Does Joschka Fischer really believe in anything?
Jun 1, 2004
27 Min read time
On November 14, 2003, technicians at the Stade nuclear power plant, just outside Hamburg, switched off the 630-kilowatt reactor for the last time.
The facility was the first taken off line since Germany’s “red-green” government, a coalition of Social Democrats and Greens, brokered a plan to shut down all the country’s nuclear power plants.
Ostensibly, the 2000 agreement between the government and German utility companies marked a hard-fought victory for the Greens and their leader, Joschka Fischer, Germany‘s foreign minister. The party coalesced from regional anti-nuclear groups and other left-wing projects in West Germany over two decades ago, and no issue is linked to the Greens more closely than nuclear power.
But the reaction of anti-nuclear activists to the closure of Stade was anything but jubilant. In fact, the agreement four years ago to phase out nuclear power over a 20-year period sparked a rash of angry defections from the Greens. This schedule enables most of the country’s reactors to operate until the end of their natural lives, some beyond 2020. Green critics blasted the compromise as a sellout and a “pseudo-measure” that ultimately upgrades existing reactors and leaves huge loopholes for the industry to backtrack the day the Greens leave office. This wasn’t what activists had in mind when they braved icy nights blockading power plants and nuclear-waste deliveries.
Insiders estimate that the deal made with the nuclear industry caused more members to abandon the Greens than did the party’s spring 1999 approval—muscled through by Fischer, then freshly installed as foreign minister—of Germany’s plans to participate in the NATO bombing campaign against Yugoslavia, the first time since World War II that Germany has sent troops into combat. The red-green coalition hadn’t been in place for two years and the Greens had managed to lose about a quarter of their core supporters.
Fischer is the single figure most closely identified with the Greens’ reformist path as well as their electoral triumphs. He is the party’s uncontested leader and visionary, the country’s most popular politician, and a foreign minister of international renown. Timemagazine recently listed him among the world’s most important thinkers.
Despite his international celebrity, Fischer is nowhere more controversial than within his own party.1 The angry response of the Greens’ grass roots to the nuclear compromise is characteristic of the intense internal battles that have accompanied the party’s transformations over its 24-year history. In order to become a governing partner acceptable to the nation’s political elite, the unruly “anti-party” party jettisoned more than jeans, wool sweaters, and beards. Under the Fischer-led pragmatists, it tempered—or betrayed, depending upon the observer—its stands on virtually every issue from recycling to NATO.
The final phase of that metamorphosis began in the autumn of 1998, when the Greens and the Social Democrats captured a left-of-center majority in Germany for the first time in nearly 20 years. The Greens, with 7.6 percent of the vote, joined as junior coalition partner, taking the portfolios of the foreign, environmental, and health ministries. The “long march through the institutions,” as the left’s post-1960s strategy had been dubbed, was consummated with Fischer assuming the second-most-important post in the Federal Republic. But even the Social Democrat–dominated coalition pact only hinted at the compromises that Fischer and the Greens would have to make to remain in power.
Fischer’s own dramatic transformations dwarf those of his party: from revolutionary Marxist in the ’70s, to Green politician in the ’80s, to his present-day incarnation as debonair European statesman. His recent memoir Mein Langer Lauf zu mir Selbst2chronicles his personal rehabilitation from a 245-pound wreck, crushed after his third wife left him, to a lean, remarried marathon runner in just one year. The ostensible ease with which he makes such jumps unsettles even loyal supporters. Does Joschka Fischer really, passionately believe in anything? Or is he driven entirely by personal ambition?
Whatever the answer to these questions, Fischer’s critics and supporters alike agree that he is a keen political animal, arguably the shrewdest in the country, with an instinct for power and a formidable will to pursue it. The Greens’ political success would have been unthinkable without Fischer, and he remains indispensable to the party as well as to the ruling coalition. It was Fischer’s marathon-like campaign tour through Germany in the summer of 2002 that secured red-green the narrowest of Bundestag majorities and thus another four years in office. But this dependence on Fischer—for votes, for strategy, for vision—disturbs many Greens, who are traditionally wary of formal hierarchies and dominant males. At a recent Green party congress, youthful supporters fell to their knees and bowed in mocking homage when Fischer‘s image, beamed live from Italy, flashed onto a giant video screen in the convention hall.
