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Thankmar, the young Krahl

During his short life, Hans-Jürgen Krahl, the major thinker behind the SDS, or German Socialist Student Movement, wandered from the extreme right to the radical left. By Gerd Koenen

Hans-Jürgen Krahl (biography) was one of the charismatic heads of the German student movement, who died in a car accident in 1970, at just 27. Today he is almost forgotten, but an initiative is fighting to erect a monument to him on the site of his grave. Gerd Koenen, one of the foremost authorities on the period, sketches a portrait of an exemplary extremist, and reveals the bizarre journals Krahl kept in his youth.

Legends grew up around Hans-Jürgen Krahl, the Frankfurt student leader and disciple of philosopher Theodor Adorno, even during his lifetime. Second only to Rudi Dutschke, Krahl personified the charisma of the self-proclaimed 'anti-authoritarian' youth movement of the 1960s, with its mixture of permanent action and esoteric theoretical jargon. In February 1970, Krahl was killed in a car accident at the age of 27. For many, this was the horrifying, almost fateful consequence of the life he had led. Others stylised Krahl's early death as a beacon of despair directed at the authoritarian tendencies within the student movement. More than the death of one man, for them the the fatal accident marked the end of the young emancipatory movement in Germany. Another, less heroic interpretation sees his death as the result of the extreme personal and political tension of Krahl's life, which could only meet a catastrophic end.

"He was untiring, but sometimes he was annoyed that he couldn't walk on his head." Sculptor Eberhard Fiebig wants to engrave this sentence from Georg Büchner's "Lenz" on Krahl's abandoned grave in Hanover. The quote is fitting in more ways than one. In his ingenious spoken and written theoretical monologues, Krahl sought to set the 'upside-down world' of late capitalism back on its feet in a socialist order. Whether this is the message of a contemporary social critic, a latent mystic, a modern existentialist or a lost soul scrambling for foothold and companionship, remains unclear. Perhaps all of the above.

Krahl cultivated the image of an outsider. His grating voice, frameless spectacles, faded suits and short, stringy hair all broke with the conformist protest style. While everyone else was either looking like a commissar or a hippy, Krahl developed the delicate ugliness of a monastic schoolboy. What his erotic orientation was in this promiscuous youth scene, or if he had any at all, is an open question. While everyone else was drinking chianti and smoking joints, he sipped the typical Hanover mix of beer and corn brandy, played the boy tenor Heintje's "Mama" on the jukebox, or sang the anthem of Lower Saxony: "We are the Lower Saxons / Firm on our feet and close to the soil / We're Duke Widukind's clan". Then, as legend has it, he would take out his glass eye as if it were a monocle and spin yarns about his aristocratic ancestry, claiming to be a descendant of the Prussian Hardenberg family, which had also produced the poet Novalis.

Krahl gave these various untimely elements expression in a long biographical account delivered when he went on trial for spearheading an occupation of the sacrosanct Frankfurt Institute for Social Research. The trial provided the backdrop for a final, exemplary exchange with his former teacher Theodor W. Adorno, who died shortly thereafter.

In his speech, Krahl, a wanderer from the extreme right to the radical left, presents himself as a prototype of a historical movement that was pushing growing numbers of privileged young people to "betray their class". Coming from Lower Saxony's "darkest regions", in which the "ideology of the earth" still ruled, it was only to be expected that his political education should include an affiliation with the anti-Semitic Ludendorff movement and the far right German and Welf parties. In Krahl's words it was "an enormous step forward" when in 1961 he joined the conservative CDU and founded the Young Union in his home town of Alfeld. These were all steps in a veritable "odyssey through the organisational forms of the ruling class," that took him from right-wing militaristic student fraternity and the Christian church to the study of philosophy and "theoretical self-determination, namely to Martin Heidegger." Only when he had freed himself from the pitfalls of this "adventurous imperialistic philosophy", and finally after "the ruling class had discarded me, I took the decision to betray it too, and join the SDS."

On the surface, Krahl's biography has much in common with that of Bernward Vesper, son of German nationalistic poet Will Vesper, first husband of RAF terrorist Gudrun Ensslin and author of "The Journey". Bernward Vesper also grew up in provincial Lower Saxony, and spent 1967-68 on an "odyssey" that would take him from far right to far left. It is worth mentioning however that Krahl's father neither had a national socialist past, nor, as a salesclerk with a small furniture company, could he be counted as a member of the "ruling class". What form did the "class betrayal" take then, especially since Krahl's parents supported their SDS tribune with mixed pride to the very end?

