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Foreign Minister's Radical Past Is Coming Back to Haunt Him

Germany: Ever-changing but popular Joschka Fischer is dogged by publicity before testifying at comrade's trial.


BERLIN — OK, he hurled a few rocks and slugged the occasional police officer and may have taken part in urban guerrilla drills.

But that was the Joschka Fischer of yesteryear, the scruffy radical of the raucous 1960s and '70s, not the svelte and suave foreign minister whom Germans know and love today.

In between, there have been other Joschka Fischers, like the one who made magazine covers around the world when he took his first oath of office wearing jeans and tennis shoes, and the overweight fellow who heeded the need for physical improvement only when his third wife left him.

In fact, it is Fischer's skill at pragmatically reinventing himself that endears him to fellow Germans, who collectively endured dramatic changes throughout the post-World War II era and adapted themselves to each new order.

Fischer's personal journey from anarchy to the establishment assuages the guilt and embarrassment felt by many of his generation--the fiftysomethings wielding power in politics, art and industry--when they look back on wilder days of drugs and demonstrations.

The public perception that Fischer never crossed the line between street fighting and the terrorism that grew out of Europe's antiwar and student movements has been his saving grace in securing respectability among the movers and shakers of the world with whom he now mingles.

But his past has come back to haunt him in recent days as he prepares to testify on behalf of a friend from a time when tussling with authority was a badge of honor.

Fischer will appear as a character witness today in the trial of Hans-Joachim Klein, his old comrade accused of being an accomplice to the infamous Carlos the Jackal in the 1975 terrorist attack on an OPEC meeting in Vienna. Ahead of that high-profile and unappealing trip down memory lane, German media have published nearly 30-year-old photos of Fischer striking a police officer and as a surly, mustachioed dropout wanted for questioning in the attempted murder of another officer.

The damning pictures, which so graphically remind Germans of their chief diplomat's disreputable background, come from the archives of a retired photographer once with the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, one of the country's most influential and conservative newspapers. But the paper has not joined the Fischer-bashing that began with an apparent vendetta by the disgruntled daughter of a dead Red Army Faction terrorist and that now involves most of the country's leading publications.

Fischer has reacted to the reports with self-effacing gentility, noting that he has never made a secret of his erstwhile behavior. He has apologized to the nation for the excesses of a wayward youth but ignored the self-serving calls of conservative lawmakers that he resign as penance for past sins.

"I am under considerable pressure," Fischer acknowledged in a television interview Wednesday. "What I have been through in the last weeks is intense."

While contending that he was not seeking to justify his radical behavior, Fischer told the prime-time audience for ARD, Germany's leading television network, that those who took to the streets in the tumultuous days of the Vietnam War and the global arms race believed that they were doing the right thing.

The now slim and nattily attired 52-year-old foreign minister has appealed to fellow Germans to keep his short-lived radicalism in perspective.

"One cannot judge people only on the basis of their past," Fischer told Der Spiegel magazine in last week's issue, which carried a 17-page cover story on "Joschka's Wild Years."

In an interview that covers three of those pages, Fischer is grilled on every detail of his participation in protests and riots that plagued Frankfurt throughout the 1970s as radicals and squatters clashed with police. With demands for details rivaling the interrogation of President Clinton over his affair with Monica S. Lewinsky, the Spiegel reporter pushed Fischer to admit to having had a hand in some of the more violent expressions of the Sponti group, in which he was a prominent member.

The Frankfurt radicals of the 1970s took their name from their quest for "spontaneous actions" in defiance of authority and what they saw as official repression. One such action was the 1973 street protest against police evictions of squatters, during which the now-disturbing photographs of Fischer were taken. Two years later, after news spread of the prison suicide of convicted terrorist Ulrike Meinhof, Spontis were suspected of throwing a firebomb through the window of a patrol car, severely burning the police officer inside.

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