Eyes On The Past

When Germany was in the throes of what we now call "the '60s," conservative commentators coined an unlovely term to describe the unlovely radicalism of the time: verspätete Widerstand. It means "delayed resistance." The thought behind it was that the young Germans kidnapping CEOs, throwing bombs and beating up policemen were unwittingly acting out the drama of resistance to Nazism that never took place in the 1930s. They viewed politics as a kind of pantomime in which public officials were fascists, businessmen were collaborators, schools were prisons, soldiers were murderers, and parents were the secret police. They could not see that Germany had become a healthy liberal democracy, a pillar of the West. In fact, they weren't terribly interested in the present. What excited them was the chance to re-enact the shameful history of modern Germany, casting themselves as heroes of a cinematic remake in which they would redeem the fatherland.

Delayed resistance goes a long to way toward explaining the psychodynamics of this European generation. Accepting the peace and prosperity of the new Europe seemed to entail forgetting the reality of fascism and genocide in the past, burying it. Anger about this massive cover-up manifested itself in the '60s with the student left's contempt for Western liberal democracy, along with a romanticization of Third World tyrannies. Many of the young people in those fetching pictures of street demonstrations in Paris and Berlin shouting "Ho, Ho, Ho Chi Minh," while wearing Che Guevara T shirts and carrying Mao Zedong's Little Red Book meant what they were saying: they would have preferred Ho, Che or Mao to their democratically elected leaders. Only in the late '70s, after Cambodian and Vietnamese boat people brought out tales of butchery, did they experience a crisis of conscience.

Now the talk was of universal human rights and the need to defend them, through velvet revolutions if possible, with international armed forces if necessary. In the '80s and early '90s, this ideal did some good. Western European governments timidly chose not to side publicly with anticommunist movements in Eastern Europe, for fear of angering the U.S.S.R., but the '68ers openly supported the protesters of Poland and Czechoslovakia. When the Balkans descended into war, they argued for intervention. But this was delayed resistance, too. The '68ers were resisting their youthful selves, those long-haired naifs who cheered for Che and jeered at soldiers, no matter what they were fighting for.

Today the most difficult issues facing Europe—immigration and terrorism—have little or nothing to do with these ancient squabbles. European countries find themselves host to millions of new immigrants, predominantly Muslim, and have not managed to assimilate them or their children into mainstream society. This is an unprecedented situation in modern European politics. And if ever there was a need for fresh thinking, it is now. Yet once again, the '68 generation is mired in the past—and more than one past. For the past three decades, the European left has viewed the immigration problem exclusively through the lens of past anti-Semitism and colonialism. Immigration was to be welcomed as a way of making up for past sins. Anyone who raised doubts about integrating the newcomers was branded a racist, or worse. Expressing frustration with the changing face of Europe fell in the '80s to unsavory right-wingers like Jean-Marie Le Pen in France or J?rg Haider in Austria. Solidarity with the immigrants seemed the noble course, and the '68ers could be found arranging asylum for those threatened with deportation and leading candlelight vigils against racism. The Dutch prided themselves on Amsterdam's diversity, and progressive-minded Germans embraced their Turkish neighbors. French '68ers helped create the group S.O.S. Racisme, which printed up fashionable little lapel buttons that read HANDS OFF MY PAL! Moderate legislation to curb immigration went nowhere, thanks in large part to the opposition of the '68 generation.

But since 9/11, the mood has shifted in Europe, and the '68ers are themselves divided about what to do next. The Dutch were driven out of Eden by the brutal murder of filmmaker Theo van Gogh by a Muslim fanatic in 2004. The Germans keep hearing reports about honor killings involving resident Turkish families. The French suburbs were rocked by riots led by the children of immigrants in 2005. And the British are still digesting the significance of the London bombings by homegrown terrorists. Many '68ers still see the immigration problem in light of the 1930s and maintain their multicultural faith in toleration as the universal salve. But a dissenting group has now appeared, demanding that the new immigrants get with the Western program—immediately. Conscious of their own romance with despotism in the '60s, some important European intellectuals now see themselves as the sole defenders of liberty against "Islamo-fascism" and its multiculturalist sympathizers. They are outraged (understandably) at the death threats leveled against critics of Islam like Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the writer who fled the Netherlands and found refuge at the conservative American Enterprise Institute in Washington. They are outraged (understandably) about the repression of women in many immigrant families. And they are outraged (understandably) about threats to freedom of expression made by those whose religious sensibilities have been offended.

The problem with all this outrage is that it is occasioned by a problem the '68 generation did much to create. A more sober, realistic assessment of the immigration issue, free from fixed ideas about the European past, might have helped reverse the lax policies that put Europe in its current predicament. But now Europe is home to millions of new immigrants and their families, many of whom are Muslims and who do not share modern cultural and intellectual assumptions.

What to do? A reasonable step forward might be to encourage moderate, credible figures within the Muslim community who promote coexistence. One such figure is the Swiss thinker Tariq Ramadan, who has a large following among young educated Muslims hoping to reconcile their religious commitments with life in the modern West. Ramadan is not an enlightened liberal democrat, but his message does offer theological reasons for believing Muslims to live peacefully in the West and not treat it as alien, hostile territory. This is a huge step forward. But for '68ers defending human rights against what they perceive to be the latest form of fascism, Ramadan is a dangerous figure. Several books attacking him have come out in France, and now the debate has reached the United States. Last year the Bush administration prevented him from accepting a professorship at the University of Notre Dame, and today he teaches at Oxford.

These are hard calls to make, and many more will have to be made in coming decades. Europeans are in uncharted waters and will need a strong sense of present reality to navigate them. Fantasies about re-enacting past dramas just get in the way of this hard work. The '68ers, narcissistically focused on their own historical significance, simply aren't prepared for thinking about Europe's future. That will fall to a new, more mature generation.