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The last rock 'n' roller of German politics

Former German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer has now said goodbye to the world of politics. In an interview given in September 2005, he reflects on life in the political limelight and the red-green chapter in German politics

taz: It seems to fit the Joschka Fischer myth that the whole world is wondering what your quasi-retirement actually means. So what does it mean?

Joschka Fischer: There's nothing cryptic about it. We're dealing with a cesura. Red-green can't form a majority in this country any more, the bourgeois-conservative camp can't either. These election results have to be respected. The way things are, it's clear that we're headed for a grand coalition. I'm now 57 years old, for 20 years I stood right out front in the party, the parliamentary fraction and the government. For me the question is: Do you have the time and energy to have another go at the opposition with the Greens?

And do you?

I said to myself, either you stick around, and they'll chase you out one day because they can't stand you any more, maybe they'll carry you out of the plenary room foot-first. Or you choose an appropriate moment. The first option is not particularly attractive. So, I'm retiring.

Was that a political or a private decision?

One can't make that distinction. It was both.

On Tuesday in the parliamentary faction you said, "Twenty years ago, I traded in my personal freedom for power. Now I want my freedom back." Why? Did you suffer in politics?


Even you, the political fighting machine number one?

Those who are in power, who want to shape politics are always bound by particular pressures. One pays a high price for that. Surely there are people who come to terms with such pressures better than I do. Not to be misunderstood: I have had a fascinating time, I wouldn't have wanted to miss a minute of it, I always enjoyed politics. But now it's over. What one is supposedly seduced by – privileges, body guards, nice cars – I don't need any of that.

You're trying to say that there is a life for Joschka Fischer without the drug of politics?

I never believed in that drug theory. I consider it wrong. Politics govern my life – but it's a passion, not a drug.

And you can live without this passion?

You've got to know when it's time to shut the door behind you.

So why are you holding on to your parliamentary mandate?

Because I committed to it. Although I would like to take the big step already.

So you are deliberately leaving open whether you will fill this mandate for another four years?

At my age, you can't take anything for granted any more.

Your retirement can be interpreted in various ways. The first way: Fischer is a realist and sees that the Greens are going into the opposition and he wants to leave this turn-around in the governing party to his successors.

It's not that I want to leave it to my successors, it's that I must. The Greens are no Fischer party, even if I've influenced them significantly. We had already managed to break out of the generational jail in 2002. But now a new chapter begins. The red-green chapter, which was written by my generation, is irrevocably over. The new chapter must be written by the younger ones, those under 40. The notion that I have something to offer them is absurd. I'm bound to my own history and my own being.

The second interpretation: Fischer, who stands for the red-green project like no other, wants to clear the way for other coalitions, for example for black-yellow-green.

I've rarely heard such nonsense. It's true that the Greens have to leave their options open on both sides in a six party parliament, also open to the conservative parties, but with caution. The axiom has to be: political issues first, power questions second – never the other way around! And that requires the assent of the voters.

That means that you're ruling out the so-called Jamaica coalition (explanation here) for the time being?

Would you mind telling me how that could possibly work? It has the strong whiff of the unreal. I once put it this way: If Merkel and Stoiber show up with dreadlocks, hash baggies and stuff like that, in other words if there were to be a complete transformation in what they stand for, then we'd have another situation. But then the Union would fall apart. One has to see it realistically.

And the traffic light coalition (SPD-FDP-Green - ed.) - is that an option for the Greens?

The FDP has taken a clear stance on that.

The third interpretation of your withdrawal would be: Fischer is showing his sheer fury with the chancellor's decision to go solo. The no-longer-completely-foreign minister is leaving the still-chancellor with his insatiable appetite for power to his own devices.

I don't have any sheer fury. And my decision has nothing to do with the chancellor. There is great pressure on the Greens so form themselves anew – in terms of strategy and personnel. Given this dynamic, it would have been utter vanity to leave the parliamentary fraction in uncertainty. There must be clarity in the question of leadership and I created this clarity.

But with your retirement you remove an important card from Schröder's Poker hand. Did you inform him of your decision before making it public?

