Writing the Revolution: The Construction of “1968” in Germany by Ingo Cornils
Ahead of its fiftieth anniversary, Ingo Cornils’s monograph offers a comprehensive study of the contested interpretation of the sociopolitical and cultural upheavals epitomized by the cipher 1968. Cornils takes as his point of departure the remarkable staying power of 1968 in public discourse and pursues interrelated analytic trajectories. For one, his study carefully maps how 1968 has been constructed by various players vying for control over the meaning and memory of this history. Secondly, it elucidates the past and present sociopolitical constellations that animate and perpetuate the discourse on 1968. Reminiscent of Dominick LaCapra’s appreciation of literature as a valid resource for understanding the past, Cornils demonstrates that literary imagination holds a privileged position in this discourse on 1968 since it has the capacity to articulate an emotional memory that escapes the archive in the conventional historical-scientific sense.
Cornils’s analytical approach is at its most persuasive when applied to the print media, social science accounts—in particular historiographies—and literature. Drawing on literary critical tools, he demonstrates that both media and literary discourses develop grand melodramatic narratives of 1968 that cast real-life individuals as stock characters. Hence, the discourse on 1968 depicts Benno Ohnesorg, the student shot during the anti-Shah protests in 1967, as an “everyman” struck down by evil forces. Rudi Dutschke is cast as an idealistic hero and reluctant leader quite differently from the ambivalent depiction of this major activist at the time. By contrast, the much more complicated third martyr, Ulrike Meinhof, becomes the tragic heroine in those accounts of 1968 that do not outright vilify her because of her participation in Red Army Faction (RAF) terror.
Applied specifically to scholarly historiographies, Cornils’s discourse analysis challenges the claim that historicization represents the path to a nonvested and truthful narrative of 1968. Quite to the contrary, Cornils convincingly shows that social science accounts are also embedded in a binary evaluative framework that perceives 1968 either as a fall from grace, more specifically as a “romantic relapse,” or as a Golden Age and democratic redemption of the Federal Republic. Cornils quite brilliantly deconstructs both paradigms as flawed in their authoritarian claim to tell the truth about the significance of 1968 for Germany. Cornils concedes that the students’ own discourse during the 1960s shared traits with that of their romantic predecessors. He differentiates, however, his own analysis from the faulty premise on which the interpretation of 1968 as a “romantic relapse” rests. He reminds us that German romanticism was “an effort by disenfranchised Germans to envisage ways [End Page 208] of escaping oppression” (213), which supports Cornils’s own positive understanding of the utopian dimension of 1968 for the present. With the same critical acumen, Cornils takes those who sing of 1968 as a “Golden Age” to task for constructing a foundational myth that stages 1968 as the fundamental liberalization necessary to turn West Germany into a true democracy.
Against this backdrop of the construction of 1968 across the media and disciplinary discourses, Cornils’s pitch for literary imagination as a valid historical resource appears convincing because his study elucidates literature’s superior ability to articulate an emotional memory of 1968 that retains the utopian dimension driving the protest for the present. Not all of the literary texts Cornils discusses rise to this level but only a smaller subset written by 68ers. Hence, Cornils treats this privileged group of literati—Peter Schneider, Uwe Timm, Erasmus Schöfer, Ulrich Schimmang, F.C. Delius, and Hans Magnus Enzensberger—repeatedly across several chapters in great depth. He thereby also engages with literary scholarship and puts pressure on Monika Shafi’s argument that literature on 1968 represents only a minor phenomenon within German literary history. At the same time, Cornils agrees with Shafi’s criticism that the discourse on 1968 replicates the dominance of a white, male middle-class perspective typical for the time at the expense of the experience of women and non-German minorities. Cornils pledges to address this lacuna in a separate chapter entitled “Women of the Revolution,” albeit with mixed results.
The fairly comprehensive list of literary texts on 1968 written by and from the perspective of women is clearly useful from an archival perspective. Even though Cornils assesses these texts as a positive contribution to the construction of 1968, clustering them into one separate chapter traps them in the problematic gendered nature of the discourse on 1968, which Cornils duly acknowledges as they remain oddly outside of Cornils’s discourse-analytical thrust. The same is even more pronounced with respect to a few other chapters such as the one on “1968 and the Arts” or another on the generational paradigm of “Zaungäste.” These chapters nevertheless have utility for the student of 1968 since they offer references to some lesser-known artistic productions or media interventions participating in the construction of 1968. In this sense, Cornils’s monograph performs the valuable service of pulling together a more comprehensive archive of the discourse on 1968.
In sum, Cornils’s monograph provides a meticulously researched and well-executed analysis of the never-ending story of 1968, which draws on memory studies and expands on it. Its comprehensive scope engages with all of the major scholarly analytic and interpretive paradigms put forth in the social sciences, especially history, but also communication studies and media debates. In addition, Cornils makes a persuasive case for literary imagination’s significance as an emotional memory otherwise lost to the next generations. His comprehensive study is indispensable for [End Page 209] everyone interested in understanding the meaning of the student movement in and for Germany, as well as for evaluating the next wave of commemorative accounts which Cornils himself predicts will wash over Germany on the fiftieth anniversary of 1968.