How the ’68ers became warmongers

From their days as denim-wearing radicals manning the barricades to politicians in positions of power, Bernard Kouchner and Joschka Fischer have been fighting fantasy battles against fantasy fascism.

Philip Hammond

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The political evolution of the 1968 generation is often understood in terms of the journey that some older people take pleasure in predicting for the young: that from naive idealism to the realism of maturity.

In the case of leading ’68ers who have gone on to wield considerable influence – notably Joschka Fischer, foreign minister of Germany from 1998 to 2005, and Bernard Kouchner, France’s foreign minister since 2007 – that journey also tends to raise a question: have political principles become compromised in walking the corridors of power instead of marching through the streets? These two men emerge as the key figures in Power and the Idealists, Paul Berman’s intellectual biography of the 1968 generation; Berman worries away at the question throughout.

It is posed particularly sharply by the divisions among former ’68ers over Iraq, when Kouchner and Fischer appeared to be on opposite sides. For Berman, wishing to rescue liberal interventionism from the wreckage of the 2003 invasion, it is supporters of the war like Kouchner who have remained ‘steadfast’ in their adherence to the spirit of 1968. Opponents such as Fischer are seen as having betrayed their former radicalism and grown too close to the establishment.

Famously, Fischer very publicly rejected US defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s arguments for war with Iraq, telling him emphatically: ‘Sorry, I am not convinced.’ For Paul Hockenos, in Joschka Fischer and the Making of the Berlin Republic, this was a ‘symbolic’ moment which dramatised how the influence of the ’68ers had ‘contributed decisively to Germany’s remarkable transformation… into a healthy, democratic country’. Weaving together a biography of Fischer with an ‘alternative history’ of postwar Germany, Hockenos argues that while the ’68ers certainly changed as they grew older, in their ‘long march through the institutions’ they also changed the world around them, creating ‘a Germany that reflected the 1960s cultural revolution’.

Both Berman and Hockenos tend to romanticise 1960s radicalism and, in different ways, seek to carry its legacy forwards into the present. A critical appraisal of the careers of Kouchner and Fischer, however, suggests that their ‘radicalism’ has nothing to offer – not so much because they have compromised their principles, but because their politics were flawed to begin with.

Les Résistants

In the story of the 1968 generation as told by both these authors, the Second World War is even more important than opposition to Vietnam as a formative influence. Hockenos suggests that it was through confronting the Nazi past that the students of the 1960s defined their own political stance and, ultimately, reshaped contemporary German democracy. Questioning the values of their parents, the postwar generation asked themselves whether they would have been collaborators or resisters.

‘Vietnam is Auschwitz’, said the German anti-war activists. Hockenos presents this as a peculiarity of German politics, but Berman sees it as a much wider phenomenon. Inspired by Kouchner, the French ‘New Philosopher’ André Glucksmann, for example, declared himself an enemy of both ‘totalitarianism’ and famine: ‘[T]o all extreme dictatorships and catastrophes he attached a single name: Auschwitz.’ Indeed, in Berman’s telling, the entire student movement of the 1960s was at root motivated by a fear that Nazism had not been defeated. One may doubt whether that is really true, but it does seem to capture something about the politics of leading figures such as Kouchner.

Viewing everything through the filter of the Holocaust hardly makes for clarity about the present. Instead, as discussed below, it has led time and again to moralistic posturing in support of dubious causes. Part of the fascination with the Nazi era was that, as Berman notes, the 1960s students were trying to live up to the generation who had fought the historic anti-fascist battles of the 1930s and 40s. Compared with the wartime résistant generation, the student radicals suspected that they might be ‘the generation of the second-rate… résistants with nothing to resist’.

Berman is right that many ’68ers were on the lookout for a grand cause to equal that of wartime anti-fascism, but what he misses is that in their rush to get to the barricades many were also looking for a way to avoid the difficult business of politics. Thinking that the workers had been seduced by the consumerism of the postwar economic boom, many young radicals doubted that the romance of revolution was close at hand.

There were, to be sure, sporadic attempts to ‘go to the factories’. Fischer worked on the Opel assembly line for a time as part of one such exercise undertaken by his group Revolutionary Struggle. The organisation’s anarchist politics made little headway and the radicals came away complaining bitterly of ‘workers who absolutely must have a colour TV, the new car or bedroom’. Alternatives to the slog of building support and winning people over seemed far more attractive.

