[sixties-l] The Passion of Joschka Fischer

From: radtimes (resist@best.com)
Date: Thu Aug 30 2001 - 18:06:34 EDT

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    The Passion of Joschka Fischer


    by Paul Berman

    Post date 08.21.01 | Issue date 08.27.01

    [Part I of a special serialized essay by Paul Berman. Parts
    II and III will be published later this week and early next week.]

    Last January, Stern magazine in Germany published a set of five grainy
    photographs of Joschka Fischer, the German foreign minister and vice
    chancellor, as a young bully in a street battle in Frankfurt. It was April
    1973. The photos showed: a figure in a black motorcycle helmet, labeled as
    Fischer, facing off against another figure in a white policeman's helmet,
    with a dented Volkswagen squatting in the background; the black-helmeted
    Fischer drawing near, and a skinny girl or maybe a long-haired boy (this
    was an androgynous era) running to join him; Fischer and other people on
    the attack, the white-helmeted cop going into a crouch; Fischer's
    black-gloved fist raised as if to punch the crouching cop on the back,
    Fischer's comrades crowding around; the cop huddled on the ground, Fischer
    and his comrades appearing to kick him, with two additional people
    watching. And no more dented Volkswagen. The photographer has evidently
    been circling around the skirmish, snapping his camera in what must have
    been a frenzy of adrenaline, each picture taken from a different angle.
    Those were brutal photographs. One glance at them and you were back in the
    days of left-wing street fighting from the late 1960s and 1970s, when young
    militants in West Germany were always pouring into the streets, and
    Volkswagens were getting dented right and left. And the photographs, having
    conjured the past, provoked an outcry. The Joschka Fischer of 2001 was a
    member of the party called, in expressively anti-bureaucratic fashion, "the
    Greens"a man of the left on its hipper, friskier side. He happened to be
    the very first Green to hold a ministry in Germany's federal government,
    let alone the foreign ministry. A powerful man, therefore a man with
    enemies. The photographs gazed blearily at the world from the semi-glossy
    pages of Stern, and flames of Christian Democratic wrath erupted at once
    from those many partisan enemies. Germany's foreign minister had disgraced
    himself in those photographs; had embarrassed his nation; had lost the
    ability to represent Germany to the world; ought to be investigated, to be
    indicted, to resign.
    The street battles of 1973 took place long ago, and it could have been
    supposed that Fischer's enemies, having given vent to a thousand pent-up
    furies and Christian Democratic resentments, would eventually calm down,
    and the scandal of those ancient photographs would fade. The editors of
    Stern seem to have anticipated that sort of development. The magazine
    advertised its photographs on the cover with a quotation from Fischer ("Ja,
    ich war militant"), but the big story in that week's issue was Europe's
    meat crisis, illustrated by a giant sausage skewered on the tines of an
    oversized barbecue fork. Mad cow disease, now that was a lasting story.
    The weeks went by, though, and the Fischer affair, instead of fading, grew
    in intensity and scale. Like the broken tape on the door at the Watergate,
    or the girlish confessions on Linda Tripp's treacherous recording, the
    photographs in Stern seemed to pull slowly at a curtain that, as it opened,
    revealed ever more distant peaks of unsuspected scandals (or non-scandals,
    depending on your interpretation). The controversy spread to France. In
    London, The Observer, playing the part of the yellow press, gave the
    polemic a slightly demented sexual twist. The Italians weighed in. The
    Fischer affair achieved at last a large enough dimension and a sufficiently
    accusatory tone to be described rather grandly but not inaccurately as "the
    trial of the generation of 1968" by the editors of the Paris daily
    Libration (who know something about the generation of 1968)--an
    unforeseeably rich and vivid scandal, fecund with implications for Europe
    and modern life and thirty or forty years of history.
    T he photographs were delivered to Stern by a
    thirty-eight-year-old woman named Bettina Rhl, who described herself as an
    "independent journalist" but whose notoriety was owed mostly to her family
    background, which could hardly have been more sensational. Bettina Rhl was
    the daughter of Ulrike Meinhof. In the heyday of the left-wing movement of
    the late 1960s and 1970s, Ulrike Meinhof was more than well-known in West
    Germany. She was a militant and a political theorist on the left's leftmost
    wing, one of the crazies, you would have to say, except that craziness and
    sanity were very much under interrogation.
    In 1970, Ulrike Meinhof staged an armed jailbreak to free an imprisoned
    comrade named Andreas Baader, who was serving three years for his own
    violent antics. (He had set fire to a Frankfurt department store.) Baader
    and Meinhof, together with Horst Mahler and a few other desperadoes of the
    revolutionary left, organized what became casually known as the
    Baader-Meinhof Gang, but was more formally and correctly called the Red
    Army Fraction. In American English, the German word Fraktion is usually
    rendered as "faction," which falls easily on the ear; but anyone who
    remembers the old Communist phrase book will recognize that "fraction," in
    English, used to be a perfectly legitimate and precise term, connoting a
    disciplined party unit akin to a cell, he opposite of a faction, which is a
    party unit that has escaped the party's discipline. A Marxist-Leninist
    party does not have factions, unless the party is in disarray. But a
    Marxist-Leninist party does have fractions, or party units that go out into
    the world and militate as best they can, according to plan.
    Baader and Meinhof's Red Army Fraction was tiny. But it went out into the
    world and proved to be extremely violent. Kidnappings, bank holdups,
    murders: the group refrained from nothing. A bombing in 1972 killed four
    American soldiers. A few years later someone machine-gunned to death the
    prosecutor who wanted to try the group for killing the soldiers. Reprisals
    were a specialty. The Red Army Fraction was hardy, too. The West German
    authorities did their repressive best, but the guerrilla organization
    managed to keep itself alive, recruiting new members from ever younger
    generations to replace the fallen, and persisting in its killings and
    kidnappings from decade to decade into the mid-1990sa long run in a
    well-ordered place such as Germany.
    Even today, a political legacy from the old Baader-Meinhof tendency has
    managed to linger on, though without a clandestine wing, or so it is said.
