By any measure, the story of Joschka Fischer’s life in politics would be exceptional. After dropping out of high school in 1965, Fischer went on to play a role in German and European society that has no equivalent in American political life. He first made a name for himself as a street-fighting leftist during the early 1970s, only to become a bookseller and taxi driver later in the decade after growing disgusted with the existential and physical excesses of militant politics. He returned to politics in the early 1980s and fast became the Green Party’s star candidate. As foreign minister in united Germany’s Red-Green coalition government, a position he held from 1998 to 2005, Fischer ended up endorsing German participation in NATO’s mission in Kosovo in the late ’90s and, just a few years later, vigorously opposing the Bush Administration’s dubious call for war in Iraq. Fischer could claim some credit for the modest success of humanitarian intervention in Kosovo, but he chose to keep his distance from those European and American liberals trumpeting humanitarian rationales for Bush’s war.
Paul Hockenos believes the twists and turns of Fischer’s career tell us a great deal about postwar Germany and “its remarkable transformation from an occupied post-Nazi state into a healthy democratic country.” His informed and highly readable account of Fischer’s private and public lives is conceived as an “‘alternative history’ of post-1945 Germany.” In that sense, the Bildungsroman he has written is less about Fischer himself than the generation of the 1960s and how the alternatives it imagined broadened German democracy and ultimately created a new political identity for the Republic. It’s a story line tinged with the spirit of self-congratulation typical of the generation it chronicles. In Germany, former radicals born in the years just before and after 1945 often refer pridefully to each other as “68ers,” marking both their unique experience of protest politics and their separation from Germans who came of age during and immediately after the Nazi era. (Hockenos defines the generation of the 68ers broadly, including the Germans who marched for peace in the early ’60s, the militant students and activists of the late ’60s, the Red Army Faction [RAF] terrorists of the ’70s, the pro-ecology and antinuclear demonstrators of the ’80s and the Greens.) The German New Left was also fond of referring to itself as “anti-authoritarian,” a term that neatly, if somewhat self-servingly, distinguished it from the pro-GDR communists as well as from the previous authoritarian epochs of Hitler and Konrad Adenauer, the austere chancellor of the Federal Republic from 1949 to 1963 and chairman of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) from 1950 to 1966.
Hockenos tells a lively and well-paced story that neither glorifies nor demonizes Fischer. He is affectionate toward Fischer without being sycophantic; while Fischer’s wild weight swings, five marriages and sometimes rude style are part of the story, they are sidelights. The book’s main focus is on Fischer’s prominent but hardly exaggerated place in the emergence of the Berlin Republic. By carefully tracing the vicissitudes of Fischer’s career, Hockenos avoids drawing a direct line from his radical militancy and repentance for militant acts to his liberal antitotalitarianism and support of humanitarian intervention. He also emphasizes Fischer’s stature as a politician of European dimensions who chose at a crucial juncture to defend not just Germany but the principle of European multilateralism against a belligerent United States. “Islamist terrorism and its inhumane jihad ideology poses a threat to peace and stability, both regionally and globally,” Fischer said in a speech at Princeton University in 2003. But he also maintained that “the real strategic response to the deadly challenge of a new totalitarianism” is soft power and persuasion.
Hockenos calls his book a history “from below,” which is something of a misnomer since it focuses on movement activists and leaders, not the voices of contemporaries who were well outside the penumbra of the German New Left and whose lives were only indirectly shaped by the era’s militancy. Drawing on extensive interviews and newspaper accounts, he explores an “irony that neither the left nor the right could appreciate” when they clashed during the 1960s and ’70s. Instead of fomenting a socialist revolution that eradicated the foundations of civic culture in the Federal Republic and established a participatory democracy, Fischer and his cohort had a hand in liberalizing the Federal Republic as it absorbed the former Communist East, moved its capital from sleepy Bonn to sleepless Berlin and became a force in the creation of a unified Europe whose boundaries now stretch from the Atlantic coast of Portugal to the Polish-Ukrainian border. For Hockenos, “the implications of [Fischer’s] political odyssey go well beyond Germany–and remain relevant today.”