Saturday mornings, one often catches a glimpse of Germany’s Environment Minister, Jürgen Trittin, at the farmers’ market on Kollwitzplatz. The market is in the trendy neighborhood of Prenzlauer Berg, a short bike ride from the Regierungsviertel, the new brushed-and-polished home of the German government. If Trittin and the Green Party should be able to count on sympathy anywhere in former East Germany it is in Prenzlauer Berg, where a bohemian-chic influx of yuppies, students and artists now coexist with the working-class families that inhabited its crumbling brick apartment buildings before the wall fell. In the 1998 elections that brought a Social Democratic-Green government to power for the first time in history, Prenzlauer Berg gave the Greens almost ten times the miserable 2 percent support they eked out across the rest of eastern Germany.
On one recent Saturday, the lanky Trittin, a Green from the party’s left wing who as minister negotiated Germany’s phased shutdown of its nuclear power plants along with an array of other impressive environmental measures, could be seen ducking out from beneath the awning of the smoked mackerel stand. But his presence didn’t provoke much of a stir. My shopping companion, Heike, merely scoffed as she transferred a few organic tomato plants into her wicker basket.
Heike, a thirtysomething single mother, would appear to be a likely supporter of the Greens and their partner party of former East German dissidents. She lives in a large flat with a fluctuating number of other people who share some conception of communal living. During Communism she sided with the underground democracy movement, endured harassment for her alternative lifestyle and when the wall finally fell fled her provincial hometown to squat in a Prenzlauer Berg ruin. But does Heike vote Green? No way. She backs the Party of Democratic Socialism (PDS), the successor to the same party that built the wall and ran the most intrusive secret police operation in Eastern Europe. And she will vote for the PDS candidate for mayor, Gregor Gysi, in the city election set for October 23. The PDS may not be perfect, she concedes, but–unlike the Greens–it is a defiant voice on behalf of eastern Germans like herself. Not only that, she is a socialist, and the PDS proudly calls itself a socialist party–democratic socialist–words no other German party dares let cross its lips. The PDS is the only German party to rule out German participation in a military response to the terrorist attacks against the United States.
The PDS’s hold on the East and its slow encroachment on the Greens’ turf in the West are just two of the Greens’ worries. The German Green Party, arguably the premiere Green party in Europe, is in the throes of an extended crisis that threatens its very existence. The divisive, emotional debate over Germany’s role in the “international alliance against terrorism” couldn’t possibly have come at a worse time. The party has suffered ugly setbacks in nineteen straight elections and could be nudged out of the ruling coalition next year should it not stabilize itself quickly. Long gone are the days when it racked up double-digit figures across western Germany. In all of eastern Germany, only in Berlin are the Greens represented in a state legislature.
In desperation, the Greens have tried to tinker with their image in hopes of capturing new voters. This past summer, the party declared that it was no longer “left,” a term that party pragmatists said had lost any meaning, but rather “left-liberal” and/or “left-middle”–as if this would help lure anyone or clarify anything. Its problems go much deeper. A party born in the 1980s and steeped in the 1960s, its vision essentially remains one embedded in the political reality of postwar West Germany, a country that no longer exists. The Green Party’s dilemma is not that its original concerns are suddenly irrelevant or passé–far from it–but rather that its leaders have been reluctant to rethink the party’s raison d’être in the context of a new Federal Republic in an altered geopolitical reality. A major overhaul has been stymied by the fact that the Greens, once a classic anti-establishment protest party, now jointly govern the largest country in western Europe, a loyal US ally and NATO member with the world’s third-biggest economy. It is a position so rife with contradictions that the Greens are imploding at the apex of their political journey.
