Hyperrhiz 10: Book/media reviews

Quinn Slobodian, Foreign Front: Third World Politics in Sixties West Germany

Romy Hübler

University of Maryland Baltimore County


Slobodian, Quinn. Foreign Front: Third World Politics in Sixties West Germany. Durham: Duke University Press, 2012. 320 pp. ISBN 978-0-8223-5170-2.

Quinn Slobodian challenges historical scholars, such as Wolfgang Kraushaar and Norbert Frei, that focus exclusively on the United States and Europe as the place of origin of the 1960s international student movement. He further objects to scholars, such as Jürgen Habermas and Jeremy Varon, that label student activists who ascribed to Third World struggles and protest methods as 'bad' or misguided in comparison to 'good' student activists who engaged in human rights advocacy and followed the European type of anarchism. Instead, Slobodian provides an alternative narrative. He posits that the movement's global beginnings arose from international protests after the murder of the Congolese leader Patrice Lumumba in 1961 and not from the Berkeley Free Speech movement in 1964, as Kraushaar asserts. Focusing on West Germany, he further argues that not U.S. Americans, but international students from Africa, Asia, and Latin America mobilized West German students for protest. Slobodians use of the politically problematic term 'Third World' mirrors that of Bahman Nirumand who understands it not as indicative of backwardness, but rather of newness. That is, the Third World serves as an alternative to East-West politics and thereby constitutes a third geopolitical position. In its six chapters, the book's narrative takes the reader steadily through the sixties. Slobodian discusses in rich detail how political events on the national and international stage affected and altered the West German student movement.

In the early sixties, West German universities experienced an influx of Third World students that focused political thought and action on human rights violations. Upon their arrival they organized politically, protesting Portuguese colonialism, South African racism, and Iranian political repression. By illuminating injustices, dissident students shattered their governments' hope to form a new elite and crushed West Germany's desire to celebrate them as part of an economic development project. Their actions further disturbed the polarity of Cold War discourse, as they challenged West German students to criticize allies for their violation of human rights and democratic principles. These conversations fostered solidarity, encouraged collaboration, and resulted in defiance. First demonstrations occurred in early 1961, protesting Tehran University's closing and Lumumba's assassination. In the same year, international students also staged sit-ins in various embassies advocating for imprisoned and expelled students, academic freedom, and de-policing of academia.

Starting in 1963, theoretical approaches of West German student activists shifted from a focus on human rights toward Third World revolutionary thinking. Collaborations at West German universities among student activists from various countries fostered this change. Particularly significant in this development were the West German student leaders Rudi Dutschke and Bernd Rabehl, who radicalized the movement via their theories, proposing direct action, state confrontation, and antiauthoritarianism. During manifestations against the West Germany visit of Congolese Prime Minister Moise Tshombe in December 1964, protesters employed these new tactics for the first time. Antiauthoritarians considered this direct action successful and saw it as justification to put action before theory, which dismayed the traditionalist faction of the movement who focused on coalition building.

Beginning in 1964, the West German student movement introduced another change by engaging in depersonalized politics and focusing on structural instead of individual oppression. West German students started to stigmatize solidarity stemming from personal relationships. Personal contact to Third World activists declined rapidly and no longer acted as the driver behind protest mobilization. The 1964 protests against U.S. military action in Vietnam serve as an example. Few Vietnamese students attended West German universities and none acted in a leadership role. The 1966 actions in favor of the Chinese Cultural Revolution further intensified this stance. Without direct contact, West German students adopted the revolution as their own. They pledged allegiance to Mao and even identified themselves as Chinese. During the 1968 World Youth Festival in Sofia, Bulgaria, the Chinese delegation felt co-opted and showed ambivalence to the West German students' adoption of the Cultural Revolution. Assuming Third World revolutionary identities without direct contact to Third World activists distorted Third World struggles and fostered abstract relationships between Third World actors and West German students.

The protests during the Iranian Shah's visit on June 2, 1967 stand as an anomaly to the movement's turn to depersonalized politics. Iranian dissident students organized against human rights abuses since the early sixties. Their personal contacts with West German students encouraged thousands to attend the June 2nd protests. The former Iranian student Nirumand served an essential role, as he globally linked the struggles of the Third World and encouraged the First World to invalidate the legitimacy of oppressing regimes. Attempting to find their place in the revolution, radical West German students identified themselves as a persecuted minority in a fascist state. To them, the murdered West German protester Benno Ohnesorg served as the first victim of post-World War II fascism and exemplified the country's "intergenerational drama." On the other hand, Iranian students saw him as one of many victims of their struggle, joining those who died in prison and during other protests. While Iranians fused the Iranian and German protests by placing Ohnesorg beside murdered Iranians, West German students turned his murder into a national issue. As such, June 2nd demonstrates an altered West German student movement that is "oddly severed from its international context."