    The Red Army Fraction remained strong during those many years because its
    leaders were clever and its militants fanatical, but also because it
    enjoyed the secret backing of the government of East Germany, meaning the
    Soviet bloc, for as long as there was a Soviet bloc, which gave the group a
    real institutional power. (The Red Army Fraction was tiny, but the Red Army
    was not.) Yet the organization clung to life mainly for another reason,
    which lay at the heart of the several scandals that flooded outward from
    the grainy photographs in Stern this year.
    The radical student movement during the years around 1968--I will call it
    the New Left, using the American and English term, was never especially
    powerful in the Federal Republic of Germany as a whole, not compared to the
    big political parties and the industrial groups and the trade unions. But
    in the world of the university students and the young people's
    neighborhoods and the younger intellectuals, the New Left was a gigantic
    presence. And the Red Army Fraction grew naturally from that soil. Ulrike
    Meinhof herself was by all accounts an intelligent and articulate leader, a
    woman already thirty-seven years old when she helped to organize her
    guerrilla army, which meant that, in matters of age, she towered over the
    New Left's rank and file, the student nafs. She knew how to drape the
    grand ideals of German philosophy across her organization and its doings.
    To be sure, her guerrilla army was reviled by an overwhelming majority of
    West Germans, the put-upon bystanders and potential victims and frightened
    But in the universities and the counter-cultural districts in Frankfurt and
    Berlin and a few other places, her tiny organization drew on the active and
    even enthusiastic support of a not-so-small number of people, plus the
    passive support of far larger numbers, the leftists who would never have
    endorsed a program of violence and who wanted nothing to do with murders,
    but who would have said that, even so, the Red Army Fraction did have
    reason to despise German bourgeois society, and Marxist revolution was an
    excellent idea, and state repression posed a greater threat to society than
    any guerrilla resistance from the left. And shouldn't we progressives and
    reasonable leftists worry chiefly about civil liberties? And so forth: the
    many arguments and apologetics that people offer in circumstances when, out
    of confusion and moral timidity, they are too frightened to applaud the
    murders and the kidnappings, and too frightened to condemn them.
    The Red Army Fraction claimed a fraternity with the new breed of
    revolutionary groups around the world. "We must learn," Meinhof said in her
    original manifesto back in 1970, "from the revolutionary movements of the
    world, the Vietcong, the Palestine Liberation Organization, the Tupamaros
    [of Uruguay], the Black Panthers." But mostly her organization resembled
    several other guerrilla currents that got their start in the New Left
    upsurges of Europe in those same years: the Red Brigades in Italy; the
    Irish Republican Army in its modern, Marxist version (which revived a
    defunct military organization from many years before); the Corsican
    nationalist guerrillas; and the Basque ETA, small groups each and every
    one, but tough, and with a degree of popular support that made each of
    those groups nearly indestructible during the next decades.
    The Red Army Fraction was not exactly invulnerable. In 1972, the West
    German police did manage to arrest a number of key warriors. They arrested
    Meinhof herself. But arrests only rendered the group fashionable. Jean-Paul
    Sartre expressed an admiring appreciation, a cagey admiration, designed to
    leave him unstained by any crimes that the guerrillas might commit. Meinhof
    wrote the famous philosopher a letter, inviting him to visit Baader in
    jail, "to give us the protection of your name and your gifts as a Marxist,
    philosopher, journalist and moralist." Sartre came. But the martyrdom only
    deepened. One of the imprisoned warriors had already committed suicide by
    the time of Sartre's visit, and in 1976 Meinhof likewise committed suicide
    in her maximum-security cell, though some people suspected an official murder.
    Her death was followed the next year by the suicides of Baader and two
    others in the same jail, which even more people suspected was official
    murder. And the deaths, as they piled up, radiated a morbid glamour. It was
    a highbrow glamour, the kind of glamour that, as Peter Wollen pointed out
    in The London Review of Books, would by 1995 lead New York's Museum of
    Modern Art to devote an exhibition to paintings of those suicides (assuming
    they were suicides), a sacralization in high art. But it was also a street
    glamour. The death of Meinhof alone, back in 1976, was enough to send
    crowds of young people swarming into the West German streets, enraged at
    the jails and at the revolutionary defeats and at the thousand injustices
    of modern life.
    Joschka Fischer was among those angry crowds. He was a young firebrand in
    Frankfurt. At one of the Meinhof demonstrations, somebody tossed a Molotov
    cocktail at a policeman and burned him nearly to death. Fischer and a dozen
    other radicals were arrested and jailed for two days, though no charges
    were ever lodged against them. Fischer was not especially famous at the
    time, outside of the radical left, and in later years, as he rose in
    national politics, not many people remembered that he had spent those days
    in jail or had been under any suspicion at all. Still, some people, the
    left-wing insiders, not to mention the policeman and his friends, did
    retain the memory. And in those first days of 2001, when Stern published
    the photographs from 1973, Meinhof's daughter, Rhl, revived the accusation
    against him. She insisted that Fischer did, in fact, bear a responsibility
    for the Molotov cocktail and the policeman's injuries.
    A couple of participants in the radical movement from those days backed her
    up, too, and said that, in planning the particular demonstration in which
    the policeman was attacked, Fischer had never ruled out the use of Molotovs
    and may even have favored it. A retired colleague of the injured policeman
    was adamant about Fischer's responsibility. No one came up with any sort of
    indisputable confirmation. But Fischer was obliged to rise from his seat
    once again and, in his dignity as foreign minister, deny all connection to
    a very ugly event from long ago ("Definitiv nein!" he told Stern)--which
    would have been unpleasant under any circumstances but must have been
    doubly so in the light of the photographs, the five atrocious photographs
    that made him seem all too capable in his younger years of having organized
    a Molotov cocktail attack.
    There was another accusation. Fischer was said to have tossed stones and
    Molotov cocktails during yet a different raucous demonstration, this one in
    1975 at the Spanish Embassy, an angry protest against Generalissimo Franco
    and Spanish fascism. Fischer denied that accusation, too, though he did
    acknowledge through his spokesman at the Foreign Ministry that he had
    participated in the event, which had never been a secret anyway. The
    spokesman reminded the German public that demonstrating against Franco and
    fascism was nothing to be ashamed of. A good point: something to be proud
    of, at last!
