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The Contender

Annalena Baerbock and the German Green party might just be ready to take the reins in September.

Hannes Stein

When the German Green party was founded, I was fifteen years old. Did my mom have a color TV then? Probably not, because all my memories are black and white: women knitting, men talking. Slogans hanging on the walls: “Deutschland—raus aus der NATO” (Germany—Get Out of NATO), “Frieden schaffen ohne Waffen” (Make Peace Without Arms—it sounds better in German, because it rhymes). The men were—I presume—wearing the sweaters the women had knitted. (They must have been gaudy; in hindsight, I regret the black-and-white TV.) Other impressions: the paste-on labels that said, “Nuclear power? No thanks.” Here I know the colors, of course: orange (sun), yellow (circle), black (letters). Then there was Picasso’s famous peace dove, white on blue.

The Green party was founded in 1980, at the end of Germany’s “red decade.” Thousands of students in West Germany belonged to various radical left-wing clubs, Maoist or Trotskyite or anarchist (“Spontis,” they called themselves). Then there were the members of the miniscule German Communist Party, which got its funding, as well as its dogmas, from East Berlin. The Greens had nothing to do with the dogmatists. It was founded by former Maoists, with the odd Sponti in the mix.

The right-wing extremists, men with white beards and gnarled sticks who wanted to cleanse the German fatherland of foreign contamination (and who left, mostly, soon after 1980), called the Greens watermelons: green on the outside, red on the inside. Finally, there were the pedophiles—the pits in the watermelon, as it were—who never had much influence at the national level but stuck around for quite a while because of a misunderstanding: The Greens opposed bourgeois morality and its prohibitions and favored gay rights. Hence, some people believed, they thought sex with children was okay. Thanks be to Mother Earth that there were feminists who begged to differ.

Germany’s Greens saw themselves as an “Antiparteien-Partei,” a party unlike all other political parties. They would make all their decisions on the basis of grassroots democracy. They would not allow charismatic politicians like Petra Kelly to dominate the scene. To the contrary, they destroyed political careers on a regular basis by use of their “rotation principle,” which guaranteed that whoever rose through the ranks had to promptly come down again.

When I was a young adult, the Greens resembled not a party so much as a constant fight between two tribes. There were the “Fundis,” fundamentalists, and the “Realos,” realists. The Fundis were Bolsheviks: They believed that in order to save the world, the “system” had to be destroyed, including the sham that was parliamentary democracy. The “Realos” were Mensheviks who wanted to work within the system. The stalemate could not be broken because German parties are not allowed in the Bundestag, Germany’s national parliament, if they don’t clear the hurdle of winning five percent of the vote. Unless the two factions worked in tandem, the Greens could never get enough votes.

The factional battles were full of bloodlust. Scalps were taken. What finally broke the stalemate was an election disaster. In 1989 the Berlin Wall fell. One year later, Germany was reunited; as it happened, this was also an election year. The Greens decided to run with this slogan: “Everybody’s talking about Germany; we’re talking about the weather.” They got an abysmal 4.8 percent of the vote. Some people thought this was the end. Exit the Fundis, trailed by several bears. The Realos now ran what remained of the show. The most famous of them was Josef (“Joschka”) Fischer, a former Sponti from Frankfurt.

Coming of Age

In 1993 the Green party, which until then had been solely a West German phenomenon, allied itself with “Bündnis 90,” a coalition of pacifist and civil rights groups from the former East Germany. (Ever since then, the official name of the combined party has been “Bündnis 90/Die Grünen”—Alliance 90/The Greens.) Five years after the alliance, the Greens, together with the Social Democrats, managed to topple the conservative government of Helmut Kohl, which had grown old and stale. By this time, the Greens were no longer an “Antiparteien-Partei:” no more women knitting, no more endless speechifying about life, the universe, and other such things. Instead, the Greens had become a moderate, left-of-center party with an ecological agenda.

