some facts while ignoring others. For example, there were vague calls to armed struggle alongside endorsements of civil disobedience; advocacy of guerrilla warfare in the Third World as well as strategies for a “long march through the institutions”; adoration of Martin Luther King next to homage of Mao. Some student rebels–almost all of them self-acclaimed pacifists until 1967– spoke of October style revolution while others planned a Hegelian revolution in consciousness. The students disparaged parliamentary democracy, but calls for “more democracy” punctuated all of their demands.

The same kind of disingenuous selection happens with the movements that emerged from the student movement during the seventies (and this is where the real debate should begin: the 1967-1969 student movement itself didn’t change all that much-but the processes it set in motion did.) In the aftermath of SDS‘s dissolution, the student movement’s rebels scattered across the left side of the republic’s political spectrum, tens of thousands joining Willy Brandt‘s SPD while others-incomparably fewer– went the way of the sectarian left and-still fewer, just a handful-of armed struggle. Most critically, in my opinion, scores of former rebels and many, many others inspired by the students’ example of self-initiative and do-it-yourself politics formed the thousands of citizens’ initiatives that mushroomed across the republic in the early 1970s.

It is no wonder that commentators like Götz Aly, Gerd Koenen, and Wolfgang Kraushaar come to negative and cynical conclusions about the student movement when they focus so exclusively on its radical excesses (which indeed existed) and the ’68ers’ most radical bi-products: the Marxist-Leninist parties and the Red Army Faction, among others. Make no mistake, these small groupings had their roots in the New Left and student movement but they were the ones that failed to learn from the movement’s errors: its ultraleftism, its illusions about the working class, its skewed analysis of the Federal Republic as a proto-fascist state, its macho male ethnic, and its blinkered pro-Arab sympathies.

Completely missing from the debate today is the post-’68 grassroots campaigns that had the greatest impact on the republic: the citizens’ initiatives that during the seventies linked up to become the powerful New Social Movements. The women’s, the environmental, the anti-nuclear energy, and the peace movement mobilized literally millions of ordinary Germans, young and old, urban and rural-in stark contrast to the isolated university-based ’68ers and the radical splinter groups. The citizens’ initiatives and the NSMs introduced the republic to grassroots activism, anti-authoritarianism in praxis, participatory democracy, and the complexity of gender relations. The republic’s social movements-which reach back further than the sixties’ student movement-played an enormous role in the development of a healthy civic consciousness and a pluralistic civil society in the Federal Republic.

It astounds me how absent this chapter of the Federal Republic is today in public discourse and memory. While there was extraordinary (and, for me, inexplicable) media hype around the 30th anniversary of the German Autumn last year, there was barely a word said about 1977 as the year that tens of thousands came together at Kalkar and other nuclear sites to protest atomic power. Why are the New Social Movements so marginalized in Germany’s discourses today? Why if you went into just about any Gymnasium in the country none of the kids could tell you who Petra Kelly was? Or the wine farmers from Wyhl? Why is there no single book that examines these movements’ huge impact on the republic, yet there are over 75 on the minutiae of the RAF?

Today’s Federal Republic owes these protests movements a lot-and without ’68 they would have been unimaginable.

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