The Paint Attack

Joschka Fischer had not started his speech before a bag of red paint burst against his ear. As the German foreign minister flinched and security guards wrestled his attacker to the ground, someone in the crowd shouted: "In Yugoslavia it's blood that is flowing, not ketchup!" The outburst began a day of confrontations at a special party congress of the Greens last week in the industrial town of Bielefeld. One protester interrupted the meeting by prancing naked in front of the podium. Others set off stink bombs and chanted "Warmonger!" Marchers outside carried posters depicting Fischer with a Hitler mustache.

At the end of the day, however, the foreign minister and other moderate Greens prevailed. They had blocked a resolution demanding an unconditional halt to NATO airstrikes against Yugoslavia--a move that might have toppled the center-left coalition of Chancellor Gerhard Schroder and seriously challenged the alliance's unity.

The escape was a near thing. The party, formed some 20 years ago by Fischer and kindred environmentalists and peace activists, is tearing itself apart. It's a harsh adjustment for the Greens to be part of the first government to send German planes into combat since World War II, but Fischer argues that the Serbs' ethnic-cleansing campaign in Kosovo leaves them no other choice. Nursing a perforated eardrum from the attack and still wearing his paint-splattered jacket, he had to shout to be heard over a cacophony of boos and whistles at the congress. "Here speaks a 'warmonger'," he declared with bitter sarcasm. "Next you'll nominate Mr. Milosevic for the Nobel Peace Prize." To placate the party's growing antiwar wing, the leadership proposed a compromise resolution, calling for a temporary pause in the bombing to see if diplomatic efforts will work. It wasn't quite NATO's stance, but Schroder and Fischer figured it would be close enough. The move passed by a vote of 444 to 318.

Most delegates stood behind Fischer because of his high-profile efforts to find a diplomatic solution in Kosovo. "He's done everything in his power," says Kerstin Sennekamp, a young party activist from Gottingen. "I hope he'll get us to the negotiating table." Recent polls rank the foreign minister as Germany's most popular politician, and few Greens want to force him out of office--or put themselves back in the opposition. Angelika Beer was one of several leaders of the antiwar wing who rallied to Fischer's support at the showdown. "We're deciding on the future of the Greens," she warned. And many Greens, no matter how they may despise violence, are convinced that the Serb leader is deaf to all arguments except the threat of further violence.

Such reasoning is heresy to party militants. "War is not an option," said Annelie Buntenbach, a hard-line pacifist, during the debate. "War is also a violation of human rights." Delegates on the losing side bitterly quoted opinion polls that show waning German support for the air war. "Today may be a big triumph for Fischer, but the party is shredding its political, philosophical and ethical principles," complains Chris Boppel, a psychologist from Giessen. "Now we're part of the establishment--not an alternative to it as we always were." For two decades senior party members such as Fischer have tried to make the Greens an active force in Germany's government. Now they are finding how tough it can be to make the big decisions. And how it can be even tougher to make the paint throwers understand.