    Then another accusation: Fischer was accused of having attended a meeting
    of the Palestine Liberation Organization in Algiers back in 1969, at which
    the PLO adopted a resolution to achieve final victory, which is to say, the
    destruction of Israel. That was not so good, and seemed triply bad for a
    future foreign minister of Germany, even if no one threw rocks or bombs.
    The ministry spokesman conceded that Fischer did attend the conference;
    but, doing his best to cope with one more embarrassing revelation, the
    spokesman made the mistake of adding that Fischer had spent only an hour
    there, which was like admitting to using marijuana but not to inhaling it.
    And, of course, the part about spending only an hour turned out to be
    untrue, and the spokesman, backtracking, had to acknowledge that, yes,
    Fischer had participated throughout. (Which no one should have doubted. The
    man is a born politician. He loves meetings.) And still more accusations
    from New Left days of yore came raining down on Joschka Fischer's
    respectable middle-aged head.
    It was not instantly obvious what drove Bettina Rhl to deliver the
    photographs to Stern and to dredge up her several hair-raising accusations.
    I looked at different European papers during the course of the affair, and
    I found a certain amount of political speculation, as could have been
    expected. Fischer's enemies in the Bundestag and at Stern tended to be, as
    I say, worthies of the conservative cause, who must have taken a fine
    partisan pleasure in making life miserable for a Green foreign minister.
    Yet the complications of contemporary politics are such that, on the left,
    too, Fischer had his enemies, who may have regarded him with an even deeper
    Fischer had entered the government in 1998 as part of what is called the
    Red-Green coalition, meaning the alliance of the very big Social Democratic
    Party, the ancient Reds (whose organization was founded in 1875), and the
    much smaller Greens (whose organization was founded in 1979). To have
    forced the powerful and venerable Social Democrats into a coalition was,
    from the Green point of view, a great victory, and Fischer's arrival at the
    foreign ministry was bound to arouse jubilant expectations from the
    hardworking party activists. But here was the leftwing difficulty. The
    Greens had made their way in German politics by sticking to their twin
    principles of ecology and anti-militarism. They were the enemies of the
    military policies of the United States, beginning in the days of President
    Reagan and advancing through the Gulf war of 1991 and onward to the
    present. Yet their year of political triumph, 1998, was not a happy one for
    the anti-militarist cause. The wars of Serbian nationalism had been getting
    grimmer and grimmer, and in 1998 the massacres took still another bad turn
    in Kosovo. NATO's involvement grew deeper and, from an anti-militarist
    perspective, more ominous. Many a Green looked to Fischer, as foreign
    minister, to oppose the NATO campaign, or at least to keep Germany, with
    its peaceful traditions in modern times, from taking part. But on matters
    of anti-militarism and NATO, Fischer was out of step with his own party. In
    his reasoning, the Serbian atrocities gnawed away at the pacifist logic. He
    looked at the ethnic persecutions, and came away thinking that military
    action was not such a bad idea, after all.
    Fischer was filled with conviction on this theme. And when he got into
    office he took the fundamental Green commitment to anti-war principles,
    deftly heaved it overboard, and gave his official endorsement to Germany's
    participation in the NATO effort. A large number of Greens could only look
    at those ministerial actions and feel horribly betrayed. To have spent
    nearly twenty years building a new party devoted to anti-militarism, only
    to see its first foreign minister endorse military action by NATO, the
    imperialist alliance! That was galling.
    At the Green convention in 1999, someone threw a bag of red ink at Fischer
    and broke his eardrum. Four hundred police officers had to guard him when
    he got up to address the convention. His own party, the eco-pacifist
    assemblage, was a howling mob. The man did not lack for political skill,
    and he managed to hang onto the convention's support. But there was no
    placating a good percentage of his opponents. What was to be done about
    that? Nothing, nothing. And so, when the accusations against Fischer came
    rolling down upon him in the early months of 2001, it was easy to imagine
    that motives from the left, anti-militarist and anti-NATO, and not just the
    traditional hostility of his enemies on the right, might have been at work.
    Then again, the fury against Fischer might have wended its way into the
    press from the remote margins of German political life, from the very far
    left well beyond the respectable democratic radicalism of the Greens, the
    fury of ultra-militants who had remained in some way faithful to the legacy
    of Meinhof and her martyred guerrillas. Or perhaps the fury had its origin
    on the extreme right, from well beyond the respectable zones of Christian
    Democratic conservatism.
    But what did it mean in 2001, extreme right and extreme left?
    The ordinary political labels have gotten bollixed up in modern times, and
    not just in Germany. In poking around the Internet, I found my way to the
    electronic discussion center of the fans of the Baader-Meinhof Gang, they
    have their own website, naturally, and was interested to read about the
    curious case of Horst Mahler, one of the founders of the group back in
    1970. Over the years, Mahler had slid down the corridor of extremist
    politics from left-wing terrorism into the circles of German neo-Nazism,
    where he set about promoting mad theories on Jewish themes. Such things did
    happen. And Mahler, as I discovered, entertained his own opinions about the
    Fischer affair. He made the argument that Ulrike Meinhof, had she lived,
    would have likewise slid over to the extreme right.
    But in his view, as reported on the website, right-wing and left-wing
    counted for nothing as far as the behavior of Meinhof's daughter. The real
    animus against Fischer bubbled up instead from a daughter's anger at her
    inadequate mother, the prison martyr. Or else, as was more widely said,
    Rhl's anger at Fischer derived from a still vaguer resentment against the
    entire era of 1968--from the resentment that, on an earlier occasion, she
    had already described in the pages of Der Spiegel. For what was 1968 to
    Bettina Rhl?
    It was the era that had deprived her of a childhood. Her mother, in the
    grip of the revolutionary manias of the time, had once tried to ship little
    Bettina and her sister to a Palestinian camp, only to have the girls'
    father, a publisher of left-wing (and somewhat pornographic) magazines,
    arrange to have them kidnapped en route and brought back to Germany, a
    horrible childhood event. Then the mother had gotten herself jailed, and
    had ended up dead, she suffered every tragedy of the era. As had the
    children, in their fashion.
