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Sustainable Utopias

The Art and Politics of Hope in Germany

Jennifer L. Allen

ISBN 9780674249141

Publication date: 03/22/2022

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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


  • Jennifer L. Allen is Associate Professor of History at Yale University. Her work, which focuses on the cultural history of modern Germany, has been supported by the American Academy in Berlin, the Volkswagen and Mellon foundations, and the Institut für Zeitgeschichte in Munich.

Book Details

  • 368 pages
  • 6-1/8 x 9-1/4 inches
  • Harvard University Press