As a socialist and a runner, I feel bereft of recent role models. I’ve blogged about Steve Ovett‘s red vest, the race and class politics of Chariots of Fire, and of the Workers’ Olympics of the 1920s and 1930s. But these all belong to a history which is over. A decent case could be made for the radical politics of South Africa’s Comrades ultra-marathon which opens with an amplifed blast of Shosholoza (“we share”) and clearly taps into something deep in the transformed South African psyche. But two friends John and Anya have encouraged me to write about Germany’s best known politician of the 1968 generation, Joschka Fischer.
It is hard to be entirely sympathetic.
In the early years of the new Millennium, Fischer seemed better than most of his generation. In 2000, the German news magazine Stern ran a series of photograps of Fischer in a motorcycle helmet confronting a police officer during a 1973 demonstration, while the Greens were both untested by government and (at least in terms of their programme) far to the left of our own new Labour.
In 1985, while being sworn in as a member of regional government in Hesse, Fischer attended the state Parliament in white Nike running shoes. (The shoes are now on display at the German museum in Bonn). The image was seen at the time as indicating Fischer’s iconoclasm. But when you compare it to, say, Tommy Sheridan’s clenched fist at Holyrood, it’s pretty clear that Fischer’s was the shallower transgression.
Fischer published in 2001 a first memoir, Mein langer Lauf zu mir selbst (“My long run towards myself”), describing how he had responded to press jibes that he was overweight by taking up marathon running and by sustained and intense dieting, a combination which enabled him to shed five and half stones. Fischer took part in the 1999 New York marathon, finishing in a little under 4 hours.
He was preparing himself, he invited his readers to conclude, for a bid for power.
Now, Fischer is best known as the Foreign Minister of the last SPD-Green coalition, and an advocate of military intervention in Afghanistan but not Iraq, to which Fischer’s government was ostensibly opposed (while allowing American military aircraft to fly over German airspace, using German soldiers to guard American installations, and sending armored reconnaissance vehicles to Kuwait etc). In recent years he has come over as a pretty average member of the Daniel Cohn-Bendit generation who slunk from Marxism to neo-liberalism: no worse, but certainly no better than his UK counterparts, Straw, Blunkett, Blair …
Like others of this generation (two well-known contributors to Observer and Vanity Fair spring to mind), Fischer added pounds while moving to the right. By the middle years he was rumoured to be a regular diner at the happily-named Gargantua restaurant in Frankfurt, best known for its liver, beef and creamy soups. There haven’t been any reports for a while of Fischer taking part in marathons.
I don’t want to overdo the link between Fischer’s politics and his running: mere sporting participation by itself doesn’t make you a better person (just ask the part-time jogger Dave Cameron). On the other hand, it’s hard not to see anything in Fischer’s simultaneous political and physical degeneration in the middle years of the last decade.