Shortly before noon on December 21, 1975, six people entered the headquarters of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) on Vienna's Ringstrasse. Confirming that an OPEC summit was still in progress, they walked up the stairs to the first floor, took out automatic weapons, and advanced toward the room where the meeting was being held. When a pair of Austrian guards tried to stop them, the terrorists shot one, sending his body down to the lobby in an elevator, and locked the other in an empty office. After killing two bystanders who tried to intervene, they entered the conference room and took several dozen people hostage. A special police squad rushing to the scene was met with shots in the first-floor reception area and returned the fire. Soon one of the terrorists, bleeding from the stomach, tossed a grenade that exploded between the two sides and sent everyone diving for cover. The police retreated downstairs and a standoff began.

The terrorist leader, a Venezuelan who was born Ilyich Ramirez Sanchez but went by the nom de guerre "Carlos," stacked explosives near the hostages and announced that he was the head of a Palestinian commando unit targeting the conservative oil-rich states of Iran and Saudi Arabia. He dictated a communique in French promoting the Palestinian cause and Arab unification, along with a short message in English threatening to kill the hostages unless the Austrian authorities broadcasted the communique every two hours and provided a bus to the Vienna airport, a getaway plane, and a flight crew. He sent out to the police first the notes and later the terrorist who had been wounded during the firefight and needed immediate medical attention. By evening the Austrian government decided to broadcast the communique as directed, and during the night it acceded to the other demands as well, so long as the captive Austrians were released before the plane left.

The next morning a bus pulled up in front of the building and transported the terrorists and the more than 30 hostages to the airport, accompanied by an ambulance carrying the wounded gunman. With explosives packed under the seats of the Saudi and Iranian oil ministers, the plane flew first to Algiers, where most of the hostages were released; then to Tripoli, where several more were let go; and finally back to Algiers, where the last batch was turned over unharmed. The terrorists were allowed to disperse, and Carlos himself is believed to have collected millions of dollars in ransom money.

Two years later, the gunman who had been wounded during the incident, a young German named Hans-Joachim Klein, had a change of heart. He renounced terrorism and published a memoir entitled Return to Humanity. But he continued to live under a false identity because he was still wanted for murder and feared retaliation from former colleagues upset at his recantation. Nevertheless, in 1998 he was finally arrested in a small French village and extradited to Germany to face prosecution for his role in the OPEC headquarters attack.

Klein's trial, which began in Frankfurt this past January, was a media circus. But the reason for all the fuss was not so much the quarter-century-old crime or the defendants (Klein and one Rudolf Schindler) but the witnesses called to testify on both sides. To explain just what had happened at the OPEC headquarters on that fateful day, the prosecution featured Carlos himself, by then serving a life sentence in a Paris jail for another crime. The defense, trying to put Klein's youthful radicalism in context, brought in as character witnesses not only 1960s icon Daniel Cohn-Bendit (now a prominent European parliamentarian) but the most popular politician in Germany: Green Party leader and foreign minister Joschka Fischer. Fischer had been the lead defendant's friend and colleague during protests in Frankfurt nearly three decades earlier.

On February 15, the case officially ended as Judge Heinrich Gehrke sentenced Klein to nine years in prison for his role in the attack. But the broader questions that haunted the trial remain: How could individuals such as Fischer and Klein start from the same place yet end up so far apart? Which subsequent life -- that of the minister or that of the terrorist -- truly represented their common 1960s heritage? And what, in retrospect, did all the radical Sturm und Drang of those years actually achieve?


The social upheavals of the late 1960s affected virtually every aspect of public and private life across the industrial world. From Berkeley to Berlin, Paris to Prague, the youth of the educated middle classes discarded established conventions and challenged traditional values. Fueled by pot and acid, protesting to the chords of Bob Dylan and Jimi Hendrix, experiencing a sexual revolution beneath posters of Che Guevara and Ho Chi Minh, they were swept up in an amorphous but palpable movement that would remain imprinted on their collective consciousness for decades to come.

