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Utopia or Auschwitz: Germany’s 1968 Generation and the Holocaust

Earlier this year, before Angela Merkel's re-election as chancellor, the BBC's then Europe editor, Mark Mardell, called Germany "the most grown-up country in the world". Whether you share that judgement or not, Hans Kundnani's superb chronicle of mainly West German politics over the past 50 years shows the country's remarkable transformation since the war - from a land of Hitlermenschen to that of model Europeans. In the past decade or so, Germany's participation in Nato's intervention in Kosovo and its refusal to go to Iraq established the paradigm for a global player that can never forget the disaster of war. Now is Germany's moment of confidence. The screwed-up offspring of a traumatic past has become a well-adjusted adult. As to the future, who knows?

Germany's 1968 generation came to political maturity in the "red-green" coalition of 1998. Gerhard Schröder was chancellor, Joschka Fischer his foreign minister, and Otto Schily occupied the interior ministry. The Achtundsechsziger, the 68ers, had entered politics calling for resistance. Schily had been defence lawyer for Gudrun Ensslin of the Baader-Meinhof terrorist group. Fischer was a leading light in the socialist student movement which demanded that Germany face up to its Nazi past. As bomb-planting urban guerrillas took over from custard-throwing students, Fischer was close to the violent elements, and much of this book reads like an indictment of his career.

Yet the other half of the story concerns how a high-school dropout who was photographed kicking a policeman renounced violence and eventually acceded to high office. The man who had organised his life around the slogans "Never Again Auschwitz" and "Never Again War" saw German planes fly combat missions as part of the effort to stave off genocide in Kosovo. At that moment, Fischer had become the conscience of his country.

A big problem for the 68ers had been how to relate to America. The friendly power that had delivered Germany from Hitler in 1945 and subsequently kept the Russians at bay became, with the Vietnam war, the arch-enemy of the younger generation. While the post-1966 coalition government gratefully co-operated with Washington, the students saw Germany as a repressed colony of the American hegemon. Liberation movements in South America and the Palestinian struggle became the models for resistance, as Baader-Meinhof gave way to the ruthless Rote Armee Fraktion (RAF) that almost destroyed the post-1974 Social Democrat administration of Helmut Schmidt.

The Achtundsechsziger were the most intellectual of all the 68ers worldwide. Flower power, feminism and free love were almost incidental to their quest, which was to demonstrate through Brecht and situationism what true democracy might look like (at least, before the bombs took over). Their seriousness was rooted in their attempts to read the Nazi past in such a way as to ensure that it was never repeated. On some level, they were terrified.

Kundnani, who brilliantly untangles the threads, calls the idea that Nazi Germany had never ended and the Federal Republic was a fascist state the "continuity thesis". (The columnist-turned-terrorist Ulrike Meinhof devoted her journalism to uncovering Nazis in high office and disclosing the "Hitler in all of us".) What Kundnani calls the "provocation thesis", meanwhile, suggests that fascism was latent in the system. This fear of hidden authoritarianism generated Marxist and Freudian recipes for ridding society of repression.

To Fischer and many others, it was a shocking moment of truth when, in 1976, the West German guerrilla organisation Revolutionäre Zellen diverted a plane from Tel Aviv to Entebbe in Idi Amin's Uganda. They "selected" (to use the Nazi euphemism) the Jewish passengers, releasing the rest. In retrospect, the anti-Semitism, authoritarianism and nationalism rife among the 68ers suggest that the extra-parliamentary oppositionists, and not their targets, were the fascists. "Left-wing fascism", as the philosopher Jürgen Habermas called it, was another hurdle they needed to overcome.

The advent of a united Germany in 1990 generated huge discussion about what the country should aspire for. Habermas's compelling suggestion was constitutional or "civic" patriotism - a pride in robust democratic insititutions that was, in part, a product of the trauma of the protest years.

It was out of these hopes and passionate arguments that the red-green agenda emerged. And it has been taken up by the almost non-partisan Merkel. The result has been a sense, accompanied by an inevitable whiff of superiority, that modern Germany has something to teach the world. You may find it galling, but there is a story here, not told before, about a straightened-out social left that might also triumph elsewhere. Kundnani tells this tale lucidly.

Lesley Chamberlain is the author of "The Philosophy Steamer: Lenin and the Exile of the Intelligentsia" (Atlantic Books, £9.99)

Utopia or Auschwitz: Germany's 1968 Generation and the Holocaust

Hans Kundnani

C Hurst & Co, 320pp, £16.99


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This article first appeared in the 23 November 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Green Heroes and Villains

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How will future videogame makers design a grand strategy game about the 21st century?

