In 1998, 30 years after the student uprisings that politicised a generation, Germany's "1968ers" entered government. Expectations were high but the red-green coalition's achievements have been limited. Their liberalising effect on Germany in the decades before 1998 will be the 1968ers main legacyby Hans Kundnani / August 28, 2005 / Leave a comment
When Gerhard Schröder replaced Helmut Kohl as German chancellor in the autumn of 1998, it was often described as a momentous generational shift. Exactly 30 years after they had marched in the streets, the so-called “68ers”—the generation born at the end of the war and politicised by the student rebellion of the late 1960s—had come to power. They had completed the “long march through the institutions” that the pop star of the movement, Rudi Dutschke, once called for.
Moreover, the new government included the Greens for the first time. The junior coalition partner grew out of the 1980s peace movement, and represented, even more than Schröder’s Social Democrats (SPD), the spirit of ’68. Its leader, Joschka Fischer, a former Frankfurt street fighter who became foreign minister and deputy chancellor in the new government, embodied that journey from protest to power.
But the red-green government has been badly wounded by its failure to tackle Germany’s high unemployment and economic reform logjam, and is almost certainly heading for defeat in September (assuming Germany’s constitutional court allows an election). The last seven years now look increasingly like the swansong of the 1968ers rather than their crowning achievement. In retrospect, it seems clear that the 68ers had most influence in the decades before 1998. They will always be associated with the liberalisation of German society, the confrontation with the Nazi past, the rise of green politics and the spread of post-national, post-industrial values. The years in government, by comparison, seem anticlimactic.
By no means all members of the red-green government were former 68ers. Men like Franz Müntefering, SPD party chairman, Hans Eichel, finance minister, and Wolfgang Clement, economics minister, are moderate Social Democrats barely touched by 68er radicalism. But many key figures in the government were participants in the debates that swirled around the movement: Schröder himself, Joschka Fischer, Otto Schily, Herta Däubler-Gmelin, Jürgen Trittin and others.
What kind of legacy the 1968ers will leave is still uncertain. Although some aspects of 1960s’ baby boom liberalism is now deeply rooted in German society, in many other respects 1968er radicalism (moderated with age) seems to have passed through the system leaving few marks on the successor generation. If, as expected, the centre-right CDU/CSU wins the election, the post-1968 generation will come to power, many of whom are indifferent or even hostile to the values of the 1968ers.
The end to the 68ers’ “long march” could have turned out very differently. If a red-green government had come to power before the Berlin wall crumbled, there might still be two German states. Oskar Lafontaine, the Social Democrats’ failed candidate for chancellor in the 1990 unification election, could barely disguise his contempt for German unity or for his unfashionably nationalistic compatriots in East Germany—an attitude typical of many of his generation. (Ironically, Lafontaine left the SPD in May and in the coming election will lead a new left-wing alliance with the PDS, the former East German communists.)
Late-1980s Germany felt ready for a 68er government: it was relatively optimistic, still economically successful, willingly submerging its national sovereignty in a new round of European integration and full of ideas for marrying German industrial might with the goals of the environmental movement. Eight years later, when Schröder and Fischer finally took over from Helmut Kohl’s centre-right coalition, they inherited a less accommodating country. The optimism and economic success had vanished, due in part to the travails of unification, and the 68ers’ post-national, post-industrial values seemed to belong to a different era.
Above all, what Germany needed—and still needs—was a government capable of building a consensus for reform: to increase domestic demand, stimulate job creation and redesign social protection. But hard-nosed economics was not the 68ers’ strength. Making the capitalist machine run more smoothly seemed an inappropriate destiny for their idealism.
The construction of such a “third way” foundered on resistance from Germany’s still powerful trade unions and the indifference of a 68er faction in the government that was uninspired by the Clinton/Blair rhetoric of “rights and responsibilities” and piecemeal reform. Schröder himself did embrace the rhetoric of modernisation and innovation from the start, but his government subsequently followed a zigzag course in economic policy. Bodo Hombach, Schröder’s theorist of the SPD version of the third way, promised to revitalise the social market. But faced with opposition from the unions and his own party, Schröder abandoned reform midway through the first term. He picked it up again after the 2002 election, unveiling the Agenda 2010 reform package and implementing the Hartz proposals on cutting benefits for the long-term unemployed and encouraging people to take lower-paid jobs. But in the run-up to the state election in North Rhine-Westphalia in May, the rhetoric lurched back to the left: Franz Müntefering, the SPD party chairman, described some foreign investors as “locusts.”