    And who was Joschka Fischer? Someone who had participated in the radical
    cause and gotten away scot-free; someone who managed to profit from every
    horrible thing that had taken place. This was the cause of Rhl's holy
    rancor, or so it was said. A victim's fury at a survivor. In any case,
    everyone could agree that, whatever her deepest motives might have been,
    Rhl had put a lot of vim and energy into her campaign. And no one could
    doubt that she had displayed a canny skill at inflicting the maximum
    personal damage, tooas if to prove that, with or without her famous mother,
    she was in her own right a real journalist.
    O ne of her accusations pointed not at Fischer himself but
    slightly to his side, at an old roommate of his from the 1970sanother
    radical survivor, someone who had participated in nearly every phase of the
    movement, and had only managed to rise higher and higher in European life,
    and had suffered not one whit. This person was Daniel Cohn-Bendit, a
    well-known figure in Germany and all over Europe and beyond, even if, as a
    politician, he never achieved as lofty a post as Fischer. Cohn-Bendit was a
    man with an interesting childhood of his own. He was the son of German
    Jews, and he had spent his youth shuttling between West Germany and France.
    He attended university at Nanterre, outside Paris. And there, in the spring
    of 1968, he helped spark a series of student demonstrations, which sparked
    other demonstrations in Paris, which resulted, in May of that year, in a
    gigantic student uprising in Paris and all over France, which led in turn
    to a general strike by labor, which pretty much shut the country down for a
    His hair was flaming red in those days, and he was witty and impish, and he
    became known as Danny the Red. He was the single best-known leader of the
    1968 uprising, famous not just in France but everywhere in some degree, if
    only because the May uprising in Paris was the largest of the student
    uprisings anywhere in the world in that year, and because Paris was the
    capital of world revolution. Cohn-Bendit consequently had the experience
    of seeing himself elevated in a matter of weeks into the only person in any
    country who could claim to represent the generation of 1968
    internationally, the human symbol of a worldwide seismic youth even, tan
    odd personal fate for anyone to endure, an instant deification.
    His legal citizenship, as it happened, was not French, but West German. And
    as soon as he made the mistake of stepping across the German border in
    1968, the French authorities banished him from France. The leader of the
    French Communist Party, always a big enemy of the New Left, denounced
    Cohn-Bendit as a "German Jew," which infuriated his admirers, who were
    many. Indignant crowds marched through the streets of Paris chanting, "We
    are all German Jews!"a touching slogan, and a fine display of loyalty to
    Danny the Red. (At a right-wing rally afterward, one of the slogans was
    "Cohn-Benditto Dachau!") But there was no bringing him back to France, not
    for many years. He moved to Frankfurt.
    He also roamed around a bit, stirring up trouble here and there. I ran into
    him in Britain in 1970. He sat on a hilltop and directed a small regiment
    of young French leftists, plus myself as translator, who invaded an Isle of
    Wight rock festival in the name of anti-capitalism, free rock music, and
    anti-clericalism. (The anti-clericalism struck me as odd, but those were
    our reasons.) Cohn-Bendit, our leader, was a mischievous guy. Mostly he
    stayed in Frankfurt, though. He set up house with Fischer. And, ever
    militant, Cohn-Bendit and Fischer organized a group called Revolutioner
    Kampf, or Revolutionary Struggle, which was left-wing and counter-cultural
    both, a fixture of 1970s life in the happening districts of Frankfurt.
    Fischer was the main leader of Revolutionary Struggle's militant political
    activities, and Cohn-Bendit of its counter-cultural side. Fischer led the
    revolutionary mob in the streets, and Cohn-Bendit directed the revolution
    in daily life. His main activity was to run a kindergarten. He spent two
    years at it. Running a kindergarten might sound like an oddly modest thing
    for a famous revolutionary to do. But kindergartens were a big project for
    the German New Left. The goal was nothing less than to perform radical
    surgery on the German national character. The traditional educational
    system in West Germany had followed the standard old-fashioned
    authoritarian model. And, in the New Left analysis, the standard model had
    succeeded all too well in times past at producing standard personalities,
    people who responded well to authority and knew how to give orders and how
    to take them, the kind of people who might grow up to be Nazis or to accept
    a government of Nazis without protesting. Good Germans, in a phrase.
    Authoritarian personalities.
    So the New Left set out to construct a new kind of education, an
    antiauthoritarian education, beginning at the beginning, with the goal of
    creating antiauthoritarian personalities, people who would think for
    themselves and instinctively shrug off any attempt to impose a totalitarian
    domination. Sex education figured in the idea. The anti-authoritarian
    educators wanted to break down the sexual repression of earlier times, the
    sexual armor that, in their psychological figurings (with the help of
    Wilhelm Reich), had always surrounded the authoritarian personality. That
    was the idea behind the kindergarten campaign: the "anti-authoritarian
    kindergartens." The teachers wanted to encourage the healthy sexuality of
    little children.
    The idea was more than German, to be sure. The notion of breaking down
    old-fashioned personality types, the idea that early education offers a
    fulcrum for moving mankind, the campaign to build new kindergartens and
    schools on radical new principles, this was a big impulse in the English
    left, too, on its anarchist side. It was a venerable notion:
    Rousseau, Godwin, Dewey. It was big in the United States. One of the
    national leaders of America's Students for a Democratic Society, Bill
    Ayers, began his radical career by organizing a proper elementary school,
    after which he hurled himself into the guerrilla campaign of the Weather
    Underground, after which, correcting himself, he hurled himself back into
    early childhood education.
    In Frankfurt, Cohn-Bendit not only ran his kindergarten, he also wrote
    about it in a book directed at the French public that had so amiably
    chanted about being German Jews. The book was called Le Grand Bazar and it
    appeared in 1975. It was a loosely structured memoir of his life in the
    revolutionary movement, with chapters on the French student uprising, his
    own Jewish identity, his kindergarten, the objectionable nature of
    communism, and several other topics. It was full of the inflammatory
    phrases of the day. Then Le Grand Bazar faded from memory.
