Lukas Beckmann has fond memories of the birth of the Green party 30 years ago. It was during the 1979 campaign for the European parliamentary elections and he and other founding members, Petra Kelly, Joseph Beuys and Rudi Dutschke, drove from university to university in his rickety old blue Peugeot 504, which guzzled 12 liters of leaded gasoline per 100 kilometers (19 miles per gallon), had no catalytic converter and was as aerodynamic as a brick wall.
"We worked day and night," he recalls. They had just enough money for gas and food. "We had nothing materially but had everything in terms of ideals." Beckman, a quiet, unpretentious man, is wearing a brown cord jacket and sitting in his favorite café in the Hamburger Bahnhof, a contemporary art museum in Berlin. He was there at the 1980 congress in Karlsruhe, in southwestern Germany, that formally founded the party.
Half a year before that, sitting in the party's first headquarters, a corrugated iron hut in the government district of Bonn, the West German capital, he had followed the European election results on an old television set. The Greens got 3.2 percent. It was a respectable result. "At that point it was clear that we had arrived."
And Beckmann will be there this Friday at the party congress in the southwestern city of Freiburg, a Green bastion, when the Greens will be celebrating a surge in opinion polls to unprecedented levels of over 20 percent. They are well ahead of the center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD) in the city-state of Berlin and in the state of Baden-Württemberg, where regional elections will be held next year.
Three decades ago, the Greens were a radical minority bent on shaking up German politics. Now they're a firm part of the mainstream. No other party has been pronounced dead so often. "The Greens?" Helmut Schmidt growled when he was SPD chancellor in Bonn at the time of the party's birth. That wasn't a party, he told journalists. "They're just environmental idiots who will have disappeared again soon!"
Their imminent demise was also predicted in 1990, when they failed to clear the 5 percent threshold to get back into parliament, and in 1998, when their party congress in Magdeburg voted in favor of raising the price of a liter of gasoline to five deutsche marks (€2.56) -- political harakiri in a country of automobile lovers whose economic fortunes depended on the car industry.
Just seven years later, political pundits were once again predicting their death when patriarch Joschka Fischer retired, ill-tempered as usual, following the 2005 election defeat that ousted the Social Democrat-Green government. The party served as the junior partner in a coalition government under Chancellor Gerhard Schröder of the SPD from 1998 to 2005.
But the Greens have bounced back yet again. They are back in government with the Social Democrats in Germany's most populous state, North Rhine-Westphalia, following a regional election there this year. They govern together with Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU) in the city-state of Hamburg and they're in government with the CDU and the pro-business Free Democratic Party (FDP) in the small southwestern state of Saarland.
The cities of Freiburg, Tübingen and Konstanz have Green mayors and the party secured the appointment of a lesbian judge to the Federal Constitutional Court.
In recent months, the Greens have been battling the ruling CDU on nuclear power and on Stuttgart 21, the deeply controversial train station and high-speed rail construction project, in bitter political debates in which the SPD has been relegated to the sidelines. At this point, who can seriously rule out the possibility that the Greens may field a chancellor in the not-too-distant future, with the SPD as junior partner?
The Feel-Good Party
The Greens' attraction isn't explained by their policies. In fact they have surprisingly little to say on a range of important economic issues and many of their social policy proposals are unaffordable. What makes them irresistible to many people is the impression they give of always being on the right side. This is a feel-good party. It gives people a reassuring sense that they will somehow be morally elevated if they vote for it. Green voters hardly ever feel they have to justify their choice -- that is a major advantage in the competition for votes.
The SPD remains tainted by the deep welfare cuts it imposed in 2003 and 2004, and people still think the party isn't really serious about social justice. The CDU, for its part, is still widely regarded as a little dusty and old-fashioned, despite the best efforts by the party's leadership to shake off that reputation. Meanwhile, support for the FDP has slumped amid accusations that it is just pursuing policies that suit the interests of its wealthy clientele.
People who vote for the Greens, by contrast, don't need to explain their choice. Who isn't opposed to climate change? Who isn't in favor of protecting seals? Who doesn't have doubts about the safety of nuclear power? And who doesn't think that men and women should have equal rights?
