All Grown Up Germany's Greens Hit Adulthood

Once self-identified as the "anti-party party," Germany's Greens now have aspirations of moving into the Chancellery before long. At age 40, their story is one of astonishing success -- and change.
Current Green Party leaders Annalena Baerbock (left) and Robert Habeck. Between them is Katharina Fegebank, the party's lead candidate in upcoming city-state elections in Hamburg.

Current Green Party leaders Annalena Baerbock (left) and Robert Habeck. Between them is Katharina Fegebank, the party's lead candidate in upcoming city-state elections in Hamburg.


Christian Charisius/ dpa

There they are, the two heads of Germany's Green Party, Robert Habeck and Annalena Baerbock, sitting in a non-descript conference room in a hotel in Hamburg. Between them is the party's candidate for mayor, Katharina Fegebank. It's the first Tuesday of 2020, but Habeck's resolution has been around for quite a bit longer than just a week.

"On issues, on a personnel level and structurally," he says, the Greens want to "expand in the center of society." Next to him, Fegebank is essentially the personification of that aspiration.

The Hamburg elections are set to take place on Feb. 23, and should she win, not only would she become the first woman to govern a German city-state, but also the first member of the Greens to do so. It would mark the toppling of the last bastion of the center-left Social Democrats (SPD). At the moment, Fegebank's Greens in Hamburg are neck and neck in public opinion polls with the SPD, led by Peter Tschentscher.

The mere fact that a Green-led government is a realistic possibility in Hamburg shows just how far the party has come in its history. It was 40 years ago that a number of voter initiatives, citizen movements and other groups joined forces to establish the Green Party. They referred to themselves as an "anti-party party" at the time, and their platform could be summed up in a single word: opposition.

"I'll give them two years," grumbled then-Chancellor Helmut Kohl when the Greens first sent delegates to the (West) German parliament, known as the Bundestag, in 1983. "Then they will begin defecting to the SPD, one at a time."

That has proven to be an historic misjudgment, with the story of the Greens running in exactly the opposite direction. And now, at the beginning of 2020, the Greens have delegates in 14 of Germany's 16 state parliaments and are part of the governing coalition in 11 states. They are part of coalitions with the far-left Left Party, with the Social Democrats, with the business-friendly Free Democrats (FDP) and with the center-right Christian Democrats  (CDU). They control city hall in large cities like Stuttgart, Hannover and Darmstadt. In the southwestern state of Baden-Württemberg, Winfried Kretschmer heads up Germany's first-ever state-level coalition pairing the Greens with the CDU. They are currently polling at 21.8 percent, behind only the CDU.

There is much to suggest that the Greens will be part of Germany's next federal government. Whereas the traditional parties like the SPD and CDU find themselves consumed by power struggles , the Greens are reveling in their unity. And they appear to be on course to challenge the CDU for the role of Germany's leading party.

But how did a group of disparate protest movements manage to engineer one of the most successful party launches in the history of postwar Germany? How is the party dealing with its success? And how much of their founding vision remains?

1980: One Party After All

"After those gathered here ..." The bearded man in shirtsleeves hesitates and abruptly turns his head away from the microphone to examine the note in front of him. "What kind of a text is this?" he demands. His neighbor also begins perusing the document.

"Have passed articles of association, or something like that?" the bearded man demands to know.

"Yes," says the woman to his left.

The video, which has been immortalized on YouTube, is from Jan. 13, 1980, and shows the convention at which the Green Party was founded. "After those gathered here have passed articles of association, they resolve to merge the SPV Greens into the federal party of the same name."

SPV stood for "sonstige politische Vereinigungen," which can be translated as "other political associations." But now, it was no longer "other," it was a real party. The 1,004 delegates gathered in the Town Hall of Karlsruhe began cheering.

It marked the fusion of a number of different groups that hadn't really belonged together until that moment: organic farmers with conservative values, environmental hippies, anti-nuclear power activists, feminists and former student groups that leaned hard to the left. Together, they represented the movements from the 1960s and '70s, the smaller parties and debating clubs out of which this new nationwide party was formed.

