February 12, 2003

Kelly on Fischer

Several blogs have noted this column, in which Michael Kelly calls attention to German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer's unsavory past as a generation '68/New Left radical. This column is largely a reprise of the "Fischer Affair" as detailed in Paul Berman's masterful essay "The Passion of Joschka Fischer," which appeared in the New Republic in August of 2001. Kelly's intention is to "provide some context," as they say, in view of (and perhaps in retaliation for) Fischer's having told Donald Rumsfeld that he is "not convinced" that the time had come for war in Iraq. Accordingly, he leaves out the best part of Berman's article, which is an exploration of the ways that the scandal and its reverberations can be seen as a sort of "trial" of the generation of '68; and how it elucidates how the the former New Leftist, to the surprise of many, could have become an unlikely supporter of NATO and the interventions in Bosnia and Kosovo.

This description doesn't do justice to Berman's complex and nuanced presentation. If you're at all interested in the terrorist aspect of'60s radicalism, you owe it to yourself to read this tremendous article in full. Here's how the "Fischer affair" strikes Berman:

Watching the Fischer affair unfold through the early months of 2001 was like studying a painting where your attention first focuses on the main subject at the center of the canvas, and then you begin to notice the background and how interesting it is, and then you notice, reflected in a piece of metal or seen through a window, a second background, which you can barely see. The main subject in the Fischer affair was a simple political scandal of the present day involving a well-regarded government minister. But the scandal was set against a background consisting of events from twenty-five or thirty years ago, from the time of the New Left. The Fischer affair invited us, even required us, to make a few judgments about that background.

But the New Left background turned out, on closer inspection, to have a background of its own, barely visible, which was the Germany of long before. Not the generation of 1968, but the generation of 1938. Not the New Left, but the Nazis. The whole difficulty in making sense of the affair was to figure out what possible tale or narrative could account for all three of those elements: today's foreign minister in the foreground, the New Left behind him, and, half-hidden, the background of the background, yesterday's yesterday, bathed in darkest shadow.

As for Kelly's editorial: I am second to none in my distaste for the violent strain in '60s radicalism, in my contempt for past and present apologists for its practitioners and theorists. I've written about it many times in this blog. And I'm probably as prone as Kelly is to ridicule them and their even more confused contemporary ideological progeny. "The Movement" was despicable in myriad ways (though not in absolutely every way) and it's appropriate to challenge those who were involved in its worst moments and who associated with or defended its worst people. Often, as in the case of Weatherman Bill Ayers for example, they fail rather miserably to rise to the challenge; their current words and deeds seem to be not much more than an unconvincingly whitewashed recapitulation of those from their depraved, drug-addled youth. Even in middle age, they are still the Worst Generation; and nauseatingly proud of it when they aren't in denial about it.

Kelly's point is that Fischer's "I am not convinced" is such an example, that it can be best understood in the context of the anti-Americanism of the New Left and the dark milieu of the Baader-Meinhoff gang and the like. I think that's wrong. There are, no doubt, former radicals in European governments who do see the current US predicament as an opportunity to resurrect and relive the "glories" of '68, but Fischer isn't one of them. His case is far more interesting than that. He left his passionate anti-militarism and rigid anti-Americanism behind long ago. And in fact, Berman's insight about terrorism and the interplay of generational worlds in pre-9/11 Germany and beyond points to the most intriguing question presented by the issue today. Forget the politicians: how does this legacy play into the fact that 57% of ordinary Germans see America as a "nation of warmongers"? I'm not qualified to address it, but it's worth asking.

Posted by Dr. Frank at February 12, 2003 10:59 PM | TrackBack