The Greens have managed to maneuver themselves into the center of society. The Green world of 30 kilometer per hour traffic zones to conserve fuel and reduce noise and emissions and the farming and consumption of sustainable organic produce is part of everyday life now, at least in the well-to-do urban districts where the party recruits its supporters.
Mainstream and Rebellious
Yet the party's leaders have managed to retain their old image as being cheeky, unconventional and a little rebellious. That is why the party has effortlessly tapped into the new wave of grassroots protest that has formed in Germany against radioactive waste transports to the controversial Gorleben interim storage depository, the Stuttgart train project and new flight routes over Berlin that are being created as the city prepares to open its new international airport southeast of the city.
All the other parties are suffering from a general disenchantment with politics -- but the Greens are profiting from it. A vote for Green leaders such as Claudia Roth, Jürgen Trittin and Renate Künast is also a vote against the political establishment to the right and left of them. The fact that much of the leadership is close to retirement age seems to have escaped the public's attention -- one of a number of contradictions that the Greens seem to be able to overcome with ease.
At times it seems as though the natural laws of politics do not apply to this party. Other parties are constantly measured in terms of how their demands match up to reality. If a politician supports a policy that directly contradicts his or her previous position, that is rightly regarded as opportunistic.
But Green voters seem to be applying different standards to their party. When the Green leadership criticizes the German army mission in Afghanistan that the party itself launched nine years ago, that is regarded not as populism but as a return to its roots.
Only the Greens seem to manage to contradict themselves and get away with it. The party's national energy policy calls for the construction of new power lines and switching stations needed to prepare the electricity grid for a future of renewable power.
'Not in My Backyard'
But local Green politicians such as Karin Dialer-Strackerjahn, a councillor in the northern German Wesermarsch district, happily protest against any such projects in their backyard. She says the marshland between Bremerhaven and Oldenburg with its half-timbered buildings, lush meadows and "many, many horses" is unsuitable for a planned switching station to serve a power line running from Norway to Germany. Norway's pumped-storage hydroelectric plants are crucial to Europe's green energy revolution because they cancel out fluctuations in the power supply from wind and solar power.
Similarly, down south in the Black Forest there are plans to build a pumped-storage hydroelectric plant near the village of Atdorf. But thousands of fir trees would have to be cut down for this green project, which is why the local Green Party opposes the project.
There are many such cases where the green dream of a renewable energy future clashes with local campaigns in defense of every single tree that would get sacrificed. But strangely, the Greens are profiting from this contradiction. In national politics, they are seen as the chief proponents of a grand vision. At the local level, they are seen as champions of resistance.
How long will they be able to get away with this dichotomy? Matthias Jung, co-chief of the Electoral Research Group, a polling institute, says the Greens have scored points by keeping a low profile on a range of issues. They are profiting from public disenchantment with the government -- not an unusual phenomenon one year after a general election, although the discontent is very pronounced at preset. Being in opposition in such an environment helps boost a party's popularity, and it helps that the Greens are remaining vague on many issues. "A clear policy profile delights one's own supporters but is also creates resistance," says Jung.
The Greens are also benefiting from a decline in party loyalty among German voters. These days, most people could envisage switching support from one party to another in successive elections. Opinion polls show 30 percent of people could imagine voting for the Greens. The hostility they once provoked among mainstream voters has vanished.
Pet Policies Top Agenda
Adding to the Greens' good fortune is the fact that their pet issue, the environment, is a hot topic at the moment. Public interest in economic policy has lessened since the end of the crisis. The Greens are achieving something all other parties are failing at -- attracting new groups of voters. It is recruiting new middle class supporters who are environmentally aware, well-educated and financially secure.
Parties in opposition can sit back and take it easy, and this is particularly true of the Greens. Governing parties have to take unpopular decisions. During their seven years in power between 1998 and 2005, the Greens involved Germany in a war in Afghanistan and imposed deep welfare cutbacks that provoked mass demonstrations. One could say they came of age while in government. Now they're back in the sandpit where nothing one says is taken that seriously.
The fight for the right path to power was also the fight between two men: Joschka Fischer, who headed the party's pragmatic wing of "Realos," and Hans-Christian Ströbele, the idealist. Ströbele led the internal party rebellion against Germany's participation in the Kosovo war in 1999. Fischer on the other hand came to dismiss the environment and pacifism as niche issues. Ecology was important, he said in 1997, but it "doesn't move people as deeply and enduringly as the notion of individual liberty or equality."
