Category: Non-fiction

Gero von Randow
Wenn das Volk sich erhebt. Schönheit und Schrecken der Revolution
[When the People Rise. The Allure and Atrocity of Revolution]


Once upon a time there was... a revolution?

News of the event had such a ring of extreme scandal that it was enough to politicise even a boy of fourteen: 50 years ago, on 2 June 1967, Police Sergeant Karl-Heinz Kurras fired his pistol at a student, Benno Ohnesorg, who had been demonstrating with fellow students in front of the Deutsche Oper opera house in Berlin against a visit by the Shah of Persia. On that day the police officer not only murdered a student, but also sparked a revolt which - tagged as ‘the events of ’68’ - marked a historic turning point, and changed the country so profoundly that it scarcely bears comparison today with how it was before. A revolution? As Gero von Randow well remembers, it had at the very least the ‘whiff of revolt’.

It was von Randow himself, now a journalist, who at the age of 14 experienced his political baptism on that day: ‘I suddenly saw the world with different eyes’, he says today. ‘From that moment onwards the existing state of things seemed to me to be a purely provisional phase, a time of transition. Each and every conflict with the authorities was to my way of thinking a battle against conditions that were unjust not merely in the particular, but in their entirety.’ It is accordingly only logical that von Randow should put this childhood memory right at the start of his book, entitled Wenn sich das Volk erhebt. Schönheit und Schrecken der Revolution [When the people rise up. The beauty and the terror of revolution].

50 years since the killing of Ohnesorg, 100 years since the events of 1917: this dual anniversary would be sufficient on its own to justify the publication of this book about revolution. The author discusses the Russian revolution, of course - but he also discusses those that have occurred since the French Revolution in Britain, America and Latin America, and he reminds us about Germany’s soviet republics (Räterepubliken), the Cultural Revolution in China, the collapse of the Berlin Wall, and the Arab Spring. And in doing this, he doesn’t lose sight of the blueprints for revolution offered by the history of ancient Rome. Extremely learned though it is, however, his book is by no means merely a dry academic tome on the global history of revolt: with great narrative élan it proposes a typology of rebellion and its key protagonist, the revolutionary. For what especially interests the author is the process whereby individuals transcend the specificity of the present moment and enter the great nexus of history, and the process whereby such transcendences retrospectively affect the genealogical nexus.

‘The bridges that lead to the past are short’, says von Randow. ‘Memories migrate across them into the present. But these memories are kept alive not only in academic seminars, in organisations, in literature, but also within families, and in consequence they pervade not only people’s rational consciousness but also their emotional worlds. The messages conveyed by these memories can be variously perceived: some might say "Such bad times, the old days!", while others think "People shouldn’t just put up with their lot!", and yet others take the view that "There was real hope then for a better world." ’

Hope? Gero von Randow ultimately leaves the question open as to how much revolution the world - or, as we should perhaps rather say, capitalism - actually needs to experience. He points out that Lenin’s embalmed body has outlasted Leninism. ‘Capitalism preserves its opponents. It can even make money out of them. People do occasionally try to storm Lenin’s mausoleum, in order - as they say - to wake him from his sleep. The authorities treat them as insane.’

One question thus remains open at the conclusion of the book: are we to suppose - may we even suppose - that the concept of revolution has by no means fallen into oblivion and that the prevailing circumstances are therefore still capable of being overthrown? Or are we to adopt the position of the ex-communist historian François Furet: ‘We are thus damned to continue living in the world in which we now live’? Gero von Randow is honest enough to leave this question in the balance.
Ronald Düker

By Ronald Düker, 03.11.2017

​Ronald Düker is a cultural scientist and journalist, and he writes for the German weekly Die Zeit and various daily newspapers and magazines. He lives in Berlin.

Translated by John Reddick