Provincial Dream Worlds

Here the contradictions of his self-styled autobiography begin. Krahl's Novalis legend stemmed as much from a youth spent engrossed in the works of the great religious romantic as from stories of his grandmother's employment on an estate belonging to the Hardenbergs. Krahl's was one of many fantastical "family sagas" of post-war children, whose fathers had been away for a long time, either at the front or as prisoners of war. In his youth the dark haired, circumcised Rudi Dutschke for example, imagined he was the child of Jewish parents who had put him in hiding. The leaders of the German '68 movement came of age in a provincial world of dreams.

What Hans-Jürgen Krahl and Bernward Vesper did have in common was that throughout the 50s and early 60s they both used a right-wing cultural critique to try their hands at fantastic elitist isolationism. Admittedly, very little is known about Krahl's early life, for example his involvement with the "Association for the Perception of God" founded by Mathilde Ludendorff, whose aim was to replace a Christianity contaminated by Judaism with an "appropriate German belief". A former school friend, Hans-Michael Fiedler, today an NPD official, occasionally brags that it was Krahl who gave the Latin name "Missus", meaning "king's messenger" to the party bible.

Unlike Vesper, who committed suicide in May 1971, Krahl left behind very little besides a few theoretical sketches, text excerpts and snippets of audio recordings. The only exception is a dark blue oilcloth blotter, in which he gave literary expression to his lofty, tragic feelings about the world. Written when he was 17, this notebook gives us a glimpse of the real Krahl, just three years before he started his studies in philosophy, sociology and German literature, and like so many of his generation headed down the well trodden path from Heidegger and Nietzsche to Sartre and Adorno and then on to Marx, Marcuse, Lukacs and finally Lenin, a path he believed would give him a firm grip on the the fast moving times.

At 17, however, in 1960-61, Krahl was still living in bygone era, engulfed in the silence of postwar Germany. "Ancestors appeared out of the fog each instant" when he went walking on the misty heath.

"Now he knows he is rooted in his lineage, his history. He grows calm..." Then the vague nightmares return: "I do not know what it is. / From distant woods / a black face. / I do not want to look at it / I cannot bear to see it. / Oh, would it only flee / back to the woods."

"Germany screaming" is the name of another poem: "Two bleeding borders in the fatherland / three screaming parts - o German land! (...) 17 million lie bound in chains / only our will, our love can save them." This "scream" was not just a Cold War reflex: it was aimed more at West German postwar society, in denial of its own history and obsessed with consumerism, than at the Eastern dictatorship which was in the process of walling itself in. "Some behind barbed wire / others amid television sets. / They are hungry for freedom, and do not find it, / they are searching for the light, they find no light." Krahl's "hunger amid television sets" can be seen as an early critique of the "culture industry", ahead of Adorno and Marcuse.

The German catastrophe resonates throughout these unsettling times, where "impertinent eyes... are glued to the newspaper stands", and rockets orbit in space. After all, the ground on which this first post war generation stood was still very unstable. Where was salvation? For the young Krahl, who had freed himself from the clutches of the nationalistic, anti-Semitic Ludendorff group but had yet to experience the red dawn of Marxism, it was the romantic sunset of a universal mother church which offered him sanctuary.

The Tortures of Self Discovery

In his pivotal story "The Cathedral in the Night" Krahl casts himself as the young "Thankmar", and his father as "Dr. Rehberg, a town councillor and democrat with an untainted past". Thankmar is in love with Maren: "She stood in the middle of the path, slim as a saint. He felt no sexual longings in her company, none of lustful feelings normal at 17." But his father still wants Thankmar to stay away from her. Because Maren brings back his own, very different childhood memories: "Brown storm trooper uniforms! Cruel faces! Grey marching armies, thunderous singing. He went along with the other university students... AND WHILE WE MARCH, A LIGHT SHINES, PIERCING THE DARKNESS AND CLOUDS ... Berlin 1933. A sea of torches ... pure rapture - years pass. Dust, blossom, fanatical Germany, drum rolls, war! THE DECAYED BONES ARE TREMBLING. Victory, fanfares, murder, murder murder! Bombs! Crosses on the Volga, crosses on the Don, crosses on the Somme, crosses, crosses, crosses!"

During the last days of the war, Rehberg witnessed a scene in Pomerania which he kept secret from his son. "The Jewess! He sees her big, dark eyes staring at him accusingly ... Johanna Reimers! (...) Bittersweet, melancholy, revoltingly kitschy teenage passion. (...) COMRADES, CHASE THE HORSES .... Big, dark, accusing eyes! The black uniforms of the SS men (...) two shots, brutal, cruel shots and then the silence, deadly silence. THE DECAYED BONES ARE TREMBLING ... Rehberg no longer remembers what he did (...) Rehberg knows only that he is guilty. He watched them murder her, and did nothing."

