Germans debate politician's past

Popular foreign minister deflects criticism after photos appear to link him to '70s violence.

How much should a politician's past acts weigh in the present?

While Americans debate the fate of Linda Chavez, who has retracted her nomination as Labor secretary, Germans are wrestling with questions about Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer.

Ms. Chavez withdrew on Tuesday after admitting she harbored an illegal alien in her home in the early 1990s. Even her supporters were troubled by apparent inconsistencies in her earlier statements on the matter.

Mr. Fischer, meanwhile, has never made a secret of his past participation in the turbulent anti-establishment street protests that rocked the country 30 years ago. On the contrary, he prides himself on having one of the most unconventional resumes in European politics today.

But Fischer's reputation as an idealistic revolutionary took a darker turn last week, with the publication of photos in the Hamburg weekly Der Stern. The long-forgotten pictures depict a helmeted protester - purportedly Fischer - beating a policeman at a 1973 protest in Frankfurt.

"Yes, I was militant," Fischer was quoted as saying in the interview.

While some conservatives are calling for his resignation, the majority of the population appears to have little problem with the popular Fischer, whose political metamorphosis from anarchist to senior statesman is symbolic of an entire generation - and the maturation of German democracy.

As the most prominent member of the Greens, a traditionally pacifist party, Fischer has admitted to the use of force against police in street protests. But he has vehemently denied ever throwing Molotov cocktails, as many fellow demonstrators did. During a 1976 protest, a police officer suffered life-threatening burns when his car caught fire.

The protests were a critical moment in modern German history. Members of the post-World War II generation were coming of age and confronting their parents over complicity with the Nazi regime.

Attempts to tarnish Fischer with his past ignore his political transformation, observe some commentators. Gunter Hofmann, Berlin bureau chief of the weekly Die Zeit, says it is significant that there have been no new revelations, save the photographs.

"Germans have accepted that. They are proud that they have a foreign minister who had a relative 'colorful' biography," says Mr. Hofmann. "The protest generation tried to make Germany more democratic and liberal. And this was objectively achieved through the big conflict in the '60s and '70s."

Like some of his contemporaries in the West, Fischer dreamed of toppling the establishment and building a socialist utopia. In Frankfurt, he played an important role in the far-left scene, and along with comrades he trained in the woods for street confrontations.

A small group of activists - including several of Fischer's associates - went beyond the chaotic demonstrations to organize terrorist acts. Fischer distanced himself from this violent wing in 1976, when two German radicals were involved in the hijacking of an Air France plane. It was this radicalization that led Fischer, like many of his contemporaries, to disavow violence.

"What shocks me is that we didn't see how quickly we came to that which we had rejected in the generation of our fathers," Fischer said in a recent newspaper interview.

Conservatives have tried to draw similar parallels. "In the case of former members of the Nazi Party, one asked if they should take public office. One also asked this in the case of former Communist Party members," Jorg Schonbohm, the interior minister of Brandenburg, has said. "The foreign minister should deal with his personal past more self-critically."

The deputy parliamentary leader of the opposition Christian Democrats, Wolfgang Bosbach, commented: "Someone who behaved like that is not a credible representative of a peaceful civil society."

A recent poll, however, showed that 82 percent of Germans don't believe their foreign minister should step down. After all, more than 25 years have passed since Fischer began his political career, fundamentally changing Germany from within - not from outside - the system.

"Fischer is in fact living proof of German democracy's power of integration," one commentator wrote in the Berlin daily Der Tagesspiegel. "German parliamentarianism was strong enough to force these young people to merge into its structures."

In the early 1980s, Fischer became active in the nascent Greens party, a motley assembly of pacifists, environmentalists, and feminists. Dressed in jeans and sneakers, Fischer was the first Green to be sworn in as a minister on the state level in 1985. From there, the self-educated high-school dropout was elected to the federal parliament, becoming the Greens' leading politician.

In the mid-'90s, he underwent a personal transformation as well, losing more than 70 pounds and taking up marathon running.

He was appointed foreign minister after the Greens formed a government with the Social Democrats in 1998. While the coalition has had to weather political storms - just this week two ministers resigned over their handling of the mad-cow scare - Fischer has consistently received high approval ratings.

Still, some political observers have criticized the apparent flippancy with which Fischer has brushed off questions about his role in violent protests. And he will have to answer some of them in court. On Monday, Fischer will testify at the trial of Hans-Joachim Klein, who is implicated in the deaths of three people during a terrorist attack 26 years ago. In the early 1970s, Mr. Klein was a member of Fischer's band of left-wing radicals.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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