My new monograph Writing the Revolution. The Construction of ‘1968’ in Germany is coming out this month.

Given that in the course of this book I criticise a number of academics for not laying their cards on their table, declare their agenda, or, as Jürgen Habermas would put it, formulate their ‘erkenntnisleitende Interessen’, I would like to outline my own.

Born in 1958, I was too young to understand what was going on around 1968, but I had a general awareness that a revolt was taking place. The Vietnam War was shown live on television and my older brother started to grow his hair and play records by the Rolling Stones. In school, the older students started to rebel against ‘authoritarian’ regulations and published a student newspaper that lampooned our teachers (some of whom, as everyone knew in my town, had been enthusiastic Nazis). Later, a teacher asked us to look at a flyer produced by the Socialist German Student League which included the (to me) pythonesque line ‘In der Institution liegt die Gefahr der Institutionalisierung’ (the institution contains the risk of institutionalisation). I became interested in politics, and enthusiastically supported Willy Brandt in his 1972 re-election campaign (the ‘Reiten für Deutschland’ election poster portrayed Willy Brandt and his foreign minister Walter Scheel riding an Easy Rider style motorbike while their conservative rival Franz Joseph Strauß was loading his gun). Returning from an exchange year in the USA, I successfully ran for president of the student council (Schülermitverwaltung). On leaving school, I became a conscientious objector (which required facing a hearing and making your case) and delivered meals on wheels instead of learning how to salute.

My introductory seminar on German literature at the University of Hamburg in 1978 was conducted by Klaus Bartels, a 68er turned academic, with a selection of contemporary novels. It did not even occur to us first year students that this was a far cry from what our predecessors would have had to grapple with – the old syllabus of middle high German and Goethe having become optional. As a counterpoint to any romantic notions about the glorious 60s, my other academic guide was Dietrich Schwanitz (of Der Campus fame) who kept us grounded with his sarcasm.

While there was no sign of the 68ers in the Audimax where they had displayed the Unter den Talaren, Muff von tausend Jahren banner ten years before, there was still something of their anarchic spirit in the air – there were regular semester-long strikes, a variety of communist student groups (MSB Spartakus, Marxistische Gruppe) tried to get our attention, and the arts and humanities applied a very relaxed assessment practice: there were no marks on one’s ‘Scheine’ (certificates of achievement, which merely stated that one had taken part), nor was there a ‘Zwischenprüfung’ (an exam after the first four semesters) to determine whether one could progress to intermediate and advanced seminars. Indeed, students from all years, first semesters and veterans of 20 semesters attended any seminar of their choice, and smoking was absolutely required unless one was into knitting.

Outside campus, an alternative lifestyle had established itself in the Abaton Kino, Wohngemeinschaften, the Hafenstraße squats, vegetarian restaurants, and the countercultural Auenland, a venue for live bands with a notorious drug scene. The late 1970s were an odd mixture of second-hand experiences – the protest against the building of a nuclear power plant in Brokdorf near Hamburg, the Rasterfahndung against Red Army Faction terrorists, even the odd demonstration in front of the American consulate with helicopters flying low above us felt like someone else’s battles.

So why am I writing a book about the afterlives of 1968? The disclosure above already hints at a certain sympathy for the liberating and iconoclastic elements of the German Student Movement, a fairly typical attitude among Germans of my generation and recently immortalised in Gerhard Henschel’s Bildungsroman (2014). Nevertheless, for many years the 60s were completely off my radar while I completed a PhD with a thesis on English Romanticism and English Science Fiction, and then switched to teaching German language and current affairs in the UK. Yet what began to intrigue me, and has kept me intrigued over the last twenty years, is the on-going and accelerating production of texts, films, music, art and research that engages with this brief period in German history. With my research interests focused on the intersection of utopian, political and romantic thought, the German Student Movement is a fascinating manifestation of this nexus, its distinct blend of epiphany and subsequent loss so similar to the romantic period.

My own role in the construction of ‘1968’ may complicate matters – as an academic teacher, author of articles and book chapters, conference organiser and volume editor, I have contributed to the literature that I propose to analyse. At the same time, my familiarity with this vast body of works and their authors will, I hope, become useful in guiding the reader through the maze of publications.

I should stress that this book is not about the events of that bygone era – Anglophone readers interested in the events may wish to turn to Hans Kundnani’s Utopia or Auschwitz. Germany’s 1968 Generation and the Holocaust, (2009), or Timothy Scott Brown’s West Germany and the Global Sixties. The Antiauthoritarian Revolt, 1962-1978, (2013); those able to read German are spoilt for choice –, but rather about the edifice that has been constructed on top of these events by the media, writers and academics.

Why is this construction so important? While the generation of 68ers is leaving the stage, their erstwhile disruption, their belief in fundamental change, is endlessly re-examined, amplified, mythologised and instrumentalised. The ‘unity of thought, feeling and action’, the clarity of purpose associated with the cypher ‘1968’ has become a holy grail, an obsession for a cultural elite of intellectuals, writers, journalists, and opinion makers. The resultant myth of ‘1968’ has invaded the imagination of many through the writings of the few. This process cannot go on indefinitely – decisions have to be made whether a unified Germany can ‘move on’ from ‘1968’, by either accepting the tenets of the movement as a moral touchstone or by rejecting them as romantic relapse. This is not just important for insider debates in the German media, academia or literature, but for Germany’s political elites. The construction of ‘1968’ into something both unassailable and unattainable has dominated debates for almost five decades and arguably stymied the country’s ability to play its part on the global stage. My research will enable readers to see this process more clearly.

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