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.”

Joschka Fischer was born in southwestern Germany in 1948, just one year before the Federal Republic was created. His parents were Heimatvertriebene (expellees), ethnic Germans driven from Hungary and forced to repatriate in Germany after World War II. His deeply Catholic mother hoped he would become a priest or civil servant, anything but follow his father into the butcher shop, where he would die at an early age. In the mid-1950s the Fischers moved to provincial Öffingen, the insular and claustrophobic town just outside Stuttgart where Joschka would spend his adolescent years. Like many of his contemporaries, Joschka became aware of the deep Nazi complicities of many postwar Germans through the highly publicized 1963-1965 Frankfurt Auschwitz trials, which put former SS camp guards in the dock. In the recently published first volume of his memoirs, Die rot-grünen Jahre (The Red-Green Years), Fischer recalls that with those trials, “the era of the repression of National Socialist crimes came to an end in Germany and the era of confronting them through criminal law began.” It was also in Öffingen that he first heard the American Armed Forces Network broadcasts of Bill Haley, Elvis, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan, whose music, he says, put him “on the road to the promised idea of freedom.”

When Fischer appeared on Stuttgart’s left-wing scene in 1966, he nurtured the image of a self-taught working-class tough who could hold his own among his peers, many of whom were students and activists who had imbibed the Frankfurt School’s Freudian Marxism, would go on to raise their children in “antiauthoritarian kindergartens” and had undertaken, in Rudi Dutschke’s famous phrase, “the long march through the institutions.” That march would be a hard slog, for during the straitlaced Adenauer years, when the CDU ruled Germany’s hidebound parliamentary system, the Federal Republic had been unwavering in its allegiance to the US-led NATO alliance. Nazism, when mentioned, was understood, rather abstractly, as the consequence of Germany’s having strayed from the path of liberal democracy and pro-Americanism. If there was to be no return to Nazism, the open democracy and political excesses of Weimar were to be avoided as well. The leaders of both the CDU and the opposition Social Democratic Party (SPD) agreed that for German democracy to succeed, its stability had to be guaranteed by restricting pluralism and maintaining conformity. Politically, the state had to be actively antitotalitarian–a so-called “militant democracy”–which meant eliminating the defeated Nazi option, declaring right-wing extremism taboo, banning the Communist Party and closely monitoring the press. At the same time, at all levels of society former Nazi supporters were being quietly integrated into the new Republic; a few even ended up in Adenauer’s cabinet, most notably Hans Globke, who had helped draft the notorious anti-Semitic Nuremberg laws of 1935.

In 1959, just four years after Germany became a full-fledged member of NATO, the SPD abandoned its rhetoric of neutrality, disarmament and Marxist class struggle. Seven years later, under the leadership of the former anti-Nazi exile Willy Brandt, the SPD became a centrist party and joined a power-sharing arrangement with Adenauer’s CDU. By this time, the universities had become the home of a new generation of students who, like Dutschke, no longer considered pro-Americanism to be the inviolable foundation of West German foreign policy, especially in light of the Vietnam War and US support of the Shah of Iran. For the German New Left, the American “mass murder” (Massenmord) in Indochina was not only equal to the Nazi genocide (Völkermord) but also the global extension of the cold war front line that ran right through Berlin.

In Hockenos’s telling, it was a death of a different sort–a single death, no less–that spurred students, and Fischer personally, to mobilize. On June 2, 1967, a police officer fatally shot a student named Benno Ohnesorg during an anti-Shah demonstration in Berlin. Hockenos portrays the event as the catalyst for the transformation of a handful of student and church organizations into a mass movement that rallied against what appeared to be a return to the violent, repressive, “authoritarian” and, as some predicted, “fascist” state described by Max Horkheimer, Herbert Marcuse and other Frankfurt School theorists during the 1930s and ’40s.

Nearly a year later, in April 1968, the charismatic Dutschke was shot in the face by an unemployed house painter named Josef Bachmann, who had been stirred to act by the relentless “Stop Dutschke Now!” campaign waged in the pages of the Springer publishing house’s daily Bild-Zeitung. (Though critically wounded, Dutschke survived the shooting.) Tens of thousands of protesters took to the streets all over West Germany, blocking the Bild-Zeitung‘s trucks. The “grand coalition” government of Kurt Georg Kiesinger responded with a series of emergency laws declaring that constitutional rights may be curtailed. Yet the events of the spring of 1968 also marked the denouement of public protest. Within a year, the New Left had splintered into an alphabet soup of Marxist-Leninist party formations, Maoist groups, the pro-GDR German Communist Party and the Frankfurt-based Revolutionary Struggle, or Spontis, a nickname evoking the spontaneity of the masses and inspired by the Italian autonomist movement.

