Earlier this year, before Angela Merkel's re-election as chancellor, the BBC's then Europe editor, Mark Mardell, called Germany "the most grown-up country in the world". Whether you share that judgement or not, Hans Kundnani's superb chronicle of mainly West German politics over the past 50 years shows the country's remarkable transformation since the war - from a land of Hitlermenschen to that of model Europeans. In the past decade or so, Germany's participation in Nato's intervention in Kosovo and its refusal to go to Iraq established the paradigm for a global player that can never forget the disaster of war. Now is Germany's moment of confidence. The screwed-up offspring of a traumatic past has become a well-adjusted adult. As to the future, who knows?
Germany's 1968 generation came to political maturity in the "red-green" coalition of 1998. Gerhard Schröder was chancellor, Joschka Fischer his foreign minister, and Otto Schily occupied the interior ministry. The Achtundsechsziger, the 68ers, had entered politics calling for resistance. Schily had been defence lawyer for Gudrun Ensslin of the Baader-Meinhof terrorist group. Fischer was a leading light in the socialist student movement which demanded that Germany face up to its Nazi past. As bomb-planting urban guerrillas took over from custard-throwing students, Fischer was close to the violent elements, and much of this book reads like an indictment of his career.
Yet the other half of the story concerns how a high-school dropout who was photographed kicking a policeman renounced violence and eventually acceded to high office. The man who had organised his life around the slogans "Never Again Auschwitz" and "Never Again War" saw German planes fly combat missions as part of the effort to stave off genocide in Kosovo. At that moment, Fischer had become the conscience of his country.
A big problem for the 68ers had been how to relate to America. The friendly power that had delivered Germany from Hitler in 1945 and subsequently kept the Russians at bay became, with the Vietnam war, the arch-enemy of the younger generation. While the post-1966 coalition government gratefully co-operated with Washington, the students saw Germany as a repressed colony of the American hegemon. Liberation movements in South America and the Palestinian struggle became the models for resistance, as Baader-Meinhof gave way to the ruthless Rote Armee Fraktion (RAF) that almost destroyed the post-1974 Social Democrat administration of Helmut Schmidt.
The Achtundsechsziger were the most intellectual of all the 68ers worldwide. Flower power, feminism and free love were almost incidental to their quest, which was to demonstrate through Brecht and situationism what true democracy might look like (at least, before the bombs took over). Their seriousness was rooted in their attempts to read the Nazi past in such a way as to ensure that it was never repeated. On some level, they were terrified.
Kundnani, who brilliantly untangles the threads, calls the idea that Nazi Germany had never ended and the Federal Republic was a fascist state the "continuity thesis". (The columnist-turned-terrorist Ulrike Meinhof devoted her journalism to uncovering Nazis in high office and disclosing the "Hitler in all of us".) What Kundnani calls the "provocation thesis", meanwhile, suggests that fascism was latent in the system. This fear of hidden authoritarianism generated Marxist and Freudian recipes for ridding society of repression.
To Fischer and many others, it was a shocking moment of truth when, in 1976, the West German guerrilla organisation Revolutionäre Zellen diverted a plane from Tel Aviv to Entebbe in Idi Amin's Uganda. They "selected" (to use the Nazi euphemism) the Jewish passengers, releasing the rest. In retrospect, the anti-Semitism, authoritarianism and nationalism rife among the 68ers suggest that the extra-parliamentary oppositionists, and not their targets, were the fascists. "Left-wing fascism", as the philosopher Jürgen Habermas called it, was another hurdle they needed to overcome.
The advent of a united Germany in 1990 generated huge discussion about what the country should aspire for. Habermas's compelling suggestion was constitutional or "civic" patriotism - a pride in robust democratic insititutions that was, in part, a product of the trauma of the protest years.
It was out of these hopes and passionate arguments that the red-green agenda emerged. And it has been taken up by the almost non-partisan Merkel. The result has been a sense, accompanied by an inevitable whiff of superiority, that modern Germany has something to teach the world. You may find it galling, but there is a story here, not told before, about a straightened-out social left that might also triumph elsewhere. Kundnani tells this tale lucidly.
Lesley Chamberlain is the author of "The Philosophy Steamer: Lenin and the Exile of the Intelligentsia" (Atlantic Books, £9.99)
Utopia or Auschwitz: Germany's 1968 Generation and the Holocaust
C Hurst & Co, 320pp, £16.99
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