“Until the Iraq War, we were always like the children of America,” a giddy young German woman said to me at a demonstration last May, where thousands of Berliners turned out to block a group of neo-Nazis from parading through town. The afternoon was over, and the Nazis wouldn’t march, but a sense of elation still brimmed in the streets. “We didn’t have our own identity,” she said. “We always had to go along with what America did. But when Joschka Fischer refused to go along with Donald Rumsfeld and send our soldiers to Iraq, for the first time in my life I felt proud to be German. It was wonderful.”
Anyone who wants to understand what Germany lost in its recent snap election needs to consider this sentiment. Chancellor Gerhard Schröder called the election one year early to win support for his controversial welfare-reform program. The support wasn’t there, and now he’s lost his job. But the election results were so confusing that Angela Merkel also lost a good deal of power in her bargain to become Germany’s first female chancellor. Her conservative Christian Democrats will now rule in an uncomfortable “grand coalition” with Schröder’s Social Democrats. No one seems to have won a thing, and everyone’s claiming victory; but the single clear casualty in this autobahn pileup is Joschka Fischer and his Green Party.
Fischer was Schröder’s foreign minister and his sharp-tongued conscience during the seven-year coalition between the SPD and the Greens. He entered politics irreverently—he and other German Greens were famous in the 1980s for wearing jeans and tennis shoes to parliament—and began his exit gracefully, even before the recent coalition talks had ended, by bowing out of the Green Party leadership. He was a former anti-Vietnam War street fighter who grew up to become one of Europe’s most honest and keen-minded politicians—but unlike Schröder, he didn’t live for politics. “I want back the freedom I traded for power 20 years ago,” he was recently quoted as saying.
Fischer and Schröder took Cabinet seats in 1998, and for the first time there were people in charge of the Federal Republic of Germany with no connection to World War II. Helmut Kohl, chancellor from 1982 to 1998, was the last, leftover symbol of the Cold War, a pear-shaped conservative leader Fischer once derided—to his face—as “150 kilograms of the past made flesh.” It’s hard to believe he’s been gone only seven years.
Now Kohl’s protégée, Angela Merkel, is chancellor, and some American pundits see her bringing Germany back to the American fold after Schröder’s season of anti-war grandstanding. Schröder did grandstand—he was always hard to distinguish from his own outsized persona—but Fischer never seemed to lose his head. His defining moment, the scene everyone in Germany remembers, and possibly the media highlight of his political career, came in early 2003 at a defense conference in Munich held by European leaders to discuss Iraq. He looked at Donald Rumsfeld and said simply, in front of the cameras and the gathered politicians, “Excuse me, I am not convinced.”
To some Americans, that had a treasonous sound, but now we know what Fischer meant: “Excuse me, your intel sucks.” And for anyone still wishing to misconstrue the German position as knee-jerk adolescent anti-authoritarianism, Fischer made things nice and clear: “The power of the United States is a totally decisive factor for peace and stability in the world,” he said. “I don’t believe Europe will ever be militarily strong enough to look after its security alone. But a world order in which the national interests of the strongest power is the criterion for military action simply cannot work.”
Fischer was, in other words, the kind of intelligent and principled European politician America needs—not a lap dog, but a loyal critic. He lost a lot of support within his own party when he pushed to send German troops to Kosovo in 1998. Like the United States, but unlike many Germans, he favors Turkish membership in the European Union. He looks insufferably liberal to the right and like a right-wing sellout within his own party; but he expresses a clear and thoughtful German position that’s no longer in lock step with the United States.
Merkel’s chancellorship may represent a thaw in German-American relations, but anyone who thinks her rise to power implies that the German public is warming up to Washington is dead wrong. She didn’t win, first of all: The CDU and the SPD fell so far short of their own expectations that they had to huddle in a room for three weeks to work out who was in charge. The German people voted against Merkel and Schröder, by and large, by throwing historic levels of support behind smaller parties from the West and the East—the business-friendly FDP and the ex-Communist Left Party.
The CDU’s relative friendliness to Washington became a key point for Schröder late in the campaign; if anything, it hurt Merkel. The major shift in the election this year was a groundswell of protest against the stagnated economy, which is not, by the way, Gerhard Schröder’s fault: If anything, it’s Helmut Kohl’s. The old pear reunified Germany without bothering to explain how the generous retirement schemes in the West were suddenly going to support millions of new citizens from the East, who in any case were used to even more generous retirement schemes. Kohl did exactly nothing about this problem after 1990 and still managed to hang onto his job for eight more years. Schröder tackled it—late—and finds himself sacked after seven.
Merkel’s new grand-coalition government will make history if it somehow manages to fix the economy. Officially, it will be closer to President Bush and the United States, but it won’t be all that representative of the popular will. The cliché about grand coalitions between Germany’s two major parties is that they get nothing done, but the last time German politics ground to a halt under a grand coalition was in 1966-69, when the nation’s rowdy New Left youth was at war in the streets with its Nazi past. Fischer was a rioting hippie. Those three years changed German society changed for good, by ushering in a generation that could articulate rage and shame over World War II.
German society will no doubt change again in the next few years, but not necessarily in Washington’s favor. Discontent with Fischer and Schröder, unemployment, and even the European Union does not equal a sudden German love for President Bush or the war in Iraq. The Left Party, which sprang into existence this year, is one example of how things can go quite wrong. Some of its new parliamentary members used to inform for East Germany’s Stasi, and none of them have any lingering love for Washington.
The Greens did no better and no worse this year than in 2002; their support held steady at about 8 percent. Fischer is leaving because Schröder’s snap election essentially dissolved their ruling coalition. In the process, Germany loses a smart and eloquent politician who managed to speak his mind and speak for thousands of Germans; who could criticize the United States without hating it; and who gave an international face to what we might call the “good Germans”—the ones who can grapple intelligently with both World War II and the Cold War and declare that both have ended.
This face may not be recognizable to everyone. When President Bush came to Mainz last February to shake hands with Schröder for the cameras and pronounce a new day in German-American relations, he was introduced to a tart-looking but not-quite-familiar man.
“Hello, what’s your name?” Bush said to Joschka Fischer.
“My name is Mr. Fischer,” deadpanned Germany’s then-foreign minister. “What’s your name?”