When Fischer and his family moved to Frankfurt in late 1968, he found himself surrounded by radical students of Adorno and Habermas whose dialectical virtuosity he could hardly match. Yet his political career began the moment the Frankfurt Spontis turned to the kind of street politics at which Fischer, unlike the more cerebral leaders of the pre-1968 era, excelled. Among the “actionist” Spontis and other militant groups, Fischer discovered that his talent for sharp rebuttal and formulating plans for direct action more than compensated for his imperfect mastery of the Marxist classics. Not all of his plans panned out. In the early 1970s, he and his comrades in Revolutionary Struggle met with little success when they tried to radicalize the Greek, Italian, Portuguese and Yugoslav Gastarbeiter (guest workers) at a huge nearby Opel plant. Fischer then gravitated to condemned houses in Frankfurt’s West End occupied by squatters whose clashes with local police often turned into violent street battles that pitted hailstorms of stones and bricks against water cannons and rubber projectiles. Fischer was also part of the Putz Group (literally, “clean-up group”), a crew of battle-ready Spontis, some of whom crossed the line into criminal activity and, in a few cases, terror.

The specter of Nazism infused all aspects of the radical left. Its anti-authoritarianism conflated the Nazi era with the Federal Republic to such an extent that the two were often fused and confused. In 1970 the RAF was founded by Andreas Baader, Ulrike Meinhof, Gudrun Ensslin and other militants to wage an underground war against the “fascist” German state. Perhaps the most twisted manifestation of the German New Left’s confusion was its attitude toward violence: it saw no fundamental contradiction between its pacifist stance of rejecting nuclear armament and NATO membership and its support for the anticolonial violence of Third World liberation movements, which it anachronistically regarded as present-day antifascist resistance. One aspect of the violent turn of the early 1970s was a growing affinity between some elements of the German New Left–groups such as Red Aid, Revolutionary Cells and Fischer’s Revolutionary Struggle–and the Palestinian cause, manifested in trips to military training camps in Jordan and South Yemen. To be truly antifascist was to replace the anti-Nazism of the 1960s with vulgar anti-Zionism and, not infrequently, even outright anti-Semitism. As historian Wolfgang Kraushaar has shown, already in November 1969, a group called West Berlin Tupamaros had left a bomb–which went unexploded–in the Jewish Community House in Berlin’s Fasanenstrasse on the anniversary of Kristallnacht. A few days later a leaflet titled “Schalom+Napalm” claimed responsibility: “Under the guilt-ridden camouflage of coming to terms with the fascist atrocities against the Jews they [the Federal Republic] are giving decisive help to the fascist atrocities of Israel against the Palestinian Arabs.”

Hockenos does not dwell sufficiently on this dark chapter and its impact on the German New Left, especially Fischer’s close friend and confidante Dany Cohn-Bendit. Affiliated with a group called Palestine-Committee Frankfurt, Cohn-Bendit was a signatory to a declaration issued by the group stating that “Jews in the diaspora can only understand acts of terror such as the one in the Community House in Berlin against the backdrop of their persecution and annihilation as Jews. Certainly Jewish Communities are also centers for the financing of the Zionist state, for which an enormous flow of capital is necessary. Nevertheless, the identification of Jewish institution with Zionist bases is itself racist, one which strengthens rather than weakens the racist state.” Just one month later, as part of a five-member SDS (Socialist German Student Union) delegation, Fischer traveled to a PLO solidarity congress in Algiers addressed by Yasir Arafat. Fischer, like many on the left at that moment, was being pulled in opposite directions. The Algerian conclave concluded with a resolution in support of “the armed struggle” of the Palestinians as well as with a categorical rejection of racism, above all in the form of anti-Semitism.

