Review: ‘Joschka Fischer and the Making of the Berlin Republic’

The United States wasn’t the only country transformed by the social activism of the 1960s. Peace activists, Greens, and cultural hippies practically turned Germany upside down. And the man who has symbolized this thoroughgoing change more than any other German is Joschka Fischer.

As Paul Hockenos details in Joschka Fischer and the Making of the Berlin Republic, Fischer went from a rock-throwing Marxist to the powerful foreign minister of Germany in the space of a mere two decades. This absorbing alternative history of postwar Germany chronicles how as a leader of the new Green Party, Fischer presided over the mainstreaming of environmental concerns and the fashioning of a new foreign policy framework for a unified Germany.

As intriguing as this odyssey is, Hockenos doesn’t let the biographical focus obscure the larger trends that convulsed the German political and social landscape. After all, the reversal of Fischer’s political fortunes pales in comparison to what was happening in Germany at large. In 1948, Hockenos reminds us, 55% of Germans in the western zones believed that “National Socialism was a good idea that had been badly implemented.” Hockenos continues: “To most, the wartime allies were viewed as occupation armies, not as their liberators from Nazi rule.” Only seven years later, Germany was in NATO and embarking on its own economic miracle.

By the 1960s, German intellectuals and activists were challenging the comfortable conservatism of their government and society. By the end of the decade, Fischer was in the thick of the German left and fully engaged in the counterculture. He was slow to warm to the Greens when they emerged in the late 1970s. But once in, Fischer had the passion of a convert. He saw that the new Greens could leverage their minority position through alliance with the Social Democrats, a Red-Green alliance that eventually vaulted him into parliament and then into the position of foreign minister.

As foreign minister, Fischer managed to be both controversial and beloved. He enraged the Greens’ pacifist wing by supporting the U.S. bombing of Serbia, then used his position to broker an agreement that both Russia and the United States could sign. Even more controversially, Fischer stood up to U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld over the Iraq invasion. “Contrary to popular beliefs at the time,” Hockenos writes, “the Germans’ initial wariness, and then outspoken resistance to the military option in Iraq, was expressed much earlier, more persistently, and for the most part more categorically than France’s.” Condoleezza Rice was so angry with Germany’s stance against the war that she refused to meet Fischer when he visited Washington and said that his “background and career do not suit the profile of a statesman.”

More important than the grudges and controversies that dogged Fischer’s career have been the Green Party’s palpable achievements. Thanks to the Greens, Germany has a much more inclusive immigration policy. And the country’s renewable energy program is a model for the world. “Between 2000 and 2004, Germany’s production of electricity by regenerative sources climbed from 6.7 to 9.3 percent,” Hockenos writes. Belatedly, America is now ready for its own eco-social renewal, in part courtesy of Joschka Fischer and the German Greens.

John Feffer is co-director of Foreign Policy In Focus at the Institute for Policy Studies.