Quinn Slobodian. Foreign Front: Third World Politics in Sixties West Germany. Durham: Duke University Press, 2012. 304 S. $89.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8223-5170-2; $24.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0-8223-5184-9.
Reviewed by Zachary Scarlett (Northeastern University)
Published on H-Diplo (August, 2012)
Commissioned by Seth Offenbach (Bronx Community College, The City University of New York)
Catalyst and Collaborator: The Third World and the West German 1960s
Much of the scholarship on the student activism of the 1960s is predicated on the concept of “imagined communities.” Scholars posit that the internationalism of this decade was animated not by contact among students, but by the ability of these students to conceptualize and project national movements into international spaces. A protest in Berkeley, for example, could be extrapolated to encompass issues of imperialism in Africa and the war in Vietnam. This imaginative component of the 1960s especially applies to the West’s relationship with the Third World. Historians of the global 1960s have long acknowledged the important ways in which the Third World informed student protest in Europe and the United States. And yet, the sum of this scholarship can make the Third World feel remote, essentialized, and reduced to a nebulous revolutionary ideology.
Quinn Slobodian’s Foreign Front: Third World Politics in Sixties West Germany goes a long way to correct many of these conceptualizations of the Third World. Slobodian’s main argument is that Third World students residing in West Germany made an actual impact on West German politics in the 1960s that went beyond abstraction and ideology. Slobodian also argues that the Third World students’ impact on West German politics has been lost over the years as historians and activists have portrayed the 1960s in purely nationalist terms. Slobodian tries to rectify this error, and throughout his work one feels the presence of Third World students in West Germany. His greatest contribution is to portray the Third World student as he or she actually functioned in West German society, rather than as a distant ideologue in some far-off land. These students often pushed West German activists into action, and collaborated with them on various protests. In reinserting the Third World student into the discussion, Slobodian also challenges the Orientalist model forwarded by many critics of the West German 1960s. Scholars following the work of Edward Said, who first proposed this notion of Orientalism, tend to reduce the 1960s to a process through which West German students flattened and essentialized the Third World in order to understand their own culture and society. Slobodian, however, does not believe that the Third World was an Orientalist “projection screen” for the desires of West German students (p. 10). Slobodian also eschews the tendency to divide the movement into West German “Self” and the Third World “Other,” and instead analyzes the ways in which these two groups collaborated, interacted, and informed each other’s political decisions.
The impact of the Third World student was felt early in West German history. The closing of Tehran University and the murder of Congolese prime minister Patrice Lumumba in 1961, for example, provoked responses from Iranian and Congolese students studying in West Germany. The wave of Third World protests that erupted in the early 1960s shocked and concerned many in positions of power, who responded by passing the 1965 Foreign Law. Slobodian does an excellent job of tracking both the passage of the new Foreign Law, as well as West German and Third World students’ reaction to the law. Ostensibly, the new Foreign Law was meant to give temporary resident status to guest workers in West Germany. West German officials, however, also used the new Foreign Law to “disenfranchise foreigners as political actors” (p. 50). Throughout the 1960s, foreigners were warned not to participate in politics, instructed to stay at home during planned rallies, and threatened with arrest and deportation. Many West German activists, however, were outraged by this new law. Slobodian effectively argues that the defense of foreigners’ rights acted as a catalyst for collaboration between Third World and West German students.
Slobodian also argues for the individual actor. He suggests that interpersonal relationships between Third World and West German students belie the notion that the West German struggle was purely a national movement, or that the Third World only existed abstractly. In fact, according to Slobodian, the idea that West Berlin in 1965 was “a node in an international guerrilla network” is not that far-fetched (p. 55). That is not to say, however, that theory was absent from West Germany. Che Guevara and Frantz Fanon propelled Rudi Dutschke’s political philosophy and helped him correlate the Third World and West German situation. Dutschke, who had a major impact on the evolution of the West German protest movement, was particularly attracted to Che’s foco theory, which posited that a small group of committed revolutionaries could bring about the overthrow of a government. These Third World thinkers also led Dutschke and others to realize the importance of confrontation and direct action. This direct action line was first deployed in 1964, during the visit of Congolese prime minister Moise Tshombe. During Tshombe’s visit, West German and African students confronted police, crashed through barricades, and stormed city hall in West Berlin. According to Dutschke, the Tshombe protest was “the beginning of our cultural revolution” (p. 51).