By the mid 1970s, the distinction between the RAF’s tactics–bank robbery, bombing, arson–and the kind of “defensive” violence espoused by the Spontis in their battles over squatters’ rights was becoming blurred. The Spontis organized support for jailed RAF members while they debated whether to move from defensive to active violence. For Fischer the moment of decision came in May 1976, when he was briefly arrested amid the rioting that exploded when Ulrike Meinhof–the iconic RAF figure who was serving an eight-year sentence in Stammheim prison and was still on trial for various crimes–was found dead in her cell, apparently a suicide (but widely believed to have been a murder). A few days after his release, Fischer addressed a crowd of 10,000 on Frankfurt’s Römerberg, imploring them to end the “death trip” and “armed self-isolation” that the radical left had turned into an end in itself. Hockenos doesn’t quote the words that reveal Fischer’s note of identification with the RAF and his own sense of self-reproach on that day: “We cannot simply distance ourselves from the urban guerrillas because we would have to distance ourselves from ourselves, since we suffer from the same contradiction between hopelessness and blind actionism.”

Fischer narrowly extricated himself from the left’s self-destructive spiral, which culminated in the terrible “German Autumn” of 1977, with its hijackings, kidnappings, murders and the suicides of RAF leaders Andreas Baader, Gudrun Ensslin and Jan-Carl Raspe in October. He withdrew from politics, working in Frankfurt’s Karl-Marx Book Shop and, for a while, driving a taxi. What finally drew him out of his political torpor was Helmut Schmidt’s approval in late 1979 of the NATO “double-track” strategy of deploying a new generation of midrange US missiles to counter Soviet SS-20s. Hundreds of thousands of Germans and millions of Europeans mobilized against the “Euromissiles.” The tiny grassroots environmentalist Green Party, established in 1979, emerged as the political vehicle of a much broader pacifist antiwar upsurge–as the “antiparty party,” in the words of its founder, the fiery Petra Kelly. Reluctant at first, Fischer joined the party without fanfare in the summer of 1981, nearly three years after Cohn-Bendit began sponsoring a “Sponti Voter Initiative for the Greens.” The peace movement of the early 1980s was, as Hockenos quotes a commentator from the time, a “frontal attack against one of the greatest taboos of the postwar period: the Federal Republic’s dependence on the United States, its western orientation, and its membership in NATO.” For that reason, along with their considerable success in municipal and state elections, the Greens were far more important than the single-digit percentage their national vote revealed.

Joschka Fischer was a butcher’s son, a Sponti tactician, a taxi driver–and a reformer. During his early years in the Greens, Fischer also became a pragmatist who saw–as he believed the SPD’s Willy Brandt had also seen–a future for the extra-parliamentary left in ruling coalitions between Greens and Social Democrats. Enduring catcalls from hard-line “fundies” (fundamentalists) who accused the “Fischer Gang” of power-hungry opportunism, Fischer brought to the Greens a long-term perspective that eschewed the role of a “fundamental opposition” anchored in the peace and ecology movements and instead embraced the notion of being a parliamentary party whose goal was to create a left-of-center majority. After the Greens (among them, Fischer and his nemesis Kelly) entered Parliament in 1983, the party won seats in six of Germany’s federal states (Länder) and in 1,400 municipal assemblies, demonstrating that it was neither “unfit to govern” nor bashful about hard-boiled power-sharing. In 1985 the bluejeans and sneaker-clad Fischer assumed his first ministerial post as environment minister in a Red-Green coalition in the state of Hesse, earning a reputation as the party’s enfant terrible but also as a talented debater and political tactician, capable of rising above the fractious parliamentary assemblage of feminists, Spontis, eco-radicals, Christian pacifists and Third World socialists.

Critics on the left and the right contend that Fischer cynically and belatedly joined the Greens to advance his own career, a charge Hockenos dismisses. Fischer joined the party, Hockenos argues, as the result of a “long process that paralleled the metamorphosis” of the New Left. Yet he always remained something of an outsider, despite his increasing prominence and visibility throughout the 1980s. Among the most telling remarks in his autobiography is the admission that “in the years with the Green Party I never felt truly warm–in the sense of an emotional tie, so that I could have a personal sense of well-being or even be at home.”