Red-green frustration is understandable. Germany’s big companies perform strongly in world markets, and exports and profits are at record levels. But the success of industry has not filtered down to the rest of the economy. Internationally competitive companies are not creating jobs at home and, as in France, there is no large, flexible, lower-paid service sector to do so. The government seems to have realised quite late in the day that it is possible to have a more flexible, job-creating labour market without embracing Thatcherismus. But by then it had neither the time nor room for manoeuvre to see the reforms through. Even Daniel Cohn-Bendit, a leading Green and old comrade of Fischer, recently admitted that the government “began its reforms too late and did everything half-heartedly.” It is now likely, as the writer Peter Schneider put it recently, “to pay the price for not solving the problems that interest voters more than any others right now: unemployment and the paralysed economy.”
Away from economic reform, the 68ers in the government can claim some limited achievements. The Greens negotiated the phasing out of nuclear power, although they were forced to allow energy companies to continue operating some nuclear power stations until at least 2023. And they pushed up the tax on petrol as part of an “eco-tax,” although not as much as they wanted. The other distinctively 68er reform of the first term (1998-2002) was an overhaul of Germany’s citizenship laws, making it easier for non-ethnic Germans, particularly those of Turkish/Kurdish origin, to become citizens. Here, too, plans were watered down. After losing the Hesse state election of February 1999 and thus losing the parliamentary majority needed to pass a law granting dual citizenship to second-generation immigrants, the government had to settle for dual citizenship for the children of non-Germans only up to the age of 23, at which point they must choose. Part of the red-green aim was to acknowledge that Germany is de facto a country of immigration and that the government should do more to integrate the Turkish/Kurdish minority. But that minority has also had reservations about integration. An initial surge of people taking up German citizenship when the law was first passed has subsequently fallen off, from 187,000 in 2000 to 141,000 in 2003.
It is in foreign policy that the red-green government has left its deepest impression, although here too it has followed a somewhat zigzag course. Outside Germany, Schröder’s government will be remembered above all for its opposition to the Iraq war. If there was ever a moment when it seemed to live up to its reputation as a 68er government, this was it. Until then, most commentators had focused on how far Schröder and Fischer had abandoned their student ideals. After all, in 1999 they had sent German troops into combat for the first time since 1945, as part of Nato’s intervention in Kosovo. (As recently as 1995, the SPD and Greens had opposed German involvement in UN peacekeeping operations in Bosnia.) The generation that had been galvanised by the Vietnam war was protesting against another US military intervention 35 years later, this time not as students but as the government. However, opposition to the Iraq invasion took two very different forms reflecting the backgrounds of the government’s two key figures: Schröder and Fischer.
Schröder’s predecessor, Helmut Kohl, born in 1930, belonged to the so-called Flakhelfergeneration, who had been members of the Hitler Youth or operated anti-aircraft batteries in the final days of the war. Although they bore no responsibility for the Nazi era, they had experienced Nazi Germany’s downfall first hand. Schröder, born in 1944, and the rest of his generation, on the other hand, had no memories at all of 1945—Germany’s “zero hour.”
This generational difference, as much as the radical past of some members of Schröder’s cabinet, created an expectation in 1998 that a new era was beginning, particularly in foreign policy. The feeling was reinforced in 1999 when, a decade after reunification, the government began its move from Bonn to Berlin. As Willie Paterson of Birmingham University has put it: “Paradoxically, the 68ers, who were originally part of a worldwide post-national movement of the left, may be perceived… as helping to shape the most German of post-war governments.”
Even before his election in 1998, Schröder had been associated with the idea of a new “uninhibited” nation, less encumbered by historical guilt. Where Kohl had talked about European integration as a matter of war and peace and as a necessary condition of German reunification, Schröder complained about Germany’s disproportionate payments to the EU and made it clear that he would not be afraid to pursue German national interests “without a complex.” And in autumn 1998, Schröder even gave the impression that he sympathised with the writer Martin Walser, who had criticised Germany’s continuing contrition over Auschwitz.
But while Schröder created an expectation of change, Fischer, born in 1948, did all he could to stress the continuities of German foreign policy. As soon as he took office, Fischer began to sound like Helmut Kohl. “The most important change is that nothing will change in the fundamentals of German foreign policy,” he told Die Zeit in November 1998.
But things did change. When, in the spring of 1999, Nato bombed Belgrade in an attempt to stop Slobodan Milosevic’s ethnic cleansing of Kosovo, Schröder and Fischer agreed to send Luftwaffe Tornado aircraft on combat missions over Serbia. At an emotionally charged Green party conference in Bielefeld in May 1999, Fischer was called a “warmonger” and a protester struck him with a paint bomb, perforating his eardrum. Still wearing his paint-splattered grey suit, Fischer convinced enough of the party to support him, and the coalition survived.
