There’s been a lot of talk lately on the In Box and in the North Country news-o-sphere about the Green Party, Don Hassig’s wobbly run for congress, and the media’s coverage of third parties in general.
One personal wrinkle in this whole story is that I was sort of there at the early going of the international Green Party movement, albeit in a totally inconsequential, feckless bystanderish sort of way.
In 1983, I went to what was then West Germany. I was a high school kid from a tiny Alaskan town, eager to learn about the big, wide world.
As a foreign exchange student, I was entirely politically naive, far more interested in girls and beer than ideas or the fate of nations.
But I found myself in a crucible of ferocious argument, over the Cold War, the environment, the role of America in the world, and capitalism.
This being Germany, the debates were powered by philosophy and theory, rather than talking points and sound bites.
(Okay, it wasn’t all deep rhetoric. That was also the year that Nena’s pop song “99 Luftballoons” came out, an anti-war dance tune that was sort of the anthem of the moment.)
It was fascinating, heady stuff, and perhaps the most compelling voice was that of Petra Kelly, one of the co-founders of Die Grunen, or the German Green Party.
Kelly was elected to Germany’s parliament in 1983 and to the young people I was hanging out with, she was a pivotal figure, sort of the Bobby Kennedy of her time and place.
In those days, the (literally) life-or-death issue was nuclear war. In the early 80s, living within a few miles of the East German border, Ronald Reagan’s get-tough policy with the Soviet Union felt like a terrifying act of brinksmanship.
I remember lying in my attic bedroom listening to helicopter gunships fly in waves overhead. The possibility that things might go horribly, fatally wrong seemed very real.
When measured against the vast military build-up that we were seeing, The Greens’ ideas about disarmament and peaceful co-existence held enormous appeal.
And though she had a troubled personal life, Kelly herself seemed profoundly sane, humane and grounded. She was a rare, vividly human figure in that country’s mostly gray, stodgy political world. But she wasn’t only a celebrity. She worked steadily to help build her party, sticking with it from the late 70s until the early 90s.
In later years, I actually met Kelly very briefly at some kind of academic conference where she spoke.
Sadly, Petra Kelly died in 1992, apparently killed in a murder-suicide carried out by her longtime companion Gert Bastian, a former German general who was also a founder of the Greens. (This account is disputed by some who are convinced that the pair were murdered, but the evidence for that is thin.)
Unlike the Green Party in the US — which has been plagued by inconsistent organizing, a lack of leadership, and a national political system that limits the effectiveness of third parties — Kelly’s movement has continued to see significant success in Germany.
They’ve played an active role in coalition governments in Germany and in state parliaments.
They’ve also held significant power in running big city governments, including Hamburg, Freiburg, Tubingen and Konstance, according to a 2010 report in Der Spiegel magazine.
Last year, the Greens elected their first governor in the state of Baden-Württemberg. If you’d told me in 1983 that Greens would actually be governing, I would never have believed it.
As a footnote, I’ve often wondered in the years since about Petra Kelly’s positions on the issues that her country and the world faced in those far-off days. What would have happened if the U.S. hadn’t applied such enormous military pressure to the Soviet Union?
Would Europe still be divided, with much of the continent still under dictatorship? Would Germany still be cut in half by a razor wire? Perhaps the Cold War would still be simmering along?
On the other hand, was it morally acceptable for President Reagan to challenge an increasingly unstable Soviet Union, with an entire world’s future on the line? Even now, in hindsight, it seems a terrible gamble, with astonishingly high stakes.
Impossible to say. What’s certain is that Kelly and her allies added an important, sane and compassionate voice to conversation in times that were, arguably, far more troubled and dangerous than our own.