We are not free—we have only been freed.

Erich Kästner, The Little Freedom

Insight into a particular generation is best gained by comparing it with others.footnote The generation that came of age in the late sixties—the so-called ‘’68 generation’—is widely believed to have had an unparalleled influence on post-war Germany. I do not share this view. Examination of all the generations since 1945 produces a much more complicated conclusion. Let us begin with the ‘front-line generation’.

The first generation of Social Democrats to emerge in West Germany after the war was strongly affected by the war experience. These individuals’ view of socialism was frequently based on an emotional framework that can only be understood in terms of an ideal of a ‘brotherhood of the trenches’ that spanned class boundaries. This group, of course, included the founding generation of the Socialist German Students’ Association, or sds. In other words, the core of the first sds generation was made up not of resistance fighters but for the most part of former soldiers and officers who had served at the front. Their lives—both in and out of uniform—had been shaped by day-to-day life in a regimented, militarized society and their collective experience of war. A longing for peace, a deep-seated scepticism toward any kind of nationalism, fear of emotion and mass mentality in the political sphere, relatively little interest in sophisticated social theories, and few emotional ties to the traditional values, symbols and customs of the earlier workers’ movement—all of these were and remain today the heterogenous marks of the sds cohort’s consciousness.

This is a generation made up primarily of loners who were shaped by their experiences in modern warfare. In spite of—and in opposition to—the dominant mood of resignation and conservatism at the post-1945 universities, the roughly eight hundred sds members in their ‘shabby officers’ greatcoats’ (as Helmut Schmidt put it) embraced the social democracy of Kurt Schumacher—at a time when most students were rejecting politics, and the middle classes and rural population were looking to a short-lived religious revival to help them deal with the downfall of the German Reich.