One such alternative was to look for a ready-made revolutionary vanguard in the national liberation struggles of the Third World. If one could somehow attach oneself to a movement elsewhere, its moral authority might rub off. This was the route taken by Kouchner in September 1968, less than six months after the squandered promise of the May événements, when he signed up as a Red Cross doctor in the Nigerian civil war.

Doctor to the World

In at least two key respects, Kouchner’s stint in Nigeria set the pattern for much of his subsequent career. Firstly, it afforded him exactly the opportunity he was looking for to replay the anti-fascist struggle with himself in the lead role. The Nigerian government, he thought, was committing genocide against the predominantly Ibo population of Biafra, a province which had declared independence in 1967, by imposing a blockade which caused widespread and appalling famine. Kouchner felt compelled to speak out against the ‘genocide by starvation’, but was prevented from doing so by the Red Cross’s traditional neutrality. To Kouchner, it seemed like a sinister echo of the organisation’s failure to expose the Nazi death camps. ‘By keeping silent’, he later recalled, ‘we doctors were accomplices in the systematic massacre of a population.’ (1)

Indeed, he could not keep silent: Kouchner established a Committee Against Genocide in Biafra to campaign on the issue. Yet while there was certainly terrible suffering in the region, there was no genocide. This should have been clear at the time, since there were seven million Ibo people living ‘without persecution in government-held regions’ (2). It looked like a genocide to Kouchner and other activists because they wanted it to. They fantasised that they were not stuck in the midst of a dirty civil war but rather were standing on the stage of History. This was their new anti-fascist struggle, to match the historic period that their parents lived through.

Kouchner repeated the performance in 1993, when he thought he had discovered more new Nazis committing genocide, this time in Bosnia. Again he felt compelled to speak out: his Doctors of the World organisation proclaimed that it could not ‘remain silent’ in the face of ‘mass executions’, and so it ran a $2million advertising campaign to publicise the Serbian concentration camps. One poster set photographs of Hitler and Serbian President Slobodan Milošević side by side, while another juxtaposed an image of a watchtower from Auschwitz with a contemporary picture of Bosnian Muslims being held in a detention camp.

Again Kouchner was seeing what he wanted to see. After the war, when Kouchner interviewed Bosnian President Alija Izetbegović, the topic of the camps came up again. ‘They were horrible places, but people were not systematically exterminated. Did you know that?’ asked Kouchner. ‘Yes’, admitted Izetbegović, offering the excuse that ‘I thought that my revelations [about the camps] could precipitate bombings’ (3). One wonders what Kouchner’s excuse might be.

The second notable feature of Kouchner’s experience in Biafra was that, while he posed as a lone rebel against authority, he was actually facilitating the exercise of political authority and military force by powerful Western states. His impatience with the Red Cross’s respect for Nigerian sovereignty led him to resign from the organisation and set up his own ‘Doctors Without Borders’ agency, a move which seemed rebellious, but which was perfectly in tune with French government policy. France had from the start covertly aided the rebels against the British-backed Nigerian regime, and had publicly announced its support for Biafran secession in July 1968 – before Kouchner left Paris (4).

Kouchner’s idea that humanitarian workers should be able to operate ‘without borders’ really came into its own after the end of the Cold War when, for a Western elite suddenly deprived of its enemy, humanitarian intervention seemed to offer a new sense of mission and purpose. As Richard Holbrooke observes in his preface to the 2007 edition of Berman’s Power and the Idealists: ‘Kouchner played an immense role in shaping a new view of intervention in the internal affairs of other nations.’ He should know: as a leading US diplomat, Holbrooke put Kouchnerism into action, calling for ‘bombs for peace’ against the Bosnian Serbs, presiding over the 1995 Dayton Accords which made Bosnia an international protectorate, and then helping to orchestrate NATO’s Kosovo war in 1999. Appropriately enough, when Kosovo also became a protectorate, Kouchner was chosen as its first governor.

