The Historical Gadfly — Episode 10: Shane Boyle on the German New Left and 1968

I post this, our tenth podcast, on the site, on August 13, 2011, the 50th anniversary of the construction of the Berlin Wall (or the “Anti-Fascist Protection Barrier” in East German parlance). With utterly gorgeous weather, and nothing better to do, I embarked with a friend to the Gedenkstätte Berliner Mauer (Berlin Wall Memorial Site), a large museum and outdoor exhibition devoted to the history of the Wall. They had organized a huge range of activities: films on the construction of the wall, interviews with people who had tunneled under it, or escaped via Pakistan and Afghanistan to get around it, and how people came to live in a reunified Berlin after it came down. Between ample beer, blue skies, and historical exhibitions galore, it was my kind of place. As someone with an interest in history, Germany has occupied me for a long time as a country which, perhaps more than any other, is constantly reflecting on, and commenting on its own past.

Sites like the Berlin Wall Memorial (Gedenkstätte Berliner Mauer) are great examples of how prominently Germany reflects on its past today - a big change in its political culture over the last 50 years

It wasn’t always this way. West Germany in the 1950s and early 1960s had a lot going for it. Its economy was growing at a rate of more than 10% – as much as India and China. Jobs were plentiful – indeed, workers were so scarce that the government introduced a policy of importing guest workers, primarily from Italy, Spain, Greece, and Turkey. But for a state that had inherited the legacy of 12 years of Nazi rule, and many of whose leading politicians had themselves been members of the NSDAP (the Nazi Party), excessive reflection on who had done what and when remained a hushed topic among élites and in public discourse of the time. Events like the trial of Eichmann in Jerusalem, and, perhaps more importantly for West Germans’ consciousness, the Frankfurt Auschwitz Trials in 1963-1965, brought the crimes of mid-level German functionaries to greater public consciousness. But what to do when huge swaths of élites – politicians, university faculties, businessmen were largely complicit or had complicated relationships with National Socialism?

How Germany went from this more hushed culture to its more open political culture today is one of the topics that we touch on in this episode of The Historical Gadfly with Shane Boyle, a PhD student from the Department of Performance Studies at the University of California, Berkeley. Prior to meeting Shane recently in Berlin, I didn’t have a very clear idea of what Performance Studies was, or what kinds of questions from the discipline might like to approach. But Shane’s project, “Historicizing the German ‘68: Performance, Provocation, and Radical Thought in die Neue Linke,” had me interested from when I first heard about it. Shane is taking up the history of the German New Left, a disparate group of activists who emerged in the late 1960s for various reasons (among others: university reform, economic recession, the Vietnam War, West Germany’s foreign policy, and others). Many, but not all of the members of the movement were students, and many were concerned with university reforms, but for many activists the main project was to find ways to reform German society outside of participation in traditional institutions, like the Bundestag (the legislature). Many of them formed communes where they participated in experiments in youth living together, rather than with their parents. They created mass protest movements to move against proposed reforms to German emergency laws. Other parts of the movement either fully realized or diverged from (depending on your point of view) its central tenets, going on to form the Red Army Faction that would terrorize West Germany in the 1970s. In short, it was a highly complex movement. But it also unquestionably changed German norms going into the last quarter of the 20th century. The movement, also called the Extraparliamentary Opposition (APO in German), shifted German politics to the Left without formally taking power, but at the same time some Germans today feel that the movement’s leaders were over-privileged, disrespectful, or undisciplined compared to the generation that rebuilt West Germany in the 1950s.

Preparing for the Revolution: Rudi Dutschke and other German students probably failed in effecting immediate political gains, but they had a huge effect on Germany's political culture and, through their "long march through the institutions," eventually had greater impact on the leading institutions themselves

Like more traditional historians, Shane is looking through a wide array of archives for this project – mostly, as I understand, the Berlin Landesarchiv and the APO Archiv at the Freie Universität Berlin. But he’s also looking into the influence that Frankfurt School philosophers like Theodor Adorno and Herbert Marcuse had on the New Left. In our interview, we also try to get to the bottom of what unique perspectives a Performance Studies approach can offer to an analysis of the New Left. We me look less at the political or social history of the APO, and more towards its protests as performance or ritual. We might also discuss the  activities of groups like Kommune 1 less as a failed political project, and as a partly successful movement to change everyday ritual and norm in West German society. I definitely learned a lot from interviewing Shane on this wide range of subjects, and I suspect you will, too.

Download our conversation here!

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