When the Berlin wall fell in 1989, Fischer wrote in the left-wing daily Tageszeitung that given Germany’s Nazi past, the nation’s sovereignty, manifested by the use of its military, had to remain restricted: “This is the real underlying reason for the German question and Germany’s division–and we can’t ever forget it.” For the antiwar Greens, Germany’s unification did not alter their party’s most fundamental precept–the German army, the Bundeswehr, could not be deployed “out of NATO’s area,” even for humanitarian purposes. When faced with ethnic cleansing and mass murder in the Balkans, the worst carnage in Europe since World War II, the majority of Greens, Fischer included, continued to insist that military force should not be an option. As Hockenos observes, no one in the party imagined that the postwar imperatives “Never again war” (military intervention) and “Never again Auschwitz” would ever be in conflict. To compromise either of these principles would risk alienating the Greens’ antimilitarist and pacifist base. But after the massacre of Bosnian Muslims in Srebrenica in July 1995, Fischer began to challenge Green orthodoxies: “Are pacifists prepared to accept the triumph of brutal, naked violence in Bosnia?” he asked in Tageszeitung in August 1995.

Fischer, some said, was putting himself forward to the United States as a reliable future German foreign minister when he equated US military intervention in Europe in World Wars I and II with the situation in Bosnia. In the September 1998 election, Gerhard Schröder’s Social Democrats won 41 percent of the total vote, which along with the Greens’ 6.7 percent gave the left-of-center Red-Green coalition a majority, ending the sixteen-year chancellorship of Helmut Kohl. As the Greens’ star candidate, Fischer not only delivered the necessary votes but demonstrated that the Greens had proved themselves capable of running a professional campaign. In the coalition negotiations, Schröder chose Fischer as foreign minister and vice chancellor, despite–or perhaps because of–the contrast between his own Euroskepticism and Fischer’s strong pro-Europe stance. Fischer was a celebrity and, according to the polls, united Germany’s most popular political leader. “The long march through the institutions may not have taken the path that Rudi Dutschke envisioned,” Hockenos writes, “but its representatives were there, at the helm of the republic, with the opportunity to leave an indelible mark.”

Less than two weeks after the election, President Clinton put the not-yet-installed government’s feet to the fire; the United States wanted Germany to commit to a NATO-led air campaign against Yugoslavia to force Slobodan Milosevic into halting the Bosnian-Serb assault on Kosovo. The plan lacked a UN mandate. Fischer voted yes, as did Schröder and the outgoing Chancellor Kohl. For the first time in its postwar history, Germany was involved in a war on foreign soil, against a former World War II victim of Nazism, without a UN mandate. And there was no guarantee that Fischer’s party would even back him. Some of the 68ers, like writer Klaus Theweleit, accused Fischer and his ilk of playing at “a fake grownupness in stylish suits” to dispel the ubiquitous charge that the Greens and leftists were “infantile” and “childish.” To his credit, Fischer persuaded the majority of Greens to support the government (but not before he suffered an ear injury from a paint-balloon hurled at him by an angry protester). He also initiated a successful plan–with Russian participation–to force Milosevic to sign an agreement and end the air war. By 2002 the Bundeswehr was involved in international missions in Afghanistan, East Timor and parts of Africa.

In the rush to the Iraq War, Fischer, in yet another first, balked at following the US lead and resolutely confronted Donald Rumsfeld in Munich in February 2003 with the now famous words, “Sorry, I am not convinced. You have to make your case. Sorry, you haven’t convinced me!” In that instant, Fischer positioned himself as an independent European politician against many of his former fellow European humanitarian interventionists (Bernard Kouchner, André Glucksmann, Adam Michnik) whose moral fervor and misjudgment of George W. Bush led them to support the ill-fated US war in Iraq. Though Fischer’s stance (shared by Schröder) was frequently interpreted as German anti-Americanism, Hockenos points out that even when 90 percent of the German population opposed the Iraq War, close to 70 percent in the West and just under 60 percent in the East considered themselves “pro-American.” By the time the Red-Green coalition was defeated in the October 2005 election, Fischer could leave office satisfied that the Berlin Republic had favored humanitarian military intervention when necessary yet had also stood its ground against its American ally, even if it meant–as it did–the worst rift between Germany and the United States since World War II.

