Former German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer discusses opposition against the Iraq war that threatened to put Berlin in the same camp as Syria, the threat of a Tehran-led arms race in one of the world's most unstable regions and the mixed legacy of former Chancellor Gerhard Schröder.
In the first section of his interview with SPIEGEL, former German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer discusses the legacy of the Red-Green government under Chancellor Gerhard Schröder. Click here to go to the second part of the interview, where Fischer reflects on the run-up to the Iraq war and discusses the Iran nuclear crisis.
SPIEGEL: Mr. Fischer, as foreign minister you fought vehemently for the deployment of the German military (the Bundeswehr) to Kosovo and Afghanistan. At its recent national party conference, though, the Green Party voted against the use of Tornado fighter jets in Afghanistan. It doesn't appear that you have left any lasting impression on your party.
Fischer: Perhaps some people can now understand why I just wanted to get out. The party consumed a great deal of my energy. It did help me achieve an incredible political victory, but in the end I was tired, simply tired. This constant struggle between illusion and reality, these discussions with people who sometimes have no idea what they're talking about -- these things left me exhausted. I didn't let on, but I was worn out.
SPIEGEL: How would you assess the situation in your party today?
Fischer: A look at the history of the Greens should teach everyone that for us the road to decline was consistently paved with illusionary or radical decisions. But now the party will have to slog its way through. I think it'll be a difficult time.
SPIEGEL: Where were you when you watched the party's conference?
Fischer: Nowhere. That's behind me now. The door is shut.
SPIEGEL: But doesn't it also hurt a bit?
Fischer: Of course it hurts. It's my party. Besides, the old hunting dog immediately thinks about the political consequences.
SPIEGEL: And what is the old hunting dog thinking?
Fischer: The chances that the grand coalition (the current German government comprising Angela Merkel's conservative Christian Democrats and the center-left Social Democrats) will continue to exist after 2009 have increased.
SPIEGEL: You believe that your party is no longer capable of being part of the government?
Fischer: How can I speculate over the governing ability of parties? Majorities are what matters. The Greens are having problems at the moment, and so is the Social Democratic Party (SPD). The Left Party will have a big problem if it gets elected. The Greens will have to sort themselves out and decide on the direction they intend to pursue: to move forward independently or in the wake of (Left Party leader Oskar) Lafontaine. This is not just a decision for the new leadership, but also for the party's membership.
SPIEGEL: Do the Greens need another strong figure instead of four or five top people?
Fischer: I don't want to get mixed up in that. I believe that you pay a high price if you succumb to illusions because you then face the lengthy process of clawing your way back or you could completely collapse.
SPIEGEL: You were the most important Green politician for years, but you always had your problems with the party.
Fischer: I remained an outsider within the national party. I'm a survivor, but at times it was very difficult, even for a survivor.
SPIEGEL: On the other hand, many were under the impression that you were the secret chairman, the one who ultimately had the say. Was your influence overestimated?
Fischer: Yes and no. You have to consider the situation carefully. When it came to success at the polls and preserving power, my influence was certainly considerable. But otherwise it was limited. At the beginning, I had real problems being part of a party, because I had my roots in the (German left-wing) "Sponti" movement.
SPIEGEL: But you did manage to come a long way in the party.
Green Party leaders Fritz Kuhn (left to right), Reinhard Bütikofer, Renate Künast and Claudia Roth at a special party conference on Afghanistan in September.
SPIEGEL: There was periodic speculation that you might switch to the SPD. Was there any truth to it?
Fischer: No. Switching to the SPD was not my intention. There were a few times -- in Bielefeld in 1999, for example, when the Green Party was discussing the German military's deployment in Kosovo -- when I told myself: If I lose the vote now, I'll stand up and congratulate the winners, but that'll be it for me. For me it would have meant walking out, not joining a different party.