Along the way, the young radicals spearheaded a complete redefinition of progressive politics. From the second half of the nineteenth century onward, the left in the industrialized world had highlighted the role of the working class as the subject of history; the workers' struggles against capitalism would eventually lead to the universal emancipation of humanity. Traditional leftists disagreed about whether this end would be achieved through violent revolution (the communist variant) or through evolution (the socialist and social democratic path). But they did agree on a project inspired by a modernist vision of politics, economics, and culture that was deeply anchored in the rationalism of the Enlightenment.

The New Left, in contrast, saw the Old Left as part of the problem rather than the solution -- even though both reviled capitalism. Instead of extolling the "mega" approach of its predecessors, the New

Left praised smallness, immediacy, autonomy, decentralization, and community control. Whereas traditional leftists might support the construction of dams, the New Left would fight for the survival of the snail darters that the dams would inevitably destroy. The notion of the working class as the subject of history went by the wayside. Indeed, if there was any subject of history at all for the members of this motley movement, it was a loose coalition of developing-world peoples, ethnic minorities, and women -- in short, what later theorists might categorize as "the other." Rejecting class as the most important source of identity, the New Left embraced a number of alternative identities -- the more particularistic, the better.

Every country was engulfed by this wave of youthful radical activism to some extent, but nowhere did the phenomenon have a greater impact than in the Federal Republic of Germany. One reason for this was the country's unique geographic and geopolitical situation. As the central flash point for the East-West conflict and an obvious first casualty should the Cold War turn hot, West Germany was particularly sensitive to the peace issue that featured so prominently in the New Left's consciousness. Another reason was the strong antimodernist legacy in German political thought, which gave German protesters an unusually potent intellectual framework and vocabulary in which to couch the era's general attack on the very premises of industrial modernity, such as economic growth, bureaucratic authority, large organizations, and "the state."

A third reason was the country's extraordinary relationship with the United States. For Germany, as for Japan, the United States was liberator, occupier, role model, protector, ally, rival, and bully all rolled into one. Beneath the surface of German-American relations lay powerful feelings of partnership and submission, gratitude and jealousy, friendship and rivalry. For German youth, the United States represented both the combatant in Vietnam and the bearer of liberal democracy and Western values, both the power behind a stultifying status quo and the underwriter of its blessed political stability.

Most important, however, was the unique issue of Germany's Nazi past and its unresolved national question. The protesters -- commonly referred to in Germany (as in France) as "68ers" -- were the first to confront the Federal Republic's fascist legacy in a comprehensive way. They revolted against the complacency and silence of their parents, questioning the entire value structure of a supposedly "new" Germany that they believed to be little more than a continuation of its Nazi predecessor. It was they who "dared more democracy," in Willy Brandt's famous phrase, tearing away the democratic veneer of the 1950s and early 1960s and replacing it with a democratic substance that featured criticism and exposure rather than conformity and silence. Not only did such questioning provoke an even greater generation gap in Germany than in other countries, it also made nationalism and national identity more complicated and problematic for German activists than for their counterparts elsewhere.

This was the context in which Joschka Fischer and Hans-Joachim Klein emerged as radicals during the late 1960s and early 1970s. Both were members of the "Sponti" (short for "Spontaneist") wing of the anarchist movement that dominated social and political activism in Frankfurt during the early- to mid-1970s, and they shared a number of positions, emotions, and friendships. What was rarely appreciated during the commotion over Fischer's guest appearance at Klein's trial, however, was the extent to which both men's life trajectories could be seen as logical developments of different themes within the New Left.

Simply put, the activist movement in West Germany during those years harbored deeply contradictory ideas and values that coalesced in a powerful mix for a while -- but eventually fell apart precisely because of their fundamental incompatibilities and the passage of time. To explain where a participant in the movement ended up 30 years later, one does not necessarily need recourse to dramatic ideological conversions or a biographical deus ex machina. The answer can generally be found by looking to the particular strands of the turbulent radical scene that the individual favored at the time.


