Nuanced History of the Anti-Germans

The following is a post written to the Marxism email list by Henning Böke, titled simply “Antideutsche, once again”. It presents a nuanced overview of the development of the anti-Germans, one of the very few english-language resources on the topic. It was originally posted here: http://archives.econ.utah.edu/archives/marxism/2006w24/msg00284.html

The discussion on "anti-Germans", based on a heavy dose of
half-knowledge and speculation (this is, of course, a criticism
towards my German compatriots posting on this list), is mixing up
some things.

Lüko Wilms mentioned two - in his opinion "petty-bourgeois" -
organizations that he suspects to have been protagonists of
anti-German politics: the Arbeiterbund für den Wiederaufbau der KPD
(Workers league for rebuilding the KPD) and the Kommunistischer Bund
(KB, Communist league). But actually, none of them has any relation
to contemporary "anti-German" currents.

The Arbeiterbund, in the 1970s the major Maoist "ML" group in Munich
and Bavaria, had a certain influence in trade unions, a little
remainder still exists. The leaders are would-be poets who try to
imitate Brecht. But members must be industrial workers, or membership
application must be supported by two workers. They combined Maoism
with a strictly orthodox, nostalgic Stalinist traditionalism, and
they always rejected "petty-bourgeois" trends like ecology (until
1986 they fiercely defended nuclear energy). By origin, they are not
"anti-German": In the 70s, they were rather "patriotic". According to
their Maoist doctrine, they regarded Germany as divided and oppressed
by US imperialism and Soviet "social imperialism". They even used the
slogan "Deutschland den Deutschen" (Germany to the Germans), which is
actually a demand of the neo-nazi NPD. After 1980, when China became
even more "revisionist" than the USSR, they gradually changed their
attitude towards the Soviet Union, becoming less hostile. In 1990,
they resolutely defended the GDR against the imperialist "annexion".
They uphold the orthodox Leninist theory of imperialism, i.e. they
believe in an increasing conflict between US imperialism and European
imperialism under German leadership. According to Karl Liebknecht's
"Der Hauptfeind steht im eigenen Land" (your main enemy stands in
your own country), they claim that in Germany one must struggle
against German imperialism, not US imperialism, so they did not take
part in manifestations against the war against Iraq because they
believe that in Germany any action against an US war would strengthen
German imperialism. They are quite sensitive concerning
anti-semitism. They do not support "anti-Americanism" and
"anti-Zionism". In the late 1990s, they tried to build an "Alliance
of the peoples of Europe against Germany," as far as I know they only
found some allies in Poland. You may think of the Arbeiterbund
whatever you want (their 1920s-style cabaret performances are quite
funny), but anyway they are not "petty-bourgeois". Their opposition
against growing German power is anchored within a strictly Leninist
framework and has nothing in common with the core of "anti-German"
ideology.

