Philosophy and Literature 27.2 (2003) 341-362
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Virgin Father and Prodigal Son
IN BOTH THE UNITED STATES and Germany—as well as in much of the rest of the Western world—the baby-boom generation now holds a controlling position in politics, economics, and culture. The election of Bill Clinton (born in 1946) to the Presidency signaled the generational shift in the United States as early as 1992, and that shift was confirmed by the election campaign of 2000, in which both candidates, Al Gore (born in 1948) and George W. Bush (born in 1946), in spite of their differences, represented the same generation. In Germany the political shift in generations did not occur until 1998, when Gerhard Schröder (born slightly before the beginning of the German baby boom, in 1944) defeated Helmut Kohl (born in 1930).
Significantly, Kohl is a member of the generation of Germans born during the 1930s and reared during the years of the Third Reich but too young to have played any significant role, either negative or positive, during the Nazi era. No member of this generation born in the 1930s ever became President in the United States, where the generation of World War Two veterans dominated national politics from Eisenhower to George Herbert Walker Bush. However what in America is a "silent generation" has been, in Germany, the generation most closely identified with the success of the Federal Republic of Germany: these were the so-called Flakhelfer (antiaircraft helpers) who had been children during the war. Kohl therefore famously referred to them as having the "grace of late birth," meaning that they, unlike the war veterans, were presumably untouched by any form of collective guilt for Nazi crimes against humanity. Whereas in the United States the Presidency was transferred directly from the World War Two veterans to [End Page 341] baby boomers—and in the case of the two Bush presidencies, literally, albeit indirectly, from father to son—in Germany the transition from the World War Two veterans (particularly former Chancellor Helmut Schmidt) to the baby boomers was interrupted by a long period of domination by the in-between generation of Flakhelfer.
In both countries the baby-boom generation represents a significant shift in sensibilities and encompasses the generation involved in student protest and oppositional social movements in the 1960s and 1970s. In the United States these included the anti-Vietnam War movement, the feminist and gay-rights movements, the sexual revolution, the civil-rights movement, and the ecological movement, as well as, on the extreme fringes, terrorist groupings such as the Weather Underground and a great many religious sects and cults. In Germany the baby boomers formed many parallel groups and movements, including antiwar, feminist, ecological, and gay segments, as well as a proliferation of sectarian Marxist political groupings (so-called K-Gruppen, with the "K" meaning "Kommunist"). In the United States, Bill Clinton was an antiwar protester in the 1960s and 1970s, while both Gerhard Schröder and his Green Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer (born in 1948) had participated in left-wing political movements during the same period.
In both West Germany and the United States the heyday of protest movements in the 1960s and 1970s signaled a generational split, with younger people—the very generation that is now in power in the two countries—accusing their elders of Machiavellian cynicism, imperialism, patriarchy, and worse. Such accusations can be recalled by the formerly popular slogans "Hey, hey, LBJ, how many kids did you kill today?" in the United States and "Unter den Talaren der Muff von tausend Jahren" ("under the academic regalia the stench of a thousand years") in Germany. The latter slogan was a reference not just to a generalized stodginess on the part of elderly German academics but to Hitler's invocation of a "Thousand-Year Reich;" German students were none-too-subtly suggesting that many of their professors had once been Nazis.
The difference in these two slogans—one referring to past and the other to present sins—corresponds to a major distinction between the two baby...