Amid the loss of textual dominance, visual representation of suffering played a significant role among the student movement and beyond. In the early 1960s, visualizing the suffering body supported dissident students in their educational efforts among West German students. During the Vietnam protests, however, West German students used images to self-activate their consciousness without the help of dissident students. The right of presenting the suffering body fell in First World actors' hands soon after. In cinema, the gruesome 1966 movie Africa Addio portrays Africa as self-destructive after decolonization. Among the New Left, dead and tortured bodies became a tool to shock and educate the public after Ohnesorg's murder in 1967. Images also served as tools for sexual liberation when contrasted with First World nudity, which provoked feminist critique and revealed the paradox of attempting to cultivate dignity by portraying indignity. In 1968 and 1969, New Left filmmaker Harun Farocki attempted to step away from using the dead as a spectacle for the masses by removing sensationalist imagery and instead focusing on the mundane actions that lead to death without portraying death itself.

Despite Foreign Front being Slobodian's first book, he confidently troubles common conceptions about the international student movement. Published in the Radical History Review series of Duke University, Slobodian distances himself from dominant student movement discourse, which places the United States at the center. He presents a strong countervoice to Martin Klimke, who asserts that contacts with U.S. Americans fascinated West German students and even inspired them to join the student movement using U.S. protest tactics. Slobodian convincingly revises this narrative by outlining the meaningful alliances between West German and Third World students. He thereby writes the latter back into history.

Slobodian also critiques voices that understand West German student involvement in Third World revolutionary politics as imagined. He compellingly illustrates the importance of Third World students in informing and educating West German students about their respective struggles. The Chilean student Gaston Salvatore, for example, became a crucial partner for Dutschke. Their collaboration "accelerated the diffusion of the New Left texts across geographical and linguistic borders." Historical abstraction and a focus on structures instead of individual experiences became problematic later in the decade; however, initial collaboration occurred and existed not simply in the realm of imagination.

Slobodian's argument regarding the influence of the visual on the transformation of the New Left implicitly depends on Sontag's work on images and the suffering of others. Realizing that the visual gained momentum, activists altered their strategies from using texts and discussion to images to evoke shock and promote solidarity. This shift speaks to Sontag's assertion that "[o]ne is vulnerable to disturbing events in the form of photographic images in a way that one is not to the real thing." This vulnerability allowed activists initially to shock the West German audience. However, the camera's dual capacity "to subjectivize reality and to objectify it" turned First World actor's into guardians of representation and Third World victims into silenced object. The visual thus serves as a mass spectacle, "in which there is nothing that should not be seen ... that should not be recorded." The juxtaposition of First World nudity with Third World death and Africa Addio serve as examples. The illustrations in Foreign Front allow the reader to experience this power of images in relation to Slobodian's argument.

Foreign Front is a valuable contribution to existing 1960's student movement scholarship, not only in the context of West Germany, but globally, as it illuminates the importance of transnational ties, international partnerships, and collaborations. As Slobodian illustrates, Third World actors played a significant role in mobilizing protests in West Germany. It would be interesting to discern their influence on the student movement in other countries to compare and contrast. The knowledge gained from such scholarly activity would be beneficial to better understand international communication and mobilization techniques among social movements actors in various geographical regions and contexts.

While Slobodian provided a very informative historical analysis of the 1960 West German student movement, there still lingers an unanswered and pertinent question regarding the role of university education. Slobodian identified a reevaluation of university education as a common characteristic of the international student movement; however, a discussion of the role of professors, seminars, and lectures during the West German student movement was strikingly absent throughout the book. This observation is not so much a critique but rather the beginning of an inquiry into the civic mission of the university and its task to engage students critically.


Works Cited

Klimke, Martin. The Other Alliance: Student Protest in West Germany and the United States in the Global Sixties. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2010.

Sontag, Susan. On Photography. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1977.


DOI Permalink

https://doi.org/10.20415/hyp/010.r05