Anti-Utopianism in Twentieth-Century Germany

by Maddi Erdall

On November 13, Jennifer Allen (Professor of History, Yale University) visited IES to deliver a talk entitled “Twentieth-Century Anti-Utopianism and its West German Antidote” to 25 attendees. The main goal of Allen’s lecture was to convince her audience of the significance of the curious cultural practices that developed in the last decades of the 20th century. She began with a historical overview of the anti-utopian turn following the end of the Cold War, stating that there was a large consensus that radical left ideologies had confronted a dead end. Building off of the failed leftist ‘68 revolutions, this anti-utopian sentiment became widespread through the famous claim of ‘the end of history,’ in addition to Margaret Thatcher’s conclusion that “there is no alternative.”

After establishing the historical context of anti-utopianism, Allen began her analysis of the German case study. She argued that Germany exemplified resistance towards the anti-utopian sentiment, instead conveying a new utopian revisionism. The German revisionist utopia rethought both the scale and temporality of historical utopianism, seeking to enact moderate, smaller-scale initiatives in present time, while working towards a different future. Instead of waiting for the end-all, absolute utopia of the past, this revision displayed a collective working towards finite, set goals -- towards a sustainable utopia. Allen argued that the German sustainable utopia is exemplified by a number of art projects, one of such being Gunter Demnig’s Stolpersteine. Allen articulated how the Stolpersteine (‘Stumbling Stones’) project was realized through a decentralized network of individual people, working toward a common goal and making it the largest grassroots memorial in the world. While the content of such projects is crucial and significant, Allen explained that the structures and their objectives themselves reveal more about Germany’s future toward a sustainable utopia. She finished her talk by stating that the imminent micro-utopian model is significant in a global context, as it has resonated across a range of intellectual topographies. A short but lively Q&A followed the excellent lecture.