But their bitterest internal fight was still to come. The Greens had made their peace with NATO, but they had not made their peace with war. Fischer became the new government’s foreign minister in 1998. In March of 1999 NATO started bombing Yugoslavia to prevent the expulsion of ethnic Albanians from Kosovo. The German government supported the action. The German Bundeswehr participated in it.

At the party convention in May, Fischer had a bag full of paint (color unknown) thrown at him. In the incident, his eardrum ruptured. Even more painfully, he was called a warmonger. Thousands of party members walked out. Some younger members, most notably a Turkish-German named Cem Özdemir, published a manifesto denouncing the party’s older generation. The watermelon was no more. It had turned into a different fruit entirely. Maybe a mango, maybe a coconut.

In short, the German Greens should not be mistaken for their American counterparts. The U.S. Green Party has never held political power; there has never been an American Green governor or Senator. Hence, the American Greens could afford to remain in a state of blissful irresponsibility. They still dream of abolishing capitalism. In foreign policy, one feels transported back to the 1970s in all their lunatic glory: They retain a certain weakness for Comrade Putin, and you can even hear them mumble excuses for the dictatorship in Venezuela. They have never suffered what Germans call “Praxisschock,” the jolting trauma of having to make practical decisions and cope with the consequences.

Germany’s Greens, in contrast, grew and developed into a popular party: Baden-Württemberg, a federal state previously ruled by conservatives since approximately the dawn of time, chose its first Green prime minister in 2011. The Greens have become the party of the urban, educated middle class. When you see their logo, you no longer think “revolution:” You think “establishment.” In some cities, the Greens have taken the place of the Social Democrats, whom the remorseless German electorate has reduced to the size of garden gnomes. The reversal of fortune is tragic—and funny and mind-boggling.

The Problem Solvers

This coming September, we may see a repeat of 1998, the year when an old and tired conservative government fell, but on a higher level of history—i.e., without Social Democrats. Germany might soon see its first Green chancellor, Annalena Baerbock. Some people are frightened by this prospect, but I am not among them. For one thing, I like what I see of Ms. Baerbock. At forty, she is relatively young. She is not an ideologue. She dislikes the Russian “Nord Stream 2” pipeline with a vengeance: Calling out a German environmental group that wanted to shield “Nord Stream 2” from U.S. criticism, she labeled the project a “monstrosity.” Baerbock thinks Europeans should be able to defend themselves against authoritarian aggression. She is tough on China. The Russians loathe her; they’re already circulating fake nude photos of her on social media.

What’s not to like?

The second reason why I favor a Chancellor Baerbock is more complicated. Full confession: I am not and never have been a member of the Green party. Why? I’m for nuclear power, because I’m afraid of man-made climate change, but it is almost impossible to say so in Germany. The posters with the orange sun in the yellow circle that say “Nuclear Power? No thanks” are so firmly imprinted on the public that Germans are blind to some simple truths: We need to get out of fossil fuels. Solar panels and wind turbines alone can’t do the job—not fast enough. To future generations, the whole fight against nuclear power stations will look like a tragic mistake. It’s the use of coal that environmentalists should have been protesting by the hundreds of thousands, not uranium.

Maybe the only people who can remove the antinuclear blinders from the eyes of Germany are the people who put them there in the first place: the Greens. Sure, this seems improbable now, but in 1980 it seemed improbable that a German foreign minister named Joschka Fischer would approves NATO airstrikes. And, yes, it will be a bitter fight—just as bitter as the fight over the war in Kosovo, perhaps even more so. Maybe somebody will even throw a bag of paint. But somehow I believe that a Chancellor Baerbock, when presented with the evidence, would see this through. After all, Germany is a nation of tinkerers and engineers, at least in its better moments. Tinkerers and engineers think about problems pragmatically. They listen to the evidence.

Hannes Stein, born in Munich, Germany, in 1965, works as a cultural and political correspondent for Die Welt. His third novel, Der Weltreporter (The World Reporter), was recently published by Galiani Berlin.


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