Green and red

Pub date September 3, 2008
SectionArts & CultureSectionLiterature

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Now that the Iraq War and occupation is accepted as a permanent feature of American life, it seems worthwhile to reflect on how controversial it once was — not just among the millions who filled streets around the world to protest the impending invasion, but also within the governments of some of America’s traditional allies. No one better expressed the rift it created in Europe than German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer when he publicly rejected Donald Rumsfeld’s appeal for support at the February 2003 Munich security conference. Lest the then Secretary of State miss the point, Fischer switched to English for his summation: "Sorry, you haven’t convinced me."

It’s unlikely Rumsfeld was particularly surprised, except possibly by Fischer’s command of English, since the German government so clearly owed its come-from-behind reelection the prior September to the vehemence of its opposition to the upcoming war. At the time, George W. Bush opted against making the traditional congratulatory call to Socialist Party Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, and Condoleezza Rice declared that Fischer’s "background and career do not suit the profile of a statesman." Given Rice’s history as a Stanford professor and Chevron corporate board member, such a remark makes perfect sense. Fischer, leader of the Green Party — the coalition government’s junior partner — was not only a high school dropout but a veteran militant street protestor of the German new left that demanded that its parents’ generation confront the Nazi legacy while vehemently opposing the US war on Vietnam.

In Joschka Fischer and the Making of the Berlin Republic (Oxford University Press, 400 pages, $35), journalist Paul Hockenos explores the life, beliefs, decisions, and actions of Germany’s recent Foreign Minister. For example, although the Greens are widely considered a pacifist party, Fischer was not a pacifist — after a few small leftist groups had taken to kidnapping and assassination in the 1970s, he once gave a speech urging the movement to "put down the bombs and pick up stones again."

As Hockenos explains, Fischer was the most prominent of the German "68ers" who considered themselves to the left of the Socialists and who fashioned something of an "anti-party party" with the Greens in order to embark upon a "long march through the institutions." During his 1998–2005 tenure as Germany’s Foreign Minister, Fischer became the country’s most widely admired politician, although the Greens never surpassed single-digit percentages of the national vote. Still, his legacy — and the party’s — is mixed. The "Red-Green" government engineered Germany’s first military intervention since the end of World War II, when German pilots participated in the bombing of Kosovo. Just as it took Germany’s Socialists time to realize they could form a government of the left if — and only if — they did so in coalition with the Greens, the Greens are in opposition today because they have been unwilling and unable to coalesce with other factions.

Nonetheless the post-’60s German left did at least set itself on an identifiable course of action. In this respect, Joschka Fischer and the Making of the Berlin Republic makes an excellent case that Americans can learn from Europe.