Joschka Fischer was born in 1948, the third child of a butcher in the state of Baden-Wurttemberg. Dropping out of high school in 1966, he hitchhiked around Europe and the Mediterranean before marrying and taking a job as a salesman at a toy store. In 1967 he and his wife became active in the blossoming student movement, and the next year they moved to Frankfurt, where Fischer attended university lectures by the philosophers Theodor Adorno and Jurgen Habermas while immersing himself in the works of Marx, Hegel, and Mao. Soon he became a leader of a local group called "Revolutionary Struggle," which spearheaded demonstrations against the Vietnam War and organized squatters in frequently heated protests against what today would be called the gentrification of Frankfurt's Westend district. It was the publication of photographs of Fischer punching a police officer during one such confrontation in 1973 that contributed to a flurry of negative publicity for the foreign minister at the time of the Klein trial. What kept Fischer from moving from street protests to terrorism, however, was his attachment to two particular components of the New Left agenda -- democracy and universal freedom -- and his sense that the best path toward these objectives lay through Western liberalism rather than around it.

As the 1970s progressed, Fischer came to an important realization: Although the Federal Republic that he had so bitterly opposed for a decade was indeed a deeply flawed country, it was in no recognizable sense a fascist state. Moreover, he also grasped that the democratic reforms the 68ers had fought for were finally starting to happen. Between roughly 1968 and 1980, West German society underwent a fundamental transformation. Public discourse and behavior, once extremely formal and strictly subservient to class, status, age, and gender hierarchies, became more casual and egalitarian. Universities, once the bastions of a small, male, bourgeois elite trained at special high schools, opened themselves up to the population at large. And novelty in general -- whether in food, music, or lifestyle -- became increasingly accepted and even appreciated. These were precisely the kinds of developments that people like Fischer had sought, and he was intellectually open enough to acknowledge the change.

Meanwhile, the Social Democratic Party (SPD) and its liberal coalition partner, the Free Democrats, presided over political reforms in the 1970s that contributed to a greater democratization of German society -- even though social democracy was more the beneficiary of these massive transformations than their cause. Most notably, the SPD's policy of Ostpolitik initiated an opening toward Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, which helped break down the Cold War paradigm that had solidly gripped West German life in the 1950s and 1960s.

Fischer's views of the West in general and of the United States in particular also evolved during this period. He came to see them not as the obstacle to universal human liberation but rather as a means to it. For Fischer and those like him, influenced by their spiritual and philosophical mentor Habermas, the West represented liberalism, humanism, and democracy. Given Germany's troubled history, they felt that the country's creeping Westernization was the best thing that had happened to it during the twentieth century. Hence German politics had no more important task than making sure this trend continued. Although Fischer had opposed the war in Vietnam, he did not, unlike many others, take from the issue a deep hatred of all things American. Instead, he saw the United States as a crucial player on the world scene that could do much harm but also much good. If American engagement in Vietnam represented the former, American involvement in Germany represented the latter -- and it deserved to be recognized as such.

As is so often the case in European politics whenever America enters the equation, the Jews and Israel were not far behind. Here too the views of Fischer's "Westerner" camp were distinctive. Even though the 1960s radicals were among the first in West Germany to actively address the country's Nazi past, many of them were entirely uninterested in the Holocaust. They did not deny that it had happened but saw it as a secondary manifestation of "fascism." Tellingly, they often preferred that term over the more precise "National Socialism," which would have forced them to acknowledge the unique and defining characteristic of the German variety of fascism -- the nearly successful destruction of European Jewry.

It is known that Fischer participated in a 1969 conference in Algiers that passed a resolution calling for the destruction of Israel; it is unclear whether he was still there when the resolution was actually voted on. But such open support for the Palestinian cause was almost de rigueur in German radical circles at the time; what is more interesting is Fischer's relatively early break with this viewpoint. During the 1970s, he began to care and learn about the Holocaust, the fate of European Jewry, and Israel's role in the world; a similar shift would eventually occur among all the Westerners in his circle. Fischer even ended up a close friend of the late Ignatz Bubis, the German Jewish leader who typified the hated real-estate developers the Frankfurt squatters had protested against -- and who later served as the model for the central character in Rainer Werner Fassbinder's vilely antisemitic play about the era, Garbage, the City, and Death.


Fischer's Westerners constituted an important strand of the German New Left. But they were overshadowed by a larger and more vocal cohort of anti-Westerners, who themselves comprised three groups: the Third Worldists, the orthodox Marxists, and the neonationalists.

