s/r home  | issues  | authors  | 50 contents

Synthesis/Regeneration 50   (Fall 2009)

How the Color Green Can Sometimes Fade

by Victor Grossman

In German, the color green has nothing to do with jealousy; it symbolizes hope. When the Greens got started back in the 1970s they did indeed breathe new hope into the stuffy atmosphere of West German politics. The groundwork was laid during the immense opposition to a nuclear energy plant at Brokdorf near Hamburg. In the autumn of 1976, angry crowds gathered to protest - 5000, then 30,000, and in February 1977, 50,000 people defied police moats and barbed wire and then armies of helicopters, dogs, horses, water cannon, and tear gas.

The seeds of the Green movement, citizens' initiatives and many local groups, were often not limited to this anti-nuclear fight, however, but covered a wide range of ecological issues. By 1978, local parties had been formed in Hamburg, Bremen, then in Hesse and its main city, Frankfurt/Main. 3500 West Berliners also met and formed what they called an "Alternative List" (or slate).

New movements in Germany face an electoral hurdle. The proportional representation system gives voters two votes: one for a candidate in their district, as in the USA, but a second one for the party they prefer. With rare exceptions, the Greens have been unable to win a plurality for their candidate in any electoral district. If a party can win 5% or more of the second votes, however, it is awarded parliamentary seats proportional to its vote. But getting 5% is not easy for newcomers - especially "pariahs." Nor did it become easier when different wings of the party developed, flying off in opposing directions. One, environmentally motivated but conservative in other matters, looked askance at curious types in the other wing, conspicuously non-conformist youngsters from the Leftist student movement which reached a crest in Germany and France in 1968. The conservatives mistrusted the weird clothes and hairdos, but even more the stress on extra-parliamentary action and the inclusion of issues like anti-militarism, feminism and egalitarian economic demands which seemed alarmingly pro-socialist. Their leader, a conservative environmentalist, Herbert Gruhl, had been a deputy of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU).

The Greens were founded as a new party. and passed a broad left-leaning program.

Despite such differences, however, the movement, under a variety of local names and banners, began improving its electoral percentages. In October 1979 in Bremen, it won its first seats in a state government (Bremen, like Hamburg and West Berlin, was both city and state) by the slimmest of margins (5.1%). This led to a decision to combine local groups wherever possible and beat that 5% hurdle elsewhere as well.

On January 12, 1980 in Karlsruhe, the Greens were founded as a new party. It met again two months later, elected regular officers and passed a broad left-leaning program. First, it demanded that all atomic power plants be closed and new ones prohibited. It called for disarmament, one-sidedly if necessary, and demanded that both NATO and the Warsaw Pact systems be dissolved. It called for an end to the ban on abortions and demanded a 35-hour work week. Its basic principles were to be social, ecological, non-violent and grassroots-democratic. After hot debate, membership was opened to members of other parties, like the ultra-left, so-called K (for Kommunist) parties, but this double membership was later rejected. Most of this was unsettling for conservatives, and Herbert Gruhl led his often horrified supporters out of this radical wilderness to form another party, which exists to this day but never gets anywhere.

The loss of Gruhl was more than compensated by a new leader with great charisma, the militant young Petra Kelly. Her name derived from her step-father, an American officer, and she had been active in the Washington, DC student movement during the 1960s. At this second congress of the Greens she was elected as "spokesperson," the title given the three main party leaders.

One week before this congress the new party chalked up 5.3% in state elections in the large, important state of Baden-Wuerttemberg. In May 1981, the Alternative List - a name used by Greens in West Berlin - pushed its way into third place with 7.2%, and in1982 they won 8.6% in Hesse. They were clearly growing. But in October 1980, a first attempt on the national, Bundestag level failed completely, with only 1.5%, mostly because many Green voters feared the dictatorial, bellicose candidate of the Christian Democrats, Franz Josef Strauss, and chose instead as lesser evil the Social Democrat, Helmut Schmidt.

...with the SPD moving rightward, it was the Greens, . who became the main voice of the left, altering to some degree the whole party constellation.

