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Power and the Idealists: Or, The Passion of Joschka Fischer, and its Aftermath [Hardcover]

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Item description for Power and the Idealists: Or, The Passion of Joschka Fischer, and its Aftermath by Paul Berman...

In January 2001, a scandal erupted when a series of photos from 1968 emerged showing German foreign minister Joschka Fischer and a group of leftist street toughs assaulting a cop. Paul Berman, one of the leading essayists and intellectual historians of the New Left, uses this event as a springboard to reflect on a crucial question for Western democracies today: was the violence-tinged radicalism of the 1960s and 1970s a force for social good or for social ill? This wide-ranging history of anti-totalitarianism explores the Left's response to human rights abuses around the world, tracing the intellectual evolution of figures as various as Polish dissident Adam Michnik and Azar Nafisi (Reading Lolita in Tehran) to argue that liberals willing to use power to protect human rights are the true heirs of the radical sixties, and that the Islamic totalitarian impulse he identified in the New York Times bestseller Terror and Liberalism must be opposed with vigor.

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Item Specifications...

Pages   312
Est. Packaging Dimensions:   Length: 7.7" Width: 4.8" Height: 1.1"
Weight:   0.7 lbs.
Binding  Hardcover
Release Date   Sep 28, 2005
Publisher   Soft Skull Press
ISBN  1932360913  
ISBN13  9781932360912  

Availability  0 units.

More About Paul Berman

Register your artisan biography and upload your photo! Berman is regarded as one of American's top political and cultural commentators. He is now a fellow of the New York Institute for the Humanities at New York University.

Paul Berman was born in 1937.

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Reviews - What do customers think about Power and the Idealists: Or, The Passion of Joschka Fischer, and its Aftermath?

The New Left's Burden?  Nov 14, 2007
There are few books in English on contemporary European affairs; search for "Joschka Fischer" in this site.Com, and you'll find only this book in English (another, Joschka Fischer and the Making of the Berlin Republic: An Alternative History of Postwar Germany is not yet available).

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 even 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, by 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...?
Who were the generation of '68?   Dec 6, 2006
In Berman's lucid and wonderfully written account, they were people who were animated by the burning question: Would they have been collaborators or resisters in Nazi Germany and Occupied Europe? They were a generation for whom the question of totalitarianism (be it the totalitarianism that "had survived Nazism" in Western society or the totalitarianism that threatened to murder the Vietnamese Boat People) was a real issue; an issue of foreign policy. A Big Issue, rather than a rhetorical gesture to show that our cause is just. It is not an accident that Jimmy Carter (influenced by the 68ers) established the office of the Assistant Secretary of State for Human Rights; that Jimmy Carter "sent the Sixth Fleet into action scooping up the [Vietnamese] Boat People" (who were called such because a `68er who founded Doctors without Borders, Bernard Kouchner, rented a Boat for Vietnam to rescue the Vietnamese who were fleeing the Communists. Nor is it an accident that this same Kouchner became, under Mitterand, France's secretary of State for Humanitarian Action. A title that allowed him to send "humanitarian actions under the tricolor of France" into Africa.

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.
The Maturation of a Generation of Naive Idealists.  Mar 23, 2006
Paul Berman is an unusually fair minded observer of the world political scene. That allows him to do justice both to the idealism of the generation that made the 1968 student "revolutions" and its failings. He charts the development of 1968 street fighter Joschka Fischer to becoming the first Green to be a Minister in the German government. Fischer endorsed NATO's intervention in Kosovo against all his earlier principles. Yet he refused to endorse the intervention in Iraq.

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.
Excellent intellectual history; par for course for Berman  Nov 10, 2005
Paul Berman has written two interesting books in recent years. The first was the excellent TERROR AND LIBERALISM which looked at jihadic violence, its underpinnings in Islamic and Western philosophy and history, and the possibility of a humane, hawkish, antitotalitarian, liberal response to it. POWER AND THE IDEALISTS is an equally engrossing read that looks at the generation of 1968 (anti-Vietnam, anti-authority, anti-capitalist, very often anti-American protesters) and their evolution over time, especially in reaction to Entebbe, Kosovo, and 9/11. Suprisingly, many 1968ers evolved quite far. The emphasis here is on Germany, as the central figure under consideration is former German foreign minister and Green leader Joshka Fischer. This is an excellent, journalistic account of many arguments very pressing in today's political environment. All arguments are treated fairly and in more than just a single dimension.
An interesting book about the idealism of the Left  Sep 18, 2005
This book is about idealists on the political Left, with a focus on Germany's Joschka Fischer. In the first chapter, Berman shows that the late 1970s brought home to many people just what the New Left had become: it had supported what became genocide in Cambodia and (roughly speaking) National Socialist policies by Arabs in the Levant. These were exactly the policies the Left had opposed so strongly in the 1930s and 1940s.

Of course, in the case of Zionism, the Left had switched sides in the past, supporting it in the early part of the twentieth century, opposing it in the 1920s and 1930s, supporting it in the 1940s, and opposing it once again in the 1950s and 1960s. But that's not the point. The Left had generally been against right-wing irredentism, racism, and genocide in the past. And some of it clearly went over to it in the 1970s.

In the next chapter, the author discusses some of the ideas of the European Left that "crossed the ocean," such as the Kyoto Protocols and the International Criminal Court. During the Clinton administration, Berman explains that there was an appearance of cooperation between the United States and Europe on these issues. But that fell apart in the present Bush administration. Next, Berman discusses a little about the American Left and the Muslim world. Do those who plead for human rights in the Muslim world get support from American Left? Not all that much.

We also discover how much support such rights get in Europe, and in France. How many on the Left in France preferred an American victory over Saddam Hussein to an American defeat?

Berman indicates that the ideas of the "generation of 1968," which opposed the Vietnam war and intended to be activists in supporting human rights are not those of this generation. The activists of 1968 wanted to be interventionists. They wanted to oppose oppression. But the ideas of today, on both the Left and Right, are a little different.

I think this is a fascinating book, and I recommend it.

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