One of the biggest surprises in German politics has been the career of Otto Schily. He befriended student radicals in the 1960s, was a defense lawyer for Red Army Faction terrorists in the '70s, became a Green politician in the '80s and then defected to the Social Democrats. So when Schily was appointed Interior Minister by Gerhard Schröder in 1998, many people expected him to pursue a liberal, reformist path. Instead, he has emerged as one of Schröder's most conservative appointees.
After only a month in office Schily, 70, declared that Germany's tolerance for refugees had been exhausted. He charged that 97% of asylum seekers were nothing but economic refugees and urged that 180,000 Kosovo Albanians be sent swiftly back to their war-torn homeland. He proposed the expulsion of law-breaking foreigners, relaxed Germany's strict data-protection rules to help law enforcement and championed a zero-tolerance attitude toward crime.
The son of a steel-plant director, Schily grew up in a middle-class home in the western mining city of Bochum. He studied law and, while still in university, became acquainted with many of the politically active students of the time. In the 1970s, Schily served as lead attorney for Red Army Faction terrorist Gudrun Ensslin in her trial for bombing two Frankfurt department stores. Ensslin was convicted and sentenced to life in prison.
Schily's political career blossomed in 1983, when — at 51 — he became one of the first Greens elected to the Bundestag. Together with Joschka Fischer, the current Foreign Minister, he was considered a "pragmatic" rather than a "fundamentalist" Green and was one of the first to suggest an alliance with the Social Democrats. That cost Schily his spot on the board of the Greens' parliamentary group, so he joined the sdp — and managed to keep his seat in parliament.
After the Sept. 11 attacks Schily, who is married and has two daughters, proposed a new law allowing authorities to ban religious organizations that serve as a cover for militant fundamentalists. But he was attacked by lawmakers in the U.S. since, on his watch as the Interior Minister in charge of domestic security, the city of Hamburg was used as a logistical base for the hijackers. Schily responded to criticisms that he should have rounded up more Muslims by saying that German law does not allow for preventive detention.
Critics at home say Schily has made Germany a less liberal place. Swen Walentowski, managing director of the country's lawyers' association, has warned that security measures introduced since Sept. 11 are leading "to the erosion of the legal state." Others say his attempts to accelerate the extradition of foreigners are unconstitutional. So strong is Schily's image as a hard-liner that the ultra-conservative interior minister of Bavaria, Günther Beckstein, has applauded many of his efforts, even though he opposes him in the elections. Schily responded by calling Beckstein "absolutely reliable." By leaving his past so far behind, Schily helps reassure Social Democrats wanting a tough approach to crime and immigration that they don't have to leave their party.