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Power and the Idealists: Or, the Passion of Joschka Fischer and Its Aftermath Paperback – April 17, 2007
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- Johann Hari, New York Times Book Review
- Derek Chollet, Washington Post
“The best extended political essay I have ever read....More than a contribution to the modern history of ideas, it is a work of art.”
- Mark Bowden
From the Inside Flap
In January 2001, Stern magazine in Germany published a series of shocking photographs of one of Europes leading politiciansJoschka Fischer, the German foreign minister in that year. The photos showed Fischer as a young bully at a left-wing riot in 1973, beating up a policeman. In the European press, and eventually in the American press, the photos set off a massive accusation against the young radicals of the 1960s and their influence on modern lifea controversy that came to be known as "the trial of the Generation of 1968."
Paul Berman tells the story of this scandal. And he answers the massive accusation by recounting the political evolution of several people from that generationFischer himself; Daniel Cohn-Bendit, the leader of the French student uprising of 1968; Dr. Bernard Kouchner, the founder of Doctors Without Borders; and others around the world. Berman explains how, out of the leftism of circa 1968, a new kind of liberal and anti-totalitarian thinking slowly emergeda moral logic that led some of the best-known 68ers to support the Kosovo War of 1999, and led those same people to quarrel bitterly with one another over the rights and wrongs of the Iraq War.
But mostly Berman tells a story. His story has the rhythm, complexity, characters and emotion of a novel. Yet this is not a novel.
This is the story of a rebellious spirit from the past, and how it has wended its way into the crises and traumas of our own timea moving and sometimes puzzling story, disturbing, bracing, heart-breaking, and true. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
Top customer reviews
Dr.Bernard Kouchner,founder of Doctors Without Borders and another of the '68 radicals,did approve the Iraq intervention, although not how it was carried out. Why did they differ?
Berman tells us about many of the characters of the generation of '68, with the whole history of those times and subsequent developments converging on the Iraq question. I wish Fischer's warning that Iraq was a terrorist trap for America had received more consideration from the author.
For all those who were young in '68 this book is a must-read. And for other generations too it is highly instructive. Warm, witty and with plenty of narrative, it's compulsive reading whether you agree with its implications or not.
For this generation then, the question of Yugoslavia, was not a question of real politik, not a sideline question but a question of central importance. And it is not an accident that this generation (of people who were leaders of the world by then) united (finally and too late some might say but united) and chose to intervene in Yugoslavia on humanitarian grounds. Because "everyone had the right to D-Day".
But it was also this generation that, by and large, failed to ask the right questions about Iraq. For no matter how one feels about the Iraq war (and Berman points out some of the more lucid arguments for and against military intervention in Iraq) it is hard to deny that the generation of '68 did not make the humanitarian argument for war against Saddam as it had done for war against Milosevic. It was this generation that kept silent while the "bad US government" went to war for the wrong reasons (with disastrous results for this generation and perhaps the world).
It is a generation not without its flaws then; a genuinely human generation. And this is the beautifully-written story about who they were and are and what, in the end, it was all about.
I strongly recommend this book.
While books about continental politics are few and far between, "Power and the Idealists" belong to another genre, of which there are many recent specimens. These are about the challenges of the Left in the modern world: with the collapse of the USSR -even before it - traditional leftist found themselves in a new world, where traditional orientations and slogans (Imperialism, Colonialism) seem increasingly irrelevant, and new realities and concepts (Islamism, Humanitarian Intervention) make some of them into uncomfortable bedfellows of those who "only yesterday" were the enemies - the US, Capitalists, NATO.
Various books deal with different Leftists or former leftists and these kinds of challenges: James Naughtie's The Accidental American is about Tony Blair and his strange alliance with Bush. Nick Cohen's What's Left? argues that the Left is lost in cynicism and moral relativism. The early parts of George Packer's The Assassins' Gate: America in Iraq deal with Leftist illusions and disillusions past and present; From the Neo-Conservatives to the Liberal Hawks. Paul Berman's is probably the most compelling of the bunch.