The chancellor has known for a long time that I would step down if the continuation of red-green were not possible.

You have created some displeasure in your party. Your parliamentary group leader Krista Sager is saying you could have waited with your decision.

Do you know the speech that the little Bonaparte gave to the board members of the Friends of the Italian Opera organisation in the film "Some like it hot"?

Please explain.

"Some say it was a bit too early. Others say it was high time. Who can know exactly?"

The Greens all assumed that Fischer would be head of the parliamentary group in the opposition. Why did you surprise them all?

I never promised to take over the leadership of the opposition. I only said being the head of the opposition is an interesting job. You see how right I was. Five people already said they want the job.

Red-green was voted out on Sunday. Is that the end of the historic project of the 68ers?

No. Red-green is not over. But when it comes back anew, it's going to be another red-green, embedded in another normality. If you ask the question that way, I have to answer: the anti-68ers lost this election. The left in this country- which is unfortunately divided – got 51%.

Gerhard Schröder said recently that the red-green coalition no longer conforms with contemporary society. In his words: "A Zeitgeist-alliance whose time came to an end." Did red-green come ten years too late?

No, I see it completely differently. Politicians and parties can't choose their time. History throws you into ice cold water, hungry polar bears chase after you and either you swim faster than them or you get devoured. You can wish that that you were swimming in more southerly climes. But that's up to the electorate alone.

Was the red-green coalition not just catching up politically with changes that had long since taken place in society in the 90s?

No. Red-green did a lot more in seven years. Germany became another country in this time. More open - for example with the new citizenship and immigration laws. More ecological, despite the moaning of business and actually to its advantage. Freer. It's clearer to us Germans today, who we actually are. In our foreign policy, better embedded in Europe and for the West, a more self-determined nation. We as red-green can be proud of all that. Germany is, seen as a whole, a wonderful country. The fact someone with my history can say that today is quite something.

We agree that German society is influenced by red-green values. But it voted red-green out of power in these elections. What do you think is the main reason for that?

We introduced difficult social renewal which had gone into hibernation in the 90s under Kohl. But we were unable to demonstrate adequate positive results in the area of the labour market by the time of the elections. We didn't have the necessary tailwind from the global economy.

Aha, so red-green failed due to external circumstances.

Oh god. Of course we made mistakes. Anyone who acts makes mistakes. Should we have introduced the reforms earlier? Would we have gotten them through? Who knows? But we ourselves did not fail fundamentally.

What is the central message of this federal election? Does the republic not have a direction?

No. I think that's completely wrong. You'll find the central message in Heinrich Heine: the people, the great masses (the "grosse Lümmel" in Heine's "Wintermärchen"), overrode everything. Angela Merkel did not win – as many prophesied. The result is a clear refusal of the neo-conservative, sold modernisers. And what conclusions does Roland Koch draw? He'd like to find some tricks to justify new elections! To that I can only say: Go ahead! Anyone who tries that is going to be mercilessly punished by the Germans.

But Schröder's interpretation, that he has received a clear mandate to continue to govern, is at least as absurd. The centre of this country is unsure and unclear.

I don't have the impression that the people are uncertain. We're in a transitional period, no question. But I don't find the will of the electorate to be an expression of instability. Nor was this election a decision of fear. During the campaign, more people went out to rallies than ever before. They were incredibly politically interested. They wanted to know. And they said: not with us!

You're talking like Gregor Gysi. He views the election results as an expression of the European normalisation of Germany.

I'm happy to leave the term normalisation to Gysi. For me the people's will was decisive. I find the election results stupendous. I'll say it here publicly: I love my country.

Are these patriotic spring feelings from Fischer?

Yes. The political capital has been swept away. The capital of political journalism. The capital of pollsters and political scientists. All these self-named experts were wrong. A row of red cheeks. Wumm! These young conservative bosses on the editorial boards of Spiegel and Zeit and wherever else, who confuse journalism with politics - if they were to follow their own conservative codes of honour, they would spear themselves (politically, I mean). And did they? Not one, not a single word of self-criticism. Instead, the Springer-head Matthias Döpfner apologises in the Wall Sreet Journal for the Germans' supposedly strange electoral behaviour. That's disgraceful! There you can see how this country has changed. I think we have all the more reason to fly high the black-red-gold patriotic flag.