    In the early months of 2001, though, with the photographs of Fischer
    circulating in Stern and the many accusations of violent leftism
    surrounding him and a scent of scandal rising on every side, Bettina Rhl
    craftily plucked one of those inflammatory passages from Cohn-Bendit's
    book, declared the passage to be an undiscovered new outrage, and offered
    it for a fee (a tacky move) to the press. She approached Libration in
    Paris with her scoop. Libration declined to take her up on it, partly
    because the newspaper's policy was not to pay for news scoops, and partly
    because the book in question had been published long ago and could be
    freely quoted by anyone, but mostly because the paper's correspondent read
    the passage and, by interpreting it the way Cohn-Bendit had plainly
    intended, failed to see any scoop at all. The Observer in England did go
    for Rhl's item, and ran the excerpt. Then the item was picked up by
    L'Express in France, the Bild Zeitung in Germany, La Repubblica in Italy,
    and other papers.
    The excerpt described Cohn-Bendit's kindergarten and was intended to
    illustrate the atmosphere of non-repression, the lengths to which the
    kindergarten teacher would go in order to prevent his little wards from
    looking on sex with fear. Cohn-Bendit had written: "It happened to me
    several times that certain kids opened my fly and began to tickle me. I
    reacted differently according to circumstances, but their desire posed a
    problem to me. I asked them: 'Why don't you play together? Why have you
    chosen me, and not the other kids?' But if they insisted, I caressed them
    even so."
    In the context of the sexual liberation ideas of the 1970s, his larger
    point in writing those words was clear enough, and not without sense. He
    did explain in the book that, even in the most anti-authoritarian of
    kindergartens, children need instruction and cannot be allowed to do just
    as they please. He considered that adults ought to ponder the sexual
    questions long and hard, with regard to children. But that one sentence did
    make it seem that he himself was not exactly pondering anything. If you
    lifted that one passage from its context, Cohn-Bendit could easily be made
    to look like a pedophile, like an adult having sex with children. And this
    horrendous insinuation, the suggestion that Joschka Fischer's roommate,
    Danny the Red, the spirit of 1968 itself, had been, in fact, a pedophilic
    creep of the first order, a child molester, this dreadful insinuation
    ascended into the scandal of the hour in the French newspapers and on
    There was never any reason, none at all, to credit the accusation. A group
    of parents of the kindergartners in Frankfurt plus some of the children
    themselves, now grown up, made public statements in praise and in defense
    of the teacher Cohn-Bendit. Not one person stood up to denounce him or to
    lodge any personal complaint. Cohn-Bendit himself, the Cohn-Bendit of
    2001, was apoplectic about the accusation. He acknowledged in his riposte
    that the passage in his book had been written carelessly, in the
    provocational mode of the day. It was, he said, a "literary exaggeration,"
    stupid, foolish, and shocking. Everything about the New Left, even its
    descriptions of kindergarten life, had been meant to provoke the wrath of
    the bourgeoisie. But he stressed that, during the friskier days of New Left
    wildness, whenever someone did try to make a case for pedophilia, as
    occurred from time to time (in the form of "man-boy love"), he was one of
    the people who spoke up right away in disapproval, he and the feminists and
    just about nobody else.
    Pedophilia, Cohn-Bendit pointed out, has always been a shameful reality of
    traditional family life, the traditional life that conceals abysmal
    behavior under a blanket of silence, ignorance, and patriarchal authority.
    Pedophilia is the kind of scandalous reality that the sexual liberation
    movements of the 1960s and 1970s tried to eliminate by making sexuality
    into something to be discussed honestly, without shame, by creating an
    anti-authoritarian atmosphere in which crimes and abuses would no longer be
    covered up in the name of filial obedience. Those were not foolish
    arguments on his part.
    Surely he was right in pointing out that sexual liberation in the 1970s has
    turned out to be, notwithstanding the excesses and even the crimes that
    were sometimes committed in its name, one of the grand social advances of
    modern times, for women especially. Nowadays people can talk openly about
    pedophilia and other sexual abuses and depredations, as was rarely, if
    ever, possible during the two million years before the sexual revolution.
    Knowledge advances, ignorance recedes. There might even have been something
    heroic about Cohn-Bendit's devotion to the kindergarten. What other leader
    of a mass European uprising has ever turned from leading a revolutionary
    crowd in the streets to running a kindergarten? The new kind of masculinity
    needed a living example of how to behave, and Cohn-Bendit offered himself,
    someone unafraid to take up a role that had always been assigned to women.
    Any proposed revolution of daily life was going to depend on the
    willingness of men like him.
    As it turned out, this particular accusation in the course of the Fischer
    affair, the insinuated charge against Cohn-Bendit, got nowhere at all back
    in Germany. The kindergarten in Frankfurt and the parents who had sent
    their children there and the children themselves were too well-known, and
    their refutations proved decisive. Besides, the experiment in
    anti-authoritarian education was conducted on a big scale in Germany in the
    1970s and afterward, and large numbers of Germans had spent their infant
    years waddling through the hallways of that experiment and had come away
    understanding its goals and its methods as well as the sillier dogmas and
    the fads-the essays of Adorno ornamenting every anti-authoritarian
    classroom, that sort of thing. Familiarity bred respect (and perhaps a
    tolerant smile). To hang Cohn-Bendit on the basis of a single bad, sounding
    sentence in a book that no one remembered anymore did seem more than a
    trifle opportunistic. Even some of the conservative politicians in Germany
    spoke up for Cohn-Bendit's probity.
    In France, a number of people likewise rebutted the insinuation, and right
    away, too. The host of a book-chat show on French television recalled that
    Cohn-Bendit had appeared on a panel in 1977 to discuss his book, and none
    of the other guests, not even the Catholic conservative, had thought to
    raise such an issue. It was pointed out that L'Express, which made such a
    convenient fuss over the accusation in 2001, had reviewed Cohn-Bendit's
    book when it originally came out and had found nothing objectionable at the
    time. And yet in France, and in other countries, too, the accusation about
    pedophilia, once it crept into the press, turned out to be a big event.