Slobodian argues that it was the Vietnam War which “permanently transformed the terms of West German leftist engagement with the Third World” (p. 79). Due to the horrors of the war, direct collaboration between Third World and West German students was slowly replaced by an “abstract relationship to guerilla fighters” as well as a new Manichaeism that viewed any failure to confront the West German state as a tacit acceptance of American imperialism (p. 79). Moreover, many West German activists began to relate on a personal level to the war in Vietnam. At the Vietnam Congress, held in 1966, members of West Berlin’s radical student group Sozialistischer Deutscher Studentenbund (SDS) distributed a flyer in which they claimed that the Vietnam War should act as a model for rebellion in the First World (p. 95). Although these activists did not openly advocate for armed struggle in 1966, they did come to believe that the orderly protest was no longer useful, and that Vietnam could serve as a model for how to confront and provoke the West German state.
While the Vietnam War accelerated West German radicalism, the events of June 2, 1967, led to an explosion of activism and protests. On June 2, the shah of Iran visited West Berlin, and was met by a throng of protesters. The police reacted harshly, and, aided by Iranian supporters of the shah, stormed the crowd and beat many of the protesters. Despite the role that Iranian activists played in organizing these protests, the public memory of this key moment, according to Slobodian, has been framed along national lines. That is partially because one of the protesters, Benno Ohnesorg, was shot by a police officer, provoking outrage from West Berlin’s youth. This proved to be a watershed moment for the relationship between the West German and Third World activists. For the first time, West German and Third World students were more than collaborators; they saw themselves as comrades-in-arms, both vulnerable to state violence in the face of dissent. Slobodian points out that for many Iranian activists, Ohnesorg was yet another victim of the shah’s repressive regime.
Slobodian does not solely focus on street rallies and protests. He also does a nice job highlighting the ways in which media and culture affected the relationship between West German students and the Third World. Many West German activists were outraged by the way that the mainstream and right-wing media depicted the Third World, and engaged in what Slobodian calls “corpse polemics” (p. 135). Essentially, West German activists began to protest against the use of derogatory images in film and other forms of media, especially those that used violence in the Third World as fodder for sadistic entertainment. Many of these films failed to acknowledge the legacy of colonialism and the role that white mercenaries played in stoking violence in Africa. And yet, showing graphic scenes from the Third World was not strictly off limits, as Slobodian points out, so long as those images acknowledged the suffering caused by Western imperialism. Slobodian astutely acknowledges the seemingly contradictory approach to these corpse polemics. West German activists “made the demand for dignity by displaying and circulating images of indignity” (p. 160). Slobodian also notes that as West German activists continued to use the media to display the horrors of the Third World, the actual Third World activists were increasingly silenced. As Slobodian puts it, these activists went from being three-dimensional actors to two-dimensional images (pp.168–169).
The two-dimensional Third World was best represented by West Germany’s engagement with China’s Cultural Revolution. The role of the Cultural Revolution was unique in the 1960s; unlike other Third World actors, the Red Guards were not physically present in West Germany. Despite the abstractness of the Cultural Revolution, Slobodian challenges the notion that this interaction was unproductive. The Cultural Revolution helped West German students sharpen their anti-authoritarianism, and add new tactics to their repertoire of direct action (p. 171). Part of West German students’ fascination with the Cultural Revolution was because it seemed to scare the authorities so much; as one West German newspaper wrote, China “was giving West Germans the creeps” (p. 182). Activists also saw the Cultural Revolution as the next step of socialist development that bypassed some of the repression of the Soviet Union. Cultural Revolutionary imagery became so common that many in West Germany essentially saw themselves as Chinese, or at least attempted to “deracinate” the Chinese movement and connect it to larger global events (p. 187). At certain points, as in the World Youth Festival held in Bulgaria in 1968, West German students even saw themselves as stand-ins for the Chinese, who were excluded from the conference. During the conference, West German students evoked Chinese anti-authoritarianism, and attempted to rally Third World representatives to their cause. As in this instance, West German students used the Cultural Revolution as a means to “bypass” Cold War binaries, and as a representative for Third World ideologies and revolutionary tactics (p. 198). This act of becoming “Chinese” was a means through which West German activists could express solidarity and fraternity with their Third World counterparts, and break down the supposed barriers between the West and the non-West.