The founders didn't have much in common aside from their acceptance of four fundamental values that still apply today: that they be environmentally engaged, socially active, dedicated to grassroots democracy and non-violent. Whereas the inseparability of environmentalism and social justice seems more important than ever these days, the principles of grassroots democracy and non-violence seem to have suffered through the years. But, as the Green Party's Bundestag vice president, Claudia Roth, says earnestly: "Non-violence and pacifism are not the same things." The Greens remain quite fond of their semantic tricks.


The Green Party Turns 40


Andreas Chudowski/ DER SPIEGEL

Is it even possible for a party like the Greens, which is likely to be part of the next government, to be run in a way that is consistent with grassroots democracy?

Not really, says Cem Özdemir, who was once co-leader of the party. "Our articles of association are certainly not the pinnacle of wisdom." The party's current leadership team, led by Baerbock and Habeck, tend to agree, and they have been trying for quite some time to amend the articles. To no avail.

The result? Today's Green Party has 95,000 members. But just as was the case when it was founded, 20 signatures are still enough to bring forward a motion.

Early on, a woman named Jutta Ditfurth was quite influential in the new party. The daughter of a well-known West German television moderator, she was – and remains – a voice of fundamental opposition to the status quo. It was a position that characterized the Greens early on. But before long, the so-called "Fundis" began losing the upper hand to a more pragmatic party wing, which came to be known as the "Realos." Ditfurth, along with thousands of others, left the party.

"They've become too wishy-washy," Ditfurth says over the phone, and one can hear in her voice that she's trying to sound more friendly than she would like to be. Indeed, she has little good to say about the party that she helped establish and which has become so successful.

No war, no nuclear power, self-determination for women and the abolishment of the ban on abortion: That was the Green Party consensus in the 1980s, says Ditfurth. "Our task was that of bringing those ideas to the center of society. And we were remarkably successful in doing so." Today, she says, the Greens are "very much a mainstream party, with all of its equivocations. Sometimes, a bit of the alternative spirit comes through for PR reasons, but the party orients itself toward conservative, sometimes right-wing conservative circles." For Ditfurth, the Green Party's break with its foundational values is unforgivable.

1983 was the year that the Greens first sent delegates, 28 of them, to the Bundestag, back when the German capital was still located in the sleepy Rhineland town of Bonn. The Green icon Petra Kelly made it sound at the time as though the party viewed parliament as just another house to squat.

And they did bring a fair amount of color to the staid institution. There was Jürgen Reents of Hamburg, formerly active in the Communist League. There was the textile engineer Eberhard Bueb, who had come to the Greens from the other direction, having formerly been a member of the business-friendly FDP. Willi Hoss, a welder, had been a member of the German Communist Party.

There was a fair amount of heckling directed at the Greens from the floor at the time. Shouts like: "Get back in the trees!" Or: "Have you ever had a job?" Or: "You look like you've been living in the forest!"

Green Party parliamentary group meetings, meanwhile, were public events. And they sounded quite a bit different than they do now: "We aren't a centrist party," said Petra Kelly during one such meeting. She was countered by Otto Schily, who said: "We shouldn't leave the center to others."

1985: The First Coalition with the SPD

It was a no-no, and not just from the point of view of fashion. On Dec. 12, 1985, a man was standing on the plenary floor of the state parliament building of Hesse wearing jeans and white athletic shoes. He was to be sworn in as the first-ever state cabinet member from the Green Party. The man's name: Joschka Fischer. "I found it shocking at the time," says Holger Börner, who was the governor of Hesse at the time. "Perhaps Mr. Fischer just needed it to bolster his image."

The swearing in of Joshka Fischer as the state environment minister was part of the establishment of an SPD-Green coalition government in Hesse, a milestone in the environmental party's history. "Hesse was the first step on a long road. After that, there was no way back to fundamental opposition," says Fischer today.

