ideas, history, culture.

Sign-up for the Age of Division newsletter.

History repeating

A year on from the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, a curious parallelism seems to be developing between the current crisis and one which struck the West 50 years ago.

The Red Army Faction (RAF).
Red Army Faction.

Building through the late 1960s, the Vietnam War and the role of Lyndon B. Johnson’s Democratic government in the conflict split the liberal coalition in the US and led directly to the emergence of what became known as the New Left in American politics.

There were other, deeper elements to the development of the New Left, including an expansion of the US middle class following World War II, a corresponding growth in higher education coming into the 1960s, and the emergence of a drug counter-culture in the West. But it was Johnson’s failed policy towards Vietnam which brought the New Left energetically to life, together with its radical urban guerrilla fringe.

Essentially driven by US college students, the New Left was characterised by its radical Marxist principles and its positioning away from what its leaders characterised as the Old (Stalinist) Left. At the heart of the New Left movement was the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), which, in what became known as the 1962 Port Huron Statement, rejected what the SDS characterised as "formulas" and "closed theories”, calling instead for a "new left . . . committed to deliberativeness, honesty [and] reflection."

Traumatised by the violence in Vietnam together with its heavy televisual reporting, the New Left was also shaped by the impact of the Chinese Cultural Revolution, and quickly evolved to fight against what it saw as the prevailing authority structures in US society; Johnson and his inner circle, as well as the Democratic Party’s links to industrialists and corporations, which the New Left termed “the Establishment”.

From this point, the New Left quickly morphed into anarchist, countercultural and hippie-related groups (the Yippies, Diggers, Up Against the Wall Motherfuckers, the White Panther Party) some of which engaged in protests to gain media attention and undermine the authorities. By late 1966, for example, the Diggers had opened stores which gave away their stock (as well as money and drugs) and also organised free music concerts, while the Yippies employed more theatrical gestures to make an impact, such as advancing a pig ("Pigasus the Immortal") as a Presidential candidate in the 1968 US general election.

It was this protest in Chicago, together with its brutal policing, which led directly to further violent clashes with police outside the 1968 Democratic National Convention, broadcast live on US television (and which included the famous protestors' chant of “The whole world is watching”).

Ironically, by this time, the New Left coalition had already begun to break apart with the Democrats bringing the leftist anti-war elements into the party. This left a remaining radical core of the SDS to turn, in 1969, to direct violent action, with the Weathermen (a faction of the by now dissolving SDS), attempting to launch its own guerrilla war in what became known as the "Days of Rage". A year later, three members of the Weathermen would blow themselves up in Greenwich Village, trying to construct a bomb out of dynamite.

In Europe, and particularly in West Germany, moving through the same period and with an equally growing university-educated population just as agitated by the Vietnam War, an uneasy consensus around the role played by German citizens in World War II was also rapidly unravelling.

The argument to this point had been that what was termed as denazification had been a success in extracting the post-war West German state from the horrors of fascism. By the late 1960s, however, this consensus was coming under increasing pressure from critics (many of whom were the children of the men and women that had fought during the war), who argued that denazification had been a fraud perpetrated by the fascists of the 30s and 40s whilst remaining in power within the West German state after the war ended.

Denazification, an Allied programme designed to remove Nazi Party and SS members from German society, had been undertaken with mixed results before being dissolved in 1951. One of the challenges for the US government with denazification was the close economic ties the country had with Nazi industrialists and scientists (as demonstrated in the Operation Paperclip initiative), whilst the programme itself was also unpopular within West Germany, particularly with Konrad Adenauer’s post-war government.

Opinion polls carried out by the US until 1952, for example, demonstrated the resistance denazification encountered in the US-occupied West German zone:

  • A majority of those polled between 1945–1949 stated that Nazism appeared to have been a good idea if badly applied.

  • In 1946, 37% agreed with the proposition that "the extermination of the Jews and Poles and other non-Aryans was necessary for the security of Germans".

  • In the same year, one in three stated that Jews should not have the same rights as those belonging to the Aryan race.

  • In 1950, a third of those polled stated that the Nuremberg trials had been unfair.

  • In 1952, 37% agreed that Germany was better off without the Jews on its territory.

  • In the same year, 25% had a good opinion of Hitler.