During his time as foreign minister, Fischer also found himself drawn into a messy domestic battle–a skirmish sparked by revelations about his militant past. In 1998, the year that the Red-Green coalition gained a majority in the Bundestag, Hans Joachim Klein, a close friend and associate from Fischer’s street-fighting days in Frankfurt, surfaced from the underground and was charged with murdering three people during a terrorist attack on an OPEC conference in Vienna in 1975. Fischer testified at Klein’s January 2001 trial, and the public prosecutor accused him of having harbored a terrorist in his communal apartment. To make matters worse, that same month the newsmagazine Stern published a provocative set of photographs from 1973 showing Fischer, clad from tip to toe in black leather, beating a policeman with his fists in a Frankfurt street battle. Stern had bought the photos from the journalist Bettina Röhl, the daughter of Ulrike Meinhof.

Violence and betrayal were again in the air, and Fischer’s enemies on the right wasted no time in using the Klein trial and the Stern photos to put not just Fischer’s radical past but the entire 1968 generation on trial. Had not Fischer, like his comrades of that era, downplayed the violence he had once practiced? Did the much vaunted cultural revolution of 1968 presage not the colorful democracy of the 1990s but RAF terrorism and the paralyzing German Autumn of 1977? Even more darkly, did not Fischer’s 1969 trip to the PLO congress in Algeria undermine his credibility as an articulator of Germany’s special relationship with Israel?

The day after Fischer testified at Klein’s trial, these questions were thrown at him in a tumultuous Bundestag session. With his political life at stake, he responded: “For all that we did that was wrong, for all that we have to take responsibility for, apologize for and take our distance from, in the last analysis it was a revolt for freedom with elements of totalitarian violence…. 1968 and thereafter led to more rather than less freedom in this country. That is my position until this day.” At once unapologetic and self-critical, Fischer survived the affair.

Hockenos closes his account on an upbeat note. Twenty years after unification, Germans appeared to be proud of their Constitution, the quality of everyday life and the relatively peaceful unification, as well as of Green Party legislative achievements–a more generous citizenship law, an ecology tax and a pledge to exit from nuclear energy. The Bonn and early Berlin Republics were able to keep both “Never again Auschwitz” and “Never again war” firm principles, though not always without making difficult and at times existentially wrenching choices. Hockenos, however, overreaches when he concludes that “Germany’s critically minded ‘culture of protest’ helped win the Berlin Republic the trust of its international allies.” Germany’s strong footing in new and old Europe did not bring down the curtain on the Atlanticism and Westbindung of the Adenauer era. What Fischer added, and what he remains most proud of, is his Europeanism, the realization of Robert Schumann’s “great idea of a European Federation,” which he refers to in his memoir as “my personal vision of the future.” “It seemed that rather than shame his fellow countrymen, Fischer’s unorthodox vita flattered them,” Hockenos writes. His career proved that Germany had become “more colorful, more liberal, more spontaneous.”

Fischer’s capacity for spontaneity sometimes prompted him to change course abruptly, such as when he left the Bundestag in 2006. “I don’t want to be the Grandpa in The Muppets Show,” he explained. Such sudden changes make it difficult to plot Fischer’s life on a tidy arc or treat it as the representative tale of a generation. His story is only one strand–albeit a thick and knotty one–in the story of the Berlin Republic. In the aftermath of the Red-Green years, much more needs to be said about those who came of age during the 1960s and ’70s on the other side of the wall. It is from there, not from Frankfurt or West Berlin, that the present generation of Germany’s leaders came of age politically. It is hardly a coincidence that in 2005 both of Germany’s major parties were headed by former Young Pioneers from the GDR: Angela Merkel (CDU) and Matthias Platzeck (SPD). Paradoxically, the relative calm that characterizes the Merkel grand coalition may be a much-appreciated respite from the turmoil that has always surrounded the 68ers.

For that reason, a crucial dimension missing from Hockenos’s history from below is the presence of those Germans whose political lives began after the rise of Fischer and the Greens, and who absorbed the main ideas and ideals of the 1970s without having experienced the anarchism, street battles and shouting matches between environmental fundamentalists and political realists. In the last elections, in September 2005, the Greens won a respectable 8.1 percent of the national vote but failed to win participation in all but a single coalition at the provincial (Länder) level of government. Such results suggest that the Greens may have plateaued while a new generation of voters have begun to return to the major parties–or, if one believes Fischer’s detractors, that he sapped the dynamism of the party’s base while stealing the limelight. Not until the voices of former Easterners and the post-68ers are taken into account will it be possible to judge whether Fischer’s exceptional life is also, for Germans, an exemplary one.