The Greens are, without a doubt, now part of the establishment, but today’s establishment is quite different from the one they once opposed so vehemently. Germany has undergone enormous changes since the “leaden” postwar decades. Fischer himself symbolizes a reconciliation of left and right in Germany, a process that many leftists, including some of the Greens’ original supporters, find intolerable. They are not prepared to negotiate a peace with the free market, German military might, and the nuclear power industry. Fischer is. And gradually, he and his supporters are changing Germany.
* * *
Fischer’s journey parallels a broader generational change that has recently attracted great interest in Germany, as reflected in a trove of books, films, and exhibitions that explore its motives and character. The story begins in the claustrophobic, postwar gray of 1950s West Germany. In this environment Joschka Fischer and his peers formed their first impressions of a Germany liberated from Nazi rule but still captive to its patriarchal, authoritarian assumptions.
Joseph Martin Fischer, born in 1948, wasn’t swaddled in red diapers. On the contrary, his relatives were “Danube Schwabs,” expelled from postwar Hungary with millions of other ethnic Germans in central Europe who, guilty or not, paid a heavy price for their people’s wartime collaboration with the Nazis.
His father was a butcher. But Fischer’s interpretation of his class background shifted with the political tides. When reading Marx and fomenting revolution in the 1970s, Fischer emphasized his proletarian roots even though his family had solidly bourgeois credentials in Hungary going back generations: his father, his grandfather, and his great-grandfather owned butcher shops, his uncle a restaurant. When campaigning as a Green politician in the late 1980s, Fischer chose to highlight his family’s burgher tradition. This kind of fudging galls his harshest critics, who portray Fischer as the Forrest Gump of German politics, an empty figure devoid of serious convictions or ideals, constantly reinventing himself to fit the political zeitgeist. But he is, they acknowledge, leagues more calculating and devious than the thick film character.3
Stuck in a south German hamlet outside Stuttgart, Fischer began rebelling as a teenager. He quit gymnasium and started an apprenticeship as a photographer, which he left behind to hitchhike to England in 1966.
Fischer returned to a Germany still locked in a postwar trance. The German economic miracle (wirtschaftswunder) had boosted prosperity, but West Germany still felt stifling to Fischer and young Germans like him. That year, a new ruling coalition was formed that included the Social Democrats for the first time. Nevertheless, a former card-carrying member of the Nazi party, Kurt-Georg Kiesinger, became chancellor. Military rearmament was well underway without a public reckoning with the not-so-distant past. An uneasy silence hung over Germany’s western states.
Fischer fled his parents’ house for Stuttgart accompanied by his teenage wife, Edeltraud, the first of four brides Fischer would wed before he turned 53. On June 2, 1967, came the event that would turn Fischer into a professional revolutionary: the murder of the theology student Benno Ohnesorg. In Berlin, demonstrators had assembled to protest the official state visit of the Shah of Iran. Police deployed riot squads and opened fire on the protesters with water cannons. As the melee spun out of control, shots were fired, killing Ohnesorg, an uninvolved bystander.
Ohnesorg’s death set off waves of protest across the country, including in Stuttgart, galvanizing the nascent student-led movement. The killing furnished proof of what Fischer and others had suspected all along: that the Federal Republic masked an authoritarian police state that had yet to expunge the vestiges of fascism. For the next decade, they would strive to overthrow it.
* * *
The newly radicalized Fischer pushed on to Frankfurt, the intellectual hub of the student movement. Along the River Main, the lectures of Theodor Adorno, Jürgen Habermas, and Hans-Jürgen Krahl, among others associated with the renowned Institute for Social Research, packed university lecture halls. Fischer never enrolled in the university but audited lectures and read Hegel, Marx, and Lenin on his own.
In his informal studies, as in later endeavors, Fischer exhibited an uncanny aptitude for absorbing complex material quickly. He also showed that he was ambitious, throwing himself into his new life with all of his energy. Before long, he was leading a local study group on Marx.