The KB had its centre in Hamburg. The organisation was founded by
students, young workers and apprentices. They supported the basic
ideas of Maoism, but they rejected the Chinese doctrines on "social
imperialism", "three worlds" etc. They also did not really defend
Stalin. In general, their policy was rather undogmatic and pragmatic.
I think one can say that among the Maoists the KB played a role
similar to that of the Mandelists within Trotskyism: They tried to
combine a Marxist tradition with an opening-up to new "alternative"
movements. They were the first to generally oppose nuclear energy
(even in "socialist countries"). Their special feature which made
them outsiders was their theory of an imminent "fascization" (which
Lüko mentioned). In the 1970s, almost the whole German left expected
that the increasing economic crisis would lead to a left-wing
radicalization of the masses. We should be honest: This was an
illusion, and the KB was the only organization which did not share
this illusion. Today we have ten percent disoccupation and a
government which does not fight against disoccupation but against the
disoccupied. But there is no real mass movement. In the 1970s no one
on the left could imagine that in such a situation the republic would
remain stable. The KB, as a revolutionary organisation which did not
share the ingenuous revolutionary optimism of the others, was more
realistic than the other groups in seeing that in Germany there would
not be a left mass radicalization. (It was Lenin who said that there
will not be a revolution in Germany because it is forbidden to set
foot on the lawn, and before storming a railway station Germans first
buy a ticket.) But the KB expected the other extreme: They feared
that the crisis would result in a fascist tendency. (They interpreted
e.g. the measures taken by the social democratic government against
RAF terrorism in 1977 as "fascist." Actually, in Helmut Schmidt's
all-party "crisis management staff" the possibility of killing the
RAF prisoners was taken into consideration. When these prisoners then
committed suicide there were serious doubts.) In the 1980s, the
theory of "fascization" was critically revised. In this context, a
debate on German history and society began which finally resulted in
a split. Jewish KB members began to question the hidden anti-semitism
within the left: What did it mean that German leftists found
"fascism" in Israel and compared the Shatila massacre with Hitler's
"Endlösung" (this was a headline of the KB newspaper Arbeiterkampf
which was criticized by many members)? What did it mean that the
first "selection" of jews after 1945 was done by the German and
Palestinian hijackers at the airport of Entebbe in 1977 (they
actually selected not Israelian citizens, but all passengers with
jewish-sounding names)? What did it mean that a rival Maoist
organization had called the emission of the US film series
"Holocaust" in German TV "Zionist propaganda"? This debate was a
great merit.

In 1989/90, differences emerged within the KB on how to deal with the
imminent reunification of Germany. The major faction considered this
as inevitable and recommended to support social protest against the
consequences of the capitalist restoration in the former GDR (most of
them joined the PDS). In january 1990, before the first free election
in the GDR, a huge victory of the social democrats was expected -
most leftists hoped the east Germans to vote for social justice. But
the triumphant winner was Helmut Kohl who was celebrated as a hero.
In particular the formerly "red" industrial areas of Saxonia had vast
conservative majorities. The KB minority drew the conclusion that in
this situation of a disastrous defeat of the left the main task, and
the only chance of survival of a radical opposition without being
integrated into the new national mainstream was not "class struggle"
but resistance against Germany's new national self-consciousness, its
imperialist ambitions (e.g. the role Germany played in the
destruction of Yugoslavia by recognizing Slovenia and Croatia),
opposition against the efforts to draw a "final stroke" under the
German past and to rewrite German history by presenting the Germans
as victims of "two totalitarian dictatorships", and the defence of
immigrants against the growing racism (which should dramatically
become manifest in 1992 when neo-nazis set on fire a refugee asylum
in Rostock, with resolute support from the population of the
neighbourhood). I do not understand, Lüko, what should have been
"petty-bourgeois" about this, and I cannot remember that your truly
proletarian troops did contribute anything noteworthy to this
(defensive) struggle. In other words: In those years radical politics
in Germany could not be based on something like "the working class,"
but only on radical minorities. If you had shouted on the street in
1990, "Up with proletarian class struggle! Long live socialism!"
everyone would have laughed. But if you said that you dislike German
unity then you could at least be sure that you were recognized as a
serious enemy, not just as a madman. To describe the situation with
Mao Zedong: The "main contradiction" had "changed its place." There
was no way to mobilize any "proletarian masses" against the new
German chauvinism. The "reunification" of Germany was a dramatic
turn. Its result was that opinions which had formerly been the
exclusive ideas of neo-nazis and the far right now became part of the
consensus of the "democratic centre." The national "normalization" of
Germany meant - and is still meaning - a big shift to the right of
the whole society (not only the bourgeoisie). The only possibility of
opposition was to openly attack this. Within the whole left the same
division which split the KB occurred: On one side there were the
pragmatists who wanted to make "Realpolitik" (mainly by joining the
PDS), on the other side there was the "radical left" which organized
the "Nie wieder Deutschland" (Germany never again) manifestation in
may 1990. ("Germany? Never again" was a quotation from the actress
Marlene Dietrich who stayed in the USA after 1945 and was therefore
considered as a "traitor" by many Germans.)

