Where Germany Has Never Been Before

Where Germany Has Never Been Before

Mini Teaser: Germany, led by its generation of '68, has finally found itself comfortable with its allies, its power and even itself.

by Author(s): Josef Joffe

In the fall of 1998, the career of Helmut Kohl, Germany's apparent
chancellor-in-perpetuity, was terminated after sixteen years in
power. Only Prince Bismarck, with nineteen years at the helm of the
Second Reich, had ruled Germany longer. The defeat of the sixty-eight
year-old chancellor ended not just a political cycle of extraordinary
length. October 27, 1998, the day Gerhard Schroeder was sworn in as
the Federal Republic's seventh chancellor, marked the end of an era
in German history.

Born in 1930, Helmut Kohl was the last chancellor who had actually
experienced World War II, the surrender of the Third Reich, and the
rebirth of West Germany under the loaded guns of the occupiers. While
his successor Schroeder was in grade school, Kohl witnessed the
secular equivalent of transubstantiation: when victors turned into
allies, when the most hated people on earth were granted a place in
the community of Western nations. To this day, Kohl fondly recalls
how his first dark suit, the one he wore on the night of his prom,
had come out of an American care package--as had his wife-to-be
Hannelore's gown. Unlike Schroeder and his cohorts, Kohl was already
an adult during the darkest days of the Cold War between the Berlin
Blockade of 1948-49 and the Berlin Wall of 1961.

Today, Germany's foreign and defense policy is run by a trio of men
born between 1944 and 1948 who have been formed by very different
memories. Gerhard Schroeder, the oldest, was seventeen when American
and Soviet tanks faced each other across the freshly built Wall near
the Brandenburg Gate in 1961. Rudolf Scharping, the defense minister,
was fourteen. And Josef ("Joschka") Fischer, the foreign minister,
was thirteen. But the dividing line between the Kohl and Schroeder
generations is not just a matter of biology.

In the early 1970s, Gerhard Schroeder was head of the Jungsozialisten
in Hannover, the youth organization of the Social Democratic Party
(SPD). Compared to the "Jusos", the American Students for a
Democratic Society seemed like a well-kempt bunch of Ayn Rand
acolytes. Later, as national Juso chairman, the young "Marxist", as
he called himself, would pooh-pooh classic Social Democratic attempts
to reform capitalism, demanding instead the "abolition of our current
economic system." During the same period, Fischer, the trio's
youngest, was teaching urban combat tactics to his comrades from the
Revolutionarer Kampf ("Revolutionary Struggle") in the Frankfurt
woods. The targets of their rock attacks were the "pigs" and,
occasionally, the institutions of "American imperialism" in
Frankfurt. Rudolf Scharping, Germany's current defense minister and
also a former Juso leader, was almost expelled from the Social
Democratic Party for distributing flyers badmouthing the Bundeswehr,
the Federal Armed Forces.

All three came of political age in the heady Sixties when they
imbibed pretty much the same ideological brew in the
"anti-imperialist struggle" against the Vietnam War: anti-capitalism,
anti-Americanism and "anti-anti-communism", plus what the French call
tiers-mondisme (especially of the "anti-Zionist" variety) and
contempt for "bourgeois" political virtues such as moderation,
compromise and pluralism. They grew up in a political milieu where it
was licit to express at least hedged sympathy for those like the Red
Army Faction who would push the "revolutionary struggle" all the way
to arson, abduction and armed terror.

From Youth to Middle Age

So where is that trio now? Is ideology really destiny? Of course not.
Indeed, nothing can be more heartening to worried Germany watchers
than the wondrous transformation of Schroeder and colleagues as they
moved into middle age and the middle of the road. Phenomenologically
at least, the mutation was nothing if not spectacular. Schroeder, the
former Juso radical, now sports Hermès ties, and the only thing
remotely "red" about him is his pricey Cuban Cohiba cigars. Since
moving to the head of the Foreign Office, Fischer has been wearing
only gray three-piece suits; when sworn in as ecology minister in his
home state of Hesse in 1985, he was still sporting jeans and white
Nike running shoes for a little épater les bourgeois. Sending his
Bundeswehr boys off to their staging areas in Macedonia in early
1999, Scharping looked as if he had worn army fatigues all his adult
life. Yet after high school, he served only for a few months. While
his cohorts were putting in their obligatory eighteen months,
Scharping managed to get out of the barracks and into the university.

