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Synthesis/Regeneration 40   (Summer 2006)

The Greens and the German Elections

by Victor Grossman

“Not with me,” said Joschka Fischer, head of the Green Party, who remains Foreign Minister until a new government is formed.[1] His refusal meant he would not join a government headed by Angela Merkel, the leader of the right-wing Christian Democratic Union, which won a very thin, unexpectedly thin victory in last Sunday’s election—nudging out Gerhard Schroeder’s Social Democrats by nine tenths of a percentage point which meant three seats in the Bundestag.

Fischer’s seemingly steadfast, principled position was actually surprising because it was his first such stand in most people’s recollection. Unfriendly voices suggested that it was based less on principle and more on hopes of coming back stronger another day. Such cynicism reflected the situation in his party (called officially “Alliance 90/The Greens”). It is no longer the party it once was, nor is it the party some American Green supporters may think it to be.

During the 1980s, it was a new, vigorous leftist party in West Germany—definitely not “communistic” but deeply committed, not only on environmental issues. It was feminist, anti-war, and in some ways even anti-capitalist. Delegates elected to state legislatures and later, to the national Bundestag, captured attention with their casual clothing (often knitted sweaters) and manners, with some men and women knitting during congresses and taking the kids along.

Their emblems, a sunflower and a little hedgehog, and their rules, like demanding a constant rotation of their office holders, symbolized a fresh wind in the stuffy chambers of German politics.

Then a fissure developed, gradually leading to a split between the so-called “fundis,” for fundamentalists, who largely rejected the political and economic system ruling the country, and the “realos,” or realists, which meant pragmatists.

As the Party grew in strength, it was the realos who proved stronger. The first Green minister in a state government was sworn in wearing sneakers and no tie; it was Joschka Fischer. When the Social Democrats beat the Christian Democrat Helmut Kohl in 1998 but needed a partner to gain a majority in the Bundestag, the Greens seemed a natural ally. Fischer became Deputy Chancellor and Foreign Minister.

The Greens were put in charge of two other Ministries: Environment and Agriculture/Consumer Welfare. Once in the government, however, their radical positions were filed smooth by contact with the tough Social Democrats.

The latter two ministers continued pushing on ecology, gas consumption, and a cut in reliance on atomic energy, but their muscles tired with each year in the government. Ecology Minister Trittin, once a radical, made one compromise after another on shutting down atomic energy plants (two of the oldest have been shut down, many others have long leases), energetic agriculture minister Kynast gradually softened her opposition to gene manipulation.

Most clearly, however, Fischer broke with Green pacifism and joined Gerhard Schroeder in supporting the war in Yugoslavia, including the bombing of Serbia with German assistance, approving the sending of German soldiers and sailors to hot spots around the world, and re-establishing the old assumed right of German empire to move its troops and weapons wherever it wanted and in its own interests—most recently to Afghanistan.

Weapons of war were sold to all and sundry. Although the German government won applause by peace-lovers around the world for refusing support for the invasion of Iraq, which helped the government win the election in 2002 by a thin margin, Germany still permitted the US to use bases in Germany as a relay point for soldiers and materiel moving to or from Iraq, while German soldiers guarded the bases, permitting US soldiers to be sent to Iraq.

In all of this, Fischer concurred.

To make things worse, Fischer and the Greens supported Schröeder in all his neo-liberal attacks on social welfare, allegedly to get the sluggish economy moving.

This meant cutting jobless pay, increasing the costs of medical treatment and medicines, freezing the usual increase in pensions (to match inflation), and quietly approving increases in work hours and cuts in vacation or Christmas pay—benefits which had cost working people years of struggle. At the same time they went along with, indeed approved, cuts in taxes on the wealthy.

On some issues the Greens did maintain a decent policy, in words at least, as in the treatment of immigrants and asylum seekers, but they were often overruled by tough Social Democratic ministers. They were more or less successful in permitting homosexual marriages, but that was not enough. What had happened was that radical young intellectuals of the 1980’s had often become well-to-do professionals, with certain principles but fewer and weaker ties to the poor and exploited and far less interest in their welfare.