And now here's Maren, Johanna's daughter. Thankmar "feels the scent of her hair and sees Death waving at him, it is his father." But Maren, who knows everything, "takes his head in her hands and says: he is suffering, you should know he is suffering." Rehberg runs towards the great cathedral, he prays, without asking for forgiveness. "Then he sees her, she stands there like a saint, and he looks into her big, dark eyes, full of soothing forgiveness."

For all its heavy-handed suffering it is still a moving, personal mixture of pubertal, religious and national self-seeking typical of its time. Around 1960-61, the "recent past" came back with a vengeance, with new Nazi trials and debates on a statutory limitation for war crimes, as well as in film and television productions, plays and literature. At 17, Krahl was no better equipped for the torment of having his parents' lives and loves cast into doubt than Vesper, who was still writing for right-wing publications. The conclusion that his father was "guilty" because he had "done nothing" was childishly ambiguous, half conviction and half aquittal. On the other hand, he was also darkly fascinated by his father's story as he imagined it, full of fires and crosses, drums and death. The very name "Thankmar" is loaded with nationalist mythology and Christian mysticism. So is the character of the "Jewess", mother and daughter, half Anne Frank, half Virgin Mary, with those big, dark eyes that accuse and forgive. In her presence, all base, materialist greed and "lustful feelings" disappear: "I am purified when with her."

Five years later (1966) the same "Thankmar" Krahl would write in a fragmentary sketch on "Ontology and Eros". "Homosexuality is the love for God, for Jesus - for the Logos made flesh. This is a monk's life: pure lust is asceticism. This abstract sexuality, redirected toward the eternal, turns the erotic in Europe into the neurotic (uptight homosexuality)." And: "Only death is pure, once the identity has escaped its life in nature."

An Enchanted World

Many central elements of Krahl's youthful literary sketches find their counterpart in this abstract philosophical jargon, which was now second nature. But what looks at first like understated irony is in fact an undisguised scream. The expression of existential fears and angst, linked elements of Sartrean nausea to bourgeois material existence. "All he could remember was how the street raced at him like a terrifying grey wolf ... Only now did he see he was in the hospital ... Everyone was saying yes to the spring, the sky, the earth and flowers, to life. Only he had said no ... He was amazed to be alive.... The next time I'll go into the river, he thought. He hated the shining sun, the blossoming apple trees outside ... To his world belonged neon lights, fog and asphalt streets ... garbage cans and a dead stinking cat ... women with grey hair or died garish blond with shrill voices ... workers who earn more than well-paid bureaucrats ... his world was the conviction of futility".

Since his awakening on June 2, 1967 when the student demonstrator Benno Ohnesorg was shot by the police, the young doctoral student began appearing as public speaker and agitator, all his interventions centred around "organisation as a problem of revolutionary existence." At the SDS conference in September 1967, Krahl and Dutschke were part of an "organisation unit" with "revolutionary consciousness groups", a new type of metropolitan guerilla opposing the "integral etatism" of capitalist rule. But by 1969 the focus was on the party of the proletariat as the predestined "locus of history, where being will become its own meaning, where the concept becomes life" (in the words of French thinker Merleau-Ponty). Throughout, Krahl maintained that "the first germ of the future society must unfold in the organisation of the political struggle, even if that means setting high standards of discipline."

This is a wonderfully paradoxical formulation, showing how much Krahl, with no ties and no place to live, an alcoholic scene tramp, was looking for a footing in the movement and in the organisation of the future which he could no longer find in real life. Instead, he was caught up in a vortex that was pulling him downwards. It remains an open question whether, as the richness of his scattered writings suggests, Krahl would have become a great systematic thinker, or whether like Vesper his fragmentary writings bear witness to an impressive failure.

But perhaps this "Thankmar" was much more than his SDS companions credited him with being. In many ways he is a true descendent of Novalis, whose unfinished novel "Heinrich von Ofterdingen" Krahl often called his favourite work. The search for the blue flower in Novalis' book is nothing other than the search for a reconciled and enchanted world, where "men, animals, plants, stones, stars, elements, sounds and colours ... act and speak as one." At one point in the book, Novalis writes: "Where are we headed? - Homeward, ever homeward."


The article was originally published in the Frankfurter Rundschau on 3 February, 2005.

Gerd Koenen is a journalist and historian. His most recent publications include: "Das rote Jahrzehnt. Unsere kleine deutsche Kulturrevolution 1967-1977" (The Red Decade. Our Small German Cultural Revolution, 1967 - 1977, publ. 2001); "Vesper, Ensslin, Baader. Urszenen des deutschen Terrorismus" (Vesper, Ensslin, Baader. Early Scenes of German Terrorism, 2003. Here an excerpt in German).

Translation: jab and lp.

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