Title: 1977: The Return of the Repressed
Author: Richard W. McCormick
Chapter 4 from: Politicks of the Self.
Feminism and the Postmodern in West German Literature and Film
. Princeton University Press: Princeton, 1991

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1977: The Return of the Repressed

Richard W. McCormick


Walter Benjamin made his remarks on the angel of history in reference to a painting by Klee. In the 1980s they were quoted in concert by Laurie Anderson, a contemporary composer of electronic music and a performance artist, a citation that illustrates a historical "constellation" that contains both Benjamin and the contemporary postmodern disposition toward "progress." (1) (It is a pessimism that obviously does not-in Anderson's case certainly-renounce all technology.) Benjamin's attitude toward history is described by Habermas as "posthistoricist": "The modern, avant-garde spirit has sought to use the past in a different way; it disposes those pasts which have been made available by the objectifying scholarship of historicism, but it opposes at the same time a neutralized history which is locked up in the museum of historicism. (2)

A similar attitude to the past can be noted in the work of many West German artists of the generation that had been shaped by its experience of the late 1960s-especially in the late 1970s, once they began to turn their attention again toward history. For their concern with the self and its psychological development led ultimately toward examination of extrapersonal, historical factors as the 1970s progressed. As history once again became a topic of political and artistic discourse, the interest was not in neutral, "objectified" history but in a personally motivated investigation of the past.

These "posthistoricist" sentiments were not restricted to the realm of art and culture. Indeed, in the United States during the 1980s somewhat comparable attitudes toward history entered into academic debates, not merely within the field of history but in literary studies as well, in what has been somewhat ironically named "New Historicism." (3) Uniting these diverse academic and cultural activities is an awareness of the representation of history not as a neutral but as an active intervention on behalf of perspectives and experiences (both personal and political) repressed in standard interpretations.

In West Germany by 1977, what had been repressed surfaced in ways that no one, on the right or the left, from the most "subjectivist" to the most orthodox, regardless of age, could afford to ignore. The year 1977 marked the ten-year anniversary of the murder of Benno Ohnesorg, one of the most dramatic mobilizing influences on the student movement. As ten-year anniversaries for various of the incidents that made up the history of the student movement approached, a series of articles and books appeared that attempted to make sense of this history. (4) All these writings may be seen as attempts to reclaim that history from the standard interpretations that had become dominant. Activists themselves attempted to write that history in accordance with their memories and with their analysis of those memories. Helke Sander, for instance, was motivated to begin the project that resulted in her film, The Subjective Factor (Der subjektive Faktor, 1980), by the various retrospectives put together by men who had been activists; she decided it was necessary to retell the story from a woman's point of view.

Another event that had its tenth anniversary was a 1967 speech given by Gudrun Ensslin at an SDS meeting in the period after Ohnesorg's death, a speech that could be used to mark the beginning of the process that would lead to the formation of the terrorist Red Army Faction, or RAF (5) Around 1977, RAF entered a new phase of activity. Its founders had been in prison since 1972; Ulrike Meinhof had been found dead in her cell in May of 1976. The new phase was led by a new "generation" of terrorists whose motivation was hardly nostalgia.

The spectacular murders of 1977 represented a new escalation in terrorist violence in West Germany: a federal prosecutor, Siegfried Buback was murdered in April; Jürgen Ponto, the head of the Dresdner Bank, was shot in July; and leading industrialist Hanns Martin Schleyer was kidnapped in September and found dead in France in October, after the defeat of the Mogadishu skyjackers. The year also marked a major defeat for the terrorist strategy in West Germany, if not its complete elimination . (6)

The kidnapping of Schleyer and the hijacking of a Lufthansa jet to Mogadishu, Somalia, were actions of the RAF meant to force the West German state to release Andreas Baader, Gudrun Ensslin, and Jan-Carl Raspe from their confinement in the maximum-security prison at Stammheim, near Stuttgart. Instead, a special unit of West German security forces stormed the Lufthansa jet in Mogadishu, freeing the passengers and killing the hijackers. In Stammheirn the next morning, Baader, Ensslin, and Raspe were found dead in their cells, in what was somewhat suspiciously ruled a suicide (as had been the case with Meinhof in 1976). (7)