In 1968 and 1969, demonstrations against American involvement in Vietnam shook the universities of Germany, as elsewhere. At the same time, an underground organization that would come to be known as the Red Army Faction (RAF) declared armed struggle against the fascist German state. In an overflowing auditorium at the Johann Wolfgang von Goethe University in Frankfurt, a taped message by the journalist Ulrike Meinhof called on students to use all means necessary to overthrow the Federal Republic, which she called the legitimate heir of Nazi Germany. Over the next decade, subsequent generations of the RAF would kidnap and murder prominent members of the German establishment as part of what it described as an international, anti-imperialist war waged on behalf of the working class and the Third World.
The proximity of Fischer and his anarcho-Marxist grouping,Revolutionärer Kampf (Revolutionary Struggle, or RK), to the RAF would return to haunt Germany’s Green foreign minister nearly three decades later. The men of RK—they were mostly men—espoused a less dogmatic form of socialism than that of the RAF and the other Marxist-oriented parties that proliferated in the 1970s in the wake of the depleted student movement. With a dose of anarcho-syndicalism, they called themselves spontis, a riff on the impulsive, spontaneous left-wing activism deplored by Lenin. The spontis wanted to be the opposite of the Soviet communists: provocative, emotional, and irreverent, living—as they put it—“politics in the first person.” Although RK distanced itself from the RAF’s murder campaign, it shared many of the RAF’s views on capitalism and condoned violence against the state. For RK, rocks and molotov cocktails were permissible, guns not. It was a very fine line.
Fischer was neither a major player in the student movement nor the brains behind RK. In contrast, Fischer’s future close friend Dany Cohn-Bendit was already a name known across Europe by the time he arrived in Frankfurt in 1970. Dany the Red, with his schoolboy face and red mop of hair, had led the French students in revolt against their establishment before authorities expelled him from the country.
Cohn-Bendit had already been where Fischer wanted to be: at the front and in the limelight. The two hit it off immediately, forging a long friendship that remains solid today, one of the few that the loner Fischer can claim. Fischer saw in Cohn-Bendit a freethinking mentor. Cohn-Bendit spotted in Fischer a penetrating mind with the gift to articulate ideas clearly and persuasively. Unlike Fischer, Cohn-Bendit, a French Jew, came from an upper-class, intellectual family. The child of expelled ethnic Germans, Fischer was the one with something to prove.
The strategy of the German left—the long march through the institutions—was to infiltrate and subvert the foundations of West German society, not to reform it. While Cohn-Bendit worked in a nursery school, Fischer went straight into the working class. But his very first mission, the infiltration of the labor union of a nearby automobile manufacturer, Opel, ended in farce. At a union meeting, Fischer called on the workers to strike. He was dismissed from the factory that same day.
By the early 1970s, the Frankfurt left had found a new cause to replace the one that the dormant working class refused to support. As squatters began occupying condemned old houses in Frankfurt’s west end, the left tapped into the housing debate, an issue with greater immediacy and broader appeal than class conflict. Police responded with raids on the squatters, and thus new battle lines were drawn between the left and the state.
The extent of the divide between left and right in West Germany at that time is hard to comprehend today. The 1970s films of Margarita von Trotta, Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Alexander Kluge are well worth revisiting to get a feeling of the distrust and animosity that separated the generations. It was against this backdrop that the long, charged debates about the use of violence took place. Was the left to concede the “monopoly on violence” to the reactionary staatsorgane? Class conflict and imperialism were implicitly violent, and the left, the spontis argued, was not going to score martyr points with passive disobedience.
In the militant scene, Fischer was nicknamed the “minister of defense” for his work as the chief of the sponti strike force, Putz, which stood for Proletarian Union for Terror and Destruction. The members of the unit functioned like minutemen, ready at a moment’s notice to defend the squatted houses against police raids. The men of Putz also mobilized for demonstrations, not always waiting for the “pigs”to strike first. Fischer and Cohn-Bendit were never pacifists, a fact often overlooked by those evaluating their positions on military intervention in the 1990s.
One of Putz’s tactics included isolating single police officers from their colleagues, jumping them and beating them up. As a nationally known politician in the 1980s and 1990s, Fischer never denied his militant past. In fact, he sometimes smiles mischievously when remembering escapades from his wild years. Indeed, this militancy was the way Fischer dispelled his anonymity in the left-wing scene, his first step up a very tall ladder.