When Fischer joined the cabinet, it hadn't been all that long since he was a participant in street battles with the police and dreamed of revolution. Fischer's image as a rowdy, recalls his contemporary Hubert Kleinert, helped mollify some party members who were horrified at the thought of forming a coalition with the SPD. If the party had to submit to the stuffy day-to-day of government work, "then at least it should be done with combative posturing and alternative fashion," Kleinert writes. Which helps explain the athletic shoes.

In looking at the eagerness with which the Greens join governing coalitions today, it is difficult to imagine how hesitantly they approached power in the mid-1980s. Jutta Ditfurth, who was party spokesperson at the time, refused to recognize the state monopoly on the use of force. She said the Green Party could not "fully identify" with the state.

From this perspective, the very act of a Green Party member taking on a ministerial position was no less than a capitulation to the system -- a coup of the "Fischer Gang," as the Realo Wing was derisively referred to. Fischer, for his part, complained that the Fundi Wing had "urinated on him with tepid piss" and demanded that an election be held for new party leadership – which led to the re-election of Ditfurth and other Fundis. It was a typical outcome for the Green Party of the time.

The party's first foray into governing didn't go terribly well, despite Fischer's sartorial choices. The Greens wanted to block approval for the company ALKEM to operate nuclear facilities, but the SPD insisted. After not even 14 months, the SPD-Green coalition collapsed.

Back then, not even the "Fischer Gang" could have envisioned just how anchored in the center of society they would be a couple of short decades later. "I had assumed that the party's direction would be reversed as soon as we were back in the opposition. Astonishingly, that didn't happen," says Fischer.

And he wasn't the only one from the party who went on to have a successful career in politics. One of the men who worked with him in the Hesse Environment Ministry was a certain Winfried Kretschmann, today the governor of Baden-Württemberg.

1990: A Party for Reunified Germany

Prior to the construction of the Berlin Wall in 1961, there had, of course, been no Green Party. So it wasn't at all clear how the party might fare in the former East Germany once reunification came around. As it happened, it led to an unexpected new direction for the party – and Werner Schulz was a key part of it.

Schulz had been part of the East German opposition, which received significant support from elements within the Protestant church. West German Greens like Fischer had often spoken of revolution, but it was the East German civil rights activists that actually brought one about. That, though, didn't prevent people like Fischer from looking down on his Eastern counterparts. From his perspective, it was clear who was the boss.

The fact that Fischer turned out to be mistaken was the product of a rather charming accident of history. Following a ruling from Germany's highest court, the country's political parties agreed that for the first federal election after reunification, there would be a 5-percent hurdle for the western states, and a separate 5-percent hurdle for the eastern states. As it happened, the western German Greens didn't make it, only receiving 4.8 percent of the vote. The eastern German equivalent, meanwhile, secured enough support to be able to send eight delegates to the Bundestag.

The newcomers who arrived in Bonn to take their seats on the floor were different from the Fischer Gang in both their politics and their habits. "We were a mainstream opposition movement that had resisted a putative leftist state," Schulz says, who was one of the eight delegates. "The West German Greens saw themselves as a leftist opposition against a mainstream state."

In addition, the eastern German Greens were closer to political reality. Just three months before the fall of the Berlin Wall, Joschka Fischer had demanded that the German constitution be amended to remove the clause stating that reunification was the goal. "The eastern German delegates had life experiences from which we as the Green Party continue to profit today," says party founder Lukas Beckmann.

The eight delegates from the east were not the instinctual leftists their fellow party members from the west had been. They had never protested against the Vietnam War; they had protested against becoming a Soviet Union satellite state. They were in favor of NATO and had a positive view of the West. And they also had a different perspective on many domestic political issues. "We were closer to the CDU because some East German opposition activists like Arnold Vaatz had joined that party," says Schulz. "We had policy differences with the CDU, but we weren't fundamentally opposed to them."

The foundation for the CDU-Green coalitions that have become widely accepted in the party today was laid in the East.

