The Other Alliance: Student Protest in West Germany and The United States in the Global Sixties

Book Review

Reviewer: Gabriela Özel Volfová (Metropolitan University Prague)

Publisher: Princeton University Press, 2010 ISBN: 978-0-691-13127-6
Author's page: Martin Klimke

The Other Alliance: Student Protest in West Germany and The United States in the Global Sixties

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Klimke’s work on the transatlantic student protest movements in the US and West Germany in the 1960s, against the backdrop of the Cold War, provides an interesting case study of the first global student social and political networking and cooperation prior to the advent of the Internet and other accessible social media tools such as e-mail, Facebook and Twitter. Klimke painstakingly tries to demonstrate that, in parallel to the transatlantic economic and military alliance between the US and Western Europe, there existed the “other” transatlantic alliance of like-minded young students who struggled to formulate their protest beyond the rigid Cold War divide of the good capitalist system versus the eve communist one by arguing that imperialism and oppression are embedded equally in both the capitalist and the communist (Stalinist) regimes.


Klimke’s research is an attempt to show that, besides the official ideological divide of the bipolar world which politicians and the media presented to the general public, on both sides of the Iron Curtain, youth movements in the sixties tried to bridge the ideological gap and thus created the first truly international generation. Besides analysing the activities of this counter-elite composed of students and intellectuals in both the US and the Federal Republic of Germany, Klimke also illustrates how the US government, by way of cultural diplomacy, tried to contain the danger of the emerging New Left movement in Germany in order to avoid a deterioration of its image as a bulwark of democracy and freedom. Klimke provides a subtle account of American soft power by looking into US governmental documentation, minutes from crucial cabinet meetings, CIA reports as well as government commissioned political science studies monitoring the youth counter-culture in order to determine the course of American foreign policy.


In the first chapters of the book, Klimke focuses on the genealogy of the student protest movement by showing how, in the course of the 1960s and 1970s, German students went to the US for a year of study and meanwhile became acquainted not only with the American university system but also with wider aspects of American culture, such as economic well-being, freedom of speech, individualism and democracy. However, they also saw domestic shortcomings of the American dream, namely poverty and racial discrimination against the African-American community.


Klimke shows how these student exchange visits, both on the high school and the university levels, were part and parcel of the US foreign policy of cultural diplomacy the aim of which was to win the hearts and minds of young German students in the hope of strengthening the positive image of the US in Europe and thus corroborating the Cold War alliance. Ironically though, while German students familiarised themselves with American culture, they witnessed university revolts which were directed not only against the university system per se but against larger problems such as racism and the war in Vietnam. Witnessing the revolutionary upheaval in the US, Klimke illustrates how German students, upon returning home, successfully appropriated the themes of protest and employed various protest strategies used by American students such as direct action, sit-ins and/or teach-ins, as ways of undermining rigid university and social structures.


Klimke’s book also depicts how these students, receivers of various US governmental and private scholarships, were also leaders of student movements in their own country and members of the German Socialist Student League (SDS).1 As part of their study visits, they travelled around the US, lecturing on Germany’s Nazi past and establishing close contacts with American leaders of the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS); planting the first seeds of a global youth movement. Upon return, they were able to use these strategies of protest in the German setting in order to express not only their anti-war and anti-imperialist sentiments but also, as Klimke claims, their frustration with the violent German past and with social apathy of the nascent German consumer society.


After tracing the history of transatlantic cooperation among students and mentioning the first pioneers of this counter-alliance networking, Klimke proceeds to explore the theoretical background of the actors of the protest movements and amply demonstrates that they were not operating in a theoretical vacuum. On the contrary, they were often prominent students of critical theory as formulated by the Frankfurt School which was critical of the global capitalist system, modern society, mass commercial culture and existing power relations.