But in 2001, two events coincided that threatened to put a premature end to the career of Germany’s new foreign minister. For one, the Frankfurt trial of the former Putz member Hans-Joachim Klein had just begun. Klein had drifted from the spontis into the terrorist underground. In December 1975, Klein was part of a commando team that attacked an OPEC conference in Vienna, killing three people. Klein lived underground in France for 25 years before German police finally apprehended him in 2000. Fischer was scheduled to appear at the trial to give evidence about a related incident.
But before Fischer could testify another curve ball was thrown his way. The weekly magazine Stern published startling photographs of the young Fischer assaulting a police officer at a 1973 Frankfurt demonstration. The photos were truly shocking. They showed Fischer, wearing a black motorcycle helmet, luring one member of the riot squad out into open space. As the cop went for Fischer with his riot stick, the Putz troops jumped him and beat him to the ground. One image captures Fischer with his fist extended above his head, poised to come down on the officer’s head with a fierce blow, a gratuitous act of brutality.
The controversy provoked a flurry of accusations and even calls on behalf of the conservatives for Fischer to step down. But despite the brouhaha, the calls for Fischer’s head were surprisingly half-hearted. The country seemed willing to accept Fischer’s apologies and move on. It was a sign that Germany was aware of this bit of its past and that some form of reconciliation had already occurred, even if it was largely unspoken.
By 1977 the Marxist groupings, including the spontis, fell into disarray, with little to show for their efforts. Violence, Fischer later admitted, had become an end in itself, a fascinating ritual no longer connected to a political agenda. The disillusioned 29-year-old Fischer dropped out of the scene and—using one of his only marketable skills—began driving a taxi part-time.
In a funk that lasted nearly six years, Fischer steered clear of the new projects emerging from the remnants of the Marxist left. He needed to come to grips with the disintegration of the project that had occupied nearly a decade of his life. This long period of introspection suggests that Fischer genuinely believed in the ideals he had espoused at the time, a level of commitment that his detractors tend to doubt. Just as postwar Germany had to confront its unpleasant history, Fischer needed to come to terms with his own misguided past before he could move on.
* * *
In the late 1970s a new set of political alliances emerged in West Germany. Then called the “Green lists,” these alliances—which included regional ecological groups as well as others concerned with civil liberties, nuclear power, and feminist and peace issues—sought an electoral option to the left of the Social Democrats. The tough guys of the RK had never given much thought to these kinds of “soft” issues. The original Greens also included a deeply conservative strand, which linked conservation with a romantic German nationalism.
No surprise, then, that Fischer was—according to those close to him at the time—initially dismissive of the Green lists. But as the movement grew and the Green Party came to life in 1980, he reconsidered. Here was a mass movement in the making. The Greens received a huge boost from the nation-wide peace movement that had galvanized over the deployment of American medium-range nuclear missiles in West Germany. Fischer was never a trailblazer. He had tagged along to the student protests, much as RK did with the squatters. Likewise, Fischer joined the Greens in mid-1981, well after Cohn-Bendit, and after the party had put members into the Frankfurt city assembly. But by 1982 he had thrown himself fully into the party, weighing in at once on the internal battles that still loom large in the Greens’ internal life.
Fischer rose rapidly in the party alongside Petra Kelly, a pacifist, and Otto Schily, the former lawyer of Ulrike Meinhof and today Germany’s interior minister. Surrounding him was a loyal contingent of (all male) ex-spontis, nicknamed the “Fischer gang” for their steely methods.
Fischer himself had made the jump from revolution to reform, but the same could not be said for everyone in the Greens. The party’s fundamentalists—later nicknamed the “fundis”—were suspicious of cooperating with the powers that be, and indeed of power in general. Opposition was what they knew and what they cared about—but in regional parliaments as well as in the streets. Their platforms read like long wish lists, and compromise was tantamount to betrayal. Fischer, fresh from the debacle of revolutionary socialism, entered the Greens as their most militant “realo.”
