“I am not convinced": Der Irak-Krieg und die rot-grünen Jahre

The appointment of Joschka Fischer as foreign minister in Gerhard Schröder's "red-green" government in 1998 was the culmination of an extraordinary journey. The son of a butcher, Fischer had dropped out of school, joined the West German student movement in 1968 and spent the 1970s fighting with the police on the streets of Frankfurt as part of a "spontaneist" group called Revolutionary Struggle. As the "extra-parliamentary opposition" turned increasingly violent, he made his peace with the West German state and became leader of the "realist" faction of the newly formed Green Party. Outside Germany, he is known above all as the man who said no to the Iraq war - the subject that dominates the second volume of his memoirs, "I am not convinced". The title comes from his confrontation with Donald Rumsfeld in Munich in February 2003.

The Schröder government's decision to oppose the war constituted what Fischer calls "a little foreign-policy revolution" in the summer of 2002. Until then, leaders of the Federal Republic from Konrad Adenauer to Helmut Kohl had adhered to two main foreign-policy principles: Atlanticism and European integration. Even the "red-green" government had demonstrated what the Germans call Bündnistreue (loyalty to the Atlantic alliance) by comitting German troops to the Nato military intervention in Kosovo which began in March 1999 and, after the 11 September 2001 attacks, to Operation Enduring Freedom.

However, even as Germany acquiesced to US demands for support in Afghanistan, Fischer was becoming troubled by the thinking of the Bush administration. Before the attack on the World Trade Center, Fischer had known nothing of the neoconservative movement. On meeting officials such as Paul Wolfowitz after the terrorist attacks, however, he was reminded of his own revolutionary past, which, he says, had made him particularly sensitive to political and intellectual radicalism.

At the beginning of August 2002, as it grew clearer that the United States planned to invade Iraq, Schröder in effect promised that Germany would oppose the war regardless of what its allies did. Although he had the support of the German public, this was a huge political gamble. Even President Jacques Chirac had refused to commit one way or the other at this time, not least because, as Fischer concedes, everyone was uncertain about the threat that Saddam Hussein posed.

Germany played a complicated role in the story of claims about Iraqi WMDs. Curveball - the Iraqi defector whose false claims about a biological weapons programme the US secretary of state, Colin Powell, would use at the United Nations in February 2003 to justify the invasion - was a German intelligence source. This presented Berlin with a dilemma. "On the one hand we couldn't and didn't want to withhold from our Nato partner any relevant information we had about possible WMDs in Iraq," Fischer writes. "On the other hand, we did not want to take part in any propagandistic exploitation of unproven material and thereby encourage a war." Schröder's "security cabinet" therefore decided that the German foreign intelligence service should give US intelligence agencies "all the information we had, albeit together with our assessment that these were the claims of a deserter that could not be substantiated or verified [and] that could be right or could be completely wrong".

Fischer says he and Schröder made the "right decision" to oppose the war, but he recalls that he was disturbed by the chancellor's use of nationalist and anti-American rhetoric. Fischer, who did not want the German "no" to the war to turn into a "no" to Nato, also worried about Berlin becoming isolated and he describes how he attempted to develop a more nuanced position. In an interview with Der Spiegel at the end of 2002, he briefly floated the idea of agreeing to military action in the UN Security Council (on which Germany took up a non-veto-wielding seat at the beginning of 2002) but at the same time refusing to provide German troops; however, Schröder ruled out this option. Fortunately for both of them, France and Russia eventually joined Germany in opposing a resolution authorising military force against Iraq in February 2003 - and in doing so minimised the political and strategic costs of the "red-green" coalition's "no" to the war. l

Hans Kundnani's "Utopia or Auschwitz" is published by C Hurst & Co (£16.99)

“I am not convinced": Der Irak-Krieg und die rot-grünen Jahre
Joschka Fischer
Kiepenheuer & Witsch, 448pp, €22.95/£18.94

This article first appeared in the 02 May 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The Firm