A history of German anti-imperialism after 1945



November 5, 2015


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German anti-imperialism German radical left

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Selim Nadi et al., « A history of German anti-imperialism after 1945 », HAL-SHS : histoire, ID : 10670/1.o1313o


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The aim of this paper is to provide an analysis of the evolution of the German radical left’s relation to anti-imperialism since the end of World War II. Whereas in 1914, Rosa Luxemburg was the main figure of the SPD opposition to war – becoming the central figure of the German anti-militarist tradition – she later opposed Lenin on the question of national self-determination. According to Luxemburg, Bolshevik arguments in favor of the national aspirations of the Tsarist Empire’s oppressed minorities like the Poles were a diversion from the fight for socialism. The question of anti-imperialism emerged again in the aftermath of World War II. Indeed, while members of the SPD supported the Algerian cause, it was mostly in the 1960s and 1970s that a radical anti-imperialist consciousness exploded in Germany with the emergence of the New Left. Support for the Vietcong later translated in support for the PLO and other liberation movements. The collapse of the New Left later resulted in a crisis of German anti-imperialism, the most notable fruit of this crisis being the antideutsch current in the early 1990s, which originally rejected anti-imperialism from an anti-nationalist point of view. Echoing Luxemburg’s argument with Lenin, a discrepancy is visible today within large parts of the German radical left, exemplified by widespread support for the “progressive” Kurds of Kobane and near-total silence on Israel’s periodical attacks on the Gaza Strip, justified by Hamas’s “regressive” character. This paper will focus on the specificity of the German anti-imperialist tradition after 1945 and its interaction with other concepts, like fascism. The tradition of the Frankfurt School was crucial in this aspect. Thus, in a letter to Horkheimer in 1967, Marcuse wrote that he saw in the United States of America the heritage of Fascism. The concept of the “imperialist” Federal Republic as a society on a road to Faschisierung (“fascizitation”) became hegemonic within the post-1968 New Left. Thus, anti-imperialism and anti-fascism became virtually synonymous concepts. Also influencing anti-imperialism was a strand of anti-militarism after 1945, fused together with a particularly moralistic brand of pacifism, due to the danger of nuclear annihilation. The end of the Cold War saw major divergences between all four concepts. The Second Gulf War saw the concept of anti-fascism played out against anti-imperialism, with the branding of Saddam Hussein as a “new Hitler” by former leftist Hans Magnus Enzensberger, something later taken up by the antideutsch current vis-à-vis resistance movements in the Arab world. The debate also continues within Die Linke, with supporters of Israel using a symmetric language of pacifism against anti-militarist critics that support the Palestinian right to resist. On the other hand, parts of the German left refuse to apply the adjective “imperialist” to states like Russia, while effectively refusing solidarity to the revolts sparked off by the Arab Spring. Our main thesis is that the evolution of German anti-imperialism must be located in the intersection of objective conditions – the historical absence of a large colonial empire, the legacy of Nazism, class collaboration after 1945 – as well broader theoretical questions, like the Luxemburg-Lenin-debate, debates on the nature of fascism pioneered by the Frankfurt School, as well as contemporary debates on the nature of imperialism and the state. In doing this, we wish to present a vision for an anti-imperialism in Germany that avoids the twin dangers of reductionism, as well as insistence on ideological purity on behalf of resistance movements of the oppressed.

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