The Greens first broke through on the federal level in March 1983. With 5.6 percent of the vote, they qualified for 28 seats in the Bundestag. Fischer was the only one with a past in the radical Marxist milieu. But the Greens were the issue, not his personal history. An unpredictable, largely unknown medley challenging the postwar status quo, they called themselves the “anti-party” and made it their business to upend politics-as-usual in the Federal Republic.
Fischer immediately distinguished himself as a gifted speechmaker, with an eye for media relations. The German press was secretly pleased to have the colorful Greens to spice things up, and Fischer was only too ready to oblige. Usually in jeans and a threadbare sports jacket, he took quickly to parliamentary democracy. He found he appreciated some of the perks of power, too, like the rich gastronomy and fine wines.
Unlike the other parties, the Greens pledged to rotate their Bundestag members every two years as a check on power. This didn’t sit well with Fischer, who was just getting his sea legs when his turn came to step down. But Fischer’s spell out of power didn’t last for long. In October 1985 the Hesse Greens joined the Social Democrats in the first ever red-green coalition in a West German state. The Greens, the junior coalition partner, were awarded three ministries; in white high-top Adidas sneakers and a thrift-store tweed jacket, Fischer took the oath as Hesse’s environmental minister. During Fischer’s first year in office, as the Greens grappled with Hesse’s nuclear industry, disaster struck at Chernobyl. With tons of radioactive material spewing into the sky over central Europe, the Greens’ agenda looked more in tune with reality than ever, and Fischer was sitting in just the right place.
Although the Hesse coalition fell apart in less than two years, the Greens would win representation across the country and, over the course of two decades, form ruling red-green coalitions in seven of West Germany‘s 11 states. During the late 1980s, with the Social Democrats experiencing a grave leadership crisis, the Greens racked up double-digit election results and in some states emerged as the third-strongest party.
Inside the party, issue for issue, the realos and the fundis competed for the soul and stewardship of the Greens. The fundis accused Fischer and his “right-wing” realos of flouting every ideal in pursuit of power. The realos replied that holier-than-thou posturing would get the party nowhere. The brutal infighting subsided, although it has never stopped completely, when the fundi-led Greens—floundering in the national euphoria of a newly united Germany—failed in 1990 to secure the party even the minimum five percent required for Bundestag representation. East German voters in particular didn’t know what to make of the thoroughly West German Greens. Under Fischer the realos took charge and have controlled the party ever since.
Critics argue that the power-hungry Fischer had been eyeing the foreign ministry since the early 1990s, moderating the party’s program and his own image accordingly. Only a thoroughly tamed Green Party could be an acceptable coalition partner on the federal level, and only a very special Green could be considered for the foreign ministry’s top post. When the Greens reentered the Bundestag in 1994, Fischer looked like a practiced insider. His bulging girth rivaled that of the German chancellor, Helmut Kohl, the republic’s other master tactician. And while he hadn’t yet taken to wearing three-piece Italian suits, he had added ties and dress shoes to his wardrobe.
That same year Fischer authored a long essay entitled Risiko Deutschland: Krise und Zukunft der deutschen Politik,4 which laid out his vision for 21st-century Germany. Germany and its European neighbors, he wrote, must continue to hand over national sovereignty to all-European institutions. In a globalized world, he argued, Europe needs to merge into a strong, federal union in order to tackle global problems like climate change, regional instability, drug trafficking, and migration. In short: Europe, Europe, and more Europe for Germany. Helmut Kohl could have written the very same words.
* * *
In the autumn of 1998, after sixteen years of Christian Democratic rule, Germans voted for a change, though not necessarily for a full-blown red-green reform project. A ruling combination that included the Greens was not a foregone conclusion. The Social Democratic leader Gerhard Schröder had long been suspected of favoring a grand coalition with the conservatives over a governing partnership with the unpredictable Greens.
And even in the event of a red-green coalition, Fischer’s own position was not at all certain. At the time, there was talk of the Greens taking two smaller ministries—international economic development, and transportation, building, and housing—in exchange for the high-profile foreign ministry. In these ministries progressive reforms would be significantly easier to introduce than in the realm of foreign affairs. But Fischer wanted the foreign ministry for the Greens, and for himself. So he accepted a short leash, pledging business as usual, and initially brought just three of his own people into the ministry with him.
