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Joschka Fischer, A Long Strange Political Trip

• August 26, 2009 • 10:00 PM

As an anti-party’s pre-eminent politician, Joschka Fischer took Germany’s Greens out of the wilderness and into real power. But has he become what he once eschewed?

Since this first round of blogging for European Dispatch has turned on green-energy themes, I thought I’d bring it to an end with a summary of how Die Grünen in Germany came to be the most powerful group of Greens in the world — for a while — under Joschka Fischer, who now has a rather different job.

Joschka Fischer is the onetime leftist street fighter who became Germany’s vice chancellor and foreign minister in 1998, in a coalition between the Green Party and Gerhard Schröder’s Social Democrats. Along with Bernard Kouchner‘s career in France, Fischer’s represents the “long march through the institutions” that another German activist, Rudi Dutschke, envisioned for the student left after uprisings across Europe in 1968.

The ’68ers were Europe’s answer to hippies. They protested the Vietnam War, accused an older generation of Nazi tendencies and agitated for student free speech. Some became authoritarians themselves in their old age, especially figures close to the violent Baader-Meinhof gang, like Otto Schily (a defense lawyer who became a meddling interior minister) and Horst Mahler (now a ridiculous neo-Nazi); but Fischer took a middle path, and instead of grasping for power, he gave it up, gracefully, in 2005. People forget that he was still Germany’s most popular politician at the time, and if he’d left the Greens to campaign as a Social Democrat — never a serious option — he could have beaten Angela Merkel.

To his critics on the left, though, wielding any power at all was a compromise. Die Grünen grew out of West Germany’s environmental movement in the ’70s, which coalesced around protests against European nuclear power, American nuclear missiles and the construction of a runway at Frankfurt International Airport. When they first won seats in the German federal parliament in 1983, the Greens still called themselves an “anti-party” and made a point of wearing sneakers and sweaters (instead of suits and ties) to the Bundestag.

They’d come together as a party under Petra Kelly, a disappointed Social Democrat who had spent the ’60s in Washington D.C., worked for Robert Kennedy and found herself influenced by the American civil rights and environmental movements. In 1979 she formed the “anti-party” that would push for environmental causes in Germany by grassroots organizing and even run for office — but not seek power at any cost. When she won a parliamentary seat, Kelly considered it a bully pulpit and not much else. Her idealism, combined with vocal support from the likes of Heinrich Böll, turned the Greens into a party of conviction, a place to park your protest vote.

But Fischer proved unexpectedly popular. He had a barbed tongue and a quick mind; he was rarely polite. (Once he called the rest of the Bundestag a bunch of “alcoholics.”) He became a sharp voice for West Germany’s non-Marxist left, and when the Wall fell, the Greens joined with a group of like-minded East German politicians called Bündnis 90. Petra Kelly was killed by her boyfriend in 1992, so she never saw the new group become the country’s fourth viable party under Fischer’s leadership — a kingmaker, a coalition-forger like the more traditional, laissez-faire Free Democrats.

With Gerhard Schröder the Greens came to power in 1998. Almost immediately Fischer fought two big struggles. First he supported the use of German warplanes in Kosovo to help NATO’s incursion into the Balkan civil war. That was a big no-no for a peacenik Green, especially since postwar German troops had never been used beyond the country’s borders. It set a new precedent for the German military that led to Berlin’s current dilemma in Afghanistan. By 2001 Fischer had also forged a law to phase out nuclear power, and this law, now under threat, is still his main legacy.

With an election coming up in late September, the Greens find themselves deep in the wilderness, far from any prospect of power. Russia’s natural-gas politics since 2005 have made the nuclear phase-out look like a bad idea, and it hasn’t helped anyone that Gerhard Schröder took a plum job in Russia to oversee a new gas pipeline, Nordstream, intended to run straight to western Europe. That pipeline looks, more than ever, like a morphine drip from the Kremlin.

Fischer took a job in June with a rival pipeline called Nabucco, the Washington- and EU-approved alternative to Nordstream. It could, by 2014, bring natural gas across Turkey to western Europe, leaving Russia out of the equation. The plan’s in trouble — Azerbaijani and Iranian gas to fill the line might be promised elsewhere — but Fischer’s presence on the project is a nod to old allegiances, to Turkey and the EU, as well as a way to jab his former boss in the eye.

Resorting to the “sellout” charge that still dogs Fischer as a retired politician, the World Socialist Web site accuses him of using his new job to play a modern Great Game with energy resources in the Middle East. “The Green Party and its long-time former leader Joschka Fischer,” write the socialists, “are playing a key role in advancing this imperialist project.” But a worldly German Green, squeezed by Russia and his anti-nuclear ideals, may have no other choice.

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Michael Scott Moore
Michael Scott Moore was a 2006-2007 Fulbright fellow for journalism in Germany, and The Economist named his surf travelogue, "Sweetness and Blood," a book of the year in 2010. His first novel, "Too Much of Nothing," was published by Carroll & Graf in 2003, and he’s written about politics and travel for The Atlantic Monthly, Slate, the Los Angeles Times, and Spiegel Online in Berlin, where he serves as editor-at-large.

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