The Third Worldists considered imperialism the most important political issue of the day and rejected everything that the developed world stood for, including Western values and industrial modernization. They would later constitute the bulk of the "Fundamentalist" (or "Fundi") wing of the German Green Party and fight a determined rear-guard action against what they felt were unnecessary compromises being made by Fischer and his "Realists" (or "Realos"). During the 1970s, they believed that the Federal Republic was second only to the United States in its objectionable character. They detested its parliamentary institutions, disdained its market-based economy, hated its role as a driving force in modernization's inevitable destruction of the environment, and feared any manifestations of German nationalism, which they saw as a harbinger of the ever-looming "fascistization" of German politics and society. They were vehemently anti-Zionist (although not necessarily antisemitic) and found in the Palestinians an emblem of noble suffering and anticolonial resistance.

Although the world of German left-wing terrorism will always remain complex and murky, most of its ideas and participants were drawn from this sector of the radical movement. By the time of the OPEC attack, for example, Hans-Joachim Klein had become a member of the Revolutionary Cells (Revolutionare Zellen, or RZ), a terrorist organization that emerged from Frankfurt's Sponti scene. The RZ prided itself on being more loosely organized, autonomous, and spontaneous than the Berlin-based Red Army Faction (RAF, also known as the Baader-Meinhof Gang). An early publication divided its operations into three types: anti-imperialist actions, anti-Zionist actions, and actions in solidarity with the struggles of workers, youths, and women. Some RZ members maintained a close relationship with George Habash's Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, which is how Carlos came to recruit Klein for his commando unit in 1975.

The second group of anti-Westerners gravitated toward an orthodox interpretation of Marxism, locating the source of the Federal Republic's ills not in industrial modernization but in capitalism. In contrast to other radicals, they considered the industrial working class not only a worthy ally in the struggle but an "objectively necessary" part of any major social and political transformation. The members of this group reached deep into the SPD and major German trade unions such as ig Metall. They also developed cozy relations with East Germany, whose Marxist-Leninist system they regarded with tolerant admiration if not outright enthusiasm. This group's strength explains why serious criticism of "actually existing socialism" in the Soviet bloc was often unpopular in many parts of the German left until well into the 1980s -- so much so that the Polish Solidarity movement was often denounced by German unionists and social democrats as retrograde and reactionary.

The third group of anti-Westerners was the neonationalists. The New Left focused mainly on opposing the war in Vietnam, demonstrating solidarity with developing-world liberation movements, and transforming bourgeois society. But in Germany it also had, willy-nilly, a nationalist component provoked by the country's division and continued limited sovereignty. Left-wing nationalism has a long history in Germany, and it is hardly surprising that such feelings were represented among the 68ers as well. Nationalist sentiment grew over the controversy surrounding the 1982 deployment of American intermediate-range nuclear missiles on German soil -- something that allowed the Germans to perceive themselves as victims yet again -- and was later intensified by German unification. By the mid-1990s, in fact, some 68ers had completed a journey from extreme left to extreme right, with the constant factor being their hatred of the West and what it represented. Today, this antimodernist, anti-Western sentiment is alive and well in Europe among those on the extreme right and left who invoke nationalism in their opposition to globalization.

The two most prominent German radicals to undergo such a shift have been Horst Mahler and Bernd Rabehl. The former joined with fellow radical lawyer Otto Schily to defend left-wing terrorists in court during the late 1960s. But within a few years their paths began to diverge, as Schily became a Westerner and Mahler decided to join some of his former clients in the RAF. Today Schily -- a co-founder with Fischer of the Green Party who switched to the Social Democrats in 1989 -- is the German interior minister and quite conservative on law-and-order and immigration issues; Mahler is an attorney and publicist for the extreme-right Nationaldemokratische Partei Deutschlands. Along with two other ex-leftists, Mahler recently declared that the 68er movement had been "neither for communism nor for capitalism, neither for a Third-Worldist nor for an Eastern or a Western community of values." Instead, it had been "about the right for every people [Volk] to assert its national-revolutionary and social-revolutionary liberation." In his view, the Germans were no exception. Mahler and his associates today vigorously oppose the liberalization of Germany's citizenship laws, inveighing against the "foreignization" of the country. The root of the trouble for them, however, lies in Germany's solid anchoring in the West -- controlled by that double-headed evil, the United States and world Jewry.

