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The Year That Changed the World

There are many strands to the annus mirabilis of 1968 the Prague Spring, the Paris barricades, Flower Power but all involved an uprising against a stifling postwar order. In what the author Paul Berman has called an incoherent fraternity, idealism provided what coherence there was.

Roger Cohen

Its forbidden to forbid, proclaimed Daniel Cohn-Bendit, the French-born German Jew who led the May 68 Paris uprising. His slogan, silly-looking now, was less important than his border-crossing identity, a rebuke to countless European silences, prejudices, taboos, lies and murders.

Now, once again, we find ourselves a generation on from the ending of a global war, the cold one of the Berlin Wall. Once again, idealism and youth involvement in politics are awakening in the United States, gathered around a thirst for change and the rejection of a status quo Bush successor. Well see what comes of these stirrings. I suspect they have the wind at their back.

I hope so. Ive been feeling wistful. May is almost over and my heads been full of 40-year-old images overturned cars in the Latin Quarter, Soviet tanks rolling into the Czech capital, the pistol pointed at Robert Kennedy, Tommie Smiths raised black-gloved fist at the Mexico Olympics, Jimi and Janis in their glory images that engraved themselves even on a 13-year-olds mind.

They blur, these black-and-white snapshots, and I realize Ive been sorting through them ever since. Its not true that everything changes so that everything can stay the same. Not much emerged unchanged from 1968, even if protest never became revolution.

The uprisings were distinct. As Milan Kundera has noted: The Parisian May was an explosion of revolutionary lyricism. The Prague Spring was the explosion of post-revolutionary skepticism.

If French students and workers were appalled by the European bourgeois order, Czech students ached for a return to European civilization. They perceived it as salvation from what Kundera calls the antiWestern Messianism of Soviet totalitarianism.

The Soviet Gulag and the ravages of Chinese Communism had not yet made sufficient impression on the French or German left for them to drop their Marxist lexicon (even as they deplored Stalinist excess) or abandon heroes such as Mao and Che.

Those locked in the Soviet empire could afford no such delusional romanticism.

Jacques Rupnik, a French political scientist, put it well: While the New Left in the West wanted to reinvigorate Marxism by removing its Stalinist ravages, the Czechs wanted, on the contrary, to dilute Marxism to the maximum.

It would take years, beyond the Soviet quashing of Alexander Dubcek and Charles de Gaulles recovery, for the West European left to rid itself of its last Marxist illusions. Only then could anti-totalitarianism, human rights and European integration become shared values from Paris to Prague.

Even now, liberty resonates more viscerally in Central Europe than in West Europe. The horrors of posttotalitarianism in Bosnia placed me forever in the camp of the absolutists of freedom like Polands Adam Michnik. But the big battles are over.

They were social as much as political. Joschka Fischer in Berlin taught me what it took to confront the terrible silence of postwar Germany and prize loose secrets and habits. The long German march to normality required both the 68 Paris-Berlin challenge to bourgeois conformity and Pragues uprising against the Soviet order.

A thrice-married French president of immigrant and partly Jewish descent Nicolas Sarkozy would have been unthinkable without the legacy of 68, even if he has blamed its heirs for a crisis of morality. Andre Malraux saw the death of God in the events; certainly the prudish, provincial Gallic God that would have kept Sarko from power was cut down.

In similar vein, the cultural changes unleashed in the United States in 1968 as anti-Vietnam protests raged, and the Civil Rights Movement unfurled, and hippies put flowers in their hair, opened up society in ways neither Richard Nixon nor the murder of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. could reverse. One legacy, 40 years on, is the first serious possibility, in Barack Obama, of an African-American president.

From Prague to Paris to Chicago, cracks were papered over when the fervor subsided. But sexuality (The Pill went on sale in France in 1967 and was in wide use in America by 1968), religion, race and freedom would not be lived again in quite the same way. Walls were undermined.

That summer of 68, I was in a vast crowd in Londons sunlit Hyde Park listening to Pink Floyds free concert:

One inch of love is one inch of shadow Love is the shadow that ripens the wine Set the controls for the heart of the sun!

Right on! Anything seemed possible, even the strange, agreeable sensation of Sarah Sarsfields toes mingling with mine. Possibility was that years richest legacy, beyond every utopian illusion.

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