As far as I know, the first one to use the term "anti-German" was
Jürgen Elsässer, then a KB member. Nowadays he is a well-known
journalist, but he has changed his positions. In the late 1990s he
was a resolute supporter of Serbia (because Serbia has suffered much
from Germany). His books and articles had certain merits - he
uncovered the lies which were used to legitimize the war against
Yugoslavia; on the other hand his opinions on "uncivilized" Albanians
and Muslims are at least close to racism. He has turned back to more
classic anti-imperialist positions, and today he believes that
movements like feminism or gay emancipation are tools of imperialism
in order to undermine non-aligned countries. Now he also supports the
idea that France, Germany and Russia should build an alliance against
the US empire. In general, Elsässer tends to exaggerations. As a
former pragmatic Maoist, he seems to uphold Mao's "We must support
anything that our enemies dislike" (which, in my opinion, was not
Chairman Mao's best idea).

Serious differences within the "anti-German" radical left emerged in
1991 when some individuals - not organized currents - supported Bush
senior's war agaist Iraq. They were heavily promoted by the monthly
magazine "konkret," but they were a minority.

After the KB split the minority, now calling itself "Gruppe K", began
to edit a new magazine called "Bahamas" - this was an ironic allusion
to a dispute when a speaker of the majority had recommended them to
emigrate to the Bahamas if life in Germany was so terrible. Bahamas
was a review of the radical left, mainly focused on nationalism and
racism. The main problem of the former KB members was their lack of
theory - in the 1970s their rather pragmatic approach to politics was
their strength, because they were less dogmatic than others, but now,
in a situation which required theoretical reflection, it was a
disadvantage. They decided to open the editorial staff to other
persons, and this was a lethal mistake. Until 1994, the former KB
members were ousted by a group of "theorists" mainly coming from
Initiative Sozialistisches Forum, a little sectarian group calling
itself "left communist" or "council communist", dominated by the sect
guru Joachim Bruhn in Freiburg. They mainly refer to Adorno's and
Horkheimer's "critical theory" (but I do not believe that Adorno
would like them) and to Moishe Postone. (As far as I know, only one
single former KB member remained among the Bahamas editors, most of
them retired.)

It is essential to distinguish the new anti-German current which
emerged after 1994 from the anti-German tendency of the early 1990s.
I frankly confess that in 1990 I supported anti-German politics and
the "Germany never again" campaign. I am still convinced that this
was necessary. But for us this was a temporary position in a
particular situation, and it was a necessary element of left-wing
self-criticism in order to correct the shortcomings of our former
positions which under-estimated e.g. the persistence of anti-semitism
and racism. We criticized the "Realpolitik" leftists (including, of
course, all the economistic mainstram Marxist currents) because they
missed the point that in such a situation one could not do a
political "business as usual." More in general, to be anti-German
simply meant: to show in public that we are not patriotic, we do not
love Germany, we are "vaterlandslose Gesellen" (guys without
motherland), as the social democrats were called in the German Reich
of Wilhelm II. However, we did not intend to create a new general
world view.