SPIEGEL: The SPD is also quarreling over the Bundeswehr's deployment to Afghanistan. And there is a wing of the Social Democrats and Greens that has distanced itself from Agenda 2010 (former Chancellor Gerhard Schröder's package of economic and social system reforms). Are you still proud of the years in which the Green Party governed Germany in a coalition with Schröder's SPD?
Fischer: Absolutely! We pushed through important things in domestic and foreign policy, and in social reform. We shouldn't feel ashamed -- on the contrary. When I look at the grand coalition today, I see that it's following the same tracks we laid in the first place. And that's a good thing.
SPIEGEL: If everything was as good as you say it was, why are there doubts within the SPD and the Green Party?
Fischer: You'll have to ask the doubters themselves. I am in the enviable position that I no longer have to pay much attention to these existential questions. Incidentally, neither Agenda 2010 nor Afghanistan was an expression of subjective considerations. We weren't exactly keen on the idea of sending soldiers to Afghanistan or cutting social benefits. But the Taliban regime could no longer be tolerated after Sept. 11. And government debt and unemployment were becoming a problem for the economy. Besides, Germany was losing considerable ground to our key competitors. Something had to be done. Just as with any business enterprise, restructuring is painful for the state, but sometimes necessary. Supporting the Agenda was one of Gerhard Schröder's great achievements.
SPIEGEL: He was never able to completely convince his party.
Fischer: He knew that he was running the risk of losing the next election. But he also knew that Germany would end up losing out if nothing changed.
SPIEGEL: In your book you admit that the reforms came too late because there were two positions in the SPD -- one embodied by Schröder and the other by Lafontaine.
Fischer: Yes, there were mistakes. It started with the first coalition negotiations in 1998. We negotiated with two social democratic parties. Lafontaine would always start out by saying: This is non-negotiable. It's one of the German Social Democratic Party's campaign promises, and we're going to stick to it. The man was very powerful at the time. All the things he is promising today once again could have been done then, and the SPD would have supported him.
SPIEGEL: Lafontaine's departure was followed by Schröder's "steady hand" policy.
Fischer: After the speculative bubble of the New Economy had burst in the spring of 2000, and the longest recovery since World War II had come to an end, we could have used a more active policy. And during the coalition negotiations at the beginning of the second legislative period in 2002, we were doing serious damage to ourselves every day.
SPIEGEL: How so?
Fischer: Through poorly developed proposals for cutbacks, and then some.
SPIEGEL: The reforms were not implemented quickly enough to have done the SPD-Greens coalition any good in the end. Does this upset you?
Fischer: Oh, I wouldn't say it upsets me. Despite our mistakes, it was mostly the global economic downturn that made life so difficult for us. However, I am convinced that the biggest mistakes were made by the Kohl administration. (Former Chancellor) Helmut Kohl's historic contribution was tremendous -- that is, his achievements when it came to German reunification. But after that he simply postponed the necessary reforms. And it was purely for reasons of preserving power.
SPIEGEL: You too left a lot of unfinished business. Pensions, nursing care, and then there was that failed effort at healthcare reform.
A protest in the eastern German state of Brandenburg against Gerhard Schröder's economic and social reforms.
SPIEGEL: And now you're being one-upped by a Christian Democrat chancellor when it comes to environmental policy, the Green Party's core issue.
Fischer: Oh come on. A green chancellor? Sure, (Chancellor) Angela Merkel is pursuing our policies on women, human rights and the climate. We would have called her an eco-liberal. I'd like to see things continue this way, especially now that I'm no longer involved in party politics. I truly wish her success on the issue. But don't be too quick to celebrate her as the climate chancellor. We are still the only country that shies away from introducing a national speed limit. We still lack the revolutionary spirit to implement Merkel's ambitious climate goals. "Words, words, never deeds, plenty of vegetables, but not much meat." Let's hope Heinrich Heine isn't right once again.
SPIEGEL: Your fellow party member (and former Environment Minister) Jürgen Trittin has just praised the chancellor, saying that she has dealt with the electricity companies far more effectively than Schröder.
