in Opinion | 09 SEP 99
Featured in
Issue 48

Guns and Poses

The German intellectual response to Kosovo

in Opinion | 09 SEP 99

The NATO air campaign was only a couple of days old when Germany's intellectuals began shooting from both barrels. Their aim was initially directed at other intellectuals, though, rather than the pros and cons of the air strikes. The subject was a difficult one, and so they thought: let's have a meta-discourse. This meta-discourse was quickly subjected to its own meta-criticism: that the intellectuals were simply point-scoring. In certain quarters it was implied that only authentic front-line experience could ultimately enable earnest comment.

That these - predominantly left-wing - German intellectuals reacted in this way under stress is perhaps unsurprising: real time comprehension is not exactly their kind of thing, and probably rightly so. Yet what was written now seems particularly rash - and strange. The fact that I can only talk about it publicly weeks after the end of the NATO air campaign, and in a British magazine, may be a result of this. Their panic, and subsequent desire to understand and talk, was not because, as was suggested, they imagined they could influence NATO, but because their mode of understanding was called into question.

Military thinking - thinking without taking breath and pausing for a second - was perceived as not being the same as thinking in 'our' (the intellectual) sense. Gabriel Garcia Marquez' intervention was particularly amusing: he recalled the fact that NATO's Javier Solana and Wesley Clark were originally hommes des lettres. This implies the unspoken idea, a somehow understandable hope, that democratic processes can only take place when the mentality of decision-makers - their kind of thinking - doesn't fundamentally differ from that of everyone else. (The fact that intellectuals see themselves as representatives of everyone else is another problem.) Marquez' misunderstanding is a massive reminder of how ineffective such simplistic concepts of the democratic public really are.

However heterogeneous the German public may be, it agreed on one thing: that the war had to be seen in relation to German history. On the Left - apart from a few not-exactly-radical Leftists, such as writers Günther Grass and Elfriede Jelinek, or philosopher Jürgen Habermas - rejection of the NATO attacks was overwhelming. Jürgen Elsässer, staff-writer for the political magazine Konkret, went as far as stating that Germany had drawn NATO into this war; others recalled the atrocities committed by German soldiers in Yugoslavia during World War II and hinted at geopolitical reasons why Germany and NATO were once again in the region. Most absurd were assertions that the Kosovo-Albanians were to Yugoslavia what Sudeten-Germans were to pre-war Czechoslovakia, and that NATO's next step - under Germany's guidance of course - would be to attack whatever they saw as their token Poland. The government, principally the former radical-Left foreign minister Joschka Fischer, also summoned up the German past: Germany, more than others, should be engaged in Kosovo to prevent a new Auschwitz.

And finally the German Right, united in opposing the NATO attacks, also felt obliged to make World War II comparisons: while it has always tried to uphold Germany as victim, it now declared its solidarity with the 'victim' Yugoslavia. Belgrade equals Dresden. Like writer Martin Walser's recent, scandalous speech in opposition to the Holocaust memorial, the Right rejected any kind of obligation to one's history, claiming that 'we Germans' were driven into this 'dirty war' by the Western Allies who extorted 'us' with the 'German past'.

These reactions may all sound fairly predictable; and with its anti-imperialist tradition since the 60s, the German Left's immediate bias against the NATO attack seems unsurprising. Yet, in the early 90s, German left-wing thinking underwent a major revision. With the rise of racism in Germany (especially in the former East), the old issue of class struggle began to be replaced by new ones such as anti-racism, discussions around identity politics and a rejection of essentialisms - especially since racism was often ascribed to the underclass. This shift gave the Left a new relevance. From the abhorrent abolition of Germany's asylum legislation in 1993 - a constitutional move smacking of the National Socialist past, and which effectively removed the right to seek asylum in Germany - to the multitude of fascist and racist forces on the streets of almost all smaller and medium-sized towns in the ex-GDR, the necessity of anti-racist politics on all levels was evident.