The new anti-Germans who came after us were radical academics who
never had been involved into any social movement, but preached an
elitist "dialectics of crisis and criticism." They constructed the
core of the new anti-German ideology by rejecting any kind of workers
movement and, even more, any idea of a collective emancipation. Their
basic doctrine was the idea that liberal bourgeois emancipation is a
necessary condition of communist emancipation (in fact a complicated
matter), and they pointed out that in Germany this bourgeois
emancipation has never been carried out consequently. In substance,
this refers to the distinction of "Gemeinschaft" (community) and
"Gesellschaft" (society): Around 1995, the anti-Germans liked to
emphasize the difference between e.g. the French nation, based on
democratic citizenship, and the German nation which is based on
origin and blood. (Since then, the German laws have undergone some
slight changes, but German citizens with coloured skin, of Turkish
origin or jewish confession are still regarded as "foreigners" by
large parts of the German population.) Anti-Germans claimed that
France, the USA and Israel (!!! - the latter in spite of being a
State based on religion) are "civilized" modern nations, whereas the
way of building society in Germany or in the Arab world is pre-modern
and "völkisch" - I think it is impossible to translate this German
word into other languages: The English word "people" is derived from
Latin "populus", in romanic languages "el pueblo", "le peuple", "il
popolo" means "la gente", "les gens" as citizens, whereas the German
idea of "Volk" is associated with a community of common origin and
blood. This is a distinction which in fact should be considered. But
the anti-German doctrine distorted its own rational insights in the
different ways of nation-building by projecting them to an idealistic
abstraction: The anti-Germans created an idealistic image of
bourgeois democracy and "civilization" and opposed this idealistic
construction to peoples whom they considered to be "fascist,"
anti-modern and anti-semitic by nature - the Germans and the Arabs.
(I think it is necessary to defend Adorno, who, in spite of some
problematic assumptions, never made such an idealistic and uncritical
use of the notion of "civilization," against his anti-German
admirers.)

Of course, the anti-German "communism" is bogus because their outlook
is based on an as radicalized as abstract liberal individualism and
an idealistic view on "western civilization." Their ideology is
linked to a chauvinism of "civilization". Their attitude towards
Arabs and muslims has soon become openly racist. They denounce any
collective social movement, any collective defense against
neo-liberal imperialism and any claim for social justice as a
"shortcut" false anti-capitalism. Any spontaneous popular
anti-capitalism, based on intuitions of moral, solidarity and
justice, is associated with the nazi-German "Volksgemeinschaft", any
criticism against exploiters and persons in power (instead of
analyzing the objective relations of commodity production) is
denounced as "structural anti-semitism." For them, true
anti-capitalism can only be the critical analysis of commodity
fetishism made by enlightened intellectuals.  However, during the
last years, some of them have begun to replace Marx, Adorno and
Postone by Karl Popper's "open society" liberalism as the new key to
"emancipation." For them all, the US and Israel are the bulwarks of
"civilization." Interestingly, there has been a change in their
attitude towards France: Initially they idealized France, nowadays
they are anti-French because France did not support the war against
Iraq.

In summary, I want to emphasize that "anti-German" motives have
appeared in very different frameworks. In the early 1990s, being
"anti-German" was an element of radical leftism in Germany, but it
was not a special ideology. "Anti-Germanism" as a distinct current
emerged in the mid-90s, and a further radicalization took place since
9-11. Of course, not all anti-Germans are as extreme as I described
them. I would say that the most extreme of them are rather radical
liberals than leftists, their attitude is a kind of non-conformistic
conformism, they are active supporters of imperialism. Their style of
writing is thoroughly aggressive and fanatic, and ironically their
vocabulary (describing Arabs, anti-imperialist leftists etc. in terms
like "bandits", "gangsters", "scoundrels") is almost fascist. The
Austrian Stephan Grigat, whose article has been posted on this list,
is rather moderate; at least he tries to make serious theoretical
arguments. The bigger problem is that this ideology has a certain
influence among many young Antifa activists. But for most of them,
the "anti-German" attitude is rather an emotional disposition than a
"theory".

But I also want to say that a critical confrontation with anti-German
doctrines should take into account that the early "anti-German"
debate, of which in particular the KB was a protagonist, had
legitimate motives and contributed much to correct the shortcomings
of the traditional left. Problems like hidden or structural
anti-semitism in the left do exist, and the anti-German debate helped
to detect them. Lenin once said that when criticizing our opponents,
we should examine which grain of truth their positions include. (I am
not a Leninist because average Leninists do not obey this maxim.)