It’s not that the Greens have nothing to show for their three years in office. As the junior coalition partner in a popular government, the Greens have been the driving force behind a plethora of progressive and long-overdue reforms. New laws have allowed millions of foreigners who have lived in the country for decades to finally qualify for citizenship. Germany now boasts Europe’s most stringent arms-export restrictions. An environmental tax on energy, a same-sex marriage law and new consumer-protection measures, as well as the historic nuke power phaseout, have begun to change the face of a country run for sixteen years by the conservative Christian Democrats. Two of the Greens’ three ministers–Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer and Minister for Consumer Protection, Food and Agriculture Renate Künast–consistently top nationwide popularity polls. Yet neither the red-green government’s victories nor the glitter of its stars has braked the party’s downward slide.
The Green Party emerged in 1980 from a confluence of shattered radical-left projects and women’s, peace and antinuke campaigns that no longer saw the Social Democrats as a progressive electoral option. During years of discussion and protest, the Greens painstakingly redefined the meaning of left-wing politics, making issues like nuclear power and women’s rights their focus rather than the ideological battles that had crippled the left since the late 1960s. Former student rebels (“68ers” they’re called in Germany) from groups like Joschka Fischer’s Revolutionary Struggle put aside dreams of revolution in favor of infiltrating the very institutions that constituted the foundation of the republic–its schools, universities, media and, not least, its body politic.
Throughout the 1980s, the unruly Greens marched into state legislatures across the country, upsetting the cautious postwar political order and ingeniously reshaping debate in Germany. As a result, dozens of causes that only the Greens trumpeted–from gay rights to immigration–are now on the republic’s agenda, and Green positions on many issues are accepted in some form or another across the political spectrum. Ironically, the Green Party’s very success means that there is less and less that sets it apart from the other parties.
In the governing coalition, the Greens have had to fight hard–and compromise bitterly–to see progressive initiatives turned into law. The Social Democrats under Chancellor Gerhard Schröder grudgingly concede the necessity of reforms like the citizenship law and new immigration guidelines but inevitably water down Green proposals in the face of conservative opposition. Schröder’s obsession is the economy, which continues to languish under faltering growth and an unemployment rate among the highest in western Europe.
It is exactly these kinds of compromises that are pills too bitter for party purists. The abolition of nuclear power, for example, will occur over a thirty-two-year period, and not a single reactor will go offline before the government’s term ends in 2002. The Trittin deal actually provoked a rash of resignations from the party. But the event that shook the party to its foundations was Germany’s participation in the 1999 NATO military action against Yugoslavia. The fact that Fischer, the freshly elected Green foreign minister, presided over postwar Germany’s first war abroad naturally struck Green pacifists as a betrayal of the first order. “Even today I’m booed and called a warmonger on the campaign trail,” explains Hans-Christian Ströbele, a Berlin lawyer and Green parliamentarian who opposed the bombing.
The use of the German military to intervene abroad split the party down the middle–as has the issue of Germany’s role in responding to the attacks on New York and Washington. In the Balkans, Fischer insisted that Germany, not least because of its Nazi past, had a moral imperative to act decisively against mass murder and war crimes being committed in Europe. Party pacifists hold fast to the belief that Germany should abstain from military involvement even in peacekeeping missions. The party could self-destruct completely should Germany be drawn into a NATO strike against targets like Afghanistan or Iraq. In Washington recently, to underline Germany’s fealty, Schröder said he wouldn’t exclude the possibility of a German military contribution to the war effort. “Unconditional solidarity,” snapped the leftist daily Die Tageszeitung, is no policy at all. “Before the left never went along with anything–now we go along with everything.” If it came to the deployment of German troops or the use of German fighter planes, part of the German Green Party could conceivably abandon Fischer, triggering a collapse of the coalition and, ultimately, the Greens.
The Greens’ left wing argues that the party not only has steadily abandoned ideas like anti-interventionism but also has neglected its original commitment to social justice and the redistribution of wealth. (A short-lived shift in strategy toward neoliberal economic policies backfired, failing to lure more mainstream voters and costing it old ones.)