    Nasty journalists in the newspapers and at the television studios felt they
    could attach any sort of horrendous story or fantasy to the famous face
    from 1968, and have a swell time doing it, and feel no shame at all. Among
    journalists, such are the joys. Besides, newspapers must be sold and
    viewers attracted.
    But the main reason the smear about Cohn-Bendit spread in France and in a
    few other countries had to do with something more than yellow journalism.
    Serge July, the editor of Libration (and a Maoist from the good old days),
    put his finger on that reason right away. The insinuation lingered because,
    in France and in some other countries, it had lately become fashionable to
    hold up for inspection the radicalism of the period around 1968, and to
    search out the wildest episodes, some of which were wild enough, and to
    identify the radicalism as a whole with its most extreme moments. And it
    had become fashionable to take the social and cultural problems of our own
    time and to blame those problems on the radicalism of the earlier period,
    as exemplified in its extremes.
    This particular fashion may sound familiar to American ears, but in Europe
    in the later 1990s it acquired a tonality all its own, without any American
    echo or equivalent. The new tonality consisted of, this was the strange
    part, youthfulness, instead of age. There was a stylish young people's
    pining for a long-ago era of order and hierarchy, when every person
    occupied his allotted place, and rules were rules, and culture and language
    and relations between the sexes were properly fixed, and not, as they are
    today, so damnably fluid. The young people who indulged in that particular
    nostalgia yearned, in short, for the 1950s. (They could hardly yearn for
    the 1940s.) And since nostalgic yearning always turns out to be, on its
    obverse, an indignant protest, the people who pined for the 1950s ended up
    raging against the 1960s, amusing themselves with indignant recitations of
    every scandalous outrage that was committed, and even a few that were not
    committed, by their own parents and older siblings.
    You could describe their complaints as a right-wing reaction. That may
    overstate the case, though. Mostly the young reactionaries wanted to stamp
    their feet. As July pointed out, hardly anyone actually wanted to roll back
    the social and cultural achievements of the New Left era. To send women
    back to the kitchen, to resume the persecution of homosexuals, to return to
    the days of secrecy about child molesting, to resurrect the old
    superstitions about race, or to reconstruct the European imperialisms (to
    name a few of the ancient customs and social structures that had been
    overthrown in the course of the New Left era)--no one seriously wanted to
    do any of that. To undo the reforms of an earlier age is always possible,
    if enough people feel suitably motivated; but the nostalgics of the 1990s
    merely wanted to reel with horror, and in that way to fend off the
    anxieties of the present age.
    The writer Michel Houellebecq had a big success in 1998 in France, then in
    Germany and elsewhere, with a novel about the horrors of the 1960s called
    The Elementary Particles (which came out in the United States two years
    later). And his blood-curdling portraits of the radical weirdness of yore,
    combined with a sentimental yearning for 1950s-style family life, combined
    with his ever-popular scenes of modern sex orgies, accounted for
    Houellebecq's success. Disgusting sexual cruelty in the name of liberation,
    cult manias, radical murders: his book hit every note of 1960s mayhem. The
    Fischer affair merely seemed to recapitulate in real life what Houellebecq
    had already imagined in his novel, down to the figure of Bettina Rhl, the
    distressed child of a New Left terrorist, who seemed to have stepped from
    his own pages. (If she had only read a bit further in Cohn-Bendit's Le
    Grand Bazar, she might have dug up a few sentences about group sex, too,
    and The Elementary Particles would have replayed itself in full.)
    In the early months of 2001, then, it hardly mattered if any particular
    accusation against Fischer or Cohn-Bendit turned out to be unfounded.
    Either way, true or false, the accusations afforded a satisfying pleasure
    to anyone who felt a nostalgia for the excellent social order of long ago,
    and a resentment at the radicals who had so rudely overthrown the order in
    question. That was true in Germany just as in France. Feelings were
    expressed, even if truths were not told. The accusations constituted, as
    July put it, a "settling of accounts with the generation of 1968." And so
    the accusations and even the smears spread from Germany to France and
    outward to Britain and Italy and, in some degree, around the world, on the
    basis of a cultural anxiety that had nothing to do with the petty
    ideological and local concerns of Greens and Christian Democrats and other
    politicians in Germany who fretted over the career of the statesman Joschka
    And then, having floated upward into the airy zones of cultural anxiety,
    the Fischer affair suddenly sank into the concrete terrain of law. The
    legal issue came up at the trial of a New Left terrorist named Hans-Joachim
    Klein, who happened to be an old friend of Fischer's and Cohn-Bendit's in
    Frankfurt, from their days in Revolutionary Struggle in the early and
    middle 1970s.
    The Fischer affair was a tale of people who had undergone life changes so
    vast as to be incomprehensible to outsiders. And among those many
    left-wing changelings, Klein was the king of kings. As a young man he had
    worked as an auto mechanic. He used to repair Cohn-Bendit's car. He
    followed Fischer to street demonstrations. He was one of the militants
    running to join Fischer in the grainy photographs from 1973--a tough
    character, not at all loath to mix it up with what we Americans used to
    call "the pigs." The terrorist wave rose in Germany, and Klein was carried
    aloft on the foam. When Sartre responded to Meinhof's letter by agreeing to
    visit Baader in the Stammheim prison, Klein served as his driver.
    But he was no mere chauffeur. By then Klein was a secret soldier in a
    guerrilla organization called the Revolutionary Cells, which was allied
    loosely with the Red Army Fraction and more tightly with the Popular Front
    for the Liberation of Palestine. One of the master achievements of the
    Revolutionary Cells was to help coordinate the Palestinian attack on the
    Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics in 1972. A New Leftist from
    Frankfurt made the arrangements. And in 1975 Klein and the Revolutionary
    Cells joined with Carlos the Jackal, the Argentine terrorist, to attack, in
    the name of "the Arab revolution," a meeting of OPEC oil ministers in
    Vienna. Three people were killed. Klein was shot in the stomach and the
    shoulder, but he and Carlos and some of the others made their escape in a
    plane to Algeria.