Please allow me an important final word: In general, I use Marxmail
as a source of information, and I wrote this contribution mainly as a
piece of information in order to help non-German readers to
understand the different meanings of "anti-German". Normally I do not
write on Marxmail because the dogmatic style predominating on this
list is not my cup of tea. Expressions like "petty-bourgeois left" do
not belong to my vocabulary because such a term, for decades used by
different Marxist currents to insult and condemn each other
(Stalinists against Trotskyists and vice versa, different Trotskyists
against each other, Soviet communists against Maoists and vice versa
...), simply does not explain anything. Another example: Someone said
that anti-Germans are "detached from class struggle." Of course, this
statement is not wrong, but it does not explain anything. In my
opinion, this dogmatic "Marxist" language is as useless as the Beavis
and Butthead language from MTV.

Sincerely

Henning Böke (Frankfurt, Germany)

This entry was posted on Thursday, March 15th, 2012 at 1:13 pm and is filed under anti-german. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

4 Comments

  1. For readers who do German, Henning Böke’s little introduction to Maoism is pretty good too. Don’t let the title throw you off, among other things it’s a brief history of modern China:

    http://www.theorie.org/titel/596_maoismus

    [Reply]

  2. to add a few things which happened after 2006:

    Bahamas has published articles during the last years which were friendly towards the EDL and the Catholic Church

    Jürgen Elsässer supports today the Iranian Regime, shares platforms with people from the new right weekly “Junge Freiheit” and can generally considered to have become a rightwing populist

    [Reply]

  3. Bahamas and Elsässer were both always dependent upon the leftist milieu/subculture for an audience. They had this kind of “shock jock” function in the left of always picking deliberately offensive positions, simply for the perverse enjoyment of provoking a reaction from other leftists.

    Now, having both moved to the right (albeit mutually opposed tendencies on the right), they’re both entirely without that audience. Bahamas isn’t sold in leftist bookstores, and aren’t allowed a platform in leftist venues. The same for Elsässer, just from the opposite perspective.

    Both are in this weird position of running through the same old contrarian schtick for an audience that no longer cares, or even knows who they are. How many politically active people in their early 20s in Germany even know Bahamas and Elsässer at this point?

    [Reply]

  4. Thanks Entdinglichung for linking to this post on your blog and for cross-posting it at libcom!

    After reading a comment on libcom, praising the following paragraph, I realized Böke’s text is not quite as nuanced as it could be. The paragraph reads:

    They denounce any collective social movement, any collective defense against neo-liberal imperialism and any claim for social justice as a “shortcut” false anti-capitalism. Any spontaneous popular anti-capitalism, based on intuitions of moral, solidarity and justice, is associated with the nazi-German “Volksgemeinschaft”, any criticism against exploiters and persons in power (instead of analyzing the objective relations of commodity production) is denounced as “structural anti-semitism.” For them, true anti-capitalism can only be the critical analysis of commodity fetishism made by enlightened intellectuals.

    I commented there:

    I would be cautious about this paragraph. Although I originally titled the post a “nuanced” history, this paragraph isn’t nuanced at all.

    Although it applies to some anti-German groups, I am not sure it applies to all. For example, the anti-German group TOP participated in anti-globalization protests, in the We won’t pay for their Crisis! protests ]and are organizing the European Day of Action Against Capitalism.

    For them the issue has more to do with how a social movement is constituted and ]how a critique (of capitalism) is formulated, than it does with outright “denounc[ing] any collective social movement” and “claim for social justice” as “structurally antisemitic” or as constituting the “Volksgemeinschaft”.

    Two english language texts from said group, as examples of (at least an attempt to make) this distinction:

    “Make a foreshortened critique of capitalism history!: Without a radical critique every action becomes mere activism- reflections on the anti-G8 mobilisation 2007″

    Interview “Blaming the Banks is not our Business”

    [Reply]

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