Street-fighter who became statesman: The last hurrah of a green giant

Joschka Fischer has quit politics to become an academic. But his announcement is one of a series of reinventions by the 1968 radical who became German foreign minister. By Tony Paterson
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The Independent Online

He began his political career by throwing cobblestones at Frankfurt's riot police, shocked Germany's establishment by wearing tatty jeans and trainers on his first day as an MP and was often reviled for publicly denouncing his opponents as "arseholes".

Yet Joseph Martin Fischer, the legendary former bad boy of German politics, went on to become Europe's foremost Green party politician and the first German foreign minister to break with his country's post-war non-interventionist doctrine and play a central role in its commitment to abandoning nuclear power.

Yesterday Joschka Fischer, a figure regarded as an unassailable icon of 1968-generation Green politics, finally quit the German political stage for good, announcing his intention to take up the post of guest professor of international politics at Princeton University in the US.

Declaring that he had decided to exchange the "duty of politics for freedom", the 58-year-old politician, who nowadays sports immaculately tailored Cerruti suits and half-rimmed spectacles, took leave of his parliamentary party. He plans to give up his seat as an MP later this summer.

His departure was a low-key affair. Mr Fischer himself said he wanted the event to be without any "big-mouth speeches". Relegated to the role of a minor opposition party in a German parliament dominated by Chancellor Angela Merkel's "grand coalition" government, the Greens have little to say nowadays and little to offer in shaping the country's future.

Worse still, Mr Fischer himself is no longer regarded as the unblemished hero of the German Greens. Many in the still predominantly young rank and file of the party think he has sold out to the establishment and become less of a vote winner than a political liability as a result.

Yet nobody would doubt that Joschka Fischer's departure marks the end of an era. Few German politicians have left their mark so indelibly on national and European policy-making. Fewer still have managed to reinvent themselves so adroitly: within three decades Joschka Fischer has been a revolutionary street-fighting man; a fat, abrasive yet brilliant opposition politician; an emaciated, jogging obsessed fitness guru and a foreign minister with the savvy and gravitas of a latter-day Bismarck.

It was a shot fired in anger from a Berlin policeman's pistol that launched Joschka Fischer on his remarkable political career. The bullet broke the skull of a 26-year-old student called Benno Ohnesorg who had gone to watch a demonstration against a visit to Germany by the Shah of Persia. Ohnesorg was killed instantly. Black and white television pictures of the young man lying prostrate and bloody on the street were flashed across Germany, sending the country's youth into a state of shock. The date was 2 June 1967 during the height of student protests against what was felt to be the hypocrisy and double standards of post-war Germany.

Mr Fischer, the son of a Hungarian-German butcher from a sleepy town in southern Germany, was 19 at the time, had already quit school at the age of 16 and had broken with his family because of arguments about the Nazi era. He recalled in an interview how Ohnesorg's death shook him to the core: "I felt nothing but fury, fury that someone could be shot dead simply for being a student at a demonstration."

He added: "Looking back, his death was a tragedy that more than anything else, made me want to get involved in politics. I wanted to make sure that nothing like that could ever happen in Germany again."

Mr Fischer went to Frankfurt, then a hotbed of Sixties student radicalism, became a squatter and worked as a taxi-driver, car mechanic and book shop assistant, spending most of his free time engaged in politics or fighting pitched battles with the police. Decades later when he was foreign minister, detailed media revelations about his street-fighting past caught up with him and threatened his political future. Mr Fischer admitted: "It was the era of protests against Vietnam and the shooting of students. In those days we thought we could resort to violence to fight the violence against us. That was the mistake."

Yet Germany's revolutionary student left became the seed bed of the German Greens. Daniel Cohn Bendit - "Danny the Red" of Paris 1968 student riots fame - had fled to Frankfurt and he and Mr Fischer were in at the start. The Greens were founded in 1980 and by 1983, at the height of the German peace movement's mass protests against the deployment of American Cruise and Pershing II missiles in Germany, the party was elected to parliament with Mr Fischer as one of its first MPs.

In the 1980s and early 1990s Mr Fischer shone as a brilliant and often acidly sarcastic parliamentary speaker. His diet, which consisted of red wine and steaks, had turned him into a corpulent figure that led some to compare him with his arch enemy - Chancellor Helmut Kohl.

German reunification in 1990 nearly finished off the Greens. The party was knocked out of parliament on a tide of pro-Kohl euphoria and political commentators were writing its obituary. The party's drubbing at the polls coincided with a furious debate within the Green movement about the party's future course.

Green realists or "Realos" championed by Mr Fischer wanted the party to work within the political system, while fundamentalists or "Fundis" within the movement wanted a return to its extra-parliamentary grass roots and campaigning to be conducted from the streets. In the event Mr Fischer's "Realos" won out, prompting a mass exodus of "Fundis" from the party.

