Mar 2008 Journal

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The 1960s: The refugees and student radicalism

The attitudes of the refugees from Central Europe towards the student radicalism of the 1960s was influenced by events in West Germany, where the student movement was far stronger and more purposeful than in Britain. After the Bundestag elections of 1965, the Federal Republic had been governed by a Grand Coalition of the two big parties, the CDU and the SPD, leaving little effective opposition in parliament. The radical left established the Außerparlamentarische Opposition (APO, ‘extra-parliamentary opposition’) to fill this gap, though in reality the APO’s aim was to take on and, if possible, overthrow the West German state. After the shooting of a student, Benno Ohnesorg, by police at a demonstration against the visiting Shah of Iran in 1967, organised revolutionary groups emerged, principally the Rote Armee Fraktion (RAF), better known as the Baader-Meinhof Gang.

For many refugees, the propensity of these German student radicals for extremism and violence, their doctrinaire fanaticism and their impatience with Western parliamentary democracy were uncomfortably similar to the wave of intolerant radicalism that had swept Germany in the early 1930s. In April 1968, AJR Information reported that Oskar Seidlin, a German Jew who had emigrated in 1933 and now held a chair at Ohio State University, had refused the offer of a professorship at Munich University: the disruption of university life, the shouting down of lecturers, and the denial of reasoned debate were too reminiscent of 1932/33.

Refugees were particularly shocked when student radicals disrupted events connected to the Holocaust. In May 1968, the Journal reported that a joint meeting of Christians and Jews taking place in West Berlin’s Opera House as part of ‘Brotherhood Week’, an annual event held across West Germany to promote reconciliation and tolerance, had been the object of a left-wing demonstration against neo-Nazism, the rise of the far-right NPD and the ‘hypocrisy’ of Brotherhood Week itself. As the AJR supported Brotherhood Week, and as refugees like the historian Eva Reichmann regularly spoke at meetings held under its auspices, readers of the journal would have been shocked to find it lumped together with resurgent neo-Nazism, as well as aggrieved by the suggestion that they had been taken in by an exercise in German hypocrisy.

Worse was to follow. Werner Rosenstock reported for AJR Information on the ceremony held on 15 September 1968 to mark the unveiling of the memorial at Dachau Concentration Camp, at which he had represented the AJR and the Council of Jews from Germany, alongside delegates from 15 countries. A small number of left-wing protesters, mainly students, carrying banners with anti-Vietnam war or anti-NATO slogans, had disrupted the proceedings and tried to shout down Klaus Schütz, the Mayor of West Berlin and President of the Bundesrat, the upper house of the West German parliament, when he delivered a message on behalf of the Federal Government. The insult to the memory of the many thousands who had died at Dachau was clear.

Rosenstock’s dislike for what he saw as modish anti-establishment gestures came across clearly when he compared the protestors’ juvenile antics with the experiences of delegates like Odette Hallowes, who had been captured working with the Resistance in France and had survived torture by the Gestapo and incarceration in Ravensbrück concentration camp, and Group Captain Leonard Cheshire, distinguished both for winning the Victoria Cross as a pilot with the Royal Air Force and for his charitable work thereafter. The instigators of the demonstration, Rosenstock wrote, ‘not only showed disrespect to the memory of tens of thousands of heroes but were also oblivious of the fact that, but for the courage of those anti-Nazis, freedom of thought and speech would have vanished from the European continent’.

Expressions of support for student radicalism were unpopular with refugees, as C. C. Aronsfeld discovered when he wrote an ill-judged article in AJR Information of June 1968 on what he saw as the parlous state of West German politics. Beginning with the stark pronouncement ‘Something is rotten in the State of Bonn’, he described the opposition offered by democratic forces to the neo-Nazi NPD as feeble even by comparison with resistance to Hitler under the Weimar Republic.

Greatly exaggerating the crisis facing West German democracy and the threat posed by the NPD, Aronsfeld argued that, should a revolutionary situation arise, or should the ruling Grand Coalition break down, the extra-parliamentary opposition of the young should ‘supplant, or at the very least supplement’ parliamentary democracy. In effect, Aronsfeld was arguing that West Germany in 1968 faced a situation like that confronting the Weimar Republic in the early 1930s, where, with the democratic system weakened beyond repair, the only choice had been between the Communists on the extreme left and the Nazis on the extreme right; in the present case, a coalition around the APO would be the best alternative to replace the parliamentary system of Bonn.

