This dissertation concerns the problem of renewal on the German Left. How did crises of renewal and moments of generational conflict shape the theory and organization of German socialism during the tumultuous four decades between 1930 and 1970? When and how did socialism cease to be a viable political alternative to democratic capitalism? I treat the history of one small organization, New Beginning, as paradigmatic for the experience of the socialist renewers generation—the generation that renewed socialism through antifascist struggle and remade the German Left after the war.
Born between 1905 and 1915, the renewers were too young to have served in the First World War or actively participated in the November Revolution. They matured amid the political and economic turmoil of the Weimar Republic and later pioneered the formation of “socialist splinter groups.” Between the fronts of social democracy and communism, these small organizations like New Beginning, the Socialist Workers’ Party (SAP), the International Socialist Fighting League (ISK), and the Communist Party-Opposition (KPO) sought to unify and renew the German socialist movement through a curious combination of elite vanguardism and grassroots initiative. They believed that the fight against fascism provided socialists a unique opportunity to finish the democratic revolution that had begun as early as 1848, leapt forward in 1918-19, but stalled during the conservative Weimar Republic. New Beginning distinguished itself from the other splinter groups in the way it explicitly articulated the problem of socialist renewal and linked the fate of socialism to the fate of its own generation.
After twelve years of anti-Nazi resistance and war, former members of New Beginning such as Fritz Erler, Waldemar von Knoeringen, Richard Löwenthal, Wolfgang Abendroth, Ossip K. Flechtheim, and Robert Havemann either arose from the rubble or returned from exile to acquire leading posts in German academia and politics. They set about applying the theories and methods they had learned during the 1930s to the new problems of reconstruction, divided Germany, and the developing Cold War. The majority of the renewers generation helped modernize the Social Democratic Party and develop a new kind of socialism that renounced Marxism and embraced a liberal, middle-class ethos. An important minority of renewers, however, stayed true to the promise of radical socialism. These dissident left socialists paved the way toward a New Left, and in the 1960s the original revolutionary élan of the renewers passed on to a new generation of militant young intellectuals: the Sixty-eighters.
Political ideologies as well as mass social movements grow old. Their proponents and participants physically age, and their ideas start to rust. Revival and rejuvenation, then, periodically capture the attention and shape the objectives of multi-generational social movements. The former members of New Beginning were keenly aware of how the problem of renewal could cause dysfunction in the established parties of the Left. But they also recognized an opportunity to mobilize the German youth against capitalism and conservative reaction. Instead of restarting socialism, however, the New Left and the Sixty-eighters unwittingly extinguished the original promise of German socialism and the renewers generation. Subsequent movements for social change in Germany and elsewhere in Europe would occur largely outside the socialist tradition.