    As time went on, though, Klein reflected on what he had done. And having
    reflected, he made the grave decision of deserting his terrorist comrades.
    He renounced his own activities and denounced the terrorist doctrine. He
    fled underground from the underground, hiding equally from the police and
    the Revolutionary Cells and all the other terrorists, who would surely have
    killed him, given the chance. (There was a case in West Germany of
    left-wing terrorists murdering one of their deserters.) Klein sought out
    his old friends who, unlike himself, had never taken the plunge into armed
    activity, and he pleaded his case, and they helped him. Cohn-Bendit was one
    of those people, together with the French "New Philosopher" Andreacute;
    Glucksmann, who had been a well-known visitor at Fischer's and
    Cohn-Bendit's Revolutionary Struggle house in Frankfurt. Cohn-Bendit and
    Glucksmann and the handful of other people who aided Klein rather admired
    him for having reconsidered his violence and for speaking out against his
    own comrades, the terrorists.
    His friends helped him to settle in France. Sometimes they paid his rent.
    They tried to keep up his spirits. He lived in a little Norman village. He
    even wrote a book, and he granted a clandestine interview to Cohn-Bendit
    for a television documentary. In 1998, though, just three days before he
    was going to turn himself in under an arrangement that Cohn-Bendit had
    helped to broker, Klein was tracked down by the French police, who
    delivered him to the German authorities. His trial in Germany took place,
    by unhappy coincidence, just as the Fischer affair got under way in January
    2001. He was sentenced to nine years.
    But before the trial reached its end, Fischer was called to testify, not in
    his capacity as foreign minister but as a private citizen. He was asked
    about his relationship to Klein back in New Left times. Fischer explained
    that in those days he tried to talk Klein out of joining the terrorists.
    And when Fischer had finished making his statement, he walked over to Klein
    in his defendant's chair and shook the man's hand. The handshake seemed
    innocent enough, given that, as Fischer had just testified, Klein was an
    old friend, and the old friend had long ago denounced his own crimes and
    was now about to expiate them. Even so, next day in the Bundestag, Fischer
    was asked to explain himself.
    There was worse. In the course of his testimony, Fischer was accused of
    having harbored people from the Red Army Fraction in his house. The
    accusation infuriated him. He told the court: "Next we will hear that
    Daniel Cohn-Bendit and I organized World War III in that house!" He wanted
    to draw a thick line between his own leftism and the terrorists, to show
    that in those days you could have been a revolutionary militant and still
    not have had any truck with murderers and kidnappers. But Fischer's
    insistence on this point turned out to be untrue. A woman named Margrit
    Schiller, who had served jail time for her connections to the Red Army
    Fraction, wrote an autobiography in 1999, in which she plainly stated that
    she had spent a "few days" in the early 1970s living in the Revolutionary
    Struggle house. She visited the house out of curiosity. She wanted to see
    who these Revolutionary Struggle people were. She did see them, including
    Fischer himself. This awkward bit of information emerged in the aftermath
    of Fischer's testimony, and Fischer had to acknowledge that Margrit
    Schiller's assertion must have been correct.
    The discrepancy did not seem especially damning. All kinds of visitors were
    always traipsing through the house in Frankfurt. Abbie Hoffman was there;
    Jerry Rubin came to visit. Who could remember every last person who had
    ever stopped by? But the news about a Red Army Fraction woman only managed
    to underline yet again how close Fischer, in his younger days, had been to
    the terrorists. And the revelation gave an opening to the prosecutor at the
    Klein trial. The prosecutor had already shown a nasty hostility to Fischer
    during his testimony; he had even been rebuked for it by the judge. Now the
    prosecutor charged Fischer with perjury. The Bundestag was put in the
    position of having to decide whether to lift Fischer's ministerial immunity
    and allow him to be tried on the perjury charge.
    So Fischer faced a legal problem, and not just a public relations problem
    or a political problem, in the wake of those many accusations and scandals
    and insinuations. And with one scandal piling on another, the photographs,
    the resurrected accusations, the new accusations, the denials, the
    retractions, the outright smears, the undeniable acquaintance with more
    than one authentic bomb-thrower, and finally the perjury charge, with all
    of that, the general public was bound to gaze on Fischer with a nervous
    apprehension. What kind of man could this Joschka Fischer be? People did
    have to wonder.
    Fischer's evolution was plainly a lot stranger and more extreme than might
    have seemed to be the case. He was not just a peacenik politician who in
    the fullness of time had metamorphosed into a NATO supporter, as had been
    widely believed, given his origins in the Greens. His political origins
    reached back to the era before there was any such thing as a Green. He was
    a street-fighting militant, someone on the fringe of terrorist New Leftism,
    a rough-and-ready revolutionary, who then became a Green, and then a NATO
    supporter, someone who had changed his colors not once but twice, or who
    knew how many times?--someone whose history was populated with tough and
    sinister characters from the left-wing underworld.
    Didn't the several mysteries of his past political life suggest (as his
    political enemies insisted) that Fischer might, in fact, be a man without
    character? Didn't his political zigzags reveal a Machiavelli of the worst
    sort? A man desperate for power, someone who would adopt any position
    whatsoever, if only it would bring him what he wanted? That was how Fischer
    began to seem in other countries, including in our own far-away part of the
    world. Even before the scandal broke, Fischer was presented in The New York
    Times Magazine by the German pundit Josef Joffe as "a bit of a Forrest
    Gump," someone whose "business" is "self-reinvention"which sounded friendly
    enough, until you stopped to think about it.
