Jennifer L. Allen

Sep 14, 2022

Sustainable Utopias

The Art and Politics of Hope in Germany

Harvard University Press 2022

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. In Sustainable Utopias: The Art and Politics of Hope in Germany (Harvard UP, 2022), 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.

Paul Lerner is Professor of History at the University of Southern California where he directs the Max Kade Institute for Austrian-German-Swiss Studies. He can be reached at plerner@usc.edu and @PFLerner.

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Paul Lerner

Paul Lerner is Professor of History at the University of Southern California where he directs the Max Kade Institute for Austrian-German-Swiss Studies. He can be reached at plerner@usc.edu and @PFLerner.

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