Street-fighting green

In the mid-1990s, while Kouchner was agitating for tougher Western intervention in Bosnia, Fischer remained much more cautious, conscious of Germany’s barbaric role in the Balkans in the past. He was also, since 1981, a member of the Greens – the most pacifistic of parties in a country defined since 1945 by its renunciation of militarism – though he was not a pacifist himself.

In 2001, when Stern magazine published photographs from 1973 of Fischer beating up a policeman, questions were raised about whether he had sympathised with, or even participated in, the terrorism into which 1960s radicalism degenerated in the 1970s. Berman hangs nearly half his book on the Stern photos, excavating their background and talking through their ramifications. Yet in itself this was a storm in a teacup: Fischer had apparently shared the widespread sympathy for groups like Ulrike Meinhof’s Red Army Faction (RAF) – ‘our comrades in the underground’ – but had vocally rejected terrorism as self-destructive.

His rejection was reinforced in 1976 when another German terrorist group, the Revolutionary Cells, hijacked a plane and took it to Entebbe, Uganda. There, they separated out the Jewish passengers, who were to be executed if a list of demands on behalf of Palestinian prisoners were not met. According to Berman, this led to an epiphany for all honourable ’68ers, who had formerly been blinded by Marxism. Recognising that in opposing Nazism they had ended up like the Nazis, they righted themselves and adopted a properly liberal, ‘anti-totalitarian’ politics.

This was indeed a moment of disorientation and defeat for the 1968 left, though not in quite the way Berman retrospectively interprets it. The violence of groups like the RAF in Germany, the Weathermen in the US or the Italian Red Brigades was another attempt to avoid the arduous process of political struggle, in this case by replacing it with the ‘propaganda of the deed’. Although only a tiny number of people were directly involved, in a sense the actions of such groups sustained the illusion of forward momentum for a much wider section of the left. So long as Ulrike and Co went on bombing and kidnapping, one could imagine that there was an historic battle going on against the ‘fascist state’. As the violence sputtered out, the left’s own underlying weakness was exposed. By the time that a final, bloody spasm of German terrorist violence led to a security crackdown in autumn 1977, Fischer had dropped out of politics altogether. These were the ‘leaden years’ for the German left, and for Fischer too.

The fact that, when he returned to politics, he did so as a Green merits far more attention than it gets from these authors. Ecology is a world away from the progressive, human-centred politics traditionally associated with the left, yet Fischer apparently made the transition seamlessly, even casually. What Hockenos characterises as ‘the Greens’ claim to represent the hitherto unrepresented interests of the earth’s flora and fauna’ can be understood as another version of Kouchner’s self-aggrandising claim to speak in the name of the victims of tyranny and famine. Even better: since they were animals and plants, these ‘victims’ were literally voiceless and, unlike those greedy proles, they had no ambitions to own a colour TV.

As the Greens’ foreign minister of Germany from 1998, Fischer’s readiness to deploy the armed forces was remarkable even for a pugnacious ecologist like him. When he took office, German troops were already stationed abroad in Bosnia and Georgia. Under Fischer they were sent to no fewer than nine further countries and, most significantly, were deployed during the Kosovo conflict in an active war-fighting role for the first time since 1945.

Kosovo truly was, as Berman says, the ’68ers’ war. With a former member of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament as British foreign secretary (Robin Cook), a NATO Secretary-General who had once been an anti-NATO campaigner (Javier Solana), and a US president (Bill Clinton) who had avoided the draft and marched against the Vietnam War, Fischer was hardly exceptional. Nor were the terms in which he sought to reconcile his anti-militarist Green party with bombing: they were pure Kouchnerism.

In response to critics who reminded him that Germany had sworn ‘Never Again’, the foreign minister retorted that ‘Never Again Auschwitz’ took precedence over ‘Never Again War’. Fischer argued that he had discovered a new genocide and that, as a veteran anti-fascist in the former home of Nazism, he had a special responsibility to stop it. To prove his case, he even revealed secret documents outlining a premeditated Serbian plan, codenamed ‘Operation Horseshoe’, to commit genocide in Kosovo. It later transpired that the German government had faked the documents: the supposed blueprint for genocide had been fabricated, complete with an invented name and maps drawn up by the German Defence Ministry (5). Like Kouchner, Fischer made sure he saw what he wanted to see.

‘I am radical!’