But it was Schmidt, the "lesser evil," who hatched the "NATO Dual Track Decision" with Jimmy Carter and the French and British premiers. Misleadingly billed as a disarmament scheme, it meant stationing far more atomic missiles in Germany than before, and it frightened large sectors of the population. On October 22, 1983, peace demonstrators formed a human chain for 70 miles between Stuttgart and US military headquarters in Neu-Ulm, 400,000 marched in Hamburg, and half a million swarmed around the government area and main embassies in Bonn. Prominent cultural figures, like the artist Joseph Beuys and the novelist Heinrich Boell, joined to demand an end to the threat of "Euroshima". Many SPD leaders and members also opposed the atomic missiles; the whole country was torn by debate - all but the coalition of Helmut Kohl (CDU) with the Free Democrats (FDP) which had come to power in 1982. A leading Christian Democrat summed things up: "They demonstrate, we rule!" One month after the immense October demonstrations, the Dual Track Decision was put to a vote: it passed by 286 to 225.

This failure to halt NATO meant not only the stationing of 108 Pershing 2 missiles and 96 cruise missiles in West Germany in addition to those already present, and Soviet atomic missiles in East Germany, but also the end of the giant peace demonstrations. Since Social Democrats initiated the hated dual track strategy, however, and the Christian Democratic-Free Democrat coalition pushed it through, the oppositional Greens gained popularity enough, despite deeply rooted voting traditions and the ire of the media, to win 5.6% of the second votes in the elections of March 1983 and thus move into the Bundestag. (Among their 28 members was also the first deputy in German history willing to out himself as gay.)

Almost from the start, the West German political scene was ruled by three parties: first, the Christian Democrats (CDU) and their Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU); second, the much smaller Free Democrats (FDP), once libertarian in nature but increasingly the secular party of big or medium-size business, on the right on most issues, and eager to become junior partner in a coalition with either the CDU-CSU or, if need be, with the other major player, the Social Democratic Party (SPD), with its close ties to the unions, viewed by conservatives as "red." **Fischer, once a rebel and street fighter . had long since become a tame Realo in a well-tailored suit.

The Communist Party of Germany had been forbidden in 1956; its successor, the German Communist Party, though permitted to begin activities in 1968, had only limited support in a few small cities, college towns and local unions. Various "K groups" - Trotskyist, Maoist, pro-Albanian - had even less support. Thus, with the SPD moving rightward, it was the Greens, in state legislatures and then in the Bundestag, who became the main voice of the left, altering to some degree the whole party constellation.

In December 1985 the SPD leader in the state of Hesse, despite promises never to join with the Greens, weakened and, to gain a majority and the premiership, took them into his government. Thus, for the first time, one of the Greens became a cabinet member. Joschka Fischer took his oath of office as Environment Minister wearing a green jacket and sneakers, and was long known as the "sneaker minister," to the disgust of some and the delight of others. He lasted 15 months in office before the coalition collapsed over the question of atomic energy plants.

Not only in their own congresses but even in the august halls of the Bundestag, the Greens had their own clothing code, often wearing and even publicly knitting wool sweaters. Mostly far younger, sometimes a bit unruly, they included many more women, some of whom brought their babies along. All this was so very unorthodox! For years they were heckled and hated, baited and negated in the Bundestag and the media. But the ridicule dished out to them was motivated less by their taste in clothing than by their anti-war, feminist and social message.

During the 1980s, however, as they grew in strength, influence and sometimes even respectability, a new split developed. On one side the militant Fundamentalists or "Fundis" rejected compromises with established parties, especially those required for governing coalitions, while insisting on original Green principles like alternating office holders; elected deputies were to be rotated every two years to prevent the corruption arising from status and its perks. A line was to be drawn between elected state positions and party leadership jobs, again to avoid the establishment of ruling cliques. Their opponents, called "Realos," favored Realpolitik, realism, and insisted that Green goals could best be attained in ministerial posts, most probably in coalition with the Social Democrats. This meant dropping the strict rules defended by the "Fundis."

.The Left.is calling their bluff on their suddenly rediscovered progressive words and slogans.