In general, the Greens have failed miserably to reach out to new voters. Young people in particular run in the other direction or don’t vote at all. The image of the bearded, frumpy Greens in wool sweaters and sandals reminds today’s kids of their social studies teachers and parents. The conservative antitechnology streak within the Greens turns off the Internet-hip generation. In short, nothing could be more square. “Politically engaged young people want a vision,” says Ströbele. “They want to change the world and not hear about the day-to-day realpolitik of governance.” An example of such a vision? Ralph Nader, he says. “Germany could use someone like Nader. You have the feeling he means what he says. The Greens have lost this kind of credibility.”
Another man with a vision is Gregor Gysi, the poster boy of the PDS, a balding, five-foot-six German Jew whose eloquent oratory is music to the ears of former East German cadre and western anarcholeftists alike. Gysi, a former East German lawyer, waxes lyrical about a democratic socialism that could and should exist–a socialism, he takes great pains to convince skeptics, that would look radically different from what existed in Communist East Germany. His provocative, irreverent style reminds one of the rebelliousness that once marked the Greens. And unlike today’s Greens, Gysi doesn’t bog down speeches with those boring details about hard-won concessions, budgetary restrictions or complex policy proposals. Gysi is all about vision. The problem is that it often smacks of opportunist populism. The PDS platforms read like wish lists, noticeably short on those boring details.
Gysi and the PDS are phenomena that most analysts predicted would disappear from the political scene ten years after unification. The mixture of crusty old Stalinists and disgruntled protest voters was supposed to wither away once the graft of eastern Germany onto the Federal Republic body politic took hold. “This was the enormous miscalculation of all of the German parties, the Greens included,” explains Wolfgang Templin, who left the Greens/Coalition 90 four years ago. (Coalition 90 is the Greens’ allied party of former East German dissidents, a sad, marginalized remnant of the intellectuals and artists who led the charge against the Communist regime a decade ago.) “They didn’t see the newly united Germany as something qualitatively new but rather as an enlarged version of the old Federal Republic. They thought the West German party spectrum would reproduce itself in eastern Germany. But the situation there was completely different.”
Templin and others argued for a new system of political coordinates to reorient the party, but the Greens, thoroughly products of West German postwar history, couldn’t grasp the imperative. The overwhelmed ex-dissidents weren’t in a position themselves to turn their admittedly somewhat vague concept into a viable political option. The result is that eastern and western Germany remain politically divided, and the PDS capitalizes on the potent frustration and antagonism many eastern Germans feel for all of the old West German parties. The collapse of eastern industries, joblessness that exceeds 30 percent in hard-hit regions and western arrogance toward the new brothers in the east have proven fertile ground for the PDS, which soaks up a huge negative protest vote that could just as easily go right as left.
Despite Gysi’s charisma, the PDS leadership can’t seem to shed the stiff image of the second-level bureaucrats and youth party functionaries they once were. One fears that the new socialism of the PDS rank and file is just a mild version of the one that they lived in East Germany. But for better or worse, it is the PDS now, not the Greens, that categorically rejects the deployment of German troops or warcraft anywhere outside the country’s borders. Should a new, reinvigorated peace movement emerge in Germany, the PDS could be at its forefront.
Globalization is one obvious issue the Greens could seize on as a way of showing they are engaged with the pressing problems of the twenty-first century. The party could devote some of its considerable brainpower toward trying to turn this unwieldy topic and the amorphous angst surrounding it into concrete political issues, as it has done in other contexts in the past. The Greens could also encourage Germany, within the structures of the European Union, to assume leadership on global environmental questions, particularly those that the United States has chosen to ignore. Biotechnology and the creation of a federal Europe are already high on the Greens’ list, even if these issues don’t seem to stir passions as did those of yesteryear.
Perhaps the contradictions implicit in wielding power are just too extreme for a movement that itself came from the streets, a party that once labeled itself an “antiparty party.” There is certainly no simple formula for the German Green Party, but should it fail to adjust, it too could become the stuff of history books.