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29 October 2001

Peaceniks no more

To be part of the US-led coalition against terrorism, the German and Italian lefts are having to sha

By John Lloyd

The war on terrorism poses a huge challenge to two large, rich European states above all others. Germany and Italy are caught between the competing pressures of pacifist sentiment and a desire to show support in the US-led war against terrorism. If they commit themselves to significant military action, as they are being pressed to do – by the examples of the Americans and the British, as well as sections of their own political classes – then a comfortable postwar habit of living under security provided by others will come to an end. They will send their armies abroad once more: this time to oppose, rather than bring, oppression. It will change their politics fundamentally.

Wealthy, comfortable and un-militarist in inclination, with only minor involvement in the Gulf war a decade ago and a policing role in the Balkans, their people and governments now face a struggle that directly threatens their interests.

Ironically, the German leftist coalition composed of pacifist-inclined Social Democrats and militantly peaceful Greens is proving much more successful in rallying the nation behind the US banner than an Italian rightist coalition led by Silvio Berlusconi, who has pronounced himself more pro-American than any other politician in the west. Berlusconi – whose state is not only one of the European “Big Four”, but also a founder member (unlike Germany) of Nato and (unlike the UK) of the European Union – was cut out of a meeting between France, Germany and Britain to co-ordinate their military support for the US.

The German government has been firmly pro-American. In the immediate aftermath of the 11 September terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, Social Democrat organisers got more than 200,000 supporters out on the streets of Berlin, waving the Stars and Stripes to express solidarity with the US. The German chancellor, Gerhard Schroder, returned from a trip to the US – where he inspected the ruins of the twin towers in Manhattan – and gave a speech to the Bundestag in which he committed Germany’s armed forces to “participation in military operations to defend freedom and human rights and to create stability and security”. In the sixth decade after the end of the Second World War, Germany now has the confidence to have a militantly ethical dimension to its foreign policy.

Schroder has been backed strongly by his foreign minister, Joschka Fischer. The leader of the Green Party, Fischer has been crucial in levering Germany into accepting international responsibilities – including military commitment – in the field of peacekeeping. In a series of speeches and interviews, he has developed the vision of a country that has both the right and the duty to intervene on the side of the oppressed. But Social Democrat officials will concede privately that the foreign minister’s stance is putting a severe strain on a party that sees itself as losing its moral centre – a mixture of pacifism, anti-globalisation and ecological radicalism.

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Matthias Machnig, the Social Democrat party’s strategist in the election campaign that will be held next year, says that the pro-American sentiment, while shaky at times, remains broadly solid. “The left in Germany does have a pacifist tradition; but also an anti-terrorist one.”

But the party remains deeply sceptical about any deployment of the military. In a recent interview with the Italian daily Repubblica, the novelist and Nobel prize-winner Gunter Grass condemned Schroder’s depiction of the struggle as one between “modern and medieval civilisations”, saying that “it’s a vice of the west and of the rich north to make itself the measure of everything. We can’t judge societies which have never known the Renaissance and the Enlightenment in that way”.

Grass has launched an appeal to all German parents to send the money they would normally spend on Christmas gifts for their children to Afghan children instead. “My American friends, from Norman Mailer to Woody Allen, ask me why the US is so hated,” he said. “It’s a good question. These horrible attacks had also been aimed at expressing an explosion of hatred towards the rich north of the world, towards a world rich, cold and indifferent to the problems of the poor part of the globe. It is ever the case that the dead of ‘our’ world are worth ten or one hundred times those dying in the tragedies of the third world, and that their deaths for us are merely cold figures with lots of zeros.”

In Italy, the government scorns opinions like that of Grass. Berlusconi confessed to an interviewer last summer: “I’m a fan of everything American, even before I know exactly what it’s about.” Yet – according to a report in the New York Times, reproduced in the daily Libero – Bush met the Italian premier with reluctance. His praise was limited to a remembrance of a delicious meal prepared by Berlusconi’s private chef when the US president visited Italy over the summer. Hardly the stuff of a strategic relationship.

Berlusconi’s “gaffe” in a speech in Berlin last month, where he said that the west’s civilisation was superior to the Muslim one, has made other western leaders wary of the Italian premier; it may have contributed to the non-invitation to the military strategy meeting of France, Germany and Britain – though the three leaders who attended insisted that the talks were technical discussions among three leaders more committed militarily.

The star-struck pro-Americanism of Berlusconi is redolent of the Christian Democrats, whose party was financed by the US as a weapon against the strongest Communist Party outside the Soviet Union; but it fails to strike a chord with many Italians today. A suggestion that the right should organise a pro-US rally on the lines of that staged in Berlin, which Berlusconi has endorsed, has been badly received by the right who fear that it would show the limits, rather than the force, of pro-American sentiment.

The present crisis is particularly difficult for the left. When the leaders of the left attended, as usual, the annual march for peace from Perugia to Assisi earlier this month, they were greeted with a storm of boos and insults because they had voted in the parliament to support the war. Massimo d’Alema, leader of the Left Democrats and a former prime minister, was heard telling his wife on his mobile phone: “I’m at the front – you can’t miss me, it’s where everyone is shouting ‘idiot!’ “.

At present, the anti-global, anti-war left has a more coherent message than d’Alema’s left-of-centre former communists. He faces a dispiriting fight within his party next month, as left and right battle it out for the leadership he is relinquishing.

Both Germany and Italy have almost six decades of enforced pacifism to put behind them, if they wish to gain and keep a seat at a top table chaired by the US. It is a pacifism that has defined their lefts and rights, in ways literally foreign to most of British – and French – politics. The German Social Democrats, secure in a view forcefully articulated by Schroder that they have been a consistent anti-fascist party and have no further need for inhibitions, seem about to make a break with this legacy. The Italian left, depressed and riven, finds it much harder.

Both see the war, if prolonged, as a source of sharp, even debilitating, division. The two nations have benefited from decades in which their largest contribution to cold-war defence has been the provision of Nato bases and the maintenance of militaries that have only recently taken a role outside of their borders. Now, the pressure is growing for a radically new posture and a significant political shift, with defence moving from the margins to the centre of politics.

The left is overseeing the process in Germany; in Italy, it is struggling to cope with its implications. In both countries, there has been an uneasy alliance between the centre and the pacifist and far left. Now, war and the willingness to wage it is opening a gulf on the left, making bitterness and division inevitable.

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