Names such as Herbert Marcuse, Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer figured prominently in student protests, giving public lectures at universities, very often to the point of losing their faculty posts. Besides the Frankfurt School, Klimke illustrates how students grew increasingly radical and militant; drawing inspiration from the anti-colonial theories formulated by Franz Fanon in his famous book The Wretched of the Earth where he argues that only violence can liberate oppressed people from colonial bondage. Klimke demonstrates how the German New Left movement drew inspiration from the Black Panther movement in the US, which glorified Black power and violence and which found its counterpart in the Red Panther movement in Germany. Inspired by the American anti-Vietnam war movement, German students also identified with the Viet Cong, shouting slogans like ‘We are all Vietcong’ (p. 77) in order to show that the capitalist system breeds oppression and that students of the world must unite.


One cannot however help but wonder why German students were so pre-occupied with the Black power movement in the US and why they appropriated it their theme of protest. One ends up only reluctantly accepting Klimke’s explanation that it was the psychological post-war situation of Germany, namely the frustration of living in the divided city of Berlin and coming to terms with the Nazi legacy as issues around which the New Left movement in Germany united and mobilised. However, his argument is far from convincing. While the looming crisis of the German nation-state is not spelled out directly in the book, it is probably what Klimke has in mind when he talks about Germany’s quest for identity and for coming to terms with its violent and destructive past.


In the remaining part of the book, Klimke, by analysing documents only recently made public, shows how the US State Administration grew fearful of the New Left movement in West Germany and tried to contain it by means of university exchanges, setting up America Houses in Germany and closely monitoring student activities, practises which went as far as to even (periodically) involve the CIA. This is the most fascinating part of the book, where Klimke demonstrates how the US administration paid attention to radical student activists in Germany which it perceived as a serious security threat with the potential to damage the US’s image in West Germany.


Indeed, the American government was afraid that the image of America as a free country providing equal opportunities to everyone might suffer a serious blow in the ideological warfare between the capitalist West and the communist East unless leftist activities were monitored, kept under control or co-opted to the system. Klimke demonstrates that US policy-makers were most afraid of these young rebels becoming political and economic leaders in their country in the future and if they held anti-American sentiments, they could undermine the American moral superiority in its Cold War relations and even jeopardise the existing alliance by possibly opting out of the NATO.


Notwithstanding Klimke’s detailed use of primary sources and his contribution to the knowledge of the origins of the global student movement on both sides of the Atlantic prior to the ‘information age,’ the book lacks a more elaborate contextual setting for US-German relations after the Second World War. Despite Klimke’s skilful way of showing how techniques of protest were successfully transferred from one context to another, as well as his fascinating account of US soft power in the form of cultural diplomacy, surprisingly he says nothing about US economic aid in the form of the Marshall Plan, which helped reconstruct post-war Western Europe, including Germany. Besides learning that US troops were stationed in the Federal Republic, the reader is left questioning why Germany was a primary Cold-War ally of the US, as Klimke claims. Secondly, Klimke ails to explain why the US focused on German students and not on other European New Left movements, particularly in France. Events in Paris and Prague in 1968 are only marginally touched upon but given their historical significance, one wonders why this aspect of the global student movement and its enormous impact is omitted. Thirdly, Klimke says little about the specifics of the post-war German situation apart from repetitively emphasising reconciliation with its traumatic past. The reader is left to wonder whether the CIA and the US government closely monitored only the student movements in Germany or also elsewhere in the West. The book, unfortunately, leaves the reader with a very narrow understanding of the post-WWII youth movement and the global dimension of the New Left is, sadly, largely left unexplored.


That said, Klimke’s study of the ‘other alliance’ will undoubtedly be of invaluable benefit to students of globalisation, US foreign policy and/or the history of social movements. It is a useful account of the origins of the New Left movement as part of the emergence of the global civil society pioneered by student protests in the US and West Germany. Also, Klimke provides an original contribution to the understanding of US foreign policy during the Cold War and its soft power by trying to co-opt rather than openly suppress the “other” alliance.


1 SDS was an offshoot of the German Social Democratic Party (SPD).

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