The hysteria with which West German society reacted to these events was great-as though this small band of terrorists could have brought down the West German state, almost as though the murders of Buback, Ponto, and Schleyer, inexcusable as they were, were the greatest crimes of the century. This atmosphere of national emergency created a situation in which almost anyone with leftist or oppositional views was considered a "sympathizer" whose influence had aided the terrorists. The presentation of events in the media did not deviate much from the dominant, rather one-dimensional perspective that defined public discourse in the autumn of 1977. Many leftists felt that civil liberties, especially freedom of expression, were in serious danger; some feared even that West German democracy was at an end.

Why such tremendous fears-on both the right and the leftshould have been prevalent is at first glance not clear to the foreigner. The answer has to do with the relation of the events in 1977 to what are undoubtedly the greatest (German) crimes of the century: the scuttling of German democracy by National Socialism, the resultant persecution of political dissidents and Jews; and the eventual mass extermination of Jews, gypsies, homosexuals, and others. The fears of the Right go back at least to the revolutionary unrest after World War I in Germany; these fears contributed to the ultimate success of the Nazis. That success in turn explains the fears of the German Left.

The connection between 1977 and those events earlier in the century is a bit more concrete than my brief historical explanation above can convey. Schleyer, for instance, was not merely the head of Daimler-Benz (manufacturer of the Mercedes-Benz), as well as the leader of the organization of the largest employers in West Germany; he had also been in Hitler's S.S.In terms of symbolism, Schleyer was thus an especially appropriate target for terrorists who fancied that their self-appointed task was to purge the German past-or be purged by it. This rather dramatic self-image was already evident in the 1967 speech by Gudrun Ensslin to which I alluded above. In the aftermath of the Ohnesorg killing, she called the West German state not only "fascist" but determined to kill all the student protesters (at that time mostly nonviolent). She demanded meeting violence with violence, since negotiations were pointless with the "Auschwitz" generation. (9)

In 1977 another event, this one literary in nature, helped cause renewed interest in the past, the past of both the student movement and of German fascism. It was the posthumous publication in book form of The journey (Die Reise), the never-completed autobiographical essay by Bernward Vesper, who had indeed once been Gudrun Ensslin's lover and was the son of the writer Will Vesper, a favorite of Hitler. Bernward had committed suicide in 1971, and it had taken six years for friends and editors to work out a publishing deal; but the book, a "ghostly journey into subjectivity and into the past," could not have met a more receptive audience than the one it found. in 1977.(10)Readers were now interested not just in Vesper's illumnation of aspects of the protest movement since forgotten (the drugs, the antiauthoritarian opposition to the dogmatic socialists, the sympathy with terrorism, the early example of radical "subjectivity" in Vesper's prose). There was also a special interest in Vesper's attempts to deal both with the painful memories of his relationship to his authoritarian father and with his relationship to his father's political past.

Among other things, the success of Vesper's book contributed to a wave of Generationenliteratur, "generation literature," in the late 1970s. Written by people born in the 1930s and 1940s, these books dealt with the authors' relationships to their parents-usually their fathers-and the behavior of the parents during Nazism. (11) This was the personal side of the confrontation with the German past, with the parent in question personifying that past for the younger generation. These books were also part of the general autobiographical trend of the 1970s. Another influential book dealing with the fascist past was the autobiographical novel Patterns of Childhood (Kidheitsmuster, 1976) by East German writer Christa Wolf, which was based on personal, not parental, experience of fascism. (Wolf's works had influenced West German writers-e specially women-since the 1969 publication of The Quest for Christa T. in West Germany.) (12)