On the grass roots level, there was opposition to this change of direction but party leaders made sure it remained under control and that Bundestag representatives toed the Schröeder-Fischer line, which was becoming increasingly anti-social while unemployment stayed stubbornly near the five million level, and over 20% in parts of eastern Germany that were largely ignored by the Greens, who had little support there.

One exception was Hans-Christian Ströbele, who maintained ties with the Peace Movement and his interest in social welfare issues, although he usually buckled to party discipline during close votes in the Bundestag. He fought, and won, with little support from his party, his race for reelection from a key inner city borough of Berlin; he will be the only Green representative from the capital city. But he was, and remains, a colorful and occasionally courageous exception.

With the present confusing situation in the Party landscape, requiring unusual realignments or, in the last analysis, new elections which no one wants, the Greens could either join their old partners, the Social Democrats, or their traditional foes, the Christian Democrats. But neither of these possibilities would have a majority, meaning that in both cases the reactionary Free Democrats would also be required.

Thus far they have refused to join with the Greens, although some Green voices have been heard whispering, more or less: “Hey, fellows, we are not really so radical as you have always painted us. Except for atomic energy plants and a few other issues we are not so far apart after all!” It is this possibility which Fischer has rejected—but only for himself.

If no such three-party coalition proves possible then a “grand coalition” of the Social Democrats and Christian Democrats may be the solution, leaving the Greens out in the cold opposition.[2] The really new factor in this weird equation, which makes the jockeying necessary, is the new alliance between the Party of Democratic Socialism (PDS), strong in East Germany, and the newly-formed Election Alternative for Jobs and Social Justice, stronger in the West and led by a former Social Democratic leader, Oskar Lafontaine.

This joint endeavor, quickly named the “Left,” which hopes to unite fully as a regular party within a year or two, won a surprising 8.7% of the voters, overtaking the Greens, who dropped slightly to 8.1%. This not only reflected a protest by working people and the jobless but also a new unity on the left, which permitted it to break into the states of Western Germany which had never accepted the PDS, seeing it as a progeny of the old, hated GDR. The new Left got 4.9% in the West, a remarkable jump from the past (and up to 20% in a few areas), and 25.4% in the East. It will be represented by 54 representatives (the Greens will have 51).

On the grass roots level there was opposition to this change of direction, but party leaders made sure it remained under control . . .

Every party, including the Greens, has insisted it will never join a coalition with the Left—which doesn’t want to join anyway. Its role is opposition; it may be ostracized by the others but it is too large to be ignored. The others fear it because it will be the only party to oppose sharp cuts in social welfare, tax presents to the wealthy, the military buildup and military adventures abroad. It will fight against neo-Nazis, anti-Semites, and anti-foreigners—one of its Berlin representatives is a leader of the Turkish community, one of its two top leaders is Gregor Gysi, who is the son of prominent Jewish anti-fascists. Although its four main leaders as yet are all men, as it ruefully admits, 26 of its 54 delegates are women, many of whom have been leaders at the state level and are moving ahead into top leadership. If it can maintain its unity—no easy task—it will represent a new hope in German politics

Its presence, if it remains militant and united, will help the progressive elements still present among the Greens, the Social Democrats and even in the two right-wing parties. At present, anything is possible.

Victor Grossman, American journalist and author, is a resident of East Berlin. He is also the author of Crossing the River: A Memoir of the American Left, the Cold War, and Life in East Germany.


1. Joschka Fischer left office on November 22, 2005, after the defeat of the Schröder government the preceding September. Mr. Grossman’s comments were written shortly after the September election [the Editors].

2. [Author’s update] The question of forming a government has long since been solved—a “grand coalition” of the Christian Democrats and the Social Democrats, with the big-business oriented Free Democratic Party, the Left Party (currently involved in problems regarding the merging of its two components, though probably still heading for unity of the two by next year) and, in fifth place, the Greens. These three form a rather uneven opposition, but can occasionally agree on opposing the government coalition, depending on the issue. Any opposition would be welcome, because the government aims to further sharpen the erosion of the standard of living—in fields like medical care, pensions, unemployment compensation and the values added tax—which will be raised from 166 to 19% on many commodities and services next year.

[24 apr 06]

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