Thomas Nipperdey, in an ironic twist on Leopold von Ranke's famous dictum, once remarked that “All of German history is intermediate to Hitler.” The 1960s certainly were. In West Germany, public discourse throughout the decade was imbued with references to the country's troubled past. Nearly every important event in the Federal Republic's political, social, and cultural life was discussed against the background of National Socialism. Although some issues grew immediately out of this period, like the Eichmann and Auschwitz trials or the suspension of the statute of limitations with regard to atrocities committed during the Third Reich, others did not, like the Spiegel affair, the Multilateral Nuclear Force (MLF), the Emergency Laws, and - last but not least - the Vietnam War.
This chapter will show how the Vietnam War was perceived in the Federal Republic, given the atmosphere, and how the war in turn became a symbolic weapon in an assault on the collective identity of West Germans. In other words, and more provocatively: This chapter's premise is that West German students were protesting not so much against the current American actions in Southeast Asia as against past German atrocities in Europe. For them, Vietnam represented an opportunity to break away from their parents' generation of perpetrators and assuage their inherited national guilt.
It is obvious, then, that I am concerned more with the specifics of the West German protest movement than with its similarities to other social movements that had sprung up worldwide during the 1960s. There was, to be sure, extensive cross-fertilization across national boundaries.