Berman's heroes, like the subjects of these other books, follow roughly the same path, typified by Joschka Fischer's. They start as Leftist radicals (to a greater or lesser extent), with extreme and not always coherent views of justice and goodness and equality. They want to transform society, they dream of resistance to Fascism, Imperialism, and their earthly champion, America. They adore Che Guevara, and while they do not support the violence of the Baader Meinhoff gang, they are not too concerned with it; All are fighting the good fight, after all, even if some are misguided, even terribly misguided, in how they do it. Fischer went as far as beating a policeman, and getting caught on camera, leading to a scandal when the pictures surfaced some thirty years later.
Somewhere along the line comes disillusionment. For Fischer, it was Entebbe, when Palestinian terrorists and their German allies not only abducted a plane and threatened to kill its passengers; they also divided them into Jews and Gentiles, releasing the latter while keeping the former captive. For a Leftist like Fischer, the echoes of the Holocaust were too eerie.
Disillusionment had many triggers. For some it was the events in Vietnam, where the North Vietnamese, after vanquishing America, turned against their own people in massacres far worse than My Lai. It might have been watching Che Guevara a little bit too close for comfort; the revolutionary hero was far from what most Leftists made of him.
The realization that the West was not invariably wrong, and that its power could be used for good was dramatic. Berman's heroes (he calls them the 68ers, for a generation shaped by the events of the late 60s and early 70s), as they grew and as some of them came to power, brought their ideals into actions, including military action. They wanted to defend human rights and prevent atrocities, at gunpoint if necessary. The Kosovo War had arguably been their finest hour - a humanitarian effort in which NATO soldiers fought not to further traditional realpolitik ends, but to stop the ethnic cleansing of Kosovo.
... And the war came. The Iraq war confronted the 68ers with a dilemma. They liked George W. Bush not one bit. Everything about the vulgar American rubbed them the wrong way. They disliked and distrusted his justification for war. But they abhorred Saddam Hussein. Thus the Iraq War saw a fault line in the 68 generation, when the unity of this New Left was shattered: some of them supported the US administrations -while others tried to find a path that would allow them to oppose the war and the administration without supporting its enemies.
Berman presents the failure of the Iraq adventure as a consequence of the supreme incompetence of the American administration, and of lack of support from European nation, especially France (p.257). Nowhere does Berman consider the possibility that the task was too onerous. The Law of Unintentional Consequences has no place in Berman's account, nor does he have any doubt of the capacity of an effective policy to solve Iraq's (and the world's) problems. Berman and his heroes have had many disillusions, but they were not disillusioned of the power of technocracy. The idea that there may be limits to the statist policies doesn't seem to have crossed Berman's mind.
A related problem: the treatment of Islam. The chapter of Islam is viewed through the writing of Azar Nafisi (Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books) and of course Kanan Makiya (author of the anti-Baath Republic of Fear: The Politics of Modern Iraq, Updated Edition; No book of this genre is complete without him). When Berman looks at extreme Islam, all he sees is a Totalitarian system, a western ideology in eastern clothing. I think this is an important insight, but a very partial one; there's something seriously wrong with a discussion of radical Islam that pays more attention to Hannah Arendt then to the prophet Muhammad.
This is a general problem with Berman's humanitarians: how little these would be saviors know about the world they would save! Berman's account of Western thought and politics is deep and insightful; His commentary on the rest of the world is shallow and clichéd.
And Berman hardly reflects on how familiar the Interventionist Left seems to those who remember the past. Berman's history starts in the 1940s, but the Leftist quest reminds one of a much older tradition, an earlier generation of Westerners who sought to save the rest of humanity. "Take up the White Man's burden" Kipling wrote in 1899 "The Savage Wars of Peace/Fill Full the Mouth of Famine/and bid the sickness cease ... "
And yet... the Kosovo War did stop the ethnic cleansing of its Muslim population, and did dispose of Slobodan Milosevic, didn't it? And so, perhaps...?