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German Foreign Minister
January 5, 2001,
German Official Owns Up To 'Wrong Done to Others'
By ROGER COHEN
Joschka Fischer, the German foreign minister, apologized today for using violence when he was a young radical militant after photographs of him beating a downed police officer in 1973 prompted calls for his resignation.
A series of five recently discovered photographs, published this week by the magazine Stern, show a clearly recognizable Mr. Fischer in a black motorcycle helmet confronting a police officer and then, as other protesters hold the man, hitting him from behind with his fists. Mr. Fischer, now 52 and a member of the Green Party, has never concealed his past as a leftist agitator in Frankfurt during the 1970's, but he has always sought to draw a clear line between his own activities and the terrorist acts of revolutionary groups like the Red Army Faction.
Because the photographs show Mr. Fischer using violence, and because they come as he prepares to testify later this month at the trial of a fellow militant, they have proved politically sensitive. Mr. Fischer -- who was speaking to reporters after meeting his Israeli counterpart, Shlomo Ben-Ami, in Berlin today -- said that taking part in street battles with the police had been "a bad mistake and a big error." His comment, he continued, was intended as "as an apology for the wrong done to others."
Mr. Fischer's apology came as a surprise after he had appeared determined to stand by his old position of not regretting his part in a generational struggle against a deeply conservative Germany -- a struggle he felt was necessary to the creation of a genuine democracy.
"We were convinced that we wanted to and had to disturb the constitutional order," Mr. Fischer said today, adding that he later went through a "painful internal process" of distancing himself from the militant scene.
His apology followed conservatives' calls for his immediate resignation.
"Huge damage has been done to the international image of Germany," said Gunther Beckstein of the Bavarian Christian Social Union, a sister party to the opposition Christian Democrats. "Fischer is no longer tenable as Germany's representative abroad." Wolfgang Bosbach, the deputy parliamentary leader of the Christian Democrats, said, "Anyone who behaved like that is no representative of a violence-free civil society." But the Green Party leader, Angela Merkel, was silent and there was no evidence of any broad move to oust the popular Mr. Fischer. In an interview with Stern accompanying the photographs, Mr. Fischer had avoided any sort of apology: "Yes, I was a militant. But I always rejected armed struggle in favor of a tough political fight."
Of the particular incident captured in the photographs, he said he believed he had been running away after a demonstration in Bornheim, near Bonn, when he confronted the police officer. "The police were there to go after demonstrators with their truncheons," Mr. Fischer said. "Then, for the first time, I did not run away. Rather, with nothing more than my hands, I went against the police."
A conservative country whose astonishingly rapid reconstruction after World War II had left many questions unanswered, Germany was convulsed in the 1970's. A postwar generation that included both Mr. Fischer and Chancellor Gerhard Schroder confronted parents often reluctant to reveal what they had done under Hitler. Mr. Fischer said he could now accept violence only as "a last resort," where freedom or life itself were threatened and no other course was available, but he added that it was important to recall how different Germany was in the 1970's.
To protest then, he said in the Stern interview, was to be confronted with insults like "He should be gassed" or "Take him off to a labor camp" from outraged conservatives. It was a time of hatred expressed against students, he said, when German democracy showed a face that revealed elements of "its continuity from National Socialism."
It is not clear who took the pictures of Mr. Fischer, but demonstrations at the time were widely photographed. Stern said they were found by a journalist, Bettina Rohl, during research into a book on militants in Frankfurt in the 1970's. The foreign minister is due to testify on Jan. 16 at the trial in Frankfurt of Hans-Joachim Klein, 52, a friend from the 1970's who is charged with three counts of murder and three of attempted murder in a 1975 attack on an OPEC ministers' meeting in Vienna.
The attack was led by the now-jailed guerrilla Ilich Ramirez Sanchez -- also known as Carlos the Jackal. Mr. Klein was captured in France in 1998 after 23 years as a fugitive and extradited to Germany.
Mr. Fischer has long been a man of startling changes, not least in his views on the use of force. After moving into mainstream politics with the Green Party, he professed pacifism for many years. But the 1992-95 Bosnian war slowly moved him to the view that certain abuses of human rights had to be confronted by force.
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