Some groups that formed in the milieu of left-wing 'cultural producers' (musicians, artists, academics, writers etc.) considered joining the street-fighting Autonome (militant, often squatting activists) to support the threatened immigrants and the local left-wing subcultures in the East. Two major elements were discarded in this process: the unconditional pacifism that especially characterised former members of the 80s peace movement, and the belief that working-class culprits should not be condemned as culprits but excused as victims of social conditions.

Over the following years, the Left's adoption of anti-racism developed in two directions. One faction saw racism in Germany primarily as an extension of the German authoritarian character, citing Germany's fascist and anti-Semitic history. From a traditional Marxist perspective, racism was therefore defined as an exceptional case, unrelated to developments in capitalism but instead attributed to the cultural peculiarities of the Germans.

The other faction understood neo-racism as an international phenomenon, the seamy side of a new turbo-capitalism: a retreat into supposed ethnic and national certainties that served as a passive-aggressive tool in the new global competition. At the same time, the culture of 'foreigners', or the 'other' - but not their actual presence - became more and more attractive to the middle classes and to popular culture. If Stuart Hall was right - that 'race' is the medium that class is lived in - then this approach of the Cultural Left made it possible to look at culture itself as the battleground of the new economy.

In the early 90s, a combination of these two perspectives would have made sense, but later on, 'Anti-Germans' and the 'Cultural Left' became opposing groups with hardly any common ground. You have to know this background to put the reactions to the NATO intervention into perspective. First of all it had already surprised me, during the preceding Yugoslavian wars, how little the conflict of anti-racism versus pacifism was discussed amongst my acquaintances (most of them of the 'Cultural Left'). You were against NATO interventions - in Bosnia as well as later in Kosovo - because you were against NATO and because you doubted or disparaged 'ethnic cleansing', or saw it as being regrettable but inevitable. The two attitudes - anti-militarism (motivated by either anti-imperialist or pacifist causes) and anti-racism, were not put into the same equation, and were not brought to bear in analyses of the NATO intervention.

It was very strange that for most, the left-wing hostility against NATO and 'imperialism' decided the matter immediately, long before analysis set in (although some good arguments against NATO's intervention were offered later). The 'Cultural Left' tended towards fundamental pacifism and anti-imperialism, whereas the 'Anti-Germans' felt a sense of déjà vu in relation to a concrete historical situation, and retreated into obsessively searching for parallels in Nazi history. The assertion that war and NATO were categorical evils, therefore, overcame the Left's younger layer of categorical anti-racism.

I'm not suggesting that anti-racism would have automatically meant intervention, but it should have introduced some argument. It did for me, or so at least I imagined. In an almost daily change, I was for and then against NATO intervention. But most of the time, I was busy arguing against what I saw as wrong anti-intervention arguments to try to get through to the possible right ones. The most common argument was that of the 'human rights lie': that NATO wasn't concerned with human rights but had some deeper, rather more self-serving agenda. But what institution on this planet, vested with enough power to ensure human rights, is 'really' concerned with human rights? And what does this psychological 'really' really mean? Who or what is the soul of NATO? It goes without saying that this organisation will not enforce anything against the vital interests of US capital. That may lower its value as an ally for the Revolution, but that's not what we are concerned with at the moment. If you want to save a human life from a burning house, you don't ask whether the firemen are vegetarians. Even if they set the building on fire in the first place, if they now - for whatever sullen reasons - supply the water, I'll take it.

The second argument doubted the integrity of the KLA. Obviously, they are also nationalists; added to this, the West has an interest in the disintegration of what used to be Yugoslavia as well as Milosevic. But as with any civil conflict, both sides are implicated. Still it is possible without great difficulty to distinguish a morally discredited superior power from a resistance, whatever its ideology may be. Arguing that you don't want to interfere on the Kosovo-Albanian side because of the KLA's ideology is like arguing one shouldn't show solidarity with an African-American persecuted by white racists because he is close to the Nation of Islam, an organisation that is not exactly ideologically correct either.