Fischer’s reasons for supporting German involvement in Kosovo typified the strange political journey of the 68ers. To many of the students who demonstrated in 1968, the “anti-authoritarian revolt,” as they called it, was also a protest against what they saw as a conspiracy of silence about the Nazi past. Growing up in Adenauer’s West Germany of the 1950s and early 1960s, they saw disturbing traces of the Nazi regime beneath the democratic, affluent surface of West German society. “We had the feeling that we were surrounded by Nazis,” says Christian Semler, a student activist in West Berlin in 1968 and now an editor at the 68er newspaper Tageszeitung in Berlin.
After 2nd June 1967, when a student was shot dead in Berlin by police during a demonstration against a visit by the Shah of Iran, the mood took a dark, almost apocalyptic turn. To the students, it seemed that the apparently democratic West German state had become a “pre-fascist” one. Nazism had not been defeated in 1945. Rather, under the guise of consumer capitalism, it had metamorphosed into what one West Berlin student, Gudrun Ensslin, called a “Raspberry Reich.” Ensslin was arrested in April 1968 for setting off a bomb in a Frankfurt department store, the first action by the Baader-Meinhof gang. At her trial, her radical lawyer, Otto Schily, now the interior minister, argued that violence against the West German state was justifiable “resistance” against the “Auschwitz generation.”
Fischer moved to Frankfurt in 1968 to join the rebellion, and over the next decade flirted with political violence. Together with Cohn-Bendit, he was part of a “spontaneist” group in Frankfurt called “Revolutionary Struggle” that fought pitched battles with the police. But in the mid-1970s, as the violence of the extra-parliamentary opposition against the West German state escalated, Fischer began to rethink what the student movement had justified as anti-fascist resistance. His Damascus moment came when he learned that his former friend Wilfried Böse, and his Palestinian comrades, had “selected” Jewish passengers on the Air France airliner they hijacked to Entebbe in 1976, and earmarked them for execution. “What shocks me,” he said later, “is that we did not see how quickly we came close to doing what we had rejected so strongly in our parents’ generation.”
Fischer never became a pacifist, unlike many of his Green colleagues, but he adopted their mantra of “never again war”—that is, until his next radical change of mind. The massacre by the Serbs of 8,000 Bosnian Muslims at Srebenica in July 1995 convinced Fischer that Germany—of all nations—could not stand by and allow genocide to take place in Europe. “I learned not only ‘never again war’ but also ‘never again Auschwitz,'” he would say later. German history had made him a liberal interventionist.
In other words, despite his reputation within the Green party as a realist, Fischer’s vision of German foreign policy remains an idealist one in which the Holocaust, and Germany’s responsibility for it, is perhaps even more important than it was for Kohl. Hence also Fischer’s enthusiasm for the “completion” of European integration. This reached its high point with his speech at Humboldt University in May 2000, sparking the debate that led to the abortive European constitution. (In the last two years, Fischer has revised this vision, rejecting the idea of a “core” Europe pressing ahead with integration, and placing more emphasis on Europe’s strategic role and the importance of EU enlargement to include Turkey. These ideas are spelt out in his recent book, The Return of History.)
Unlike Fischer, Schröder did not play an active part in the radical left-wing groups of the 1970s, nor did he go through the successive crises of conscience that Fischer did. Schröder was a law student in Göttingen in 1968, but rose to prominence as leader of the young Socialists in the late 1970s, clashing with the chancellor, Helmut Schmidt, over the stationing of cruise missiles in Germany. Nor did his country’s Nazi past seem to loom as large for Schröder as it did for Fischer. Yet despite their different starting points—Fischer’s preoccupation with the past and Schröder’s quest for “normalisation”—they came together on the use of the German military abroad and created a historic shift in foreign policy.
Then came 11th September. There were many ironies implicit in the idea of Germany’s 1968 generation being in power in a post-9/11 world. Not only were the terrorist attacks on the US planned in Hamburg, but the West German terrorist groups of the 1970s, like the Baader-Meinhof gang, had grown directly out of the same student movement that had inspired many members of the German government. Just eight months before 9/11, Fischer himself had appeared as a witness at the trial of Hans-Joachim Klein, a member of Carlos the Jackal’s terrorist group, with whom Fischer had shared a flat in Frankfurt in the 1970s. (To coincide with the trial, Stern magazine published photos of Fischer attacking a policeman in 1973.) Meanwhile, Otto Schily, who as interior minister introduced a series of tough internal security measures after 9/11, had been a Green party founder and the defence lawyer who had argued that Baader-Meinhof violence was justified.