But the benefits of the policy switch became obvious during Germany's 1994 elections. The Greens were swept back to national power and managed to replace the liberal Free Democrats as the country's third political force. For middle-class Germans, once shocked by the party's radicalism, the Greens and their new doctrine of environmentalism via parliamentary democracy, had become a natural choice.

Mr Fischer had to wait four years until his party achieved power. The chance came in 1998 when Gerhard Schröder's Social Democrats swept to victory, declaring that they were committed to forming a coalition with the Greens and implementing many of their once controversial environmental policies.

The election campaign was an ordeal for Mr Fischer, who had just ended a long relationship with his girlfriend, Claudia, and was suffering an acute bout of depression as a result. Yet he managed to turn his loss into personal political gain by jogging his way out of his misery. Throughout the campaign a soon emaciated Mr Fischer was televised jogging between political rallies in his trainers. His publication of a book entitled My long run to myself became a best-seller.

As a politician, Mr Fischer was soon throwing his weight behind his party's commitment to ending Germany's reliance on nuclear power. Despite massive opposition from the nuclear industry, the Schröder coalition enforced deadlines for the shutdown of nuclear power stations, although these could be extended by Ms Merkel's current coalition. As foreign minister, Mr Fischer, now reinvented as a suit-wearing and bespectacled statesman, was busy pushing back the frontiers of opposition to a united Europe by declaring his support for a virtual United States of Europe and becoming one of the main proponents of EU enlargement.

Yet his first real challenge in office came during the Kosovo conflict, when Nato decided to mount an air offensive against Slobodan Milosevic's Serbian regime. Despite massive opposition from rank-and-file Greens, Mr Fischer committed Germany to taking part in the offensive, breaking with the country's post-war consensus of non-intervention for the first time.

In a memorable speech to parliament, Mr Fischer, the former pacifist, declared: "At best we face a situation like Bosnia, at worst we face a major war. The politics of Milosevic are a permanent threat of war in Europe and we cannot accept this threat."

The Iraq war proved another turning point. Mr Schröder's vehement opposition to a German military role in the conflict during the country's 2002 general election allowed Mr Fischer to shake off his reputation as a warmonger. However, privately Mr Fischer is said to have been taken aback by what was then viewed as Germany's go-it- alone stance. His growing estrangement from Mr Schröder started at that time.

But by last year it was clear that the writing was on the wall for Joschka Fischer and Germany's once revolutionary Greens. The party became dragged down by the unpopularity of Gerhard Schröder's economic reform programme and its failure to tackle the country's massive burden of five million unemployed.

With their environmentalist, pro-European policies, the Greens failed to attract enough votes to make them a natural coalition partner in the confused political landscape that was the aftermath of last year's general election.

For Joschka Fischer there could hardly be a better time to bow out of politics. Married last year to Minu, a 29-year-old Iranian former student of politics, he will be exchanging the political bear pit of Berlin for the elite academic surroundings of Princeton.

Whether his departure will be for good as he now claims, is open to conjecture. Yesterday he insisted: "The door is shut. I've turned the key and thrown it away." But Fritz Khun, Germany's Green party leader, was adamant. "This is not a departure but a transformation. Joschka Fischer will remain a Green even if he's on another stage," he insisted.

The rise and rise of Joschka Fischer


A member of Germany's radical-left student movement, Fischer joins forces with Paris '68 veteran Daniel Cohn Bendit and is instrumental in forming Germany's first environmentalist pacifist party, the Greens.


Joins former Greens leader Petra Kelly to campaign for the party in a general election which secures it seats in the national parliament for the first time. The German Greens become standard bearers of the European environmentalist movement.


Greens are ousted from parliament in elections that follow German reunification. Fischer saves the party from oblivion by redefining its political future as a party committed to parliamentary democracy rather than street demonstrations.


Fischer's policy changes establish the Greens as a party of choice for Germany's increasingly environmentally aware middle classes. His party re-enters parliament and replaces the liberal Free Democrats as the country's third political force.


Greens elected to power in coalition with Gerhard Schröder's Social Democrats.


Kosovo crisis. Despite major opposition from rank-and-file Greens, Fischer, the party's first ever Foreign Minister gives the go-ahead for Germany to take part in Nato strikes against Slobodan Milosevic's regime in Serbia. The decision breaks with Germany's post-war policies of military non- intervention. Fischer becomes a driving force behind EU enlargement and startles Germany's European partners, especially Britain, by declaring his wholesale commitment to the idea of a "United States of Europe".


Fischer ousted from office in an inconclusive general election in which the Greens become the smallest opposition party.