Among many other honors and distinctions, Paul Berman is a MacArthur “genius” Award winner. On Dec. 9, I attended a stimulating panel discussion he participated in at NYU’s Deutsches Haus (the German cultural center). He and a Rutgers history professor, Belinda Davis, discussed a new book about the 1960s-’70s era New Left in West Germany (“Utopia or Auschwitz”) with its author, Hans Kundnani, a journalist currently based in the UK.
As both a one-time student activist and as author of “A Tale of Two Utopias: The Political Journey of the Generation of 1968,” Berman’s a natural authority on a work about the New Left. By way of a linguistic coincidence, the West German and US New Left movements were both shaped and spearheaded by student organizations known by the same initials, SDS.
To a significant degree, the panel wound up discussing antisemitism. The terrorist edge of the German New Left veered into an antisemitic direction, motivated in part by its embrace of the Palestinian cause after the Six Day War. Before June ’67, the German New Left was understood to be generally sympathetic to Israel. This changed almost instantly, and radically, with Israel’s victory in ’67.
The panel mentioned some representative figures in the German New Left unselfconsciously drifting into rhetoric that echoed their Nazi forebears. Perhaps most graphic was the behavior of the German hijackers of a civilian airliner to Entebbe, Uganda in 1976, when they separated out all the Jews from among the passengers (not just the Israelis– as Berman pointed out) and kept them as hostages. (All but one were eventually rescued in a spectacular Israeli commando raid, led on the ground by Bibi Netanyahu’s older brother, Yonaton– who wound up being the only rescuer killed.)
At one point, when someone else was speaking, Berman rolled up his sleeve and examined his upper arm; he explained later that he was checking to see if he still had marks from when a policeman had dragged him across a street and beaten him at a 1971 anti-war demonstration in Washington, DC. Berman mentioned that for several years after that event, his political acuity was compromised by his emotional reaction to that beating. He couldn’t help but think of the cop as a fascist or Nazi, and perhaps the system he served as well.
This illustrated how both the American and German New Left became hyperbolic and distorted in their perceptions. But most threw around such epithets for dramatic effect only, not because they believed literally that the system was fascist or Nazi; Berman called this making a “cultural statement.” Still, some did believe their own rhetoric, or acted as if they did.
I should note in this connection that Paul Berman is an authority on Joseph Martin “Joschka” Fischer, the former New Left radical and ex-Green Party leader who was Germany’s foreign minister from 1998 to 2005 and the subject of Berman’s 2005 book, “Power and the Idealists: Or, The Passion of Joschka Fischer, and its Aftermath.” According to Berman, Fischer was astonished that some of his comrades started acting out their rhetoric with terrorism in the 1970s; he says that Fischer felt a need to change politically when he realized that he knew one of the Entebbe hijackers.
Not surprisingly, Berman revealed himself to not be a fan of Bill Ayers, the unrepentant leader of the Weather underground, drawing parallels with its more violent German counterpart, the Baader-Meinhof Gang or Red Army Faction. But he commented on the irony that LBJ’s secretary of defense, Robert McNamara, who once spoke in that very room, was responsible for enormous violence and human suffering in pursuit of a basically good objective– to attempt to prevent the victory in Vietnam of a totalitarian police state– while Ayers, in pursuit of a sinister cause (according to Berman, to trigger a racial civil war that would establish a Communist dictatorship), committed relatively minor and mostly symbolic violence.
Most of the left would certainly argue with Berman’s characterization of these things. I don’t know if he’s being fair in describing Ayers’ motives; Ayers is unapologetic in insisting that he and his comrades’ basic purpose was to stop massive atrocities committed abroad. But Berman is correct that the New Left (both in the US and internationally) lost reasonable perspective in allying with totalitarian revolutionary movements. Still, I’d add that the struggle against the Vietnam war, a movement which Berman participated in, was fully justified because the United States had lost its way morally, losing all sense of proportion and priority in pursuing its ostensibly good goals there.
P.S. I’m queasy over the possibility that our “best and brightest,” this time in the form of our brilliant and well-meaning President, may be leading us into a Vietnam-like quagmire in Afghanistan. I still harbor hope that Obama’s more measured and deliberate nature than that of LBJ, as well as differences in the two situations, will make for a better outcome, but I’m worried.