Accessibility links

Germany: FM Fischer Testifies In Terrorist Case

  • Roland Eggleston

Germans this week experienced the unusual spectacle of hearing their foreign minister, Joschka Fischer, tell a criminal court about his friendship with a terrorist 28 years ago. There was nothing new in his testimony -- his participation in the street riots of the 1970s have been known for years and were described in his biography. But the political opposition is using the case to question whether Fischer should remain foreign minister. RFE/RL correspondent Roland Eggleston reports from Munich.

Munich, 17 January 2001 (RFE/RL)) -- German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer appeared in court yesterday (Tuesday) to tell about his former friendship with Hans-Joachim Klein, who is on trial for his part in a 1975 terrorist attack on the Vienna headquarters of OPEC (the Organization of Oil Producing and Exporting Countries). Three people were killed in the attack.

It was an unpleasant hearing for Fischer, who is accustomed to high approval ratings in political opinion polls and is frequently voted the most popular politician in Germany. He said before appearing in court that the nation had forgiven him his past as a left-wing radical, which has been known since he began to rise in mainstream politics in 1983 and was thoroughly covered in a 1998 biography.

The court declared at the start of the hearing that the 52-year-old Fischer was there as a private citizen and a witness. His role was to help the judges determine why Klein slipped away from the limited world of stone-throwing street demonstrators and into the violence of international terrorism.

Fischer had expected to be asked to review what he remembered of the street demonstrations of the 1970s, when thousands of young Germans protested against housing speculators in Frankfurt, against the Vietnam War and against the right-wing coup d'etat that brought down President Salvador Allende in Chile. Others have said the demonstrations were partly a rebellion against a Germany where many former Nazis were still involved in politics.

But the prosecutor, Volker Rath, wanted a clearer picture of Fischer's own role in these demonstrations and particularly his approach to the use of violence. Despite warnings from the judge, Rath repeatedly suggested during the 90-minute hearing that Fischer was not telling the truth when he said his idea of violence was limited to stone-throwing and that he had never advocated the use of petroleum bombs -- so-called Molotov cocktails -- against the police.

The judge frequently attempted to stop the questions with reminders that Fischer was there to talk about Hans-Joachim Klein and not about his own role. But the prosecutor persisted and said he had received information that Fischer's apartment in Frankfurt during the 1970s had been a meeting place for terrorist members of the Red Army Faction, an ultra-left political movement. The judge intervened again to tell the prosecutor: "That is going too far. That has nothing to do with this case."

Fischer himself said to the prosecutor: "That's total rubbish."

The prosecutor tried again by telling the court the accusations by the anonymous informant were important. Once again, he asked if Fischer had advocated the use of Molotov cocktails against the police.

The judge intervened to say: Even if Mr. Fischer did so, it is irrelevant to this case." He pointedly reminded the court the person on trial was Klein, not Fischer.

The prosecutor's approach reflected questions raised by the media and by Germany's main opposition political party, the Christian Democrats. They were prompted by photographs showing Fischer and Klein beating a police officer during a demonstration in 1973, when Fischer was 24 years old.

The Christian Democrats raised these question again today in the German parliament. Some deputies called for Fischer's resignation. Another opposition party, the Free Democrats, suggested a parliamentary committee should investigate Fischer's past and consider whether he is an appropriate person to represent Germany as foreign minister.

A government spokesman (unnamed) said Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, whose Social Democratic Party is in coalition with Fischer's Greens, stands by his foreign minister:

"The foreign minister has openly acknowledged his past but has distanced himself from violence and today respects the law. The Chancellor sees no reason to punish Fischer for his mistakes -- which he has never denied. There will be no consequences in the cabinet."

In brief comments to the media as he left the courtroom, Fischer said it was major blow that one of his friends had joined a terrorist movement. But he denied a statement by Klein that Fischer had been his role model during the demonstrations of the 1970s.

Fischer said: "Had Hans-Joachim Klein stayed in our milieu, he would not be appearing in court today."

"It was a painful experience for us to realize that one of us became involved in terrorism."

At the end of 90 minutes of testimony, Fischer walked across the courtroom to his old friend Klein, spoke to him for a few minutes and then shook his hand.

Fischer's statements distancing himself from the 1970s terrorist scene were fully covered by the German media. But his problems may not yet be over.

For some papers, the focus remains on recently resurfaced photographs that show the attack by Fischer and Klein on the police officer, Rainer Marx. Marx has said he forgave Fischer after the foreign minister phoned him recently and apologized for the 28-year-old attack.

Some of the German press also publicized other -- unproven -- allegations Fischer may have helped plan more violent demonstrations and that he may have been partly responsible for injuries suffered by another police officer who was hit by a gasoline bomb in Frankfurt in 1976. More than half of the policeman's body was burned.

The officer (Juergen Weber) declines to talk to the media about the allegations. But one of his friends, also a former police officer, says he wants to sue Fischer for moral responsibility for the attack.

One of the stranger elements in the case is the reappearance of the 1973 newspaper photographs showing Fischer beating the police officer, Marx. They were publicized by a freelance journalist named Bettina Rohl, who is the daughter of Ulrike Meinhof, Germany's best-known terrorist and a former leader of the Red Army Faction. Meinhof committed suicide in prison in 1976.

Rohl told newspapers recently she was determined to ruin Fischer's career. She said her childhood had been stolen from her by her mother's terrorist activities and she wanted revenge. She considers Fischer to have been a leading terrorist of the times and rejects his right to be holding high office today.

Rohl took unusual measures to obtain her pictorial evidence. The dramatic photograph showing Fischer and Klein attacking the police officer was taken by a now-retired photographer from the respected daily "Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung." He says Rohl came to him months ago and said she was a writing a book about the 1970s student scene.

Rohl asked permission to use the photographs. Since she said she had no money, the photographer charged her only 40 German marks (about $20) for each photograph. A German magazine alleges she later came to it with the photographs and asked for a million German marks in payment. In the end she did not get the money.

Similarly, German TV stations say Rohl came to them claiming to be a journalism student and borrowed their film of the 1970s street demonstrations. They say they only recently got the film back after threatening to go to court.

The new publicity given to Fischer's youth has prompted a flood of letters to newspapers by men now holding responsible positions. Lawyers, businessmen, politicians and journalists are among those who have admitted that they too participated in the stone-throwing and demonstrations in Frankfurt and Berlin in the 1960s and '70s.

They support Fischer's right to stay in office. They say he changed just as they changed over the years.

But other letters say someone with a radical past such as Fischer's should not be representing Germany. An editorial writer for the "Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung" asked in a front-page comment this week: "How can this foreign minister take part in the government's proclaimed 'Uprising of the Upright.' What right does he have to claim moral superiority over the militant skinheads and violent leftists of today?"