Six years down the road, the Greens can claim a handful of tempered victories. The government’s first term was defined by Green-inspired initiatives: the phasing out of nuclear power, a liberal citizenship law, arms-export guidelines, the legalization of gay partnerships, the creation of a consumer protection ministry and an ecological tax. But as junior coalition partners, the Greens have had to stomach compromises that have made even committed realos queasy.
The weapons-export guidelines, for example, stipulate stringent human-rights criteria for buyers of German arms. But these standards are not formally binding (the Social Democrats’ contribution to the measure) and have not slowed German arms sales. Another howler: just a week after the Stade power plant shut down, Schröder announced that an outdated plutonium-processing plant would be sold to China for $50 million. The Greens cried foul and moved to block it, but the deal may go through anyway. The government’s compromises on reducing the carbon-dioxide emissions of German industry and a new immigration law fall so far short of Greens’ expectations that there was further grumbling about quitting the coalition altogether. The fact that on both issues Germany looks like a model student compared to most of its European counterparts is inconsequential to the Green rank-and-file. When the Greens have really dug in their heels, Chancellor Schröder has threatened to dissolve the coalition. At that point, his No. 2 man, Fischer, steps in to marshal party discipline.
In foreign policy, little new is explicitly green. Staple left-wing issues such as aiding the Third World and disarmament have been set aside. With Fischer’s approval, Germany has sent troops to Macedonia, Congo, Afghanistan, Kuwait, East Timor, Sudan and Mozambique. (In 1998, the day red-green took office, there were German troops only in Bosnia and Herzegovina, part of the NATO-led peace keeping force, a deployment that the then-opposition Greens had tried to block.) Germany is now, after the U.S., the largest supplier of troops for peacekeeping missions worldwide. Would a Social Democratic or even conservative foreign ministry have looked much different? Doubtful. The difference is that any other foreign minister would have had Green Pacifists on the streets protesting these same policies. Paradoxically, Fischer’s contribution to German foreign policy has been to bring Germany onto the world stage in a way that none of his right-wing political rivals could have done.
If one idea animates Fischer today it is that of a federal Europe, a cause German politicians have pursued since Adenauer’s day. Fischer, however, takes it further: a democratic union of states that binds the continent “from the Atlantic to the Urals, the Baltic to the Balkans,” including Turkey. He tirelessly reiterates the centrality of the “Europe project” to Germany and to all of Europe in the 21st century and doesn’t rule out an EU with 35 or even 40 members. Fischer is one of the foremost proponents of an autonomous, tightly knit Europe, the recipe, he argues, for another 50 years of peace and prosperity in Europe. Part of that vision is a common EU foreign and security policy that includes an armed rapid reaction force capable of responding to conflicts in the European periphery, such as the Balkans, or the Caucasus, or beyond. It is hardly a secret that he would covet the post of EU foreign minister once it comes into being. Again, Fischer could be molding the very institution that will take him to his next plateau of power.
Most Greens, like Fischer, are pro-Europe heart and soul. But there is no leftist consensus in Germany on the use of military force, even in peacekeeping missions, outside Germany’s borders. Fischer supported the deployment of German air power against Slobodan Milosevic’s Serbia just months after the red-green coalition came to power, the country’s first direct participation in a war since World War II. In Green circles it is said that Fischer didn’t have the backbone to stand up to the United States: he feared that a German veto in NATO would have shattered the young red-green coalition and deprived him of his precious office.
Indeed, in the early 1990s, Fischer spoke out against German military involvement in war-torn Bosnia. But Fischer’s position changed over the course of the decade. Cohn-Bendit had from the beginning argued for Western military force to stop the bloodshed in the former Yugoslavia. In the summer of 1995, the Serb massacre of Bosnian Muslims at Srebrenica (as the UN stood by) shocked European policymakers and liberal-minded Germans particularly so, who believed that nothing like this could happen again in modern Europe. When, as foreign minister, Fischer saw the same constellation at work in Kosovo, he set about convincing the Greens that military intervention, including the deployment of German bombers, was necessary to stop an imminent genocide.