But effective parliamentary experience required months and years. Despite moral grounds for the rotation principle it was found to be self-defeating and was maintained only from 1983 to 1987. In the latter year, despite inner quarrels, the Greens won a record-breaking 8.3% in West Germany, meaning 44 Bundestag deputies. But even this undisputable triumph gave rise to strife when grassroots members claimed that Bundestag debates and maneuvers distracted attention from extra-parliamentary actions and activities, the basic soul of the Greens movement.

In general, the Greens did not join the other parties' severe confrontation with the GDR. Some Green deputies even met on a cool but fair basis with East German chief Erich Honecker before his downfall in October 1989, while others cultivated relations with the dissident groups which increased in the last years of the GDR, often under the protective mantle of the Lutheran Church. Even after the fall of the Wall in 1989 and "reunification" in 1990, the Greens were slow to switch emphasis, and during the first all-German elections in December 1990, their slogan was, "Everyone talks about Germany. We talk about climate!"

This slant, led by the Fundis, nearly proved fatal. In those first elections in both parts of Germany they failed to reach 5 % in West Germany, thus losing all their seats plus the offices, finances and privileges attached to them. In the East, ironically, a newly-founded Green group joined quickly with other young "dissenter" parties and was able to win over 5%. The new eastern Greens were thus represented with eight seats while the western Greens were frozen out. In the following years this situation was remedied, however, when dissenter parties in the east formed the Buendnis-90 (Alliance 1990) and teamed up with the western Greens to form a single party still officially called "Buendnis 90-Die Gruene."

Not a few of the eastern dissenters, who had loudly stressed their antagonism to the GDR because of anti-militarist feelings, human rights and environmental protest, began to weaken these principles as soon as they were safely ensconced in the Federal Republic of Germany. Many found careers happily within established West German parties, even the most reactionary. But many gravitated to the Greens, who at first even established a minimum quota for East Germans, like its quota for women. The early 1990s marked a turn rightward by the Greens, partly because of these new additions, and partly because many Fundis quit what to them seemed increasingly a part of the West German establishment.

One loss was especially tragic. Petra Kelly had joined her life to that of Gert Bastian, a West German major-general before joining ex-generals from other NATO states to oppose the atomic plans of the "dual track decision." For a while a leading Green deputy in the Bundestag, he and Kelly were a dynamic, controversial couple on the left until October 1992 when, for reasons still unknown, Bastian shot and killed Petra in her sleep and then himself.

The Green grassroots.shocked their leadership by directly forbidding their deputies to vote for use of German Tornado reconnaissance planes in Afghanistan.

By 1994 the Greens, after recouping their losses, moved back into the Bundestag with 7.3% of the all-German vote and 49 seats. Activities there grew steadily in importance within the party. Four years later, after 16 years under the CDU leader Helmut Kohl, they were finally able to join a government coalition as junior partners of the Social Democrats under Gerhard Schroeder. They held three cabinet posts: Minister for the Environment, a job given to Juergen Trittin, still an important party leader today; Minister of Health, later exchanged for the post of Minister of Agriculture and Consumer Goods; and, most importantly, Joschka Fischer as Deputy Chancellor and Foreign Minister. Fischer, once a rebel and street fighter in the confused years after 1968, had long since become a tame Realo in a well-tailored suit instead of the green jacket and sneakers, and used the authority of his double job to establish himself as virtual though unelected leader of the party.

But while the Greens did push through humane legislation connected with immigration, abortion rights and homosexuals, they soon disappointed those expecting a new progressive era after Kohl. Together with Schroeder they passed one so-called "reform" after another, supposedly to improve the weak economy. This actually made life more difficult for most people. The jobless faced severe cuts and humiliating terms in their search for assistance, and seniors were forced to postpone claims to social security for two years - until 67 - although jobs were scarce for anyone over 50. Health care became more expensive, but taxes were actually cut for corporations, the wealthy and prosperous heirs.

Worst of all for those who fought NATO plans in the 1980s, and despite growing evidence of the falsity of many accusations against Serbia, Foreign Minister Fischer and Chancellor Schroeder fully supported the bombing by NATO planes, with great human suffering and environmental damage. This first use of German forces in combat since World War Two was justified by Joschka Fischer with dubious references to Auschwitz. In earlier writings, Fischer had warned against just such military escalation as he now supported. In fact, he used pressure against Green deputies who refused to toe the line on military engagement or mean-spirited economic policies.

