When Europe's old firebrands get together, the sparks can fly

They came; they saw each other; they commiserated. This might have been the motto of the first reunion of the 1968 generation of ``APO Opas'' in Frankfurt this past weekend.

``APO'' was the acronym for the ``out-of-parliament opposition'' of Danny ``the Red'' Cohn-Bendit and other student firebrands who exploded West Germany's comfortable political consensus two decades ago to protest against the Shah of Iran and American involvement in the Vietnam war.

The wry word ``Opa'' (the German nickname for ``grandfather'') referred to the current middle-aged status of the former rebels.

Some of the '68 rebels are mellower nowadays; some aren't.

Some are unemployed at present; some are teachers who try to instill anti-establishment attitudes in their educational charges. One is a woman ex-member of parliament for the Green Party who berates the '68 generation for its male chauvinism.

None of them are very happy with the way things have turned out.

For one thing, one fringe of the APOs has veered off into urban terrorism. Secondly, there has been a conservative restoration in politics today. And even the Social Democratic Party - once so demonized by the out-of-parliament left for being too tame - is in such disarray that it no longer makes a foil for the left to rail against.

As described by the Tageszeitung newspaper, faithful countercultural chronicler of the left's fortunes, three topics dominated the event: the debate about resort to violence in opposing established authority; the relation of women and men to traditional politics and power; and helplessness in the face of ``conservative hegemony.''

On the first issue, Tageszeitung reporter Heide Platen expressed skepticism - despite all the rhetoric - about the conversion of yesterday's revolutionaries to today's pacifists.

Some speakers repeated the old '68 axiom that the conservative government hierarchy has a monopoly on force and this, therefore, condones the use of force against it. Others expressed bewilderment that APO ideals could have been distorted by the terrorist fringe into kidnapping and killing.

For her part, Green ex-MP Antje Vollmer argued that the terrorists only carried out the secret wishes of many of the student rebels: ``Their militance thought your militance through to its logical end, and you [just] try to wiggle around that with elegant flowery language.''

In somewhat the same vein, Mr. Cohn-Bendit blamed the violence on ``sloppy treatment of street militance'' by the Red Army Faction (formerly the Baader-Meinhof terrorists), and also on the APOs' ``false...equation of the parliamentary system with fascism.'' (The terrorists argued that they had the right to lead the revolution against the ``fascist, imperialist'' West German democracy.)

Nonetheless, it was parliamentary democracy that made it possible for protest in the West to help end the Vietnam War, Cohn-Bendit pointed out.

On feminism, Ms. Vollmer accused the '68 men - with their ``forever unmade beds'' - of playing at revolution while letting the women do all the work. Others retorted that in those days the APO women didn't make many beds either, and that the movement shouldn't be dismissed as no more than traditional suppression of women under another guise.

But on the third theme - helplessness - most everyone agreed. Bremen law professor Ulrich Press did win sustained applause for his appeal for his vision of an ``ecological democracy.''

Most of the speakers, however, saw little hope of achieving this.

They talked instead about their disillusionment with all systems, including planned economies and the Marxism they once dreamed of. And, of course, they lamented the unexpected durability of capitalism.

One jest by Matthias Beltz caught the mood: Instead of posing the famous Leninist question ``What is to be done?'' he said, we're all asking each other today, ``How ya doin'?''

Eighteen years later, it was a reckoning, of sorts.

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