THE MINISTER'S ALL RIGHT

The footage dates from April 7, 1973. The scene: a street riot in Frankfurt, at the height of Germany's militant student-protest movement. Suddenly one of the radicals corners a policeman. Wearing a tight leather jacket and a motorcycle helmet, the apparent leader gathers four other rioters around him. In what looks like a well-rehearsed routine, the five overwhelm the policeman, tear his helmet away and throw him to the ground. The long-haired leader raises his gloved fist to punch the policeman. Seconds later he kicks the defenseless cop as he lies on the ground.

That cop-kicking radical was Joschka Fischer, currently Germany's foreign minister and vice chancellor. A Marxist in his youth, Fischer later joined the pacifist Green Party, which now governs Germany with the Social Democrats. As shocking as the TV footage--dug up earlier this month by the German weekly Stern--may be, Fischer's radical past has never hurt him. Not only has the 52-year-old dutifully repented his past sins, he also left many of his leftist convictions at the door to power. Soon after taking office, he played a key role in sending the German Bundeswehr to join the war in Kosovo, its first military mission since World War II. He's also dropped the leather jacket for a three-piece suit. Germany's reaction to the pictures? A collective yawn.

Germans might yet jerk awake. This week Fischer will have to testify about his relationship to Hans-Joachim Klein, on trial in Frankfurt for the 1975 terrorist killing of three people in Vienna. Klein is an old buddy of Fischer's, and one of the four who followed Fischer to gang up on the policeman in the Stern pictures. According to police, Klein also once used Fischer's Volkswagen van to haul stolen guns, one of which was later used in another killing. Fischer has admitted giving his van to Klein, a trained auto mechanic, for repairs; he denies knowing about the guns. Not even his detractors claim Fischer was involved in terrorism. But he was certainly involved with Klein and others who did more than punch cops.

The minister's defense: it's all old hat. "Yes, I was militant," he told Stern last week. "I have never held back the truth." He also claims he tried to wean Klein and others away from terrorism, something Fischer's biographer and fellow activist, Michael Schwelien, says is a distortion. "Fischer wasn't always the opponent of extreme violence he claims he was," Schwelien told NEWSWEEK. "As one of the movement's most vocal leaders, he called on others to get violent and publicly declared his sympathy for terrorists." (Only after the violent hijacking of an Air France airliner to Entebbe in 1976 did Fischer finally turn against terrorism, says Schwelien.) But unless someone digs up evidence that Fischer incited Klein or others to serious crimes, the minister's deeds will be considered a youthful indiscretion.

And that's exactly how the German public sees it. After the Stern images were published, only 10 percent of Germans said they now had less respect for Fischer, who easily remains the country's most popular politician. In Germany these days, it seems it's OK to have gone on a cop-kicking rampage--as long as you didn't throw fire bombs or get too close to the real terrorists. By that standard, Fischer seems to be all right.

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