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Germany: Is it Easy to be Green?

The history of the German Greens is enlightening, but also dramatic. Forty years after the party’s beginnings, it also shows what a tangible democracy is all about.

Frogs, cucumbers and the leaves on the trees have always been green. Four decades ago, this color became political. On January 13th, 1980, the foundation assembly of the German Greens gave birth to their party. They wanted it to be social and ecological. It also stood for direct democracy and nonviolence.

Protest in Brokdorf

In the federal state of Baden-Württemberg, located in West Germany’s south-western part, people started noticing the new party only two months later, when six of its members entered the legislative assembly in Stuttgart, after the Green’s very first success at elections. Today, the same federal state is being ruled by Winfried Kretschmann, the first and only First Minister the Greens have. Soon he might get some reinforcement (read separate article ‘Hamburg: Legislative Assembly Elections Coming Up in Early 2020’).

The story started in 1977. It was a difficult year. German left-wing terrorists challenged the young democracy in cooperation with the Palestinian terrorist organization PFLP, by murdering officials and hijacking a plane full of holiday makers. At the same time, a movement against nuclear power developed and grew.

Die baden-württembergische Landesregierung mit Ministerpräsident Winfried Kretschmann posiert für ein Foto.
First Minister Winfried Kretschmann (front, center) is a Green superstar. Photo: Grüne Baden-Württemberg

In Hamburg, the ‘Colorful List’ (‘Bunte Liste’) became an attractive group to join for mostly young people who wanted a future without radioactivity. Its members staged protests against the Brokdorf nuclear power plant which was being constructed a bit further north, in the Schleswig-Holstein province, at the time. In other parts of West Germany, similar demonstrations took place.

Anti-Reagan Protest

The so-called peace movement, consisting of hundreds of thousands of people who were opposed to NATO’s Double-Track Decision or any missiles with nuclear warheads in West Germany, was another source of support for the future Greens. On this issue, the Social Democrats under Helmut Schmidt had moved towards the right. The Greens provided an alternative to many left-wingers.

By 1982, The Greens hat entered three more legislative assemblies. Half a million people took part in a gigantic protest against President Ronald Reagan that year, when he visited Germany and told “Mr. Gorbachev” to “tear down this Wall.” On March 6th of 1983, the big day had arrived. With 5.6 percent of the vote, The Greens moved into the Berlin Bundestag.

At that time, they were insulted as crunchy-granolas (‘Müslifresser’) and slobs (‘Chaoten’). Many conservatives also had a problem with the Greens’ looks. Female MPs came to the parliament sessions in long, colorful skirts. Men wore long beards. They knitted during the parliament’s sessions. Back then, some conservatives called The Greens left-wing radicals who were a danger to democracy. Today, they are their coalition partners.

Green Minister in Hesse

During the second half of the 1980s, a big rift between “funamentalist” Greens and “realists” was noticeable. The latter wanted to govern with the Social Democrats. The “Fundis” rejected anything of the kind while dreaming of Utopia. In 1985, the West German Greens made history again: One of their members, Joschka Fischer, became Environment Minister in the federal state of Hesse on December 12th.

The Fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 changed the world, including Germany. Two weeks later, a Green party in East Germany was founded. Within the West German Greens, a big discussion about a reunification of Germany developed. Many were not happy with that idea. But in March of 1990, the party threw the anti-unification position overboard, just on time. Soon after it happened, the Western Greens merged with the Eastern ‘Bündnis 90’ movement.

German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer, holding a press conference in Washington D.C..
Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer, holding a press conference in Washington D.C. in 2001. Photo: Imanuel Marcus

In 1992, tragedy struck. Petra Kelly, a central party member and co-founder of the party, and her partner Gerd Bastian, another member of the Green Bundestag caucus, were found dead in their apartment in Bonn. Both were shot. Until today, the case has not really been solved. It looks like Bastian shot Kelly in her sleep, just before committing suicide.

Red-Green Federal Government

In the meantime, the discussion about humanitarian and peacemaking missions of the Bundeswehr, Germany’s armed forces, nearly ripped The Greens apart. There were those who opposed any military missions, and those who thought Bundeswehr missions at the Horn of Africa and in former Yugoslavia were necessary for humanitarian reasons.

In 1998, the dream of many representatives of the former Green ‘realist’ faction became reality. They were part of a government coalition on the federal level, with Social Democrat Gerhard Schröder as Chancellor. Joschka Fischer, a former member of the student revolution and former Environment Minister in Hesse, became Germany’s Foreign Minister, his colleague Jürgen Trittin Environment Minister and Andrea Fischer Health Minister.

Annalena Baerbock, one of today's Green party leaders, at a press conference in Berlin.
Annalena Baerbock, one of today’s Green party leaders, at a press conference in Berlin. Photo: Imanuel Marcus

The ‘ride’ lasted until 2005. That year, Angela Merkel of the Christian Democratic Union became Chancellor, the Social Democrats (SPD) became the junior partner in her coalition government, while the Greens resumed their role in the opposition.

Lack of Support in the East

An issue was being noticed in the new millennium: In former East Germany, the Greens were not too successful in any election. Even today, this problem persists. But not in Baden-Württemberg, where Winfried Kretschmann became First Minister in 2011. In 2016, he was reelected and is still one of the big assets the Greens have.

Today, The Greens have some competition though. In 2019, ‘Fridays for Future’ (‘F4F’), a pupils’ movement established by the Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg, was very active. On the streets of many cities in Germany and abroad, ‘F4F’ was present all the time. But that movement does not seem to be seen as a competition, meaning it is not hurting The Greens. The opposite might be the case.

“It’s not easy being Green.”

All in all, support for the German Greens skyrocketed in the past few years. Soon, the party will likely have the opportunity to govern again, maybe with a post-Merkel CDU, as they are the second-strongest party on the national level. One in five German voters would choose The Greens if there was a general election today.

Big Anniversary Party

On Friday, January 10th, 2020, The Greens celebrated their 40th anniversary in Berlin. Many old and new players came to the ‘Green party anniversary party’. Today’s party leaders Annalena Baerbock (read separate article ‘Annalena Baerbock: Germany’s First Green Chancellor?’) and Robert Habeck mingled with their predecessors and pretty much everyone else.

The Greens showed that a former stone-throwing student protest hero like Joschka Fischer can change and become a Green minister. They proved that a movement can actually achieve things outside and inside the parliament. And they won in several ways. Today, even conservatives know the Greens were right about nuclear power four decades ago.

The former Muesli-munching hippies who knitted sweaters in the Berlin Bundestag are now walking around like models, in expensive suits. While they adapted in this regard, they still want to be social and ecological. Today, they are a party supported by frustrated former SPD voters and by young Germans who want more action for climate protection.

‘Fundis’ Resurface

Once in a while, the ‘Fundi’ mentality resurfaces though. Just the other day, a majority of Green delegates in Berlin rejected the idea of trying to get the IAA Motor Show to move to Berlin, in spite of the fact that it would attract more visitors and more business to the capital. Besides, the German auto industry is an engine that contributes to the country’s prosperity substantially. Why would anyone scare its representatives away? Again, Green ‘realists’ were furious.

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