Saying that both sides are bad and therefore one shouldn't take sides but rather review the last decade's history, is academic nonsense. It's less easy to dismiss the next argument: that NATO wanted to impose the laws of the European economic domain onto Yugoslavia, creating a service economy to replace the state-funded heavy industry. It is questionable that this would be worth the effort and whether the market wouldn't take care of that sooner or later anyway. But the notorious passages in the annexe to the Rambouillet agreement in fact substantiate one or other of the paranoid left-wing conspiracy theories - the insane passage demanding that Belgrade maintains a free market economy in Kosovo, for example - is certainly not a question of human rights.

But this is a minor point. Ultimately, the central argument against the intervention was of course its failure. People died in Yugoslavia, particularly in Kosovo. All Serbian atrocities found after the end of the intervention had indeed been committed after its beginning. Even if 'Operation Horseshoe' was planned long before, it still had been committed with even greater vehemence because of and after the start of NATO attacks, and otherwise would possibly not have taken place at all. Who knows. Either way, Rambouillet was an unacceptable and nonsensical settlement, and the famously exhaustive diplomatic efforts hadn't really been exhausted.

None of this diminishes the importance of the fundamental dispute the situation implied for left-wing intellectuals. They should have made the assumption that the Rambouillet treaty was justifiable and that NATO would not have military and reconnaissance problems. We don't know about diplomatic details and don't judge from a military perspective. What if the war had been pursued with fewer mistakes and victims, in order to enforce an appropriate agreement and could have protected Kosovan Albanians more effectively? That would have been the crucial question for anti-imperialist anti-racists: co-operation with NATO for the cause of anti-racism? And for anti-racist pacifists: war for human rights?

This debate didn't take place - largely because it was so much more convenient to hallucinate oneself into an imagined historical scenario, and to take one's predetermined political position. That is not to say that German intellectuals have no obligation to take German history into account when taking a position. But to do this accurately, the protagonists needs to be assessed in a precise way.

So what lesson from German history can be applied to this configuration? Well, just one: unconditional protection for refugees and migrants. When the German asylum legislation was eliminated, the common practice of 'remand pending deportation' began. It was grotesque that while the Kosovo intervention was justified as the protection of refugees, merry deportation continued regardless: shortly after the war, a Sudanese asylum-seeker was killed by German security forces on a deportation flight. Only Albanian asylum-seekers and refugees - who had been heroicised rather more than others - were suddenly noble victims. If Germany justified the NATO intervention for humanitarian reasons, it should also have made a commitment to a more humanitarian treatment of migrants from all over the world, and encompass within that the obligations that have arisen from Germany's past.

Many intellectuals have argued that within the logic of the intervention, you can, with equal justification, bomb Ankara because of Turkish politics towards Kurds. Of course you can't, but the demand for a new policy towards Kurds can be proposed when, after this precedent, it is stated that 'ethnic cleansing' will categorically not be tolerated. Either NATO in retrospect loses all credibility, or Turkey and many others will now be put under pressure. In any case, if the only argument against intervention were that it was equally necessary, yet not feasible, elsewhere, then this objection is also obsolete.

However, the strongest argument against the air attack was ultimately the pacifist one: that military logic is not controllable, that you can't take an entire population hostage. Every single email from Nettime mailing list participant Slobodan Markovic, which you could read live from Belgrade, was a particularly eloquent argument along these lines. The only opposition to this were the reports from Kosovo that suggested that real lives had indeed been saved by the intervention.

In the end, there is a conflict between pacifism and anti-racism that can't be solved through argument. Instead, this conflict has to be lived on a daily basis, moment by moment, and that means against the real-time logistics of war. Intellectuals should help to hold open the minimal possibility of bringing this conflict to the point that it can be decided on a case by case basis: by procuring primary, often originally censored or restricted data, and by suggesting methods to scrutinise it. The meta-discourse, that I myself indulge in here, is not of great help.