Michael Moore gives us a thoughtful article about Joschka Fischer (and some priceless Fischer anecdotes) in Slate today. Before going any farther I should make clear that I refer not to the notoriously fat filmmaker but to Michael Scott Moore, an American novelist living in Berlin. Of his fatness or otherwise I am entirely ignorant.
It took the Germans a long time to figure out what their recent election meant. One of its secondary meanings, though, became clear early on: Joschka Fischer would no longer serve in government. Moore points out that Fischer himself hardly sees his departure from power as an unmixed curse. But a lot of other Germans — by no means all of them supporters of the Greens — find this unfortunate; Fischer has consistently been among the German politicians that the public rates most highly. (Even the CSU’s Edmund Stoiber applauds Fischer, albeit only for Fischer’s fashion sense.) Moore’s premise is that Fischer’s departure is bad not only for Germany, but for America as well.
Moore could be right there. And there have always been those on the anglophone right with a grudging respect for Fischer, thinking him somehow a natural ally of America hobbled by his grandstanding prime minister. Maybe so. At any rate, the formation of a grand coalition led (just barely) by the CDU under Angela Merkel is not a victory for the Bush administration, and Moore does a good job making this clear to American readers who might have thought otherwise.
Indeed, his piece is helpful for anybody who, used to an American-type system, has difficulty understanding why the leader of a party that routinely polls about 8% would hold the second-highest post in government. It’s also helpful, for that matter, to those whose familiarity with very different systems of governance misinformed their reading of the recent election. You know the sort: ‘Why doesn’t SchrÃ¶der back down? After all, the CDU won the election!’ Well, no; Merkel’s party won a couple of seats more than the SPD, and that is not quite the same thing as winning the election. To the extent the election can be said to have produced a victor, that victor is the upcoming grand coalition.
It’s on the subject of grand coaltions, though, that Moore is at his weakest. He writes:
The clichÃ© about grand coalitions between Germany’s two major parties is that they get nothing done, but the last time German politics ground to a halt under a grand coalition was in 1966-69, when the nation’s rowdy New Left youth was at war in the streets with its Nazi past. Fischer was a rioting hippie. Those three years changed German society changed for good, by ushering in a generation that could articulate rage and shame over World War II.
I think most people would view those rioting hippies as effect rather than cause of the 1966-69 grand coalition. There’s a case to be made for the occasional grand coalition; they can get some things done that would be extraordinarily difficult under any other constellation. (The imminent grand coalition, for example, is likely to be better able to reform the state/federal relationship than a government of either major party would be). But grand coalitions also run the real risk of convincing a significant plurality that they have been excluded from the political process. It’s not unreasonable to assert that this is precisely what happened with Germany’s ‘ausserparlamentar-ische Opposition‘ during the time of the 1966-69 grand coalition. After all, those rowdy New Left youth were known as the ‘1968 generation’, not the ‘1965 generation’.
But that’s a minor quibble. Moore is certainly correct to identify the 1968 experience — Germany’s belated confrontation with its nazi past — as the key to Fischer’s Werdegang. (Paul Berman wrote a longer and very good essay about this in 2003, also in Slate, as a corrective to the dishonest and/or ill-informed misuse the late Michael Kelly had made of an earlier Berman piece about Fischer.) One can argue plausibly, as Moore does, that after his long march through the institutions, Fischer ended up a better ally to the Americans than Adenauer or Strauss or Kohl, if only the Americans knew it. Certainly Fischer’s admiration for America seems more genuine than that of many a member of Germany’s rightwing establishment, who are realist enough to recognise the postwar balance of power but apt to snigger up their sleeves about the ‘kulturlose American barbarians’.