ABOUT THIS BOOK
To reclaim a sense of hope for the future, German activists in the late twentieth century engaged ordinary citizens in innovative projects that resisted alienation and disenfranchisement.
By most accounts, the twentieth century was not kind to utopian thought. The violence of two world wars, Cold War anxieties, and a widespread sense of crisis after the 1973 global oil shock appeared to doom dreams of a better world. The eventual victory of capitalism and, seemingly, liberal democracy relieved some fears but exchanged them for complacency and cynicism.
Not, however, in West Germany. Jennifer Allen showcases grassroots activism of the 1980s and 1990s that envisioned a radically different society based on community-centered politics—a society in which the democratization of culture and power ameliorated alienation and resisted the impotence of end-of-history narratives. Berlin’s History Workshop liberated research from university confines by providing opportunities for ordinary people to write and debate the story of the nation. The Green Party made the politics of direct democracy central to its program. Artists changed the way people viewed and acted in public spaces by installing objects in unexpected environments, including the Stolpersteine: paving stones, embedded in residential sidewalks, bearing the names of Nazi victims. These activists went beyond just trafficking in ideas. They forged new infrastructures, spaces, and behaviors that gave everyday people real agency in their communities. Undergirding this activism was the environmentalist concept of sustainability, which demanded that any alternative to existing society be both enduring and adaptable.
A rigorous but inspiring tale of hope in action, Sustainable Utopias makes the case that it is still worth believing in human creativity and the labor of citizenship.
Jennifer Allen’s splendid book on the survival and transformation of utopia in late–twentieth-century Germany announces a brilliant career. Far from dying, hope was rehabilitated in surprising places and projects across the divide of 1989, sheltered in fascinating new forms she intrepidly reconstructs in luminous prose. Those forms matter for their own sakes, and because the future does not just threaten catastrophe and desperation. It might also bring us within reach of stupendous and unexpected opportunity.
-- Samuel Moyn, author of The Last Utopia: Human Rights in History
Sustainable Utopias provides innovative insights into creative social movements that brought up a new artistic and democratic ‘history from below.’ Allen brilliantly analyzes different ways of coping with the German past that have shaped both the present and visions of the future. If you want to know how a new memory culture was created in the streets of Berlin, read this book.
-- Frank Bösch, University of Potsdam
Allen takes us deep into the intellectual world of West Germany’s left-liberal activist milieu. Against the backdrop of Helmut Kohl’s 1980s, she compellingly uncovers the utopian projects pursued by ‘spatial interventionist’ artists, the West Berlin History Workshop, and the Green Party. Sustainable Utopias is essential reading for anyone trying to understand contemporary Germany.
-- Astrid M. Eckert, author of West Germany and the Iron Curtain
In this excitingly multifaceted study of Germany in the 1980s and 1990s, Allen combines art and aesthetics with the social history of intellectuals and the emergent political forms of the time. She sees history’s epistemologies as intricately grounded not just in the period’s cultural and political climate, but in the working contexts and working practices historians and artists tried to develop.
-- Geoff Eley, University of Michigan
A fascinating, original study of ‘sustainable’ utopias in German society from the 1970s into the twenty-first century. Allen examines three utopian networks never before brought together under the same narrative umbrella. Instead of trying to create ‘heaven on earth,’ they had more adaptive and limited aims achievable not through the wholesale transformation of society but through repeatable micro-actions in small-scale venues. Based on impressive research, this book is an important contribution to the scholarship on German utopian thought and contemporary cultural and political history.
-- Rudy J. Koshar, University of Wisconsin, Emeritus
TABLE OF CONTENTS
Part I. New Geographies of Cultural Engagement
1. The Rise of the Spatial Interventionists
2. A Workshop of “History from Below”
3. Green Culture
Part II. The Pursuit of a Sustainable Alternative
4. A Sustainable Cultural Politics
5. A Sustainable Historical Practice
6. A Sustainable Aesthetics
Conclusion: The Fate of Sustainable Utopia
Archives and Primary Sources