Germany’s media world tittered with delight when the country’s popular foreign minister and Green Party leader, Joschka Fischer, brought his new romantic interest, 28-year-old German-born Persian beauty Minu Barati, to the annual Press Ball. Though Fischer rarely cracks a smile, he must have grinned at the right-wing Bild newspaper’s gushing banner headline the next day: “What Makes Joschka So Sexy?”
For nearly six years, since shortly after the Social Democrat and Green “red-green” coalition came to power, Fischer has topped Germany’s popularity polls. The source of Fischer’s unusually high approval ratings is anything but self-evident; his unorthodox biography and radical political past wouldn’t seem to endear him to the average German burgher.
Fischer’s parents were ethnic Germans expelled from Hungary in 1946, the bottom of the barrel in an occupied and destitute postwar Germany. He never earned a university degree and made his early living as a book thief.
His excesses as a street-fighting Frankfurt anarchist during the ’70s came to public light in 2000, and conservatives called upon him to resign. One stark photo dug up by journalists caught Fischer at a 1973 demonstration doling out a gratuitous beating to a solitary police officer with the help of a few comrades. But, remarkably, the scandals passed over without denting Fischer’s credibility, even among conservative voters.
In the late ’70s, Fischer gave up on revolutionary socialism and forswore violence as a political tool. Disillusioned, for years he drove a taxi nights in Frankfurt, pondering the enigma of a flawed but unreformable democracy. During the day, he worked in the Karl Marx Bookshop, a co-op that included many of his future political allies in the Greens, like Dany Cohn-Bendit, the hero of the Paris May 1968 uprising, and Tom Koenigs, today Germany’s top human rights coordinator. Perhaps this is his secret: Fischer and several fellow cabinet ministers, including Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, belong to a postwar generation that many Germans identify with.
When the Green Party formed in 1980 as an electoral platform for an amalgam of groups from the peace, anti-nuke, ecological and women’s movements, Fischer was intensely skeptical. Parliamentary democracy and feminism weren’t his thing any more than knitted wool sweaters or muesli. During the wild Frankfurt years the left’s women often found Fischer unbearably macho and authoritarian. But when the new party began putting its people into regional legislatures across West Germany, Fischer joined its ranks and began a bruising climb to its top.
Fischer and his all-male “Frankfurt Gang” established themselves as the party’s hard-nosed pragmatists, or “realos,” the wing dedicated to an electoral strategy in contrast to the idealistic Green fundamentalists, or “fundis.” An inner party war between the two factions raged throughout the ’80s until the realos finally prevailed. Since then, under Fischer’s firm stewardship, the former “anti-party party” has become part of the mainstream. Now the republic’s third largest party, the Greens are a safe, liberal option.
The taming of the once anti-establishment Greens may be another source of Fischer’s appeal across the political spectrum. But along the way, the compromises pushed through by the pragmatists were too much for many of the Greens’ original supporters, some of whom today count among Fischer’s most trenchant adversaries.
As foreign minister, Fischer has endorsed an interventionist foreign policy that can hardly be described as Green. But he’s an internationally respected statesman, and many Germans applaud the country’s engagement worldwide in the name of humanitarian goals. Even before the full extent of the South Asian tsunami’s devastation was known, Fischer recognized it as a crisis of enormous proportions and began to act; Germany offered the tsunami-hit countries more aid than any other.
Fischer and Schröder are pushing for a German seat on the U.N. Security Council. “Germans are sensitive about their image and they like the fact that Fischer has stature and is respected abroad,” says Ute Zapf, a Social Democratic parliamentarian.
It has long been rumored that Fischer is tired of the foreign ministry job and covets the posts of European Union foreign minister or U.N. secretary-general. But Fischer’s public appeal and campaigning prowess are critical for red-green reelection chances in 2006. Fischer has promised Chancellor Schröder that he plans to stay on board, at least for awhile.
Until then, he may have to content himself with a spiced-up private life. Miss Barati and her six-year-old daughter have moved into Fischer’s Berlin Mitte apartment near the gold-capped synagogue.