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.

On 10 September 1986, in his farewell address to the German Bundestag, Helmut Schmidt underscored once more the seminal experiences of the war and the Nazi period, and the mind-set of the founders of the sds, which was typical of their generation as a whole. ‘When the war was over, I shared the emotions of millions of other German soldiers. With enormous relief, we said “Thank God, it’s over”. During the war millions of us found ourselves in a schizophrenic situation. During the day we were fighting, partly because we saw it as our duty, partly to save our own lives, partly to keep from being taken prisoner; but at night we were fervently hoping for an end to the war and the Nazi dictatorship—schizophrenic.’ Even if this view was shared only by a minority of Helmut Schmidt’s generation, it does show that for his contemporaries war and National Socialism were an experience full of contradiction. Even today this experience has not relaxed its hold on them. This is the generation that put its stamp on mainstream politics in the sixties and seventies. And one should not forget that the conflict in 1967 and 1968 was waged primarily between this group and the ’68 generation. (In addition to Helmut Schmidt, this sds founder generation includes Hans Matthöfer, Heinz-Joachim Heydorn, Horst Ehmke, Peter von Ö rtzen, Karl Wittrock, Jan van Nes Ziegler and Wolfgang Zeidler.) Of a total of seven top sds officials during the initial phase, two went on to notable party careers: one became Federal Chancellor; the other was, until May of 1985, president of the Land parliament of North Rhine/Westphalia. A third was president of the Federal Constitutional Court in Karlsruhe; another became president of the Federal Court of Audit. Of the remaining three, two later went into careers in education.

And now, briefly, the second generation: I call it the ‘Hitler Youth generation’. This sds group of the 1950s was largely overshadowed by its predecessors; as we see, it is not a new phenomenon for one generation to be eclipsed by another. It was not Auschwitz or Stalingrad that shaped the behaviour and thinking of this cohort, but the child-rearing methods and rituals of the National Socialists. One of the goals of the Nazi educational system was to produce a Volk oriented population of loyal followers. In every sphere of life the aim was to remove any division between state and society. Peter Schneider, a member of the ’68 generation, recently pointed out in an essay entitled ‘Im Todeskreis der Schuld’ (‘In the Deathly Circle of Guilt’) something we have also heard from critical thinkers of the Hitler Youth generation: they by no means experienced the Nazi years as ‘years of terror’. Instead, as Schneider puts it, ‘These were years when young people were able to play at being grown up, years of cameraderie, of a sense of belonging to a group, of adventure. Unless their parents were anti-fascist, these young people had an enjoyable youth during those years. . .This generation, unlike adults of that time, did not end up paying for their enthusiasm. They were, of course, too young to experience the horrors of the winter campaign [on the Eastern Front], too young to spend years in a Siberian prisoner-of-war camp, too young for the disgrace of denazification. Those who experienced the last year of the war in an anti-aircraft unit or as part of the Volkssturm were hardly able to view the end of the dream as anything but a natural disaster.’ This, however, did not apply to the young people from Central or Eastern Europe who fled from East Prussia, Pomerania or elsewhere to the West. It was of no little importance where and under what circumstances a particular individual was living in 1944 and 1945. So one cannot expect that the entire Hitler Youth generation was shaped by common experience. When in times of great upheaval a homogeneous sociocultural environment is shattered the members of a given generation may react by developing quite different mentalities. All the same, Peter Schneider’s description holds for a large part of the West German Hitler Youth generation: their consciousness has in many cases been informed by a youth under the Nazi regime—with which they have still not come to terms, but which they experienced as happy. This generation, which in my opinion has cast no significant intellectual shadow, includes most of the men who today occupy positions of power in the Federal Republic—a fact generally overlooked, even by the ’68 generation. The prototype of this generation, which frequently exhibits no more than formally democratic thinking, is Helmut Kohl. It would, however, be a mistake to see him in isolation; witness Dr Philipp Jenninger. The most prominent characteristic of this generation is its organizational capabilities. In the camps of the Hitler Youth and the Bund Deutscher Maedel, its counterpart girls’ organization, young people learned above all how to organize. When the food supply declined dramatically after the war, these talents stood them in good stead in the black market and in foraging for food. Put simply, this generation was also intellectually unexceptional within the sds. Its members steered the group toward the right. The Cold War, of course, did not stop in the 1950s at the university gates.