The response to this dubious historical comparison - especially its negative attitude to parliamentary democracy in West Germany - was predictably hostile. A letter to the editor from R. Graupner took issue with Aronsfeld, defending the Grand Coalition as a stabilising factor in West German politics that had been absent in Weimar. Graupner dismissed as mere wordplay Aronsfeld’s argument that the students’ movement was extra-parliamentary but not anti-parliamentary, citing their frequently stated hostility to parliamentary democracy and their eagerness for a revolution to overthrow it. He concluded by questioning whether Aronsfeld’s indulgence towards revolutionary youth with its openly anti-democratic aims belonged in the journal at all. This was doubtless the view of the great majority of readers, for no more was heard of sympathy for the neo-Marxist left. Within a few years, the student protest movement had run its course, and political radicalism itself became yesterday’s fashion.

Though the New Left in West Germany actively sought to expose the crimes committed under Hitler, thus siding demonstratively with the victims of Nazi persecution, it was often surprisingly heedless of the sensitivities of Holocaust survivors. This was in part due to the framework of theory by means of which it attempted to understand National Socialism. It used various theories of Fascism to explain Nazism, which it saw as just one of a group of extreme right-wing totalitarian movements operating in the interests of capitalism and the ruling classes and against those of the working class.

The blanket category of ‘Fascism’ included the movements led by Mussolini in Italy and Franco in Spain, where racialism and antisemitism played no part (unless imported at German insistence). The theories of Fascism stressed class war, the exploitation of the proletariat and the interests of the ruling elites as key factors behind the rise of Nazism. Consequently, they tended systematically to downplay the importance of racial ideology to Nazism and ultimately to question the centrality of the Holocaust itself. For the radical left, Jews were only secondary players in the history of National Socialism.

The radical left in West Germany also tended to sympathise with the Palestinian cause, to the extent that the Rote Armee Fraktion co-operated with Palestinian radicals in anti-Western and anti-Israeli actions, in some of which, like the hijacking of an Air France flight from Israel to Entebbe in June 1976, anti-Zionism shaded over into straightforward antisemitism. Of the four hijackers, two Arabs and two Germans, it was the latter who took it upon themselves to separate the Jewish passengers from the others, in a chilling replay of the ‘selections’ that Germans had carried out in the camps three decades earlier.

Amidst the campaign of radical action in 1977, the so-called ‘deutscher Herbst’ (German Autumn), Arab terrorists hijacked a Lufthansa airliner to Mogadishu in Somalia. When a unit of the West German GSG9 (Grenzschutzgruppe 9) killed or captured the hijackers and freed the hostages, three leading figures of the RAF committed suicide in Stammheim prison, where they were being held. This gesture, which was followed by the murder of the West German employers’ leader Hanns-Martin Schleyer, who had been kidnapped by the RAF, symbolised the interlinking of German left-wing radicalism with Palestinian extremism.

Though the radicals of the 1960s did a great deal to confront West German society with the crimes committed under National Socialism and to shake it out of its complacent forgetfulness about the past, they also tended to instrumentalise the Holocaust for their own purposes, as a weapon to use against their elders, whom, in a phrase often attributed to Gudrun Ensslin of the RAF, they termed ‘the generation of Auschwitz’. Most of the radical left-wingers showed little interest in the refugees from Hitler and other Jews, especially when these did not fit into their ideological preconceptions. Widespread empathy with the experience of German Jews under Nazism had to wait until the following decade, when the television series Holocaust was screened in Germany.

The Jews from Germany and Austria, having experienced the Nazi dictatorship, were mostly unsympathetic towards the projects for a left-wing, ‘proletarian’ dictatorship espoused by the student radicals. Hardly surprisingly, the refugees preferred the liberty, democracy and prosperity of Britain to totalitarian regimes of whatever stripe.

Anthony Grenville

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