From Protest Party to Mainstream: Papal Blessing Marks End of an Era for Greens

A Commentary by Dirk Kurbjuweit

Germany's Green Party began in the 1970s as the party of outsiders and non-conformists. Now, they are part of the mainstream. The pope's praise for the environmentalists in his speech to the German parliament shows that a political era has come to an end.

Pope Benedict XVI shakes the hand of Winfried Kretschmann, Germany's first Green state governor, in the Bundestag on Sept. 22. Zoom
Christian Thiel/ DER SPIEGEL

Pope Benedict XVI shakes the hand of Winfried Kretschmann, Germany's first Green state governor, in the Bundestag on Sept. 22.

Who is Baden-Württemberg Governor Winfried Kretschmann closer to -- the pope or Gerwald Claus-Brunner, a member of the Pirate Party who has a penchant for wearing overalls?

Kretschmann, a Catholic, has his roots in the environmental movement, in which overalls were once practically obligatory. He wears suits nowadays, now that he is Germany's first-ever Green Party state governor. He is, after all, part of the establishment.

It's a fact that Benedict XVI confirmed in his speech last week to Germany's parliament, the Bundestag, in which he praised the environmental movement. This papal endorsement finally elevates Germany's Greens to the status of a party that is incapable of horrifying or provoking anyone. It has served its time as a party of protest.

This was also confirmed by the fact that Claus-Brunner became a member of the Berlin city-state parliament last week. His Pirate Party captured 9 percent of the vote in the city-state's parliamentary election, an outcome that reflects the current level of dissatisfaction with the political establishment, with its rigidity, conservativeness, thirst for power, readiness to compromise and arrogance.

Completing a Circle

The Greens are all too familiar with these aspects of the establishment. They were the ones protesting against the system in the 1970s and 1980s, when they were part of the political fringe. Now they are the ones arousing skepticism from today's fringe.

The Greens, acknowledged by the pope and challenged by a protest party, are now squarely part of the political mainstream. The party completed a circle last week: They have gone from being a protest party to one that is making room for a new protest party.

In the late 1970s, the center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD) did not pay serious attention to the environmental consciousness that was taking shape on the fringes of society. This gave the Green Party a chance to come into being and win seats in Germany's national and regional parliaments.

As a protest party, the Greens had two major objectives. First, they sought to incorporate environmental thinking into the political system. Second, they wanted to change the system. They wanted to change Germany's political culture and create a new way of dealing with power, starting with clothing and shoes. The Green political movement began with overalls and sneakers. They were characterized by their grassroots approach and their skepticism toward power.

All Parties Are Now Green

The Greens have achieved their first goal. In a sense, all parties have become green today. After some initial trials and tribulations, the conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU), its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU), and the liberal Free Democratic Party (FDP) now support phasing out nuclear power. In May, Kretschmann became Germany's first Green state governor. But just as the Greens have managed to implant their core idea into the political system, the system has implanted its laws into the minds of the Green Party's leading politicians. They have developed a taste for power.

The political system is incredibly powerful. Those who let themselves become involved in it lose a part of their former identity and become creatures of the system. It's a system that robs them of their ideals and radicalism. The pope, in his speech to the Bundestag, put it this way: "Success can also be seductive."

This is precisely what has happened to the Greens. They sought success within the political system, but to achieve that they have distanced themselves considerably from their roots as a protest party. They have put on three-piece suits, waged wars and made thousands of compromises to acquire and hold on to power. Their top politicians have lost their connection to the base.

The Greens have made the system greener, but the system has also tamed the Greens. They are now one of the parties fighting for the political center, one of those unobjectionable parties that a pope can bless.

A Party Without a Papal Blessing

But it is not possible to remain both a protest party and part of the establishment, even if some Greens behave as if it were. It's a contradiction that hasn't escaped the notice of the people at the fringes, those who feel left behind or overlooked. In Berlin, they were unwilling to vote for a party that had flirted with forming a coalition with the conservative CDU.

The pope said that politicians should have a "listening heart." The Greens have lost their listening heart for the fringe of society, a fringe where a new protest culture may well be taking shape, one based on a lifestyle that revolves around information technology.

The establishment of the Greens was good for society. A protest movement that succeeds within the political system enriches and pacifies a country. But it's also good to see a party taking shape for those who feel overlooked and left behind -- a party without a papal blessing. In the best-case case scenario, it could signal the development of a new political era.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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