Questions remain about the role of the Third World in West Germany, particularly regarding issues of representation and meaning. I wonder if West Germany was really a “node in the international guerrilla movement” (p. 55). Take the Cultural Revolution, for example, which Slobodian discusses at length. Clearly the movement had a major impact on West German students. Based on my own reading of Red Guard newspapers, however, the West German student movement barely registered in places like Beijing, while events in Paris and the United States were discussed at length. Perhaps West Germany made a significant impact on other parts of the Third World; however, Slobodian does not mention these instances. Without this evidence, one gets the impression that, at times, this was a one-way conversation. Slobodian also aptly portrays the impact that Congolese, Iranian, and South African students had on West Germany. One wonders, however, if these three groups actually represent the entirety of three gigantic continents. I even wonder how well these students represented their own countries, considering that, by Slobodian’s own admission, many of the students studying in West Germany were from wealthy and elite families.
How to define the Third World has puzzled scholars for decades and remains a hot-button issue even today. The importance of this question is particularly acute in any analysis of the 1960s, considering the physical and imaginative interaction between the West and non-West during this decade. Most would agree that geography is an unacceptable parameter to define the Third World. But if the Third World is not the sum of Asia, Africa, and Latin America, then what is it? Slobodian could spend more time discussing alternate definitions of the Third World, particularly as they were deployed by West German students in the 1960s. Such questions also underline Slobodian’s attempt to confront the charge of Orientalism. Slobodian makes a valid point that the early relationship between West German and Third World students was not built around a Western “Self” and a non-Western “Other.” However, he readily admits that by the end of the 1960s, West German students had homogenized and essentialized the Third World, and tended to “instrumentalize Third World populations, turning them into accessories for German psychological epiphanies” (p. 12). One also detects a certain fetishization of the Third World among West German students and many radical activists in Europe and the United States. This is the hallmark of Orientalism. While Slobodian acknowledges that this was a “blind spot” of the movement, he does not seem prepared to admit that, at times, West German students succumbed to defining their movement in terms of Self and projected Other (pp. 204 – 206). Such a charge does not belie Slobodian’s overall thesis; it simply elucidates the complexity of the relationship among diverse students in West Germany.
Those questions aside, this is an excellent addition to the ever-expanding canon of 1960s studies. Slobodian breathes life into the relationship between West German and Third World students as it existed not in the imagination, but on the ground. By examining this interaction, he illuminates the myriad ways in which the Third World enlivened West German radicalism, and the various contributions that these students made to the movement. He is able to recover Third World students, who have been written out of West German national history, and demonstrate the central role that they played in challenging the West German state. Slobodian makes clear that these Third World students did not “inhabit a realm of fantasy,” but rather “pushed” West German activists into action (pp. 203, 208). What began as protests over West Germany’s support of tyrannical regimes in the Third World quickly spiraled into fundamental questions about West Germany’s horrific past, the basic nature of capitalism, imperialism and democracy, and the future development of the West German state. In all, it was the Third World, and specifically the presence of Third World students in West Germany, that provoked these questions and fired the radicalism of the 1960s.
. Edward Said, Orientalism (New York: Vintage Books, 1978).
If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the network, at: https://networks.h-net.org/h-diplo.
Zachary Scarlett. Review of Slobodian, Quinn, Foreign Front: Third World Politics in Sixties West Germany.
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