Power and the Idealists: Or, the Passion of Joschka Fischer, and Its Aftermath
By Paul Berman
Soft Skull Press, 314 pages, $23.95.
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Pity the generation of 1968, those children born under the shadow of a catastrophe they did not make. In Germany and France, the children of the Third Reich and Vichy called their parents and grandparents to account for permitting fascism to flourish, turning to radical, sometimes violent action to upset the cozy social consensus of postwar Europe. In America, they grew their hair, shouted at police and tried to undermine the Establishment. Around the world, they supported liberation fronts and movements — in Palestine, in Cambodia, in Latin America — as much to protest bourgeois capitalism as to stamp out fascism for good.
But in the summer of 1976, seven terrorists led by members of the German Red Army Faction and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine hijacked an Air France jet carrying 257 passengers from Tel Aviv to Paris and forced the pilot to land in Entebbe, in Idi Amin’s Uganda. Non-Jewish passengers were released; the Jewish and Israeli passengers were held hostage against the release of 53 pro-Palestinian prisoners from jails in West Germany, Israel and three other countries. A week into the crisis, the Israeli government — having learned from a wiretap that a PFLP leader had ordered the deaths of the Jewish hostages — staged a dramatic commando rescue operation of the 103 hostages in which all the hijackers were killed.
Paul Berman, a historian of the left and a veteran of the 1968 shutdown of Columbia University, believes that more than any other violent episode of the early 1970s, including the massacre of nine Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics, the events at Entebbe forced the New Leftists — many of whom were themselves Jewish — to admit that a murderous reality, embellished with proto-fascist elements, had emerged from the seeds of the militant struggle for a countercultural, Marxist (or at least socialist) utopia. The result, Berman argues in his new book, “Power and the Idealists,” was a “crackup” of the New Left. Faced with horrors of their own creation, the revolutionaries of 1968 ultimately embraced liberal (or at least social) democracy, and in the wake of the soft (and real) revolutions of 1989, they envisioned a “just and orderly new democracy, stripped of every stupid nationalism and prejudice of the past.”
But in the 1990s, after the revelation of preventable genocides in Rwanda and Bosnia, they decided that a just democracy also must be willing to actively fight injustice elsewhere, and the ’68ers went on to enforce the principles of liberal humanitarianism: a muscular philosophy that took the defense of human rights and freedoms as a sufficient casus belli. In Kosovo, in East Timor and elsewhere around the world, the result was successful military intervention by Western powers in civil conflicts, not just supported by but also championed by the old leaders of the Left: politicians Bernard Kouchner and Daniel Cohn-Bendit in France, Javier Solana at NATO, Sergio Vieira de Mello at the United Nations and the Green Party leader Joschka Fischer in Germany.
But only a few years after they backed war to end ethnic cleansing in Kosovo, many of these same humanitarian heroes declined to support the American invasion of Iraq. Berman, a leading liberal hawk, supported the American invasion. In his 2003 book, “Terror and Liberalism” (W. W. Norton & Company), he argued that “freedom for others means safety for ourselves,” and asking that, especially after the ghastly events of September 11, 2001, we “be for the freedom of others.”
Berman’s new book begins with an essay he wrote for the September 3, 2001, issue of the New Republic about Fischer and the legacy of ’68. The puckish Fischer, by most counts the most popular politician in Germany, had spent the better part of the year defending his actions as a Strassenmilitant in Frankfurt during the early 1970s, after a German magazine published grainy photographs of him kicking a policeman during a 1973 demonstration.
Fischer recently told interviewers that after Entebbe, he asked himself, “Where is all this leading?” For him, it led to a break with his violent past and, eventually, to the leadership of Germany’s pacifist Green Party. But it also led to his presiding, as foreign minister under Social Democrat Gerhard Schröder, over the first deployment of German troops to foreign soil since 1945, to stop the ethnic cleansing in Kosovo. When asked how he could justify sending Germans to war, he replied, “I learned not only ‘no more war’ but also ‘no more Auschwitz.’”
As far as Berman was concerned, the second lesson implied Fischer’s defense of humanitarian action under the NATO banner in the name of fighting totalitarianism. “Knowing the consequences of the New Left’s many rebellions… did it make sense to speak of a basically admirable quality of the New Left?” Berman asks. And the answer, he went on, was “plainly yes… in spite of everything.”
But that was before the terrorist events of September 11 shifted the terrain of Berman’s intellectual battle. By the time he returned to the question of the ’68ers, Berman was fighting a rearguard action against people like Fischer, who despite saying “no more Auschwitz” refused to back the military overthrow of Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship in Iraq, a totalitarian regime with a long record of human rights abuses.
Some of the ’68ers — including Bernard Kouchner, one of the founders of Doctors Without Borders and the grandson of French Jews who perished in the Holocaust — did back the Iraq War. But many others did not — a stance that Berman sees as a retreat from their Kosovo principles. And none is more emblematic of this group than Fischer, who, at a security conference just before the invasion of Iraq, asked Donald Rumsfeld — in Munich, of all places, and in English — to “excuse him,” because he was “not convinced” of the case the Americans were making.
Berman has trouble with the idea that even if his own reasons for supporting the war were good, there were equally principled reasons for committed liberals like Fischer to oppose the war, which hinged on the fact that it was conducted as a pre-emptive act of aggression without the support of the United Nations — an organization that in its heyday was seen as the epitome of the liberal democratic dream, and one that was created expressly to prevent episodes like the Iraq War — and therefore absent the international commitment that prevented chaos after the war phase in Kosovo. Instead, Berman sees those who opposed the war as appeasers, or worse: He repeatedly suggests, usually by citing others, that those who opposed the war were more interested in undermining the American administration than in ending a humanitarian outrage.
What Berman ultimately offers is less of an explanation for the split that Iraq has created on the left than an elegy for the generation of 1968 — for the dream of a united front against oppression at home and abroad, at any cost.
But the question of whether or not the generation of 1968 has disappointed Iraq — or the other way around — is metaphysical, since down on the hard realist ground, scores of civilians are dying every day. Fischer has left the German government and retired as head of the Green Party. Doctors Without Borders and the United Nations, along with most other Western aid organizations, have evacuated their staffs from Iraq. The insurgency drags on, despite elections, constitutional referenda and the trial of Saddam himself. In these circumstances, the suggestion that if only the left had been unified in backing the war, if only the humanitarian case had been enough to bring everyone on board, even if only the United Nations envoy Sergio Vieira de Mello had not been killed by a bomb blast in Baghdad, then liberal democracy would be on the horizon for Iraqis, simply seems like wishful — one might even say utopian — thinking. But as Berman himself might once have said, “la lotta continua.”