Schröder immediately promised the US “unconditional solidarity” and support in the war on terror. He survived a vote of no confidence in the Bundestag over deploying troops in Afghanistan, and, after much agonising at another party conference, this time in Rostock, the Greens once again backed their foreign minister. Eventually 3,900 German troops participated in Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan. Germany also took over command of the peacekeeping operation in Macedonia when American troops were transferred to Afghanistan.
But as it became clear during 2002 that the US was planning an attack on Iraq, Schröder and Fischer both expressed opposition, though for different reasons. Fischer opposed the war in Iraq because, unlike the war in Kosovo, it was not primarily a humanitarian intervention to prevent genocide, and secondly, because, unlike the war in Afghanistan, it was not to be fought by Nato or any other international organisation but by the US and an ad hoc “coalition of the willing.” Schröder, struggling to gain ground during his re-election campaign in autumn 2002, went further than Fischer (or, for that matter, Jacques Chirac). With a majority of Germans opposed to the war, he made it clear that Germany would not support an attack on Iraq, regardless of the UN security council’s decision.
The differences between Fischer and Schröder on Iraq were partly temperamental and partly tactical—Schröder has always been a more populist politician and as chancellor has had to appeal to more mainstream opinion. But Schröder’s more nationalistic language, in particular his reference to a Deutscher weg, a German way, seems to have little to do with 1968. (There was, however, a small 68er group around Rudi Dutschke, whom the sociologist Wolfgang Kraushaar calls a “left-wing nationalist,” that had little time for contrition about the Holocaust and backed German unification.)
The foreign policy of the Schröder government has, in effect, been a mix of two different visions—Fischer’s idealism based on the lessons of Auschwitz, and Schröder’s realism based on German interests. This is illustrated by the different controversies that have surrounded the two politicians in the dying months of their government. Schröder has been criticised for his close relationship with Vladimir Putin and his support for lifting the EU’s embargo on arms to China. Fischer’s misdemeanours, on the other hand, are more appropriate to a cosmopolitan 68er. In April he faced a parliamentary hearing on his involvement in the secret relaxation of visa requirements for visitors from eastern Europe introduced in 1999. He has also been criticised for ordering the foreign ministry to stop publishing obituaries of German diplomats who had served in the Nazi period—just the kind of people whose rehabilitation the student radicals had protested against.
The red-green government will leave an ambivalent foreign policy legacy. Germany has made a break with the Kohl era, as its current lobbying for a permanent seat on the UN security council illustrates. But which direction Germany will now take—a Fischerite policy centred around Germany’s historical responsibilities in a new more interventionist form, or a Schröderite policy focused on Germany’s national interests—remains unclear.
The answer will be determined by the post-1968 generation, those born in the 1950s and later, such as Christian Wulff, the new Christian Democrat (CDU) star. Wulff defeated Schröder’s protégé Sigmar Gabriel in 2003 to become premier of Lower Saxony. According to opinion polls, the clean-cut Wulff has overtaken Fischer as Germany’s most popular politician. (Fischer has been consistently Germany’s most popular politician since 1998, and remained so even when his radical past was under media scrutiny.) Such is Wulff’s popularity that some believe that, despite his inexperience, he should have been chosen as the CDU chancellor candidate ahead of Angela Merkel.
Given that the party helped to pass some of Schröder’s labour market reforms, the CDU’s economic policies are unlikely to be radically different from those of the Social Democrats. Their promise of a cautious renewal of the social market economy is similar to that promised by the SPD in 1998. The CDU/CSU’s advantage is that it should have a majority in both the lower and upper house for at least the next two years, giving it the chance to pass more fundamental reforms if it has the political will.
In foreign policy, the centre-right promises to rebuild Germany’s relationship with the US, damaged by Schröder’s Berlin-Paris-Moscow axis. “A government led by the CDU/CSU would return to the idea of an integrated foreign policy instead of pursuing ‘special relationships’ with individual states,” says Matthias Wissmann, chairman of the Bundestag’s committee on Europe. That may also mean a warmer relationship with Tony Blair and support for some measures of EU reform.
However, Merkel will be operating in a very different world from Helmut Kohl, her original mentor: balancing Atlanticism and European integration has become more difficult. For example, Merkel opposes the accession of Turkey to the EU—an issue on which the 68ers are closer to the Americans than the CDU.
The daughter of a Protestant minister who moved from Hamburg to East Germany in 1957, Merkel could not be more different from Schröder and Fischer. The key date in her political development is not 1968 but 1989. The Nazi past is likely to be less central to her politics than it was to Fischer’s, or for that matter Kohl’s. She has spoken positively about the conservative values of the Adenauer era—the Germany that the 68ers were in revolt against. And yet the fact that she is standing at all—the first woman to be a candidate for chancellor—is in some ways due to the liberalising influence of that 1968 generation now starting its long march out of the institutions.