In January 2001, toward the end of my stint in Germany as Newsweek‘s Berlin bureau chief, a decades-old series of photographs surfaced in the German magazine Stern and instantly became the talk of the country. The pictures showed the country’s charismatic, popular foreign minister, Joschka Fischer, clad in a motorcycle helmet and leather jacketpunching and kicking a prostrate German policeman in the middle of a 1973 street protest. Fischer’s evolution from streetfighting radical to pillar of the establishment had always been a subject of controversy at home and of bewilderment abroad (imagine, say, David Dellinger or any other member of the Chicago Seven becoming secretary of state). But these photos seemed beyond the pale, spurring angry demands for his resignation from the right-wing opposition. “Someone who acts in this manner is no representative of a nonviolent civic society,” said Wolfgang Bosbach, a parliamentary leader of the Christian Democrats, who led the charge for his ouster. Within a few weeks, however, Fischer had weathered the stormand been inoculated against further revelations of his checkered past.

The foreign minister’s survival was a testament not only to his own political skills but to Germany’s own recent history. No other nation has undergone the kind of reinvention experienced by Germany since 1945: from defeated perpetrator of the Holocaust to stable democracy, economic superpower, and leader of a united Europe. As the American journalist and longtime Berlin resident Paul Hockenos argues in his absorbing new book, Joschka Fischer and the Making of the Berlin Republic, Germany’s metamorphosis was in some ways made possible by the leftist rabble-rousers who operated on the fringes of society in the 1960s and ’70s but became a vital part of the political process. To be sure, Fischer’s rise to power was partly due to the quirks of Germany’s parliamentary system: in the elections of 1998, Gerhard Schroeder’s Social Democrats formed a coalition government with Fischer’s Greenswho had received a serviceable 6.7 percent of the seats in the Bundestagand Fischer, as party leader, reaped the Foreign Ministry as a prize. But it also reflects how the concerns of Fischer and his comradesunflinching acknowledgment of the country’s Nazi past, environmental activism, a moral stand on atrocities such as ethnic cleansing in the Balkansbecame the core values of the Greens, and, ultimately, of wider German society.

Fischer’s own life exemplified Germany’s transformation. He was born three years after the end of the war, in April 1948, the middle child of ethnic Germans whose ancestors had migrated to Austro-Hungarian-ruled Budapest and its environs in the eighteenth century. Fischer’s father, Jozsef, was a Hungarian nationalist with no great affection for the Nazis; but in early 1946, Hungary expelled the Fischers and thousands of other ethnic Germans, and the Fischers were cast adrift in the ruins of postwar Germany. Eventually the family settled in Offnuengen, a Catholic hamlet near Stuttgart. At the time, Germany was in the middle of an economic revival led by its first postwar chancellor, Konrad Adenauer, who embraced NATO even as he stocked his cabinet with former Nazis and kept his countrymen’s eyes averted from the Third Reich’s crimes. Fischer was a precocious rebel, recoiling from the stultifying conformity, blindness, and materialism of his parents and their generation. He dropped out of high school, and dabbled in anti-NATO peace protests. (Adenauer had allowed the United States to deploy nuclear weapons on German soil.) Even his wedding was a form of rebellion: he ran away to Sweden to marry his teenage girlfriend, Ede, thumbing his nose at antiquated German laws that forbade couples under the age of twenty-one to wed without their parents’ permission.

The early sections of Hockenos’s book are the liveliest. Hockenos charts the rise of the left in West Germany in the 1960s and ’70s, and identifies Fischer’s central and ever-shifting place in that world. The vibrant and sometimes violent scene that flourished in Stuttgart, Frankfurt, and other German cities borrowed its style from the youth revolution going on in the United Statesgalvanized by the Vietnam War, the civil rights struggle, and the music of the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, and Bob Dylan. But like the student uprising that convulsed Paris in 1968, the German youth rebellion had its own cast of characters, vocabulary, and dynamic. For Fischer and his scruffy comrades, life centered around nightspots such as Club Voltaire, where they smoked and drank through the night while plotting protests against Vietnam, nukes, U.S.-backed military dictatorship in Chile, and Germany’s Nazi legacy. (One of the most problematic issues for the left was the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: though sentiments favored the underdog Palestinians, Germany’s Nazi past made such a position morally excruciating.) Fischer and other young radicals holed up in “squats”abandoned apartment buildings in war-damaged neighborhoods of Frankfurtwhere they reveled in their poverty and sexual freedom while fighting pitched battles with the police. Violent Marxist-Leninist cells such as the Baader-Meinhof Gang were Fischer’s contemporaries. But the street-smart Fischer, who recoiled from their acts of terror, aligned himself with raucous but essentially nonviolent protest leaders such as France’s Danny “the Red” Cohn-Bendit and Germany’s homegrown Rudi Duetschke.

Hockenos is excellent in tracing the rise of the Green movement from a fringe collection of tree huggers into a groundbreaking force for change in German society. To a great extent he credits Petra Kellythe waiflike, indefatigable, half-American, half-German woman at the head of the movementwith directing the group’s emergence as a political player. Riding the controversy over nuclear power in the aftermath of the Three Mile Island near disaster, the Greens started with victories in local council elections and steadily gathered momentum to the 1982 national elections, in which the party captured 2.1 million votes nationwide and won twenty-eight seats in the Bundestag. It would take another sixteen yearsa period that saw the “eternal chancellorship” of Helmut Kohl and his conservative Christian Democratic Union, the fall of Berlin Wall, and German reunificationbefore the Greens grabbed a costarring role in the German government. By then, Petra Kelly was dead (murdered in 1993 by her lover, who then turned the gun on himself), the Green environmental crusade had gained wide acceptance, and Fischer was charting an independent, activist course in German foreign policy. In perhaps his finest hour, he mobilized Green support behind NATO’s intervention in Kosovo, arguing that the country’s own Nazi past compelled it to take action to avert another genocide.

Fischer hardly comes off as an unblemished hero. Despite his popularity, Hockenos’s book portrays him as very much the cock of the walkself-absorbed, petty, and often cruel toward his underlings. An ambitious workaholic with Clintonian appetites, he ballooned to 250 pounds during his years in Bonn, thanks to a steady intake of liquor and junk food. (He remade himself later with an ascetic regimen of dieting, teetotaling, and marathon training.) He has been a philanderer, a serial husband, and an absentee father. Yet Fischer’s immense appeal has been undeniable. He was Germany’s first pop-star politicianfluent in English, fast on his feet, utterly comfortable in the halls of power. He served as a passionate voice for a new Germany, one fully cognizant of its dark history yet confident enough to assert itself on the world stage. “[That] a man like Fischer could make his way, not only from the outer fringes of the republic to its center, but also from the very bottom of the social ladder to the very top [was] a feat unthinkable in the highly stratified Germany of old,” Hockenos writes. “This kind of trajectory … signaled to the world that Germany was different nowmore colorful, more liberal, more spontaneous.” Hockenos makes a powerful case that Fischer, as much as any figure in postwar Germany, was responsible for that transformation.

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Joshua Hammer

Joshua Hammer is a freelance foreign corespondent based in Berlin, now working on a book about German colonialism in Africa.