Fischer: Perhaps. (Former Minister of Economics and Labour) Wolfgang Clement made things difficult for him. But his biggest problem was the fierce opposition coming from Christian Democrats in the Bundesrat (the upper house of the German parliament), where they were in the majority and had taken tough anti-environmental positions. Just think of the eco-tax. My goodness, was that a mess. I'm very pleased to see that the government sees things differently today and is continuing our policies.
'One Day We'll Be the Ones Asking for Help, and No One Will Help Us'
SPIEGEL: How will Schröder go down in history, as a footnote or a chancellor with a legacy worth remembering?
Fischer: If you look at his foreign and domestic policies overall, he will go down in the history books as a great chancellor. He brought some very important things into motion. The fact that he is making life difficult for many people now is a different matter.
SPIEGEL: What do you find most objectionable?
Fischer: His position on Russia. I prefer not to comment on this any further.
SPIEGEL: Can we assume that your company, Joschka Fischer Consulting, is not active in the Russian and Chinese markets?
Fischer: My relationship with Russia and China differed from the chancellor's, even when our government was in power.
SPIEGEL: Merkel addresses human rights in China and has received the Dalai Lama. Schröder, on the other hand, was more interested in championing the interests of the German economy.
Fischer: I am in favor of the chancellor's clear language. But I do have to defend Gerhard Schröder. Yes, foreign economic policy was his central issue. But he also gave some speeches, at the University of Beijing, for example, where he didn't mince words. The same thing applies to his role in the Ukraine crisis and in internal discussions with Putin over Chechnya.
SPIEGEL: Your book conveys the impression that you have better things to say about Kohl than Schröder.
Fischer: No. I fought Kohl throughout my entire political career. All I wanted was to bring him down. But I almost always supported his European policy
SPIEGEL: and you had little use for Schröder's.
Fischer: We had our disagreements even before the government was formed. Schröder was never a European at heart like Kohl, but that's also a generational question. However, he did behave like a European in some critical situations and brought Europe forward in a decisive way.
SPIEGEL: The quarrel in 2002 was a low point in your relationship.
Fischer: It wasn't a quarrel. The chancellor sent me to Washington on Sept. 18, 2001, shortly after the Sept. 11 attacks. I met with several people there, including President George W. Bush and (then Deputy Secretary of Defense) Paul Wolfowitz. There was talk of 60 countries that were supposedly supporting and funding terrorism. After that I became deeply concerned that Saddam Hussein and Iraq were next in line. I thought it was a big mistake from the very beginning. A horrible government was in power in Baghdad, but I was convinced that this should not be at the center of the response to this crisis.
SPIEGEL: In the 2002 campaign, Schröder insisted that Germany would not take part in a war against Iraq. You believed this was a mistake.
Fischer: Schröder said that no matter what the United Nations Security Council decided, we would not be part of it. This sidelined the German position of abiding by the Security Council's decisions. And it put us in a tight spot. As fate would have it, we became a member of the Security Council on Jan. 1, 2003. There was also the risk that we would end up having to oppose all of our Western partners. If Russia and France had agreed to the war, we would have joined Syria as the only naysayers.
SPIEGEL: As foreign minister, how did you react?
Fischer: We were truly in a bind. I made it clear that if we were isolated I would not be a part of it, and that I would resign. But for Schröder it was clear that he had given the German public his word during the campaign, and that he couldn't back down now. It would have forced him to resign.
SPIEGEL: France and Russia, which also ended up voting against the war, saved the coalition.
Fischer: That sounds overly dramatic. In my view, we couldn't have let ourselves be isolated in the end. There would have been some damage on the domestic political front, but we would have come to an agreement. The truth is that it became much easier for us once Paris and Moscow had taken a clear stance, the right stance. While we're on the subject, allow me to set something straight. It was repeatedly claimed that there was an anti-American axis. That's nonsense. We and the French were deeply concerned that the United States was biting off more than it could chew in Iraq, and that it was taking a fatally wrong step. We told ourselves that we could not afford a weakened United States. The concern was that the United States would ultimately leave behind a vacuum that neither the Europeans nor anyone else could fill. That's precisely the situation we are in today.