We have two major parties here who are no longer in a position to organise majorities for themselves. Will this lacking binding power, this general fraying of the political landscape, result in an Italy-esque situation?

I'm not so pessimistic. Let's stick with the CDU and Merkel. She made a serious error. Mrs. Merkel wanted to rob the CDU of its soul, its social understanding. Christian Democracy is no conservative party. The element of Christian social values still plays an important role. Kohl understood that. Mrs. Merkel confined herself to a conservative modernisation course and forgot the many little people. Then you're no longer a party of the people.

Are you worried about the Union?

Maybe I understand it better than Mrs. Merkel, because I come from a Catholic, Christian Democratic family of refugees. For my parents, voting for the SPD was unthinkable – given their religion and origins. But they were just those little people – and they wouldn't understand the cold politics of Angela Merkel. And precisely for this reason, her attempt at a neo-conservative turn failed. Had she succeeded with it, we would have had another Republic. But we don't.

Opposite the conservative camp is now a majority that's left of centre – Willy Brandt dreamed of this. Do you call that a left majority?

Basically yes, even if it's unable to act and when one disregards Lafontaine's unfortunate "guest worker" (explanation here ) comment. He took that back. That is important, by the way: if someone oversteps the red line, from the right or the left, there has to be a full broadside. Unfortunately the left party is rooted in a traditional left.

Is it not necessary to try to bring this left camp back together in such a way that it is capable of governing?

Yes. I have no problem with that, I've always identified with the Left. The strategic mistake of the Left was not to have integrated the PDS in the 1990s, including the debate over its own history. That's why I get so annoyed about Stoiber and his slandering of the East Germans (explanation here). I agree with little of what Gysi or Bisky have to say – Lafontaine is the West's problem – but they belong to this society, they belong to the unity.

This error was coupled with the SPD's neglect of its own leftist edge. Thus for the first time, a party has formed to the left of the SPD which is active in the East and the West and has become stronger than the Greens.

Let's wait. I'm so proud of our 8.1 percent result this time, because it was a lot harder to achieve than the 8.6 percent in the 2002 election. This time we couldn't make the red-green argument, we only had headwinds and had to fight on our own. And the Left party has to prove what it can do. One only wins one federal election with social populism. The second time that won't work.

Quite a few Social Democrats see that differently. They switched over to the Left party.

So they should. I really hope that Gysi and Lafontaine hold onto them. I know some of them. I'll only name Dr. Diether Dehm (former deputy chair of the PDS, accused of having worked for the Stasi in East Germany - ed). The ships that he takes tend not to come back to port. I'd bail right away. I've already told Gregor Gysi that. He laughed in a tortured kind of way. Yes, the Left party has many such hobgoblins aboard. I wish them a bon voyage!

You're talking about a majority to the left of the centre and at the same time recommending that your party open up to the Union. How can both work?

Again: I recommend opening to both sides without becoming a worldling in the middle. That's important for the programmatic renewal of the party. We must appeal to the voters from the classical left as much as to the conservative clientèle. And despite all the scepticism that I now harbour - if Edmund Stoiber says we have to get used to governing together with Jürgen Trittin, that is cultural progress, a dismantling of animosities. That doesn't mean that the differences in position disappear. But I'm encouraged to see that this civil war mentality is on the wane. And then I'm back to Realpolitik: I don't see how Jamaica should function. And the Green party will have to decide that, I'm no longer involved.

And how should it look, this modern left party – as you've recently been calling the Greens?

Modern left party means understanding contemporary society as it is representing itself, and no longer the old workers and class society. Nonetheless, the Left's core themes such as social justice and equal opportunity have to remain at the centre of our politics, only defined anew - as distributive justice, accessibility justice, generational justice. When I speak with my grown-up children and their friends, I realise that there is a deep desire among the younger generation to live out its individuality on the one hand and to maintain social coherence on the other, even beyond the classic small family. Maybe seeing the pictures from New Orleans brought that into focus: that there is something like shared responsibility, even under the conditions of globalisation and that the stronger shoulders have to bear more. The Greens offer the best pre-conditions for this new orientation because they come out of the alternative movement. The taz is one such project, where people thought way ahead and now have gained general social relevance.