Iraq was different. During the lead-up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq, Fischer met with Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and others in Munich to discuss the evidence for invading Saddam’s Iraq. In a now famous exchange, Fischer, gesturing with his hand, nearly shouted at Rumsfeld in accented English, “Excuse me, I am not convinced!” In German he continued, “We owe our own democracy to America, but we have to be convinced.” The German government refused to back American and British war plans, openly breaking with Washington on such an important matter of policy for the first time in postwar history.
With Iraq, Germany began to redefine the parameters of the postwar transatlantic alliance. Fischer, a convinced Atlanticist, vigorously objects to posing Europe against the United States. He is adament that Europe, and Germany in particular, needs the United States now as much as it has in the past. But Germany’s relations with Washington will never be as cozy as they were before red-green rule.
In its second term, with only a hair’s breadth of a parliamentary majority, the center-left coalition is forced to negotiate all major legislation with the conservative opposition, which controls theBundesrat, Germany’s upper parliamentary house. At times it seems as if the parliamentary opposition has more clout in the coalition than do the Greens. Schröder has made the long-overdue reform of the welfare state his top priority. But in the end it has been a process of cutting and streamlining rather than structural reform. It is hardly a surprise that the Social Democrats have fallen so far in the polls, more than 20 percent below the Christian Democrats. The very party that identifies itself with Germany’s social welfare state has been forced to take a knife to it. Unlike the Greens, the Social Democrats have been unable to soften the blows of unpopular measures with achievements of any sort that they can hold up to their voters.
Nevertheless, red-green is changing Germany for the better. A more liberal, modern Germany is emerging, one with a healthy confidence in itself and its role as peacemaker in global affairs. With red-green, there are no more embarrassing faux pas over matters of history or German nationalism, as had been the case during conservative rule. The generation of Fischer and Schröder dedicated part of its life to confronting Germany’s Nazi past and demanding that the state and society at large do the same. Partly for this reason, European suspicions about German intentions—the notorious German question—have more or less disappeared for the first time in over a century.
One measure of this shift is the inability of the far right to get a foothold at either the state or national level. Germany is now one of the few European countries without a Jörg Haider or Jean-Marie Le Pen. The new immigration legislation will give Germany more leeway to lure highly trained migrant laborers, a belated and timid step but one in the right direction. And the citizenship law passed in 1999 has enabled nearly a million previously defined “to receive German citizenship. One day Germany’s national soccer team will look as ethnically diverse as France’s or Holland’s.
As for Joschka Fischer, he maintains that his transformations are over. But he has said that before. He still tops national popularity polls, which is more than he can say for ratings within his own party. The Greens today rely as much on center-left swing voters as they do on a core Green constituency. There is speculation that, should the red-green coalition crumble, Fischer could be a compromise candidate for foreign minister in a government without the Greens. He, of course, denies this. And in the end, Fischer needs the Greens almost as much as the Greens need him. Without the party, he would have no equivalent power base so responsive to his ambitions. Fischer embodies the halting converegence of left and right in Germany over the course of three decades, a process of moderation and compromise that has created a broad, essentially liberal consensus across the German party spectrum on most key issues. Off the record, conservatives admit they have no substantive differences with Fischer’s foreign policy course. On the local level, Greens and Christian Democrats even work together in “black-green” coalitions, a combination as unthinkable not so long ago as an ex-anarcho-Marxist becoming the foreign minister of a unified, fully soveriegn Germany. Equally unthinkable is Germany’s present consensus without the turbulent sixties, the Greens, and the long march through the institutions.
1 That said, there is no love for Fischer on the right either. In February 2004, one prominent conservative from Bavaria called Fischer an “ex-terrorist” and an “environmental Stalinist.”
2 My Long Journey to Myself (Knaur: Munich, 2001), 160.
3 See for example Michael Schwelien’s Joschka Fischer: Eine Karriere (Heyne: Munich, 2000).
4 The German Risk: The Crisis and Future of German Politics(Knaur: Munich, 1994). See also VonStaatenbund zur Föderation: Gedanken über die Finalität der europäischen Integration(Suhrkamp, Frankfurt, 2000).
Originally published in the summer 2004 issue of Boston Review.
June 01, 2004
27 Min read time