With the diminishing power of nation states, and the lack of conventional warfare, what would a 21st-century grand strategy game look like?

In the world of historical strategy games, it always seems clear how to win. Paint the map your colour. Raise your flag over the capitals of your rivals. Pave the streets of your cities with gold. Games based around statecraft in olden times will tend to have diverse objectives, they usually focus on the greatness of a nation in the traditional senses of the word: military might, technological advancement, religious and cultural hegemony. These same priorities hold up from the times of the Roman Republic to the Cold War.

Yet if games designers in the future were to look at the world of today, how would they interpret the actions of modern governments? Do the same goals as before apply or have we moved on? Are the objectives of contemporary societies different, and if so, just what would a player in a game of 21st-century grand strategy be trying to achieve?

One thing is for sure, the conventional measures of success in historical grand strategy games don’t stack up so easily in a modern setting.

War, for instance, has always been a staple part of historical games and it remains a preoccupation of contemporary society too. In the 15 years of the 21st century, Britain has invaded two countries, conducted armed interventions in three more and is even now lining up the procurement of new fighter jets, new aircraft carriers and new nuclear weapons at incredible expense. So we can safely say we do not live in a peaceful age.

But despite having all this firepower and the political will to bring it to bear at the drop of a dossier, war doesn’t seem to serve Her Majesty’s Government in the way it does in either the history books or the strategy games. There is no territory to be won and no rival great powers being thwarted – only air strikes, occupations and teetering puppet governments.

Indeed the only country whose military adventures bear any resemblance to the old-timey way of doing things is Russia, with Putin perhaps the last of the breed of world leaders who still thinks swapping out the flags on municipal buildings constitutes a legitimate redrawing of national boundaries. Given his famous distrust for technology it seems quite likely he didn’t get the tersely worded Tweet from Obama about how that kind of thing isn’t supposed to work anymore.

On the economic side of things the approaches opted for by governments today don’t fit with the historical mind set either. Nations are no longer trying to get rich for their own sake. Privatisation relinquishes the assets of the state in return for a temporary financial gain and long term loss of revenue. Deregulation and poor tax enforcement bleeds capital overseas. It is here we see perhaps the key difference between games where you play as The State itself and real countries, countries run by people who have bank balances of their own and competing party financiers to appease.

The idea of running a country for the purpose of making that country wealthier and then reinvesting that wealth back into the country by developing assets and infrastructure has gone out of the window. Simultaneously both the leftwing model of a state run for the benefit of its citizens and the rightwing ideal of a country mastering its economy to become a more powerful force on the world stage have been quietly phased out. Outsourcing and tax havens suggest that there is no longer room for patriotism in economic policy – unless you’re China, of course, but it wouldn’t be much of a game with only one nation playing it.

On a technological front there was the space race, and there have even been games built around it. But in the 21st century, the urgency and the sense of competition has been lost. Rovers on Mars, probes on comets and space stations tend to be viewed in a spirit of collective human achievement, partly because of the collaborative nature of modern space exploration, and also, I suspect, because lots of people in those fields are Star Trek fans.

The idea of going to Mars so you can stand on the surface of another planet and tell the Communists to stuff it no longer appeals as much as that whole "pushing back the scientific boundaries for the benefit of all life of Earth" deal. It is laudable, but not ideal for games built around competing with other countries.

In the 21st century grand strategy game, we wouldn’t be looking to conquer the world, we wouldn’t be looking to buy it and we wouldn’t be looking to leave it in our technological wake either. So what does that leave? What would 21st-century grand strategy look like?

It could be argued that we’ve moved beyond the era of nation states as the bodies driving world affairs, and such a game might reflect that. Maybe something more akin to a Crusader Kings game would be the way to go, with the player taking the role of an individual – a connected political blueblood, perhaps, like an oligarch, a CEO, an activist turned politician, a drugs baron or a terrorist leader. Or maybe we would play not as an individual, but as an organisation, for example the CIA, ExxonMobil, Isis, Amnesty International or the Solntsevskaya Bratva.

It may be that we never see the present day immortalised in a strategy game, at least outside of that passing phase in Civilization where everything is either settled down or exploding in nuclear fire. Perhaps we’re destined to nestle into a historically obscure crack between the tumult of the 20th century and something spectacular or horrible yet to come. It is nice to think, however, that the times we live in are at least interesting and that maybe we’ll get to see it all laid out in a game one day, if only to find out what winning the 21st century would look like.

Phil Hartup is a freelance journalist with an interest in video gaming and culture