SPIEGEL: You completely misjudged President Bush. When he came into office in January 2001, you believed that he would probably pursue the foreign policy of his father, who took the arguments of his allies seriously.
Fischer: It was a widely held hope. As I recall, then British Prime Minister Tony Blair was of the same opinion
SPIEGEL: which was dramatically erroneous.
Fischer: That's right. And we soon realized it. The debate, so important to the Republicans in the United States, over the "unfinished business" of the first Iraq war in 1991, when the US military stopped short of pushing forward to Baghdad, was never truly accepted in Europe. We considered it a secondary matter, and yet it was the central foreign policy issue of the Bush administration, irrespective of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
SPIEGEL: The Middle East was one of the most important parts of the world for you. You were there many times and you helped launch a number of your own initiatives. Now the situation there has in fact deteriorated, Lebanon is destabilized and the Palestinians are divided. How do you see your policies in this light? Were mistakes made?
Fischer: No, there are truly no grounds for self-criticism in this regard, not at all. There was simply nothing else to be done. All we aspired to was to bring the peace process back on track and roll back the violence.
SPIEGEL: Without any great success.
Fischer: The situation changed completely with the Iraq war, because the individual crises in this vast region, which in the past had been disconnected or only loosely connected, were suddenly tied together. As a result of the Iraq war, Iran acquired the central role in the region. Tehran never had the power to put itself in this position of its own volition. We now have a completely new and extremely dangerous crisis situation in the Gulf, one in which Saudi Arabia and Iran are competing for hegemony. At the same time, Iran serves as the link to the eastern crisis zone in this region, namely to Afghanistan and Pakistan, which also brings the Pakistani-Indian conflict into the picture.
SPIEGEL: Now we see a glimpse of the gifted apocalyptic we knew you as during your term in office.
Fischer: I never painted an apocalyptic scenario to you -- you have got totally the wrong end of the stick there. All I do is point out the fact that a region on our borders, one that will have a decisive influence on our security, is slipping away politically. No one knows who will come into power in Saudi Arabia or Egypt tomorrow, and everywhere we look the war in Iraq has in fact strengthened rather than weakened radical forces. I think this gives us enough reason to be concerned.
SPIEGEL: You are an active commentator on current events, especially in your newspaper column. You have made some unambiguous statements on the Iran issue and the West's involvement in Afghanistan. We would have liked to see you express some of these convictions as clearly when you were foreign minister.
Fischer: Oh, there was certainly no lack of clear words and decisions. You can hardly criticize our commitment in Afghanistan and the German role we developed in this global crisis.
SPIEGEL: How would you assess the grand coalition's Afghanistan policy?
Fischer: They are doing the right thing, in principle. But I believe that the current German government missed an opportunity a year ago when the Canadians and other allies were under great pressure in the south and asked us for help. Despite the many risks, Germany should have stepped up to the plate. One day we'll be the ones asking for help, and no one will help us.
SPIEGEL: Does it make sense to draw clear distinctions between the missions in Afghanistan, as the Germans are trying to do: good reconstruction work in the north and a questionable, US-led fight against terrorists in the south (Operation Enduring Freedom)?
Fischer: We have to take a critical view of some aspects of "Enduring Freedom," such as the attitude that civilian casualties are a necessary evil. But one thing is completely clear: The massive US presence in Afghanistan makes it possible for the Bundeswehr and German aid workers to do their reconstruction work in the first place. Anyone who claims otherwise is naïve.
SPIEGEL: How do you feel about Tehran's role? Can an Iranian nuclear bomb even be prevented anymore?
Fischer: I think it can, as long as the West is united and resolute. If we allow it, a nuclear arms race will begin in one of the world's most dangerous and least stable regions, and that in turn will have immense consequences for our security. We should not fool ourselves in this regard.
SPIEGEL: Are tighter sanctions effective?