Even Trittin, whose mission as Minister was to limit or prevent the production of atomic energy, had to make so many compromises to the pressure of German energy giants that his greatest success was jokingly called "a law to paint all atomic energy plants green."

These disappointments lasted until 2005, when Schroeder gambled by calling early elections - and lost. Since neither his SPD nor the CDU won enough Bundestag seats to form a government alone or in coalition with either the Greens or the FDP, they decided to join together in a new "grand coalition" headed by Angela Merkel, whose party had a slight edge among the unhappy voters. This new constellation forced Schroeder out - a top job with a Russian oil giant awaited him - and forced the Greens back into opposition in the Bundestag.

But the whole political situation was changing. The former Party of Democratic Socialism (PDS) was based almost exclusively in eastern Germany, where its roots lay in the former ruling party. While its Bundestag votes might be a nuisance when trying to form coalitions, it could be dismissed politically as a demagogic aberration of crabby, ungrateful East Germans.

In June 2007, however, it joined a small but active West German party of angry union activists, disgruntled Social Democrats and not a few Greens, who despaired at their party's switch to the right, and formed a new party called The Left (Die Linke), which soon began chalking up gains not only in the East but in West German states as well - a process recalling the growth of the Greens two decades earlier. It broke through the 5% barrier in Bremen, then in Hamburg, Lower Saxony and Hesse, where doubts about accepting its support in order to beat rightwing CDU politicians led to a major debate (and perhaps a debacle). Even in Bavaria, furthest to the right, it won 4.3% in a first try. With national elections due in September 2009, the other parties, especially the SPD and the Greens, are increasingly fearful of losing members and voters to this new upstart, which is calling their bluff on their suddenly rediscovered progressive words and slogans and asking why they did not put them into practice in the years they ruled the country. Of course, the media, no longer so hostile to the Greens, rarely gives The Left a chance to voice its views.

"We aim to recruit members from varying milieus: we also want to offer a home to conservative voters."

The Green grassroots have not withered away entirely. In the autumn of 2007, they shocked their leadership by directly forbidding their deputies to vote for use of German Tornado reconnaissance planes in Afghanistan, even if that meant barring other participation in that conflict. "That would not have happened if Joschka Fischer were still leading the party," a Social Democratic official snapped. In the Bundestag most Green deputies abstained, a number were opposed, but some defied the decision of their own congress.

All deputies of The Left opposed the Afghanistan campaign. Because of this and other reasons the Greens reject alliances with The Left. But partner choices are scanty, and in the spring of 2008, after elections in Hamburg, they stunned many members by forming a coalition with the CDU, although this meant compromising - or forgetting - ecological positions against a giant new lignite power plant and the dredging of part of the Elbe River.

In November 2008, at their latest congress, they chose as one of two spokespersons Cem ôzdemir, 42. He is the first politician of Turkish background to become a top leader of a German party, and recalled in a way the choice of Barack Obama. But ôzdemir, a Realo friend of Fischer, has already expressed a willingness to join with Christian Democrats on a national basis. "We have no problems with the CDU, if the content and tone are in order," he said. "We aim to recruit members from varying milieus: we also want to offer a home to conservative voters. It may well be that in some situations we can promote our green contents better with the `blacks' [CDU] than with the `reds' [here meaning the SPD]. The main condition is for the CDU to drop its atomic policy."

Changes in the Greens were also reflected in decisions on military policy, once rejected by the party: "Under some conditions the military can make a necessary contribution to controlling violence, preventing violence and consolidating peace." Such positions, which open the doors to new military adventures by German generals and admirals, shocked members still faithful to earlier principles. Perhaps, like weakened positions on measures benefiting working people and the jobless, they reflected the fact that voters who now choose the Greens are the most prosperous group in the country. As one party leader stated: "Viewed statistically, we are a party of those who earn more." Many members, prosperous or not, still oppose militarism and remain socially conscious. It remains to be seen how many will try to change their party - or how many will abandon it. How long will green here stand for hope?

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.

[26 oct 09]

Synthesis/Regeneration home page | s/r 50 Contents