IN THE "German autumn" of 1973, a young revolutionary named Joschka Fischer lent his Volkswagen to a terrorist working for Carlos The Jackal. The car, as he was to learn much later, was used to transport weapons stolen from American barracks in Frankfurt, including the gun that snuffed out the life of a senior politician in 1981.
Mr Fischer gave statements to the police, pleaded his innocence in public as he embarked on a parliamentary career, and thought he had cleared his name by the time he was appointed Environment Minister of the Land of Hesse in 1985. The story ended there.
Until today. For Mr Fischer, the former firebrand, is now a foreign minister in waiting, and his murky past therefore the stuff with which elections are fought. In their desperate struggle to hold on to the reins of power, Chancellor Helmut Kohl's Christian Democrats have Mr Fischer in their sights.
The Greens, the party led by the unwitting gun-runner, are central to opposition plans to unseat Mr Kohl. In the latest opinion polls, the Social Democrats are between four and six points ahead of the Chancellor's Christian block.
The lead represents a swing of between eight and 10 per cent over the result four years ago, but it will not be enough. It is almost inconceivable that Gerhard Schroder, the self-declared Blairite champion of the SPD, might be able to form a government alone after September's general elections. His most likely coalition partners are Mr Fischer's mob. The Greens are expected to net about seven per cent of the votes.
The Chancellor's men have conducted a red scare campaign against Mr Schroder, and tried to appeal to Germans' fear of "criminal foreigners", but all to no avail. The gap has narrowed, but only slightly.
Mud is simply not sticking to Mr Schroder. The suggestion that the coupon- clipping chancellor candidate, widely derided on the left as a capitalist lackey, is in league with crypto-communists is preposterous. And a tough law and order campaign unveiled by Mr Schroder's team last week took the sting out of charges that the new government would be soft on crime, whatever its colour.
The government campaign has therefore been switched abruptly to the Greens, arguably the weak link in the putative Red-Green coalition. And since Mr Fischer is generally seen as the sole guarantor of sanity in a party strangely drawn to loony tunes, he has been drawing most of the fire.
In Christian Democrat election adverts, the Green leader is described as a "street-fighter" who in 1976 had called for the use of Molotov cocktails against the state. More importantly, the Christian Democrats' leader in the Hesse parliament, Franz-Josef Jung, urged Mr Fischer last week to "shed light" on his role in the 1981 murder of the Hesse Economics Minister, Heinz Herbert Karry.
Not that there is much to add to revelations that first appeared in 1985 and were re-heated in the pro-Kohl press at the weekend. Yesterday's Focus magazine, the only important weekly not to have defected to the Schroder camp, gives chapter and verse.
Focus cites official documents to show that Mr Fischer had given his car to a friend named Hans-Joachim Klein in October 1973. Klein is believed to have participated in the kidnapping of OPEC ministers in Vienna in 1975.
There is no suggestion that Mr Fischer knew of the guns in his boot. In the press not sympathetic to Mr Kohl, the Green leader is quoted as saying that Klein, a car mechanic, had been given the Volkswagen to fix the engine, and had inexplicably kept the vehicle beyond the appointed date.
End of story? - Hardly. There are still eight weeks to go till election day.
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