Rabehl, a long-time professor at the Free University of Berlin, has not espoused quite such extreme views as Mahler. Yet he too has drifted toward the volkisch milieu of Germany's far right. What renders his case particularly prominent is that he was once the comrade-in-arms of the legendary Rudi Dutschke. The two men led a prominent German student organization into aggressive activism in 1965 that helped precipitate the 1968 upheavals. Dutschke retains an almost saint-like status for virtually all 68ers, not least because he was nearly assassinated in the spring of 1968 and subsequently withdrew from public life into a self-imposed Danish exile, where he died of complications from his wounds in 1979. Ever since, activists from all sides of the movement have invoked Dutschke to legitimate their positions. Rabehl now insists that Dutschke wanted a national liberation movement not only for victims of colonialism in the developing world but for Germans themselves as well.


Most 68ers, of course, became neither terrorists nor cabinet ministers. Just as in the United States (where their impact on politics has been much less palpable than in Germany), they began a slow march through the institutions of society that their generation now dominates. In public affairs, the 68ers are the current political class. In the universities, they are the tenured professors. In journalism and the media, they occupy the most coveted positions. Age has transformed them from hippies to yuppies, but ones whose culture is profoundly different from that of their parents. That this culture is deeply Western, in fact, is one of the 68ers' two lasting legacies.

Before 1968, the Federal Republic's ties to the West -- the much-touted Westbindung -- were little more than a political necessity and a military convenience. The country's integration into NATO and the European Economic Community (the precursor to today's European Union) was dictated by the exigencies of the Cold War and had little to do with any broad-based attachment to liberal values. But the 1968 upheavals initiated a cultural shift that fundamentally transformed the country. An opening of hitherto closed spaces occurred in virtually every aspect of German life. Although this happened elsewhere in the advanced industrialized world, nowhere else was it as profound or compelling -- largely because nowhere else had it been so bottled up.

Ironically, it was the 68ers -- who once reviled the postwar West German regime and regarded it as little better than a mere continuation of Nazi Germany -- who created what has been nostalgically referred to as the "Bonn Republic." Habermas' concept of a "constitutional patriotism" (Verfassungspatriotismus) based on allegiance to liberal values rather than blood or soil -- a basis that distinguishes many of today's Germans from practically all of their predecessors and from many of their European contemporaries as well -- would not have endured without the 68ers' activism. (Although Habermas perceptively rejected the 68ers' penchant for violence and forcefully decried some of their tactics as "leftist fascism," he nevertheless welcomed the movement's societal impact on Germany as a whole.) President Richard von Weizsacker's legendary speech of May 8, 1985, in which he argued that Western values were the sole legitimate basis on which a German democracy could continue to flourish, also would have been unthinkable without the 68er legacy.

The triumph of Western identity in most erstwhile 68ers came starkly to the fore with German unification and the establishment of what is now called the "Berlin Republic." It was they more than anyone else who feared a renewed German nationalism in which Western values would become less salient. It was because of their emotional attachment to the Bonn Republic, in fact, that the Social Democrats and the Greens -- the two parties in which the 68ers have had the most influence -- lost so abysmally in the December 1990 federal parliamentary election to a Christian Democratic Party more enthusiastic about unification.

In Germany today it is Joschka Fischer, above all others, who personifies this particular legacy. But contradictions remain. Although Westernization has been the 68ers' major contribution to German society, the Westerners in the German left have failed to carry the day. They remain a minority, just as they were decades ago. The victory of Fischer's Western wing of the Green Party at the turbulent party congress in May 1999 -- when Fischer was doused with red paint by protesters attacking his support of the NATO campaign against Serbia -- did not stem from any widespread agreement with his views or policies. Rather, it was due to his unique personal standing among Greens, his status as Germany's favorite politician, and the desire of a bare majority of those assembled to remain in power after being so long in the opposition. Fischer still needs to constantly justify his "Western" stances on Israel and globalization to colleagues who have begun to denounce him as a puppet of the United States and Western capitalism. Even his old friend Cohn-Bendit has criticized Fischer and called for a new movement to counter the United States.

