Emily Redican-Bradford interviews Dr Hanno Balz, who has recently joined the Faculty of History at Cambridge, having previously taught at the universities of Bremen, Lüneburg and John Hopkins. His research focuses on Modern German and European History.
Dr Balz, as part of your research, you examine the protest movements and student revolts of 1968. Does this time period represent a turning point in how protest and political cultures in Western Europe were understood, in your opinion?
Yes, I think we can say that, especially when we look at the protests as, first of all, student protests. This is the first time, after the Second World War, that the majority of the students are more liberal-minded or left-wing than the overall population. This was not the case before the war, when it was so much more elitist. In post-war societies, universities built a lot of new institutes and governments opened up the universities for working-class youth, because a new generation was needed for more demanding jobs. It was mainly training and educating white-collar workers, and that’s a change. It’s an expression of the New Left as well, and it’s also a youth movement that’s an anti-systemic movement, which ventures away from the old party structures, the labour union structures, that had had a grip on left-wing mobilization for the previous hundred years.
But we should not only see history in breaks and caesuras. There are a lot of traditions and there’s always an outcome. We should look at the ‘Janus-headedness’ of history, because it has a tradition, it comes from somewhere, it’s formed by the history that’s been there before. But then it looks into the future and it forms future societies, forming what happens afterwards and what’s affecting us today.
As a consequence of the 1968 protests, more militant groups were formed, such as the West-German ‘Red Army Faction’. Why do you think the Red-Army Faction and other groups turned towards a more radical style of protest?
In Western Europe and the United States in 1968, there was a limited form of violence being discussed, violence as a means of provocation, of power, disruption. We shouldn’t underestimate that a lot of the actions of social movements aim at media coverage, because then you occupy the public sphere. You can bring 10,000 people on the streets for a peaceful demonstration and they hold up signs and it might not be on the evening news. If you have 500 people and they burn twenty police cars it will definitely be on the evening news. Activists discussed this and whether violence against objects is legitimate. For example, burning a car in late-capitalist society is all about commodification and consumption.
Most people refrained from using violence against individuals, but then there was a new debate emerging post ‘68, when more and more people in the West turned towards working-class orthodox organisation. New Maoists or Trotskyists or Communist groups emerged and their programme focused on learning from the working-class. They felt that working-class men had a healthy relationship to violence and that they, as middle-class students, had never had a natural relationship to violence. To become a ‘good working-class lad’ was a kind of metamorphosis, you had to become violent. It’s a very strange debate.
With militancy, we should not underestimate what was going on in the world in the mid-late sixties. Revolution was everywhere: post-colonial struggles, national liberation, the US unable to win wars. A lot of people felt that world revolution was around the corner and that they just had to tip the world capitalist system a bit more and it would collapse. This was self-empowerment for some groups. It was an eclectic mix between more orthodox Leninist strategy, New Left ideals, third worldism and the old anarchist notion of the propaganda of the deed. They felt they just had to escalate the situation and then everyone would see the results. In the German case, it was even more drastic, because there was constant talk about fascism. That Germany was still a fascist system in disguise, and as a militant all you needed to do was provoke the existing pseudo-democratic powers and their democratic masks would drop to reveal their ‘real face’: the old German face of fascism.
As part of your work you focus on West-Germany. One of the most iconic moments for a lot of people in recent memory is that of the citizens on top of the Berlin Wall in November 1989. How instrumental was protest in the months leading up to this event for the fall of the Wall and the reunification of Germany?
I’m not an expert on East Germany, but in general what you see happening in 1989 is what Herbert Marcuse, in the late 1960s, called the “great refusal”. The people refused. It was not militant, but rather linked to existential economic crisis. East Germany is a very specific case, because the world was becoming global and one country could not be shut off. Hungary had opened its borders and people could move to Germany through Hungary. In 1989 it was clear that there was no national solution to the problems and the GDR government had to face that.
Also, if you look at it as a demonstration, it shows dedication because it was dangerous to call for public demonstration in East Germany. Despite the fact that it was a criminal act, more people gradually joined in with what they called a public “walk” in the streets. But protest movements eventually develop their own dynamic and they can’t be controlled. Most people that protested, for example in Leipzig in October 1989, never wanted the GDR to be annexed by West Germany. They felt that there should be a third way, between orthodox socialism and Western capitalism. But once the West German government intervened and took over it was all finished. I was one of 20,000 people on Oct 3rd in 1990, on the official reunification day, who demonstrated against reunification. I think that’s something that a lot of people don’t realise, that many Germans were worried about reunification. There was concern that the ‘Fourth Reich’ was coming with a new Anschluss, this time with East Germany instead of Austria. There was a lot of hysteria and paranoia going on, which might also be part of social movement mentalities.
Thinking about recent activity today, last month we saw large marches on the streets in Berlin and London, demonstrating against racism and campaigning for a People’s Vote on a final Brexit deal respectively. Do you think that these movements show a resurgence of interest in protests or has that never waned?
I think it has become more acceptable for well-educated, middle-class people, who would not normally join a demonstration, to become involved. The situation in Germany is a bit different because there has been a profound informalization and liberalization of West German or German society over the last forty years. We see that in how many votes the Green Party and the Socialists receive, and that makes Germany quite a unique society, compared to Britain. The question is how much do people risk when they go to a demonstration. Are they risking something today, like the people did in 1989 in Leipzig? I was at the demonstration a few weeks ago in London and it was a very middle-class affair. It was not very radical, it was about strength in numbers and one demonstration alone is not a social movement. It requires other dimensions to keep up the pressure and I don’t see that happening now necessarily. No one is calling for a general strike. But then if you compare today’s society with that of twenty-five or fifty years ago, it is a much more civic society, people are more engaged. This is sometimes underestimated with the German case. It is terrible to see that the far-right, proto-fascists are in parliament and that they dominate public discourse, which is racist and xenophobic. But I recently read that approximately eight million Germans are engaged in personal activities helping refugees. That’s about 10% of the population that are actively trying to do something. That is not in the media, it’s not a spectacular action. But maybe this points to a profound change within society, people are getting engaged without calling for media attendance.
There’s been a lot of theory about whether today’s revolts or social movements are completely post-materialist. A post-materialist issue would be transgender rights, for example. I don’t know if the separation of post-materialist and materialist revolt is still valid but we have a big problem now when it comes to class. “The good old working-class” is not voting for Socialists anymore but for Fascists, and the liberal left-wing middle class has lost contact with the working-class. This a major problem and will be a big issue for social movements in the future, to bring it back together and to try to find common issues.
Image: People’s vote (via Creative Commons license)