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The Untold Sixties: When Hope Was Born

An Insider's Sixties On An International Scale

NOTE: The material in this section was written
during the early and mid-Seventies when it was still quite
fresh in the author's mind and is also based upon
his large collection of Sixties documents. For
further information, see the book outline by clicking here.

Some Major German Leaders
Autumn 1967

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Since  this book has now been published, many of its chapters have been abridged, though the summary and four chapters can still be found in their entirety.

During the months that followed, we grew still closer to the Commune and came to enjoy an even greater share of their confidence. This was partly because of the articles I wrote about them, which comprised the first account of this group to appear in English. It was also the first sympathetic press treatment they had received anywhere, for unlike most other reporters I took them quite seriously as activists and ideologists. And they for their part grew somewhat dependent on me for their picture of the movement outside Germany and even for their idea of simple non-movement things such as the nature of an American election, the price of a movie in London or New York, or matters of food, drink, and sex abroad. When I brought them copies of I.T. containing the first long article I had written about them, they were overcome by an attack of narcissism and joy, for they saw themselves as having achieved a place in their own chosen world of international revolutionaries, along with the Panthers and Yippees in America or Tariq Ali and Michael X in England. But they were not so smitten with themselves as to fail to read each word carefully, and they came up with an ideological criticism of what I had written, specifying. in what precise though minor ways they felt I had misstated the actual positions of the Commune.

To this judgment I chose to plead my humble guilt and told them I would attempt to remedy the faults they had pointed out in further articles, though I also explained that I had to be a bit selective in what I had written so that their ideas might have the greatest possible ideological impact on England and America. I think they were impressed by this reasoning as well as by my humility, which was genuine, and I heard little more criticism of my subsequent articles, except from Dieter Kunzelmann, who was quite angry that photos of Rainer and Fritz had been printed but none of him. I assured him I would remedy this as soon as possible, although I don't think he was ever fully satisfied with my explanation. When I finally was able to bring him a copy of I.T. with his picture in it, he was deeply disappointed that there was no caption next to it with his name.

The ideology sessions at the Commune were often tedious and hard to take, but they were far from being academic. Every possible political and social consequence of any proposed action was diskutiert to the point of numbness. My friends may have tortured themselves in these discussions, but there was very little important that they overlooked. Far from being doctrinaire, they allowed all viewpoints to be heard while they were considering alternatives. As I had doubts about some of what the Commune was doing, my own views would also sometimes be thrown into pot even at those meetings—by far the majority of them—which I managed not to attend. I would be told that my bourgeois hesitations had been discussed and condemned or, alternately, that my criticisms of their leaflet layout, for example, had been accepted as valid and they were looking for ways of further improvement. Almost nothing was missed by them in these discussions if they could possibly help it. To take part in them was a mind-bending experience for any non-German. As one writer on this period has put it, (I am translating his words rather 1iterally to give the feeling of the German):

    "In Germany in the Beginning was the Theory, in America it began with the Deed...Nothing happened in the Federal Republic which hadn't previously been discussed month- or year-long, ordered into a Revolu-tionary-Scheme, and provided with a theoretical Foundation." (Kai Herrmann: Die rebellische Studenten, Die Zeit Bücher, 1968)

It is customary to refer to this as "German thoroughness" and make light of it. I would be far from advocating that Americans or Britons should attempt to emulate this trait, as they both do reasonably well with their own respective methods of reasoning and decision-making. But I see no point in making fun of the German method, as genuinely funny as it may often appear from our point of view. I suspect—if I may be permitted brief digression—that the difference here may lie in the nature of the German language, and that the structure of the German sentence actually allows for the inclusion of more sentence elements before confusion sets in, that it encourages a longer attention span—and hence more thoroughness—than sentences uttered in either the British or American varieties of English.

By this I do not mean merely the usual cliché observation about the German verb coming at the end and making you wait for it, but from the gut feeling I have gained from having spoken all three tongues, German poorly, British English sometimes passably, and American, well, the way we're supposed to speak it. The sensation I have when I'm trying out either English or American is that I'm a station-master sending out a sentence composed of railway cars. If I get the wrong car in the wrong place, I'm in a lot of trouble, because I have to haul the whole train back in and start over or, at best, launch another car out into the middle of the train and hope it lands in the right place. Otherwise, I have to send out a whole new train to sit beside the first one, possibly blocking it from view.

In German, by contrast, there are no stations and no trains. Rather, I feel like I'm a housewife hanging out laundry on a line of almost infinitely expandable length. Provided I more or less follow a few simple placement rules, I can hang anything anywhere I want and keep adding elements, even changing or modifying them, up until the time I feel the laundry line has enough on it. Then I just stop and let the other speaker admire my laundry until he sets out a line of his own. Of course the line is extremely long, and there are a lot of things hanging from it. But because its construction has followed all the rules, you can see it all with a single glance.

I can't do this in English. This means I probably have to use a lot more short sentences and fragments to say the same thing I can express in one long German sentence. I don't point this out to revive the old "German Is Best" prejudice propagated by some scholars several wars ago but merely to explain that there is a difference. English and American obviously also have their own distinct virtues, which German, for its part, cannot emulate.

As I have said, I didn't attend many of the Commune's ideology sessions—in fact I did my best to avoid them and ducked out early on those I blundered into. If I ended up having any real impact on the ideology of the Commune or they on mine (and I suspect it worked both ways), it must have come during the informal chats we would have while watching TV or listening to music. One topic that I was most concerned about was how the Commune made a living. Most of its members were only nominally students or had quit classes altogether and called themselves professional revolutionaries. Their principle sources of income were from the publications they sold to other students (including a pirated edition of one of Wilhelm Reich's books on the nature of orgasm), the interviews they granted to TV and the press, and whatever monies they were still able to receive from home or the government. I found them a willing audience when I pointed out that this was a far from secure financial base, especially for them, the most famous commune in Germany, and that they had a responsibility to originate new ways of creating the wherewithal (I carefully avoided the word "capital") in order to insure not only their own survival but that of all the other budding communes. These new groups, unlike Ka-Eins, were not in a position to grant interviews and lacked either the talent or the concern to print pamphlets. Besides, how many political pamphlets could even the most earnest German students read?

I had an axe to grind, and it was a fairly simple-minded one. Underground papers, which were now a commonplace in America, England, and Holland, did not yet exist in Germany. The publications of the Communes, while far more sophisticated in style and content than Herr Guggomos' Extrablatt and the other student publications, were still almost unreadable rags, mimeographed and poorly illustrated. They could scarcely be sold to anyone who was not already convinced of the cause they supported. I had brought any number of English and American underground papers to the Commune, where they were greedily read. In the same way I had provided large numbers of such papers to the Republikanischer Klub and other student groups that expressed an interest. It was my hope that the first truly underground paper would be founded in Germany, that the international movement would thus spread further. And this is in fact was what happened, though it took its time.

[This chapter has been abridged pending publication...]


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This book excerpt is Copyright © 2000
by Alexander Gross. It may be
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