‘Kouchner fumed… and fumed still more… His Gallic nostrils flared… Kouchner was apoplectic.’ In the space of 10 pages, in addition to this fuming, flaring apoplexy, Kouchner is ‘furious’ on four occasions, ‘beside himself’ three times, and ‘dumbfounded’ twice, not to mention also being ‘amazed’, ‘puzzled’ and ‘astonished’. The cause of this high drama is Iraq: Berman does his best to stir up some emotion to show that one can be – like Kouchner, and, not coincidentally, like Berman himself – Very Angry Indeed about the Iraq war, while actually supporting it.

Fischer, on the other hand, is seen by Berman as not emotional enough: his speeches about Iraq are ‘wooden’, sounding as if they were written by committee. Berman even joins in with Kouchner’s juvenile sniggering at Fischer’s conservative dress sense. ‘I think that he began to lose his way with his three-piece suits’, says Kouchner. ‘I looked at the three-piece suit of this former ultra-radical and I understood that he had chosen a road that allowed him to rise higher than me in the political hierarchy.’ What a sell-out, implies Kouchner, and Berman invites us to agree.

What Berman ostensibly objects to about Fischer is that in the run-up to the Iraq war he did not offer a ‘left-wing alternative’ plan for overthrowing Saddam. Except that he did: in February 2003 the German government, supported by France, proposed making Iraq an international protectorate, policed by thousands of UN troops (6). This debate is not just narrow, it is non-existent. When both sides agree with the idea of weak states being dictated to by the ‘international community’, then maybe what clothes people are wearing really is the only basis for an argument.

As it happens, Fischer’s clothes also hold a strange fascination for Hockenos, who doggedly tracks him through nearly half a century of wardrobe changes. The difference is that he thinks Fischer is pretty groovy: the future foreign minister appears in ‘a sweater and collared shirt’, in a ‘jeans jacket and a zippered seaman’s sweater’, and later, during his ‘corduroys and sandals’ phase, he is ‘relaxed and untroubled in a Norwegian ski sweater’.

All this talk about who was wearing what is symptomatic of the confusion that surrounds the idea of what it means to be radical. Kouchner’s usage of the term when he was governor of Kosovo is telling. A representative from the Serbian community came to complain about continual attacks by the majority Albanian population, and threatened to wreck the local peace agreements if the violence did not stop. In response, Kouchner leaned across the table and shouted in the man’s face: ‘Who do you think you are, threatening us? Pretending to be radical? I am radical! I was on the barricades before you were born. And I have never left the barricades!’ (6) Unfortunately, Kouchner continues to wield this sort of ‘radicalism’ from the Quai d’Orsay.

As for Fischer, he left politics in 2006 for a job at Princeton University. Hockenos remains starry-eyed about the man, describing him as one of ‘the greats of modern German politics’. He even fantasises that Fischer might make a comeback as ‘international spokesman and lobbyist for the global environment’. Self-appointed spokesman for everything, everywhere? Well, it would be very 1968, but let’s hope not. Forty years on, we deserve something better.

Philip Hammond is reader in media and communications at London South Bank University. He is the author of Framing Post-Cold War Conflicts published by Manchester University Press. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).) and Media, War and Postmodernity published by Routledge (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

Power and the Idealists, by Paul Berman is published by W.W. Norton & Co (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).) Joschka Fischer and the Making of the Berlin Republic, by Paul Hockenos is published by Oxford University Press. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

(1) Quoted in Famine Crimes, African Rights, Alex de Waal, James Currey, 1997, p.76

(2) Condemned to Repeat?, Fiona Terry, Cornell University Press, 2002, p.43

(3) Srebrenica Revisited, Diana Johnstone, CounterPunch, 12 October 2005

(4) Business as Usual: Britain, Oil and the Nigerian Civil War, 1967—1970 (PDF), Yomi Kristilolu, African Economic History Workshop, 25 April 2007

(5) Serbian ethnic cleansing scare was a fake, says general, John Goetz and Tom Walker, Sunday Times, 2 April 2000

(6) Euro-occupation plan for Iraq, by Mick Hume, 10 February 2003

(7) A Statesman Without Borders, James Traub, New York Times Magazine, 3 February 2008

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