Fischer: Yes, if they stem from resoluteness within the West. This always brings up the question of oil. Tighter sanctions would lead to a significantly higher oil price, which could destabilize the West. But if it comes to a military confrontation, the oil price will really explode. Even the genuine risk that this could happen would unsettle the markets tremendously. I think it would be a better idea to energetically pursue a policy of economic isolation. At the same time, the United States and Europe should offer Tehran normalized relations if the Iranians agree to abandon their nuclear ambitions and assume a responsible role in the region.
SPIEGEL: Mr. Fischer, aren't you angry that Schröder ended the coalition between the SPD and the Green party by dissolving the Bundestag (the lower house of the German parliament) in 2005?
Former German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder (left) and Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer on the day they left office: "I'm not retired, but I no longer want to play in active politics."
SPIEGEL: Considering the sorry state of the SPD in the spring and summer of 2005, that was a rather bold plan.
Fischer: But it almost worked. It was certainly a mistake on Schröder's part to underestimate the influence of the Left Party and Lafontaine. I was opposed to new elections, but I also knew that the chancellor is not a defensive player.
SPIEGEL: Did he ask you first?
Fischer: Yes, but on election day in the state of North Rhine-Westphalia it came down to a decision between Schröder and the head of the SPD at the time, Franz Müntefering.
SPIEGEL: After the 2005 election, Schröder refused to admit that he had lost. Did you feel the same way?
Fischer: On the contrary: I knew that we had lost. I saw the open door, my exit, and a very decent one at that. The (Greens') 8.1 percent (showing) was the result of a tougher fight and was more important than the 8.6 percent in 2002.
SPIEGEL: We learn in your book that things didn't look very good for you at times. You considered resigning during the affair over your attacks on police officers in Frankfurt in 1973. Why?
Fischer: I saw the situation that was coming my way, and I would have liked to avoid it.
SPIEGEL: You gave an interview to the German weekly Stern at the time that truly stirred up the situation. Many were under the impression that they were dealing with someone who refused to show remorse, someone who in fact preferred a cowboy-like approach.
Fischer: The interview doesn't lead me to reach that conclusion at all. I also considered resigning because I sensed that many of my critics at the time were part of a generation with a different understanding of the events of the 1960s and 70s. What you call remorse is something I would call self-criticism. I had already engaged in this self-criticism, publicly and many years earlier. I showed insight into the injustices, but also into my own guilt and my capacity to be seduced. It was a very painful discussion.
SPIEGEL: In a debate in the German parliament, (then member of parliament) Angela Merkel demanded that you "do penance."
Fischer: I thought it sounded very "real socialist."
SPIEGEL: What's so "real socialist" about doing penance?
Fischer: Merkel was addressing the '68 movement as a whole. She didn't want anything to remain of it. Most of all, she wanted me to renounce my past, and to do so publicly. Here and now, Comrade Fischer!
SPIEGEL: What kept you from resigning at the time?
Fischer: It was the members of my staff, who said: You can't do that. I believe that a very decisive factor in my decision was the appeal that I not "do a Lafontaine!" Besides, I'm not really a quitter.
SPIEGEL: If the Greens had remained in the government in 2005, would you have stayed on as foreign minister?
Fischer: For a short time. I would certainly have resigned after a year. I had already made my decision. It was time for me to get out.
Fischer: I will turn 60 next year. In the past that would have made me a very old man. It's different today. I thought to myself: Maybe you have a few more years left in you, or perhaps even a decade or two. That's why I wanted to make a clean break and start something new. My goal was never to make it to the very top and stay there as long as possible under they carried me out one day. My ego doesn't need a title or bodyguards.
SPIEGEL: Are you a retiree once and for all?
Fischer: I'm not retired, but I no longer want to play a role in active politics. That's over and done with.
SPIEGEL: Mr. Fischer, we thank you for this interview.
Interview conducted by Georg Mascolo, Dietmar Pieper and Dirk Kurbjuweit.
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