How important is the ecological issue for the Greens?

With our demand that industrial society move away from oil and towards renewable energy, we've developed a major new direction. That must not be underestimated. I'm not concerned that the Green ecological issue will become marginal. I'm more concerned that we are realising too late that it's moving into the centre, into the inner circle of international politics, where it becomes a question of power. Germany today has a huge opportunity to work on industrial and political fronts to prepare itself for this post-oil era - this is of utmost importance, in terms of foreign policy as well. The USA will follow this direction as well in order to reduce its dependency on the Middle East.

Is it good for the new programmatic orientation of the Greens that they're now going into the opposition?

Both options are good. We form a better opposition and a better government.

Change begins with opposition. Do you recognise the saying?

Oh yes. The left has to maintain its claim to power, always. That infuriates me about Gysi and Lafontaine – that they're giving up their demand to shape policy. That's their vanity. I grew up with Article 0 of the Basic Law which says: the left is the worker's council of society, it can form the opposition, maybe demonstrate on occasion but never govern – the conservatives have the right of the first born in Germany: to rule. The left must never accept this. Never!

When will the Greens as "modern left party" be back in power?

Faster than you think.


I'm no prophet. If I were, this interview would cost you a pretty penny.

And should it be possible with the Merkel-Union?

The Union has not been Merkelised. The good woman will only be able to survive, if at all, when the CDU is re-christiandemocratised. Their christening has yet to come.

Is the new positioning of the Greens easier without Fischer?

That's a question that you are going to have to answer, not me. That doesn't affect me any more. I'm going to hold back.

You sound very satisfied, almost fatigued.

Satisfied is the wrong word. I'm at one with myself.

The party never succeeded in separating itself from you as its super-father. Do you not sometimes wish that the younger ones had been able to distance themselves more from the old bag Fischer.



That would have been the price that I would have had to pay. The young greens would have had to overthrow me.

Is that an admission that the party controlled you too much, made you its subject?

I never subjected myself to the Greens. In a democracy, there is no Leitwolf that decides who follows him and when. The younger ones have to figure that out among themselves.

Ah, now Fischer the power animal is speaking. We're listening.

You're laughing. But the fight for power is the basis of the democratic system. That's the intention of the Basic Law. Democratic power means putting lead plates on the shoes of the politicians and hanging them around their necks and then testing them 24 hours a day: can you take that or are you going to wield?

And can the younger ones take that?

Sure. They're going to have to. Of course under other conditions. I was the last of the live rock 'n' rollers of German politics. Now the play-back generation is coming up in all the parties.

In the history of the Green party, you often had to decide who got which post and when, without ever holding a party office yourself.

Yes, but often enough the decision was taken against me. My reach was much shorter than you all thought. The division of labour often went so: I was responsible for reality, Christian Ströbele – congratulations on his grandiose election results – was the homo ludens, for the playing often beyond the reality. It won't continue that way in this party.

In an interview with the taz in June, you said; "I'm not the Grampa from the Muppets Show". Is it still so? No comments from the grandstands, no more involvement with the Greens?

That's correct. I'll sit at the back of the Parliament, reflect and keep quiet.

You'll forgive us when we say that we don't believe you.

Think what you like. I'm going to do exactly as I say.

"I'm no green Helmut Kohl." Another sentence from you, September 2002. But maybe you are. With your voluntary retirement you are undergoing yet another transformation. You're working on your image for the history books.

I'm not working on a picture for posterity. Nor am I my own historian. I love life too much for that. You don't have to worry about me.

What remains is the private life of Fischer. You don't have a new job?

I don't have anything – other than a good mood.


This interview, conducted by Jens König, Lukas Wallraff and Ulrike Winkelmann, originally appeared in the taz on Friday September 23, 2005.

translation: nb - let's talk european