Germany Remembers the Sixties

Germany Remembers the Sixties

The photographs of the foreign minister should not have surprised anyone. Indeed, most observers of German politics were still getting used to seeing him in three-piece suits when the pictures of Joschka Fischer lunging at a Frankfurt police officer during a violent demonstration in the 1970s leaped from the photo archives to the front pages. The coalition government that had, for the first time, made the Greens part of the national government and Fischer the second most powerful man in it, was as clear a change of generational paradigm as politics ever offers. Here was an unsettling confirmation of the change.

Far more than prime minister Gerhard Schroeder, Fischer embodies the new phase in German politics. On the left, he was never regarded as a man of vision; but someone who can become foreign minister without ever acquiring a high school diploma can, if he is clever, arouse widespread admiration. Fischer is definitely clever, and quick on his feet, and he soon soared above Schroeder in the popularity polls. Although other nations may not think twice about referring to their leaders as Tony, Bill, or Bibi, Fischer—whose given name is Joseph—is the first German politician in memory to be known by his nickname.

Suddenly, for several months this winter, there were calls for his resignation. The fact that the calls came from the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), still hurt by last year’s revelations of financial scandals, didn’t make them less threatening. Fischer had to testify at the trial of a terrorist he had known in the seventies—the first time a minister in office had been subpoenaed on criminal charges. While the court was busy finding his relation to the accused to be unexceptionable, critics busied themselves with another relationship. A different former terrorist had written a memoir in which she claimed to have shared a commune in Frankfurt with Fischer some time in 1972, a claim he initially categorically denied. She responded with a description of a breakfast conversation. He reconsidered. There had been a woman’s commune next to the men’s commune; it was always possible that the former terrorist had spent a few nights there, even possible that they’d exchanged sleepy phrases over stale bread and Nescafé. Anyone who expected him to remember all the encounters that took place on all those mornings had no clue about what it was like to be alive then.

Here Fischer’s defense trod on dangerous ground, and not only because it looked like waffling under fire. Memory is a political category like no other in Germany. Vicious tongues—and where there is success like Fischer’s, they will never be absent—were quick to point out that words like these were used in self-defense by his generation’s arch-enemies. Nazi fellow-travelers were prone to justify themselves with a kind of pious whine: those were turbulent times, we were engaged in life and death struggle with the enemies of civilization itse...