Commentary: Germany Should Hang On To An Old Hell Raiser

The riot cop lies on the ground, helmet ripped away. Three long-haired demonstrators kick him in the gut and flee. An ugly scene--and all the more shocking because one of the young toughs is German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer.

Everyone in Germany knew Fischer, 52, was a leftist hell-raiser in the 1960s and '70s. But rediscovered photos from a 1973 demonstration in Frankfurt give his past a grim immediacy--even though the policeman he beat sustained no permanent injuries. The photos revived an old debate about how tight Fischer was with the extremists who staged assassinations, set off bombs, and hijacked planes to advance their Marxist cause.

In the worst case, the controversy could force Fischer to resign. That would be a deep loss for Germany and, for that matter, Europe. As disturbing as his past behavior was, Fischer has become an indispensable figure in Chancellor Gerhard Schroder's government and a persuasive advocate for a more united Europe. Fischer is one of the most refreshing voices anywhere in politics. In fact, his legendary journey from radicalism to legitimacy pulled a whole generation of Germans in its wake. He should keep his job.

That may not be easy. On Jan. 16, Fischer is scheduled to testify in the trial of an old friend, Hans-Joachim Klein, who is accused of taking part in a 1975 terrorist attack in Vienna. Klein spent two decades on the lam before authorities captured him last year. He also happens to be one of the men trampling the Frankfurt cop. Now, Klein wants Fischer to help the judge understand the anger of those times. At least until then, Fischer will be on the defensive.

The timing could hardly be worse for Schroder, whose Cabinet is in turmoil. On Jan. 10, Health Minister Andrea Fischer and Food, Agriculture and Forestry Minister Karl-Heinz Funke quit amid charges they reacted slowly to the threat of beef products contaminated by mad cow disease. Transport Minister Reinhard Klimmt left in November, tainted by a scandal about party finances. And Finance Minister Hans Eichel, architect of German tax reform, is under fire for his use of government aircraft on trips that may not have been strictly business.

Fischer's departure would be a further disaster for Schroder. Fischer has been instrumental in helping Germany emerge from the long shadow of World War II and play a more active international role. His leftist past, far from being a liability, insulated him from charges that he was leading a neonationalistic grab for hegemony. Fischer is also a force for bolstering the political unity Europe needs to underpin its common currency, and a major reason Germany's socialists have an effective working coalition with the Green party, of which Fischer is a leading member. "I won't say the coalition would fall apart" if Fischer resigned, says Commerzbank analyst Eckart Tuchtfeld. "But it would be a heavy blow."

SEEING GREEN. Can Fischer hold out? The opposition Christian Democratic Party Chairman Angela Merkel says Fischer's "doubtful past" damages Germany's prestige abroad, but hasn't yet called for his resignation. Fischer also has to worry about enemies in his own party, particularly Green "fundamentalists" who think he's sold out party principles. Even Schroder sometimes seems to resent Fischer's popularity.

The pressure could rise if more damaging evidence surfaces. For example, some old comrades say Fischer tacitly backed the use of Molotov cocktails in a 1976 demonstration that left a police officer badly burned. In an interview with weekly Der Spiegel, Fischer denies he ever went that far. He turned away from violence, he says, after a man he knew casually from the leftie scene helped hijack an Air France flight from Tel Aviv in 1976 and forced it to land in Entebbe, Uganda. When the hijackers separated Jewish passengers from others, Fischer says, he realized the German radicals were on their way to repeating the horrific deeds of their Nazi elders.

Schroder is clever enough to realize that Fischer's departure would shake the whole government. He will stand by his foreign minister as long as possible. He now has to hope German voters will stand by Fischer as well.

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