1998: Federal Government

They wore dark three-piece suits: The former streetfighter Joschka Fischer and the former Mao admirer Jürgen Trittin. None of the other ministers looked more serious than the two cabinet members from the Green Party, all of whom had gathered for a group photo on Oct. 27, 1998, at Villa Hammerschmidt in Bonn, seat of German President Roman Herzog. The occasion? The first-ever Green-SPD governing coalition at the federal level.

It was the moment at which the Greens had finally and irreversibly reached adulthood. Eleven years earlier, Green Party floor leader Thomas Ebermann had been warned on his way to the podium to button up his shirt by Bundestag Vice President Annemarie Renger. But with the Green Party's participation in the German government, those days had become a distant memory.

Instead, the party now found itself confronted with problems that almost tore it apart. They had to support the NATO mission in Kosovo, the first battlefield mission for German troops since World War II. It was a particularly difficult period for Joschka Fischer, Germany's foreign minister. At a party conference in Bielefeld on May 13, 1999, he was struck in the ear by a bag of red paint.

It was in no way clear that Fischer would get his way. "If the party leadership had not received a majority for its position, that would have been that," says Fischer. "I would have stood up and announced my resignation."

Foreign policy remained the most difficult political field for the party. In November 2001, the Bundestag voted to approve the German armed forces' participation in the NATO mission in Afghanistan. Chancellor Gerhard Schröder of the SPD linked the issue to a vote of confidence. Eight Green lawmakers intended to vote against participation in the mission, which would have toppled the Schröder government. The Greens, though, were able to find a pragmatic solution to the situation: Four parliamentarians were forced to vote for the mission while the other four were able to vote their consciences.

Military missions weren't the only problems facing the party. "It was a difficult time" says Katrin Göring-Eckardt, who is currently the Green Party floor leader in the Bundestag. "I worked through the night on occasion with Otto Schily," she says, referring to the SPD interior minister. "That wasn't a lot of fun, particularly after Sept. 11. Schily was a domestic policy hardliner."

Ironically, despite the party's commitment to feminism, it was two men who held the reins. Fischer was responsible for demonstrating the party's seriousness while Trittin was to push through core party demands, first and foremost the phaseout of nuclear energy. And they were successful on both points, and on many others besides. The coalition reformed German citizenship laws and bolstered gay and lesbian rights, introducing registered partnerships, one step short of gay marriage.

"A decisive step was our decision at the time, with the 6.7 percent of the vote we had received, that our reform projects had to work for the entire country and not just for our voters," says Göring-Eckardt. "On several occasions, Joschka and others beseeched the parliamentary group: People, we are no longer just responsible for our clientele, but for the entire country."

The party's pliability came at a price. "Mostly because of Kosovo, we lost 15 state elections from 1998 to 2001," Trittin recalls. "In the European elections, our support fell by almost half."

But the surprising part wasn't the losses. It was the fact that, in contrast to the SPD, the Greens were able to win back their supporters. "In contrast to the SPD in 2005, we didn't make the mistake of panicking," says Trittin. "We stayed calm and fought our way back."

The anti-party party had finally become the party that Trittin meant when he said: "We can't leave it to others to push through our initiatives." It is an attitude that nobody in the party calls into question any longer.

2008: Coalition Roulette

At the end of the discussion, Anja Hajduk says she hadn't thought that she still had so much to say on the issue. A member of the Bundestag for the Greens, Hajduk is sitting in her second-floor office not far from the seat of parliament, the Reichstag, and has just finished talking for an hour about an event that was treated as the dawn of a new era when it took place in Hamburg in 2008: The first-ever state-level governing coalition between the CDU and the Greens.

The government lasted for about two-and-a-half years and Hajduk says that several mistakes were surely made during that time. But they weren't, she believes, a product of the CDU-Green pairing.

Still, the match with the Hamburg CDU was a difficult one for the Greens. The Christian Democrats in the city-state were led by Ole von Beust, who had been mayor of Hamburg since 2001. More to the point, early on in his tenure, he had formed a coalition with a man named Ronald Schill, a law-and-order right-wing populist. And von Beust had made him his interior minister.

