Joschka Fischer on Rise of the AfD 'We Know How This Movie Ends'

Former German foreign minister and Green Party veteran Joschka Fischer speaks to DER SPIEGEL about the threat posed by the right-wing populist party AfD and the prospects of the country's next government.

Joschka Fischer
Hermann Bredehorst / DER SPIEGEL

Joschka Fischer

Interview Conducted by and

Germany's elections may have been held almost four weeks ago, but the country still doesn't have a new government. The reason is simple: Angela Merkel's erstwhile coalition partner, the center-left Social Democrats (SPD), want to go into the opposition, leaving the chancellor with only one clear path to a stable majority. That path is known as the "Jamaica Coalition," so named because the colors associated with the parties involved - black for conservatives, yellow for the business-friendly Free Democrats (FDP) and green for the Green Party - are the same as those on the Jamaican flag.

Making things more complicated is the fact that the conservatives are actually made up of two parties, Merkel's Christian Democrats (CDU) and its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU). Having done poorly in the election on September 24, those two parties have decided that constant bickering isn't good for their popularity and have now papered over their differences. But it is no secret that the CSU is much further to the right than the CDU on many issues - some of the same issues on which the Greens are much further to the left. As a result, ongoing coalition negotiations promise to be a slog.

SPIEGEL spoke with former German Foreign Minister and Green Party eminence grise Joschka Fischer about his view of the talks and about the new presence of a right-wing populist party, the Alternative for Germany, in German national parliament.

DER SPIEGEL: Mr. Fischer, some have argued that one of the reasons for the rise of the AfD is the fact that German political parties have become too similar to each other. Won't that problem become even worse with the conservatives, the Greens and the FDP together in a single governing coalition?

Fischer: Don't worry, the parties will remain differentiable. Even during our coalition with the SPD, there was no shortage of differences. Back then, people constantly said: My God, they are chaotic. Then, in the grand coalition (Eds. Note: The pairing of the conservatives with the SPD), it was suddenly too quiet for the journalists.

DER SPIEGEL: The right-wing populist AfD now has seats in the German parliament. Do you view this as a significant shift in German politics?

Fischer: Why are you calling them right-wing populist? What do we in Germany call parties that define themselves in racial terms? The tradition is clear. The last ones who represented such a position were the Nazis.

DER SPIEGEL: You view the AfD as a party in the same tradition as the Nazi party?

Fischer: Absolutely! I grew up in the 1950s. Everyone from my generation can still recall these German family gatherings. There was the Nazi grandfather and the uncle who was a member of the SS, and they would let fly with their maxims - and those maxims are suddenly making a comeback. Is Mr. (Björn) Höcke a right-wing populist or a Nazi? I'm tired of the waffling.

DER SPIEGEL: You are referring to Björn Höcke, who has demanded that Germany emancipate itself from its World War II guilt. But he is also on the far-right wing of the AfD.

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Fischer: There are a lot of active AfD members and people in party leadership positions who speak like Nazis and think like Nazis. Gauland (Eds. Note: AfD parliamentary floor leader Alexander Gauland) wants to "take back our country and our people." Umm, hello? Haven't we heard that before? I had hoped and thought that our society had advanced beyond that. But we have to realize: They're back.

DER SPIEGEL: Are the 12.6 percent of the electorate who voted for the AfD also Nazis?

Fischer: You have to make a distinction. But we shouldn't forget that after 1945, we were told: We were hijacked, the Nazi bigwigs were guilty of everything Germany did to others and to itself. When I listen to Mr. Gauland or Mr. Höcke today, I always think of the image of the devastation in Cologne after the war, with the cathedral jutting out of the rubble. Today, you just cannot say anymore: I didn't know, I was frustrated. We know how this movie ends.

DER SPIEGEL: Going back to those maxims that you know from your family gatherings: Are they suddenly back again or were they always there and we just didn't want to hear them?

Fischer: I can't answer that question. It's impossible to explain some people's convictions. The things that are said, like that Germany is an occupied country: That's preposterous. It took me aback. I had honestly thought that we had come further.

DER SPIEGEL: Why do you think it is that we haven't come as far as we thought we had?

Fischer: You can search far and wide for explanations. I haven't yet heard or read one that I found convincing. Now, it is what it is. And we have to react to it.


Fischer: We must be uncompromising and unrelenting on each individual issue in this confrontation and not sacrifice Germany to these people - and we certainly shouldn't be led around by them. On the other hand, we can't let ourselves get riled up by each and every one of their provocations. They are often intentional. From my own experience in dealing with the Nazi-grandpas, who have now clearly made a return, I would recommend a bit of fundamental imperturbability.

DER SPIEGEL: Imperturbability and propriety won't be enough when it comes to the AfD.

Fischer: It's not just this party. There is also PEGIDA (Eds. Note: The Islamophobic organization that started in Dresden), the Identitarians and many other currents. Right now, we are experiencing an attempt by the right to emulate the 1968 movement and take over the public debate.

DER SPIEGEL: Where do you see parallels with the 1960s-era student movement?

Fischer: In certain things they do, the means of provocation, the publications by small publishing houses, the use of book fairs as a forum - those are the kinds of things I am referring to.