The increasing interest in history was matched by an increase in the interest in literary history. To a certain extent, this interest had already been evident in Lenz (1972), Wrong Move (1975), and The New Sorrows of Young W. (Die neuen Leiden des jungen W., 1973), by the East German writer Ulrich Plenzdorf (a big success in West Germany). But these works were followed by others devoted specifically to writers and artists from different historical eras, as opposed to the aforementioned modern adaptations. Peter Hartling's Hölderlin, Wolfgang Hildesheimer's Mozart, and Adolf Muschg's Gottfried Keller appeared in 1976 and 1977. This trend has been described as a search for "the way into history" (13) to it could be added Christa Wolf's No Place on Earth (Kein Ort. Nirgends, 1979), although that work must of course be read primarily as a response to East German reality.

The examination of history via literary tradition included an increasing validation of aesthetic complexity that ran counter to the trend of most "authentic," autobiographical writing. By the end of the 1970s and the early 1980s this new validation had resulted in announcements of a "resistance of aesthetics" and a repudiation of "authenticity" (14). Examples of the new formal rigor were produced by somewhat older writers, two of whom had been influential on the student movement: Hans Magnus Enzensberger and Peter Weiss. Enzensberger's Sinking of the Titanic (Der Untergang der Titanic, 1977), written in verse, is a parable on the defeat of the modern ideal of progress in the twentieth century, contrasting three historical perspectives (the 1912 Titanic disaster, his own utopian hopes of the late 1960s, and the pessimism of the mid-1970s); formally it alludes to as old a formal influence as Dante. (15) Peter Weiss's The Aesthetics of Resistance (Die Ästhetik des Widerstands) is a complex, multilayered novelistic attempt to come to terms with some painful history (personal and political). Uwe Johnson's Anniversaries (Jahrestage) represents a similar project and like Weiss's Aesthetics of Resistance is a work of monumental proportions: Weiss's novel appeared in three installments, 1975, 1978, and 1981, and Johnson's in four, 1970, 1971, 1973, and 1980.(16)

A similar concern with history and with the complexity of coming to terms with it both politically and via aesthetic means can be seen among members of the "'68 generation" who were involved with filmmaking-although here, too, the influence of the somewhat older Alexander Kluge was significant. In the "New German Cinema," there had been a shift toward "literary history" as well in the mid-1970s, but this shift had not meant any general increase in the level of film aesthetics, rather the contrary; aside from some films like Fassbinder's Effi Briest (1974), literary adaptation in West German cinema had resulted in the making of ever more uninspired films until one spoke of the Literaturveffilmungskrise, the crisis of (mediocre) filmed adaptations of literature. (17) This trend was in some sense related to the conservative Tendenzwende, but in film the reasons were much more transparent, having to do with the West German 'system of state subsidies for film projects, which required above all the approval of a script. (18) What better method to win approval for a project than to submit a script based on a "literary classic"?

Many filmmakers were quite dissatisfied with this situation, but it took two things to mobilize them into action. The first of these was a cinematic event: Joachim Fest's film Hitler-A Career (1977), a film that dealt with the troublesome German past in a fashion that disturbed the filmmakers. Wim Wenders especially lashed out at Fest's film, decrying the situation of West German film, explicating in turn its relation to the fascist past that Fest had ascribed to the aura of one man-an aura Fest's film reproduced uncritically. (19) The second mobilizing event was political: the hysteria that built up to the "German autumn" of 1977. Fassbinder, disgusted with the political and cinematic scene in West Germany, declared he would leave Germany. Actually, as it happened, it was Wenders who left, lured by Francis Coppola to direct Hummet in California . (20)
Fassbinder instead stayed to join in a collaborative effort with other filmmakers to put together some kind of alternative look at the events of Autumn 1977, from a perspective that differed from the government's polarizing rhetoric, the latter unchallenged by the official electronic media. The resulting film, Germany in Autumn (Deutschland im Herbst, 1978), was edited by Kluge and Beate Mainka-Jellinghaus. It was a collage of fictional, autobiographical, and documentary episodes; these episodes investigated historical and contemporary aspects of German reality considered relevant to the crisis of 1977 by the various collaborating directors and writers . (21)

