Germany's foreign minister
Born Joseph Martin Fischer, April 12, 1948, in Gerabronn, Baden-Württemberg, Germany; married Edeltraud, 1967 (divorced, 1984); married Inge, 1984 (divorced, 1987); married Claudia, 1987 (divorced, 1999); married Nicola Leske (a journalist), c. 1999 (divorced, 2003).
Addresses: Office—Foreign Ministry, Werderscher Markt 1, 10117 Berlin-Mitte, Germany.
Worked as assistant to photographer, mid-1966; factory worker at Opel automobile factory, 1971; taxi driver in Frankfurt, Germany, l976-81; member of Revolutionary Combat; joined German Green Party, c. 1977; bookstore clerk at the Karl-Marx bookstore, Frankfurt, early 1980s; elected to the Bundestag, 1983; Green Party minister for the environment, state of Hesse, Germany, 1985-87, and 1991-94; Green Party co-chair in the Bundestag, mid-1990s; vice chancellor and foreign minister in the government of Gerhard Schroeder, 1998—.
In a country not especially known for the colorful personalities of its politicians in the modern era, Germans give their enigmatic and outspoken foreign minister Joschka Fischer high marks. Fischer has served in two consecutive coalition governments headed by Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, and proved an adept diplomat on the international stage. But his early years as a radical agitator, and evidence thereof, would return later to nearly derail his political career.
The son of a butcher, Joseph Martin Fischer was born in 1948 in Gerabronn, a small town in the Baden-Württemberg state, of which Stuttgart serves as the capital. Fischer grew up in a generation born just after the end of World War II that viewed their parents' era with some suspicion. While many ordinary Germans were innocent of blame for the Nazi period and the crimes of World War II, the pall of shame left over the country was felt sharply by its youth.
Fischer left school at age 15, and settled in Frankfurt as a young man. For a number of years, he held a series of odd jobs, including driving a taxi and working in a Marxist bookstore. His real career, however, was politics, and he was an active participant in one of the extreme-left groups to which many in his generation of West Germans had seemed to gravitate, called Revolutionary Combat. They were known for staging pitched street demonstrations, and Fischer even lived in an illegal "squat," an empty building taken over for living quarters, with members of the group.
Fischer's transition from anti-capitalist leftie to foreign minister of one of Europe's largest countries was not an entirely abrupt one. He was with the Revolutionary Combat group until 1977, when leftist groups began carrying out more deadly attacks in what became known as the notorious Deutscher Herbst, or "German Autumn." Spurning violent acts as a tool for change, Fischer joined the emerging Green Party around this time. The Greens—comprised largely of younger West Germans—had an anti-war, pro-environment platform that coalesced around a key issue: opposition to the installation of United States nuclear weapons on West German soil.
The Greens quickly gained political clout and won seats in West Germany's Bundestag, or parliament, in 1983. Fischer was elected in that first wave of new legislators, and proved as skilled at mainstream politics as he had in radical circles. In 1985 he was made the environment minister for the state of Hesse in the first state-level political coalition between the Greens and the Social-Democrat Party (SPD), Germany's leading liberal party. He served in the post for two years, and held the role again in the early 1990s. In the interim, what had been East Germany reunited with West Germany when Eastern bloc communist states fell one by one. It was a long hoped-for reunification, but stirred up other issues, primarily social and economic.
Some of the troubles were blamed on the long-ruling Christian Democrat Party, and German voters ousted it in 1998 in favor of the Social Democrats. SPD leader Gerhard Schroeder became chancellor of Germany, but had to build a coalition with the Green Party in order to secure the post and form a government. He handed out several cabinet positions to Green Party members, and made Fischer his foreign minister. One of Fischer's first controversial moves was to support the sending of 5,000 German troops to Kosovo as part of a North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) mission. Some pacifist Green politicians were so incensed by the decision—it marked the first time since World War II that German soldiers fought on foreign soil—that they resigned from the party.
At times, Fischer's enemies seem to come from all sides. In 2001, the daughter of a famous West German radical who had died in prison claimed that the foreign minister had lived in a house with other members of the Rote Armee Fraktion ("Red Army Faction"), the most notorious of all West German leftist groups in the 1970s, which almost put him in trial for perjury after testifying in a court case against one of them. Around this same time, the Stern ("Star"), a popular German weekly tabloid newspaper, published a 1973 photograph of Fischer in a squatters' battle with the police in which he was clearly enjoying the upper hand. Some Germans called for his resignation, but Schroeder voiced his support for Fischer, who apologized to the police officers' union and to the officer as well, Rainer Marx.
Fischer remained in office, and the SPD won reelection in 2002, but just barely. He was campaigned alongside Schroeder, an unusual move for a minister, but Fischer enjoys high approval ratings among Germans—better even than his boss. As foreign minister, he was a stalwart opponent of the United States plan to invade Iraq in 2003. A month before the war, he spoke at conference in Munich at which U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld had been trying to recruit European support for the American cause. Rumsfeld presented the White House's case, which involved supposed evidence of weapons of mass destruction, and then Fischer stepped to the podium to speak. Rumsfeld did not wear his translation headset, and was chatting with a colleague when Fischer broke from his speech in German to call out to Rumsfeld in English, "Excuse me, I am not convinced. I am not convinced!" according to Nation writer Paul Hockenos. He then returned to his native German tongue, saying "We owe our democracy to the United States, but we must be convinced."
Some political pundits see Fischer as a leading candidate for the newly created post of foreign minister for the European Union, which will even have its own diplomatic corps. He will also campaign alongside Schroeder in the 2006 general elections. He has been married four times and owns an Andy Warhol portrait of Willy Brandt, West Germany's Nobel Peace Prize-winning chancellor in the 1970s and longtime SPD chair. Fittingly, only Brandt enjoyed similar popularity in a country which seemed to prefer its politicians bland and decidedly uninspiring for so many years following the Nazi era. But even the evidence of Fischer's slugging of a police officer did little to damage his reputation, in a country were the older generation seems to appreciate the activism of their children. Even Marx, the retired police officer once assaulted by him, told the New York Times's Roger Cohen that "what Fischer did in his youth, many people did. He demonstrated and then it escalated. He has taken all this to heart. He is a very good foreign minister, and should remain."
Guardian (London, England), February 20, 2001, p. 16; October 15, 2002, p. 12; September 19, 2003, p. 16.
Independent (London, England), January 24, 2001, p. 16.
Maclean's, March 10, 2003, p. 34.
Nation, July 19, 2004, p. 26.
New York Times, January 15, 2001, p. A8; February 17, 2001, p. A5.
Time, April 26, 2004, p. 104.