    Then the waves of scandal rolled in, and Roger Cohen of the Times, one of
    the paper's most astute correspondents, duly reported in the news section
    that Fischer was, in fact, "a man of startling changes, not least in his
    views on the use of force," which was certainly true. But the startling
    changes were bound to arouse a few worries about the man, especially if he
    was Forrest Gump. Some of those worries cropped up on the Times editorial
    page, whose editors felt sufficiently upset by the incriminating
    photographs and by some of the accusations to devote a small commentary to
    the affair. The Times editors concluded that Fischer, in their words,
    "should be allowed to continue serving his country"which was not too
    surprising, given that his foreign policy had been controversial in Germany
    precisely in the degree to which it coincided with that of the United
    States. Not quite satisfied, however, the editors added the cautionary
    phrase "barring more damaging revelations"as if one more telling
    photograph, or one persuasive proof that he did tell people to throw
    Molotov cocktails back in 1976, might have tipped the balance against him.
    And who could blame the editors for having registered their careful
    reservation? For if Fischer were, in truth, a man without principles, a man
    whose history consisted of shadows and hidden crimes and whose business was
    self-reinvention, there would have been reason enough to fret over the
    power that he could wield from his desk at the foreign ministry in Berlin.
    But it was also obvious that, beneath the day-to-day politics, a deeper
    worry was all along trailing through this affair.
    It was a nagging worry about the radicalism of the years around 1968 and
    its crazier episodes. Even some of us who went through a few of those
    episodes can hardly believe, looking back, that such things could have
    taken place. Might not a few dark after-effects from those days have
    lingered into the present? You could find yourself worrying that question
    even without pining for the arcadia of the 1950s. Out of the dark violence
    of the student left of three decades ago, might not a faintly criminal
    stain, a shiftiness, maybe a touch of ruthlessness, have crept across
    certain personalities and left an indelible mark?
    The worry went well beyond poor old Fischer at the foreign ministry. In
    Germany under the Red-Green coalition, a greater number of veterans of the
    New Left had risen to power than in any other country among the big Western
    powers, risen through the Greens or else through the Social Democrats,
    where some of the New Left Marxists, having abandoned their revolutionary
    leftism, eventually found a home. Gerhard Schrder, the chancellor, used to
    be something of a radical socialist himself, before making his way into the
    safely popular regions of Social Democracy's "Third Way." Such was the long
    march through the institutions.
    So Fischer, in all his flashiness, proved to be a representative figure in
    these matters. That was why it was reasonable to think of the Fischer
    affair as the trial of the generation of 1968--to see in it a challenge to
    an enormous cohort of people who had fashioned their personal characters in
    the years of New Left rebellion. And it did seem, for a while, that the
    challenge was going to prevail, and that Fischer would sooner or later have
    to accept the price of his young man's wildness, hang his head in shame,
    and submit his resignation, just as his enemies were dearly hoping.
    But not so fast. The letters pages of German newspapers began to fill with
    dispatches from middle-aged worthies from the business world and the
    learned professions who confessed that they, too, had waged the revolution
    back in the years around 1968, and then had grown up and had sanded down
    the sharp edge of their views, just as Fischer had done, and Germany's
    foreign minister ought not to be persecuted for what happened long ago. The
    Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, a conservative paper, published an essay by
    the poet Charles Simic shaking his head over the hypocrisies of
    conservative indignation. If only Fischer had become a stockbroker or a
    college professor, Simic observed, nobody at all would have complained
    about his left-wing background. If only he had become, like so many
    ex-radicals from the 1960s, a right-wing newspaper columnist! The most
    amazing vote of support came from Fischer's own victim, the white-helmeted
    policeman in the photographs from 1973, whose name turned out to be Rainer
    Marx. Fischer telephoned Marx to apologize for the gruesome beating in the
    Frankfurt parking lot, and Marx found admiring words to say about Fischer's
    conduct of foreign policy. Nor did Fischer seem to be collapsing in the polls.
    But there was something about Fischer's ability to survive the scandal that
    aroused still other worries, nameless and deep, touching on matters well
    beyond the mayhem of the New Left. For what might it say about Germany if,
    faced with some hair-raising accusations and the dreadful photographs, the
    German people ended up supporting their foreign minister with more
    enthusiasm instead of less? What would it mean if the worse Fischer seemed,
    the more he was applauded? Americans have had some experience with that
    kind of question. The Clinton sex scandal hit its stride in the same year
    that Fischer became foreign minister, and week by week Clinton's personal
    behavior was revealed in ever more pornographic detail. Most Americans
    seemed to recognize intuitively that their president's sex life had
    followed an ancient if undistinguished tradition of husbandly wandering,
    and had no bearing on state policy or the fate of the nation, and was
    finally not the public's business, which was why Clinton's popular ratings
    remained high, and rose even higher when his persecutors had their say.
    Yet Clinton's conservative enemies, some of them, saw in his behavior
    something much more worrisome. They saw a shadow of the 1960s and its
    radical subversion of (as they imagined it) basic morality, a left-wing
    undermining of eternal principles of behavior, a menace to civilization.
    The right-wing accusation against the radicalism of the 1960s has always
    been a bit more shrill and intense in the United States than in Europe, and
    as the Clinton scandals unfolded, the conservatives in America grew ever
    more upset, not just at the sinning president but at the all-tolerant
    American public. What could it mean, the conservatives had to ask, that
    Clinton's legal situation was tottering and his public support was firming
    up? His popularity seemed to hint at something monstrous: that America had
    been corrupted in its ethics by the horrible radicals of the 1960s. The
    American public seemed to have sunk into a swamp of moral indifference,
    even depravity. Right and wrong had disappeared into a marshy haze. And the
    conservatives grew wide-eyed in astonishment and horror.
    The deeper worry that ran through the Fischer affair had something in
    common with that conservative American fear, only in a German version that
    seemed infinitely more sinister. Some of the commentaries on the Fischer
    affair made the quiet suggestion that, if Germany's foreign minister were
    shown to be a man without character, and if the Germans ended up applauding
    him anyway, as did seem to be happening, it was because, in Germany, any
    number of people were living in the shadow of their own shameful political
    pasts, and the country was long ago shorn of its ability to make moral
    judgments, and nothing was to be done about it. Such was the implication,
    quietly hinted. Germany: a country incapable of looking things square in
    the face. Germany: a country unwilling to confront its own history. And, to
    be sure, in Germany's case, something in that suggestion did catch the eye.
    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
    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.
    Part Two of "The Passion of Joschka Fischer" coming Friday.

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