For Kluge, Fassbinder, and others, this began a period in which their work began to confront German history in ways that differed considerably from the adaptation of literary classics. (22) Fassbinder began his "BRD-Trilogie," a trilogy of films dealing with West Germany in the 1940s and 1950s: The Marriage of Maria Braun (Die Ehe der Maria Braun, 1979), Lola (1981), and The Longing of Veronika Voss (Die Sehnsucht der Veronika Voss, 1981). (23) These stylized melodramas explored the relationship between the conservative restoration in West Germany that dominated the 1950s and the emotional lives of individual Germans. Kluge's montage-style investigation of German history in Germany in Autumn would be further developed in his next film, The Patriot (Die Patriotin, 1979).(24)

Impulses comparable to those in Fassbinder's and Kluge's films can also be seen in films by women, who by the late 1970s began to exert an influence on West German cinema that could no longer be ignored. Confrontation with the past via "Brechtian" melodrama can be seen in the work of such filmmakers as Helma Sander Brahms and Jutta Brilckner, and through juxtaposition of documentary footage with fictional sequences in the films of Brückner, Sanders-Brahms, and Helke Sander. Sander's The Subjective Factor (1981) was a mix of fictional and documentary footage; her 1977 film REDUPERS, one of the first films by West German women to achieve critical acclaim, used no "historical" documentary footage, but its low-key narrative provided a format for documenting autobiographical, artistic, and political realities. As much as it is a fiction, it is a documentary on Berlin in 1977 and a self-reflexive examination of Sander's situation as a woman struggling to survive there as an artist.

The personal, autobiographical aspect of the confrontation with German history is much stronger in these films by women (or at least much more openly admitted). This can be partially explained in terms of the trend of "generational literature": the "'68 generation" wanted to confront personal history and German history by examining its relation to parents who had lived through fascism as adults. Fassbinder, too, reflects this tendency-it should be mentioned in this context that the original title idea for The Marriage of Maria Braun was "The Marriages of Our Parents. (25) But in the films by Brückner and Sanders-Brahms, a more explicitly feminist project must also be acknowledged: the need to explore their specific identity as women by looking at their parents, and especially their mothers.

The endeavors by Sander, Sanders-Brahms, and others to combine personal interests and feminist perspectives in the examination of larger historical issues-the fascist past, the student movementmake their films especially representative of a shift in the leftist counterculture in the late 1970s. During these years one noted a gradual move away from ghettoization and single-issue organizing toward an attempt at greater unity-and toward once again exerting influence on public policy in West Germany as a whole. This process resulted in the consolidation of a new peace movement and the formation of the Greens.

But these women did not confront such historical and political issues in their films by renouncing the feminist emphasis on personal politics. Instead it was through that very emphasis, politically and aesthetically, that they moved into a confrontation with the German past, much as feminist politics would lead many women into broad coalitions like the peace movement and the Greens. The films by Helma Sanders-Brahms and by Helke Sander examined here, for example, share a project similar to that of the Greens (and of Fassbinder's trilogy, for that matter): German history is reread in order to undermine conventional interpretations mired in Cold War thinking, as part of a broader critique of militarism-and patriarchy.

1. Walter Benjamin, "Theses on the Philosophy of History," in the collection of his essays Illuminations, trans. Harry Zohn, ed. Hannah Arendt (New York: Schocken, 1969), pp. 257-58. Quoted by Laurie Anderson on her "Natural History" tour (1986).

2. Habermas, "Modernity," pp. 5-6.

3. Hutcheon, A Poetics of Postmodernism, pp. 90-91. According to Stephen Greenblatt, who coined the term "New Historicism": "The term originated in a somewhat feeble witticism: a word play on the 'new criticsm' and also a tug of oppositions between 'new' and 'history .. .. .. A Conversation with Stephen Greenblatt," California Monthly (April 1988), p. 9.