The Bundeswehr makes for the crudest irony of them all. At the
beginning of the air campaign against Serbia in March 1999, it was
the Red-and-Green Schroeder-Fischer government that sent German strike
aircraft into combat for the first time since World War II. Half a
century after Adolf Hitler had taken his armies to the gates of
Moscow and Cairo, it was a coalition of leftists and pacifists that
dispatched German combat troops to the Balkan theater. Only four
years earlier, Helmut Kohl, the pro-Western conservative, had
established as holy writ that "the Bundeswehr shall not tread where
the Wehrmacht has conquered." All gone and forgotten now--discarded
by leaders whose parties in the past had gone to the brink of
insurrection over such matters.

Let us briefly glance backward to savor the full flavor of this
astounding reversal. In the early 1950s, the Left, spearheaded by the
Social Democrats, had marshaled all the weapons of mass mobilization
to halt West Germany's rearmament and its entry into NATO. Though the
party lost the contest by losing the elections of 1953 and 1957, it
resumed the struggle even more passionately in 1958 when the
Bundeswehr began to acquire nuclear delivery vehicles (for atomic
munitions under U.S. control). In the late 1970s, the "neutron bomb"
rekindled--and remolded--the peace movement. Traditionally a broad
coalition of Social Democrats, organized labor and the churches, the
movement began to sprout a "green" wing. So by 1980, when Joschka
Fischer's Greens were founded, German pacifism had its very own
party. Red and Green now fought together against Pershing II and
cruise missiles, putting hundreds of thousands of protesters on the
streets in 1981 and 1982. Though the Left failed again and the
missiles were deployed on schedule, it did manage to bring down a
chancellor in 1982--their very own comrade Helmut Schmidt who would
not yield to the pacifist-neutralist nationalism that was then
engulfing the SPD.

In 1991 during the Gulf War, the truest believers on the Left hung
white sheets from their windows, while the Kohl coalition wiggled out
of military participation by giving $10 billion in tribute to the
United States. Nor was his Center-Right government any more eager
than the Left to put German forces into harm's way in the Bosnian
theater. Indeed, the Kohlists kept hiding behind the lore invented by
Helmut Schmidt and his Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher in the
early 1980s in order to evade naval duty in and around the Persian
Gulf during the Iran-Iraq War. This dogma conveniently claimed that
the Basic Law had rendered out-of-area missions strictly verboten.

Accordingly, the Social Democrats went all the way to the Supreme
Court in 1994 to block German officers from serving in NATO's AWACS
planes circling the skies over the former Yugoslavia--on the somewhat
specious grounds that these would not only track hostile planes but
also relay the order to shoot them down. And that would be
out-of-area combat. Only after the Constitutional Court dismissed the
"defense only" interpretation of the Basic Law in 1994 did the
Bundestag authorize the dispatch of German peace-enforcing troops to
Bosnia. It was only four years later, under the very aegis of those
who had most bitterly fought all things military and nuclear in the
fifty years past, that German Tornado strike aircraft actually loosed
shots in combat.

Looking back, Defense Minister Scharping now thunders: "Never again
must [Europe] fail as it did in the Balkans a few years ago." He now
claims that "the SPD never interpreted security merely as defense
against an aggressor"--as his party had done for twenty years by
condemning any action beyond national and alliance self-defense as
unconstitutional. The former anti-Pershing protester has only the
kindest words for the alliance: "We owe decades of freedom, peace and
safety to NATO." In a parliamentary debate on the Kosovo war, his
Chancellor Schroeder told the House: "Before the background of our
German history, there must be no doubt about our reliability,
decisiveness and firmness." For only a "solid front of the entire
international community will bring Milosevic to reason." And there
shall be "no German Sonderweg"--no separate road that would lead
Germany away from its Western obligations.

Today Scharping points out that the West perceives the Red-and-Green
coalition in a "completely different light", "precisely as the
opposite" of what it used to fear. How shall we crack this amazing
paradox of a left-wing government turning on its own deeply held
beliefs? Indeed, how to explain that Red-and-Green, by ordering
German forces into action out-of-area, dared go where even Kohl's
conservatives had refused to tread? Why, of all people, would
old-time NATO and America bashers like the SPD and Greens lead
Germany into a war managed and munitioned by the United States?

Essay Types: Essay