That made a coalition with von Beust rather distasteful for some Greens, especially for Jürgen Trittin, part of the pair that led the Green Party in the campaign ahead of the 2009 general election. He saw the CDU-Green coalition in Hamburg more as one-off than as a strategic bellwether. His partner at the top, Renate Künast, however, felt that the coalition with the CDU could definitely have "appeal far beyond Hamburg."

Ultimately, Künast's vision would prove correct, but the Hamburg coalition itself ended up being too unstable to last. "We should have gone a bit slower," says Hajduk, who was part of the Hamburg city-state cabinet during that first CDU-Green coalition, responsible for the environment portfolio. She could, however, just as well pointed to other factors, such as the need – just three months after she took office in May 2008 – to renew the operating license for the controversial coal-fired power plant Moorburg. The Greens and their followers had been protesting against the plant for years, but Hajduk renewed the license anyway.

Still, that wasn't the direct cause for the coalition's ultimate collapse. But it certainly didn't make the Green Party rank-and-file any more excited about it – and after Ole von Beust resigned in August 2010, the Greens backed out of the partnership with the CDU that November. It was Katharina Fegebank, the Green Party's lead candidate for the upcoming Hamburg election in February, who announced that withdrawal. "Our expectations weren't met," she says.

The Greens, as hindsight has shown, were perhaps too ambitious, while the CDU wasn't ambitious enough. Even the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, which has a well-deserved reputation for leaning to the right, commented that the blame for the failed partnership lay more with the CDU than with the Greens, a verdict that Hajduk still recalls today.

2013: The Trauma

It was almost 10 years ago that the Greens found themselves in a similar position to where they are now. Following the 2011 tsunami in Japan and the resulting nuclear meltdown in Fukushima, the Green Party – which had long been a vocal proponent of phasing out nuclear energy – enjoyed survey results in excess of 20 percent. Many, in fact, began wondering if the Greens could become a new big-tent party in Germany, speculation that the Greens themselves weren't particularly fond of even then.

Still, the idea of the Greens actually leading a state government rather than merely being a junior coalition partner suddenly no longer seemed far-fetched. Moreover, the established big-tent parties, the SPD in particular but also the CDU, were no longer as monolithic as they had once been. In 2011, the Green Party candidate Winfried Kretschmann received 24.2 percent of the vote in Baden-Württemberg state elections and became governor at the head of a coalition with the SPD. (He repeated the feat in 2016, this time winning 30.3 percent and fashioning a coalition with the CDU.)

In early 2013, with a federal election approaching later that year, things were looking good for the Greens. Until, that is, the actual campaign got started and the party produced a platform that DER SPIEGEL described as "advertised robbery." It included plans for higher taxes and withholdings that went far beyond the wildest dreams of the SPD, with which the Greens hoped to be able to form a coalition. The platform was the product of an erroneous assumption made by the party that their voters were unselfish altruists. And once the votes were counted, the Greens had only managed 8.4 percent.

"A huge defeat," recalls Claudia Roth, with a remorseful expression on her face even now, almost seven years later. The ignominy was followed by the resignation of all those who personified the party during the 2013 campaign. Roth was one of them. Renate Künast and Jürgen Trittin likewise moved to the back of the bus.

Are they worried about a repeat of 2013 in the 2021 general election? In mid-December, Trittin was spooning mustard onto his rissole in the Bundestag restaurant and giggling over the difficulties much of the country was having with remembering the names of the new leadership duo for the SPD. And about the fact that even SPD party members were having trouble keeping them straight.

No, Trittin said, he didn't think the Greens would stumble again. The differences between then and now, he insisted, are quite significant. "We are anchored in German society in a completely different way. Today, we are seen as a reliable political power that people believe could govern better" than the current coalition pairing Chancellor Angela Merkel's CDU with the SPD.

Greta Thunberg and the Fridays for Future demonstrations certainly have something to do with that, Trittin said. It used to be, he added, that people saw the Greens purely as an opposition party. "But today, everyone says that we should be in government."

And if today's public opinion survey are anything to go by, they may get their wish.

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