4 In 1977 alone, the following appeared: "Ten Years After," Kursbuch, no. 48 (June 1977); Master's Was wir wollten, was wir wurden; and Wolff and Windaus's Studentenbewegung 1967-69. For other titles, see Beutin et at., Deutsche Literaturgeschichte (1984 ed.), p. 562.

5 See Lisa DiCaprio, "Marianne and Juliane/The German Sisters: Baader-Meinhof Fictionalized," Jump Cut, no. 29 (1984), p. 59.

6. There has been some terrorist activity ascribed to RAF in the 1980s; this "revival" seemed to become serious after the West German Bundestag voted in November 1983 to allow the United States to station its Pershing missiles in West Germany, in spite of widespread protests. In June 1990 it was revealed that Some RAF members had been living in hiding in the GDR. Given the anarchistic inclinations of the group at its founding, it is ironic that some members ended up in the GDR. It also seems unlikely that the group was ever controlled by the GDR, in spite of any unholy collaboration that may have developed.

7. The prisoners in Stammheirn were found to have had guns in their cells; how this occurred in the highest-security prison in West Germany remains a mystery. The prisoners were also apparently in radio contact with the highjackers in Africa -another mystery. Such details and other inconsistencies in the official version of events have led to skepticism on the part of certain oppositional groups vis-a-vis that version. The Ensslin family, too-not just Gudrun's sister Christiane but also her father, a Lutheran minister-expressed doubts about the suicide thesis. Nonetheless the suicide version has not been disproved, at least officially. See Margit Mayer, "The German October of 1977,"New German Critique, no. 13 (1977), p. 160.

8. See Mayer, "The German October," pp. 155

9 See DiCaprio, "Marianne and Juliane," p. 59. See also Rutschky's discussion of the relationship between the "German Autumn" of 1977 and the fascist legacy in Erfahrungshunger pp. 145-64. Margarethe von Trotta's film Marianne and Juliane (Die bleierne Zeit, 1981) is a fictionalized account of events in Gudrun Ensslin's life from the point of view of her sister Christiane (to whom it is dedicated). Among other things, the film explores the connection between the terrorist sister Marianne's concern about the crimes of the German past and her move into terrorism.

10 Beutin et al., Deutsche Literoturgeschichte (1984 ed.), p. 562.

11. To name a few: Brigitte Schwaiger's Lange Abwesenheit (1980), Peter Härtling's Nachgetragene Liebe (1980), Heinrich Wiesner's Der Riese arn Tisch (1979), Ruth Rebmann's Der Mann auf der Kanzel (1979), Siegfried Cauch's Vaterspuren (1979), Paul Kersten's Der alltägliche Tod meines Vaters (1980), Peter Henisch's Die kleine Figur rneines Vaters (1980), and Christoph Mockel's Suchbild. Über meinen Vater (1980). Elisabeth Plessen's Mitteilungen an den Adel had appeared already in 1976. See Michael Schneider's essay "Fathers and Sons, Retrospectively: The Damaged Relations between Two Generations," trans. Jamie Owen Daniel, New German Critique, no. 31 (1984), pp. 3-51. Orig. "Väter und Söhne, posthurn. Das beschädigte Verhältnis zweier Generationen," in his book Den Kopf verkehrt aufgesetzt, pp. 8-64.

12. Christa Wolf had a great influence on West German "New Subjectivity"; cf. her passage on political slogans and personal identity, Nachdenken über Christa T., pp. 71-72. Note also, for instance, how often Karin Struck cites her in Class Love (Klassenliebe); see above, Chapter 2, note 77.