DER SPIEGEL: Do you think that Chancellor Angela Merkel paved the way for the AfD by moving the CDU too far to the left and leaving space for them on the right wing?

Fischer: No, no, no. I don't want to defend Angela Merkel, but how would the conservatives have done in the cities if they had closed their right flank? She would have presided over a string of serious defeats.

DER SPIEGEL: Among those on the conservative wing of Merkel's CDU, Austrian Foreign Minister Sebastian Kurz, who is now likely to become the country's next chancellor following the recent elections there, is seen as a new conservative hero in Europe. By turning very clearly to the right, he was able to win more seats in parliament for the conservative Austrian People's Party than the right-wing populist FPÖ, under the leadership of Heinz-Christian Strache, managed to win.

Fischer: I prefer the (Emmanuel) Macron model in France to the Kurz-Strache model in Austria. If Kurz doesn't want a coalition with the social democrats, then he can only become chancellor with the help of a right-wing radical party. All those who are now critical of a Jamaica coalition and who are recommending that conservatives in Germany turn to the right should keep that in mind. If the CSU wants such a thing, then it is calling into question the historical foundation of the CDU and CSU in addition to the legacy of Konrad Adenauer. It is something they should think carefully about.

DER SPIEGEL: Back in 2005, the year when the coalition government pairing your Green Party with Gerhard Schröder's Social Democrats was not returned to office by the voters, making way for Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservatives to form a government, a Jamaica Coalition would have been mathematically possible and would have kept the Green Party in government. When asked about it at the time, though, you merely laughed and said: "How should it work? Seriously, I mean. Please." Do you have a different view of things today?

Fischer: Bob Dylan's song is more applicable than ever: "The times, they are a-changin'." A few years have passed and what I thought was impossible back then - perhaps due to a lack of imagination - has today become a necessity. That's how things go.

DER SPIEGEL: What exactly has changed?

Fischer: With the arrival of the refugees in 2015, it became impossible to ignore that the period of uninterrupted sunshine that our country had enjoyed had come to an end. The vast problems of the 21st century are knocking on our door. That is also true of the dramatic changes that we can see globally, for example with Brexit and the election of Donald Trump. You can't win people over by saying nothing and biding your time, as Angela Merkel has tried to do. People want leadership - in the best sense of the term.

DER SPIEGEL: You think a Jamaica coalition will distinguish itself with leadership? It seems more likely that the parties involved will be struggling to find agreement on most issues.

Fischer: Those responsible will find themselves in situations where they have no choice but to lead - for the simple reason that the situation today is how it is. The pressure of the realities, as it is so accurately said, will become enormous. We experienced the same back then, with our coalition with the SPD: We had hardly entered office when the question of the Kosovo War had to be answered. And then came the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.

DER SPIEGEL: What elements of their platform do the Greens absolutely have to push through in a coalition with the conservatives and the FDP?

Fischer: I would refer you to those who are in positions of responsibility, they can tell you. Because of the necessity of reaching an agreement, which I just described, all of the parties involved will have to make compromises, not just us Greens, but also the FDP, the CDU and especially the CSU. They are, by the way, a real element of instability in a Jamaica coalition. They are my biggest concern.

DER SPIEGEL: You don't think there is any issue that is absolutely essential for the Greens?

Fischer: Of course, I assume there are a few. But that is a question for the elected bodies and for the party. The future of the German automobile industry, for example, is very much at stake. Will we help shape the upheaval that goes along with the shift to electric cars or will we suffer from it? We are the country of automobiles. If we aren't able to remain out front technologically, it will be painful. That is one of the decisive questions when it comes to jobs, income and prosperity - and not just for a few of the wealthy or super-rich, but for a huge number of people.

DER SPIEGEL: Do you think it would be the right move to ban internal combustion engines as of 2030?

Fischer: One can and will argue about the year. But we have to do something, otherwise we will be sinning against the future of our country. Industrial leaders know as much and will take action. What happens if China announces a deadline, as they have said they will? Then we will fall behind. It would be much better if the German automotive industry and our country would establish itself in the vanguard of this development. And in that regard, a Jamaica coalition could really represent an opportunity because the Greens could find a solution with the conservatives and FDP - one that is not hostile to business, but one which fosters the mobility of the future for the benefit of people and the environment.

DER SPIEGEL: You sound like current Green Party co-head Cem Özdemir. Do you speak with him often? Does he seek out your advice?

Fischer: We talk on the phone every now and then. But if I sound like him, that merely shows that reasonable people draw similar conclusions when they collect and consider the facts. There's no copyright on that.

DER SPIEGEL: One of those facts is that the Greens only came in sixth place in the recent elections. According to the pollsters at Infratest dimap, fully 170, 000 Green voters defected to the Left Party in this election. Aren't you worried that participation in the Jamaica coalition could tear the Greens apart?

Fischer: No. The party seems united. Are you saying the Greens shouldn't join the government out of concern that they might lose voters to other parties? The opposite is true: The Greens would lose voters if they categorically rejected a governing role.

DER SPIEGEL: Mr. Fischer, thank you very much for this interview.

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