When Martin Walser, one of Germay’s leading writers, railed against the Holocaust being used as "a tool of intimidation" by unnamed individuals who "exploited [it] for present purposes," Germany’s new foreign minister, Joschka Fischer knew immediately how the resulting furor would end.
"I knew it would be a disaster," Fischer told an audience at the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York earlier this month.
As many other Germans did, Fischer understood Walser’s highly nuanced speech last October as, among other things, asking for recognition of a new chapter in the relationship of Germans to the Holocaust era, as a new generation comes into its own in Germany, totally removed from that era.
Fischer, a one-time radical who now sports pinstriped suits and designer glasses, sadly rejected the possibility. "Like all other efforts to close the chapter. It’s impossible, because you cannot close Auschwitz," Fischer said.Fischer’s leftist-environmental Green Party, which emerged from the turbulence of Germany’s 1970s radicalism, came to power for the first time just five months ago in coalition with Germany’s socialists. And Fischer himself told his JCRC audience candidly, "In the 70s, I was a real left-wing radical student."
But in a 90-minute exchange with some 75 local Jewish leaders, grassroots activists and a few national leaders earlier this month, Fischer was at pains to address any who feared he harbored an ideological hostility towards Israel.
"The right to existence of a secure Israel within secure borders is the basis or our relationship" with the Jewish state, Fischer said, adding, "In the German parliament the commitment to our relationship with Israel goes across all party lines."
"I’m not a peace idealist," Fischer said later in the meeting. "I know the situation in the Middle East very well."
But alluding to Israel’s current freeze on implementation of the Israeli-Palestinian agreement reached at Wye Plantation in Maryland last year, Fischer also said, "I tell you: As long as the peace process stands still or collapses. … there will be terror against innocent civilians and an increasing strategic threat from missiles."
Fischer spoke just a week before the European Union, with Germany currently holding its rotating presidency, would spark controversy in Israel with a letter affirming its position that Jerusalem should be internationalized. Israel has demanded that Germany’s EU representative, who signed the letter on behalf of the union, withdraw it.
But at the meeting with Fischer, JCRC president Gedale Horwitz said that within Europe, "It is Germany that stands out as Israel’s most reliable friends, staunchest advocate and strongest trading partner."
Horwitz singled out Fischer in particular as a friend within the government, noting that he had visited Israel many times. On his most recent trip, Fischer’s meetings with Holocaust survivors "were widely applauded," he said. And in Germany, she added, Green Party leaders "have long been the most ardent champions of the cause of Holocaust survivors." Horwitz also praised Fischer for his party’s push to liberalize Germany’s restrictive immigration laws and its strong stand against domestic racism.
Fischer seemed to hint at German struggles inside the EU to modify its policies toward Israel, explaining that within that organization, "It’s not easy to find support for Israel."But he also added, "Israel is not an easy country to work with." He voiced the hope that after Israel’s election, scheduled for May 17, "things will be cooler than they are now with the peace process."
The foreign minister also assured the Jewish community of his government’s determination to find a solution as soon as possible to new demands for German restitution payments from slave labor victims of German companies during World War II, and from banks and firms that profited from the Holocaust. But he stressed repeatedly that the first and primary responsibility was on Germany’s private industrial sector.
"They must accept their historical responsibility and heritage," he said. Government restitution payments "would not be wise right now," he said. "We have to focus on industry and their … obligation, because the moment we say we as the state will do this, industry will say, well we’re tax payers [so] that covers our responsibility."
Many times during his talk, Fischer stressed Germany’s obligation to fight racism and anti-Semitism, and defend its democracy as a fundamental part of "our heritage."
"The roots of our democracy," he explained, "lead to Auschwitz, whether we like it or not."
But he was perhaps most affecting when he explained the roots of his own commitment, and those of his left-wing peers now come to power in a new, unified Germany.
Like many of them, he explained, he came from a strongly conservative family.
"How did this happen?" he asked rhetorically. "It was easy. I’m born in 1948. And the first thing I realized was, how could it happen? It was a question we asked of our teachers, our parents and the state authorities.
"It was a very bitter heritage we got from our parents," Fischer said. "For a country that was proud of its culture, that a criminal was in control of the state."
"Hitler’s was not a dictatorship based on violence, but on the support of masses of people," Fischer said. "Even to understand the left-wing terrorism [of the 1970s] and its crimes, [it’s important to understand] that this conflict of generations was much more bitter than in France or Italy."
Fischer pledged a continuing fight against racism, especially in newly integrated east Germany. There, he said, the government "needs time" to educate a generation reared under a communist regime that rejected any historical responsibility for Nazism’s crimes.
Younger Germans today, he said, "need some sort of understanding to live as a people with this heritage. It is very hard to deal with."