13. Kreuzer, "Neue Subjektivität," p. 42.

14. See Beutin et al., Deutsche Literaturgeschichte (1984 ed.), pp. 565-78, esp. p. 566 discussing the literary deficits of New Subjectivity; see also Krechel, "Leben in Anfohrungszeichen," pp. 80-107.

15. See, for example, Hinrich Seeba, "Der Untergang der Utopie: Ein Schiffbruch in der Gegenwartsliteratur," German Studies Review 4 (1981), pp. 281-98.

16. Beutin et al., Deutsche Literaturgeschichte (1984 ed.), pp. 540, 568-70.

17. See Rentschler, West German Film, pp. 129-53; Pflaum and Prinzler, Cinema in the Federal Republic of Germany, pp. 25-30.

18. For background on the West German subsidy system, its history, and its relationship to the development of the New German Cinema, see Elsaesser, New German Cinema, pp. 8-35; Rentschler, West German Film, pp. 32-63; Pflaum and Prinzler, Cinema in the Federal Republic of Germany, pp. 5-80; Franklin, The New German Cinema, pp. 21-58; Sandford, The New German Cinema, pp. 9-16; and Phillips, New German Filmmakers, pp. ix-xxiii.

19 See Wenders, "That's Entertainment: Hitler," in Rentschler, West German Filmmakers on Film, pp. 126-31. Orig. "That's Entertainment: Eine Polemik gegen Joachim C. Fests Film Hitler-EineKarriere," Die Zeit, 5 August 1977, p. 34.

20. Fassbinder declared at the 1977 Berlin International Film Festival that he wanted to emigrate; see Buchka, Augen kann man nicht kaufen, pp. 13-14. Pflaum and Prinzler write of "Fassbinder's polemical declaration that he would rather live as a roadsweeper in Mexico if politics developed in a way he felt possible." Cinema in the Federal Republic of Germany, p. 36.

21. Among the collaborators were Kluge, Fassbinder, Volker Schlöndorff, Heinrich Böll, and Edgar Reitz. See Miriam Hansen's article "Cooperative Auteur Cinema," pp. 36-56; also Kaes, Deutschlandbilder, pp. 30-35. More or less the same group of film makers continued collaboration in subsequent attempts to influence political discourse in West Germany: in 1980, Der Kandidat appeared, a film about the archconservative Franz Josef Strauss made by Kluge, Schlöndorff, Alexander von Eschwege, and Stefan Aust. In 1982-1983 a similar collaboration by Kluge, Schlöndorff, Aust, and Axel Engstfeld resulted in Krieg und Frieden (War and Peace), a study of the nuclear arms race during the West German debate about accepting the deployment of U.S. Pershing missiles. See Pflaum and Prinzler, Cinema in the Federal Republic of Germany, pp. 73-74.

22. The phenomenon of this "return to history" in West German film since the mid1970s is the focus of Kaes's Deutschlandbilder, which has now appeared in English as From Heimat to Hitler. Kaes mentions the events of 1977 as one major motivation for the trend-certainly for Kluge and Fassbinder. Another important event at the end of the 1970s was the premiere of the American miniseries Holocaust on West German television in January 1979; the American series caused a popular reaction with regard to repressed German history that the more experimental Germany in Autumn was unable to create. See Kaes Deutschlandbilder, pp. 35-42, and Elsaesser, New German Cinema, pp. 271-72.

23 Fassbinder's Lili Marleen (1981) and Berlin Alexanderplatz (1980) treat politics, literature, and/or mass culture in other periods of German history: fascism, the Weimar Republic.

24 Hans Jürgen Syberberg's Our Hitler (Hitler. Ein Film aus Deutschland, 1977) can also be seen in the context of these "history films." See especially Kaes's discussion of the film in Deutschlandbilder, pp. 135-70.

25. See Kaes, "History, fiction, memory: Fassbinder's The Marriage of Maria Braun (1979)," in Eric Rentschler, ed., German Film and Literature: Adaptations and Transformations (New York: Methuen, 1986), p. 278.