Today, Germany's Greens -- now the strongest Green Party in the world -- turn 25. There won't be any grand parties or brouhaha. They did a bit of that last year to fete the unofficial 25-year anniversary. Still, it is worth taking a moment to raise a glass to a party that began as a scruffy band of pacifist idealists and has evolved into one of the nation's biggest power players. Many of the Greens' early devotees were members of the famous '68 generation, a group of left-wing radicals who wanted to change the world. Others were Trotskyites and Maoists. They sailed into the German conscience on the wave of post-World War II memories and experiences. That wave remains powerful even today and continues to influence the Greens' and other parties' policies.
Since their salad days, these young mavericks have grown hard with experience and the reality of being thrown under the cold shower of real democratic process. Many have actually morphed into quite good statesmen and stateswomen. Today, the Greens help run the government, serving as the junior coalition partner to the country's Social Democrats. Probably the best summary of what the Greens have achieved came 15 years ago, on Aug. 9, 1990, when, amid all the preparation for German reunification, the prominent Green Party member and former Protestant pastor Antje Vollmer made a sermon-like speech to the German Parliament. "The European world no longer is afraid of the Germans," she said. "That's because we broke out in 1968, because we blew out the law-and-order mentality of this land, because we -- a new generation -- have civilized German society."
Who really civilized Germany?
One thing to note about the Greens is that they have never lacked self confidence. The nerve of this small group of friendly, former Maoist-loving rebels to declare themselves the healers of the republic stupefied even the most talented rhetoricians in the ruling conservative party.
The idea -- however delusional it may be -- that, in addition to building careers for its own members, the Green Party also managed to make Germany into a more livable civil republic is, nonetheless, not without charm. The reality, however, is the inverse. It was not the '68ers and their Green offshoots who civilized Germany, but Germany which civilized them. It is a favorite leftist activity to smear the post-World War II government of Konrad Adenauer. Yet, it was Adenauer's party and its ties to the democratic West that created the atmosphere for an opposition group like the '68ers to exist.
Over 25 years, the Greens have managed to arrive in the political middle. They not only are the strongest environmental party in the world, but they have tamed their early idealism to match the reality of politics. Their current most recognized public figure, Joschka Fischer, began his career as a rock-throwing provocateur. Now he is Germany's Foreign Minister and the country's -- and arguably Europe's -- most liked politician. The road to all this glory was not paved with the sunflowers the Greens so cheerfully sport and which decorate all their parties, platforms and literature. Still, they have, indeed arrived.
In 1990, as reunification approached, Vollmer made another self-aggrandizing statement on behalf of the party, saying, "Today, no one has more power in Germany than the Greens." At the time, the speech was mere rhetoric. Today -- in year seven of a coalition between the Social Democrats (SPD) and the Greens -- it is close to reality. While the Green-SPD coalition has had its low points -- particularly this year amid a push to pass needed health, pension and unemployment reforms -- they are currently riding high. Part of this is because of the conservative opposition's stunning ability to shoot themselves in the foot. (This week's doozy? They suggested sending Germany's unemployed to the island of Phuket to help the relief effort.) Still, time will tell if they manage to hold onto power and win re-election in federal elections in 2006.
How it all began
The founding of the Green Party was hardly done in a flurry to civilize the nation. They, themselves, never thought of it that way. For them, the important thing was changing, not bettering, the system. The creation of the Green Party did, however, manage to civilize one group of Germans -- the scrappy band of disillusioned rebels -- many of whom were the children of bourgeois, or even Nazi, families -- who nonetheless gravitated to what they called "alternative scenes." For many of these radicals, the Green Party came too late. For them, the best solution came in the form of the terrorist group the Red Army Faction, which was founded in the late 1960s and was dedicated to obliterating class differences through violence. At the height of its power in the 1970s, the RAF -- founded by, among others, Ulrike Meinhof -- was Europe's most feared terror organization and is responsible for the death of dozens. The RAF disbanded in 1998, the same year the Greens got their first taste of federal power. Hardly a coincidence.
Not that the Greens have similarity with the RAF. Naturally, oceans of difference separate the two and politically they have nothing in common. But many of their members began in the same idealistic place. In 1998, the split was complete: the political status of each group arrived at wholly different realities.
The death of idealism
Over the years, the Greens have sacrificed almost all of their sacred cows to the political process. Critics insist they have sold their environmentally-friendly souls for power and have lost their idealism. To this, there is but one truthful retort: Thank God. Their platforms from the 1980s read like a catalog of idiocies. Among other things, they wanted Germany to withdraw from NATO, raise gas prices as high as 5 marks a liter, and to legalize hash and other drugs. For years, the media lashed out at the Greens, poking fun at their tree-hugging ways and begging them to grow up. Now, they have. Today, the former pacifists support armed military missions abroad -- Kosovo and Afghanistan are the clearest examples. They also indirectly have supported the war on terror by green-lighting the deployment of Germans to patrol the Horn of Africa. They were even willing to make a compromise on nuclear energy, pushing back a deadline for when the last German reactor would be shut down.
The toughest choices of all were ones revolving around world conflicts. The Balkan Wars (1991-1995) and the Kosovo War (1996-1999) and the civilian massacres that resulted proved that war criminals cannot be greeted with armfuls of sunflowers. The hand wringing that accompanied these decisions pushed the party to its maturity and made its handling of these crises seem more honest and intelligent than that of their opponents. But, too often -- notably in the cases of Sarajevo and Srebrenica -- the debate dragged on too long.
Fischer, the Moses of the movement
Indeed, from their early program, the Greens have kept little -- except their fundamental opposition to the use of nuclear energy and the importance of equal representation among men and women in the party.
But will the Greens' success continue or will they simply be a phenomenon of one generation? It's a question debated by many. Certainly, one thing that underlies their success is their insistence on being a party of high morals. Another is that no party better understands how to play the media game than the Greens. And no party leader does his job better than Joschka Fisher, the Moses of the movement. Finding a replacement for him will be one of the party's biggest hurdles in coming years. In 2006, this Green Moses will have to part the German political waters again in order to win another victory in federal elections. It's still not clear if even he can succeed.
No matter what happens, one Fischer moment will forever be emblazoned in the memory of Germans and the Greens. In the midst of the Iraq war, as American officials shuffled to line up countries to support the ousting of dictator Saddam Hussein on the grounds that he was stockpiling weapons of mass destruction, Fischer looked over the evidence and the presentation made by US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and said simply, "Mr. Rumsfeld, I am not convinced." The curt reply may end up being the Green's defining moment, both for their own party and for the reunited Germany. In four words, Fischer summed up the whole nation's position on Iraq. Not only was his answer gracious, it was also unabashedly civil.