Another example of these ideological divisions is the different responses among the Westerners and other leftists to the singular tragedy that befell the United States on September 11, 2001. The Westerners were horrified by this criminal act and rallied unequivocally in support of the United States, going so far as to claim that, in these difficult times, all Germans were Americans -- in clear reference to President John F. Kennedy's "Ich bin ein Berliner" speech. But other leftists immediately worried about the harshness of potential U.S. responses, next to which their perfunctory mention of the victims seemed less than secondary. This rift between the Westerners and the pacifist left has become so bitter that it may lead to either a split in the Green Party or to the party's abandonment of Fischer.

In one sense, therefore, Fischer has become such a unique figure that he seems to have transcended the old internal battles and concerns. But in another sense, it is possible to see him as continuing to fight the same battles today that he did then, albeit in a different setting. His strong support for a federal Europe grounded in liberal values, for example, is a logical extension of Habermas' constitutional patriotism from the national to the continental level.

If Fischer's Westerner faction has not fully prevailed within the left, none of the other factions have either. The German left today is even more fragmented than usual, without a guiding concept of what the future should hold or how it should be brought about. Gone is the industrial working class that was so prominent, and gone too are the various developing-world liberation movements that once guided the New Left. Filling the void, in Germany as elsewhere, is a proliferation of smaller groups whose only commonality is some form of victimization. The negative experiences at issue might all be real. But without a positive program able to transcend and sublimate them into something larger, the disparate groups will remain largely powerless and fragment even further into a welter of exquisitely sensitive particularisms.

In this context, the old siren songs of nationalism and neonationalism may well regain their appeal. Figures such as Mahler and Rabehl are clearly unusual and have been ostracized by their former colleagues, but some of the issues on their agenda are not so far from the Berlin Republic's mainstream discourse. The most important of these is "normalization," which is still primarily a code word in Germany for how the country can come to terms with its Nazi past. The Israeli historian Moshe Zuckermann once described the most essential characteristic of the German 68ers as their having committed patricide, arguing that since nobody can live with such a burden forever, sooner or later they would have to come to terms with their nation's past. Normalization is, in fact, precisely what has been happening, and it represents the 68ers' second major legacy.

Only the 68ers, for example, could have had the legitimacy -- vis-ˆ-vis the world, the German public, and, most importantly, themselves -- to deploy German troops abroad for the first time since the Wehrmacht overran much of Europe. If Germany had deployed troops under a conservative government, antigovernment protests against NATO's Kosovo campaign would have been even more vehement. There would likely have been more international discomfort as well.

The 68ers can act "normally" in other spheres, too. When the Bundestag recently passed a law providing financial compensation for former slave laborers under Nazi rule, for example, Chancellor Gerhard Schršder uttered a deliberate and demonstrative sigh of "Finally," expressing satisfaction not just that justice was being done but that the era was now being put to rest. No politician of Helmut Kohl's generation would have dared to voice such obvious relief -- for fear that it would be taken as evidence of unwillingness to atone properly for the sins of the past. And who would have thought that a German would play such a key role in trying to mediate between the Israelis and the Palestinians half a century after the Holocaust? Yet it is precisely because Fischer represents the traits that have distinguished the Westerners among Germany's New Left -- as someone who cares deeply about the Holocaust and understands its traumatic meaning for Jews -- that he can achieve this unique feat. Indeed, one can view his Middle East involvement as one of the most vivid signs of the normalization of German politics.

Germany is hardly about to revert to anything similar to the rabid nationalism of earlier eras. Nor will its deeply anchored Western values be compromised in any way. What the transformation of the 68er generation does mean is that, although Germany has finally arrived at what may be called "the end of history," its history may actually be starting once again in other respects. It is those student radicals of decades ago, therefore, who will ultimately have bequeathed to their offspring Germany's two dominant features in the twenty-first century: the Westernization of its culture and the normalization of its politics.

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  • Andrei S. Markovits is Professor of Politics in the Department of Germanic Languages and Literatures at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. His most recent book, with Steven L. Hellerman, is Offside: Soccer and American Exceptionalism.
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