Fischer identified fiscal and economic policy as core topics for a party that wanted to be taken seriously, and he tried to change the Greens accordingly. Fischer's allies including Matthias Berninger and the current party leader Cem Özdemir wrote strategy papers that with hindsight read like an instruction manual for converting an old ecological, pacifist party into a modern version of the FDP. The Greens, they said, should "take up the fallow intellectual legacy of responsible liberalism" to fill the gap between the center-left SPD and the conservative CDU.
Many left-wingers and pacifists left the Greens while it was in government. The party lost some 7,000 members in those seven years. Those who didn't leave, like Ströbele, found themselves marginalized. Today, Fischer is a corporate consultant and doesn't want to talk about the state of the Greens. But left-winger Ströbele, a member of parliament for the Kreuzberg district of Berlin, famous for its alternative scene, now finds himself back in the mainstream of his party, at the ripe old age of 71.
Green Support Usually Plunges When in Government
It is always the same pattern. The Greens grow when they're in opposition. In the wealthy southern state of Baden-Württemberg, they are scoring 32 percent in opinion polls. But when they get into government, their support usually plummets. That has been the case both in national and in regional state politics. At the local level, however, they have managed to get re-elected regularly.
The party leadership is worried about Hamburg, where the Greens are in government with the CDU and where their support is some 10 percentage points below the national trend. The party in the northern port city has been busy assuaging supporters incensed at its failure to stop the dredging of the Elbe River to allow bigger ships into the port, and its failure to prevent the construction of a coal-fired power station.
At the national level, the Greens have been happily proposing popular policies that would be impossible to fund. They want to increase monthly welfare payments to the longterm unemployed by €61 ($82), boost public spending on children living in poverty and soften rules requiring the long-term unemployed to take any job they're offered. The Greens say their polices would cost €60 billion ($82 billion) and propose recouping that money by raising the top rate of tax by three points to 45 percent and "closing tax loopholes." But such moves would only bring in €3 billion, leaving a financing hole of €57 billion in the party's social policy. That amounts to roughly the annual budget of the Federal Labor Agency, which pays out Germany's unemployment benefit.
Its policy on Afghanistan is similarly convenient. When he was foreign minister and deputy chancellor, Fischer managed to rally the Greens to support the German mission in Afghanistan. He sold it to them as a fight for human rights and women's equality, as a good war that contrasted with the bad war in Iraq.
But after he left in 2005, the party's position changed. Its delegates voted at a special party congress in 2007 that the Greens should oppose a renewal of Germany's ISAF mission. That means that while the party is opposed to the mission, its members of the federal parliament vote as they please. Last February, when the Bundestag, Germany's parliament, voted to renew the parliamentary mandate for German troops in Afghanistan, eight Green parliamentarians supported it, 35 abstained and 21 voted against the deployment.
The Fire Has Gone
There are a host of other issues where the party similarly lacks a clear line. The Greens no longer seem as eager to debate and argue with one another to close gaps in their policy program -- gaps which are apparent in issues from health care reform to integration.
Earlier this month, Green delegates gathered to approve the nomination of Renate Künast as their candidate for mayor of Berlin in next year's regional election. She demanded new jobs for the city, better education, fairer integration for immigrants, a better infrastructure and of course better climate protection. She painted a vision that no one could possibly object to, and that most probably will never be realized.
After Künast had spoken, the chairman of the Berlin regional Green Party organization, Stefan Gelbhaar, 34, climbed onto the stage to begin the formalities of picking Künast as mayoral candidate.
"Is there any need for discussion?" he asked the crowd. There wasn't. Then he asked who wanted Künast. Very many hands went up. When he asked who was opposed to her candidacy, no hands were visible. Abstentions? One woman at the back raised her hand and held it up for a few seconds, all alone.
No sign of the fiery, passionate debate of the old days. No sign of the "motley crew" of misfits and rebels that Beckmann waxed lyrical about. This didn't look like a party focused on policy and change. This looked like a candidate election society.
Reported by RALF BESTE, MARKUS DEGGERICH, JAN FLEISCHHAUER, KONSTANTIN VON HAMMERSTEIN, FELIX HELBIG, CHRISTOPH HICKMANN, WIEBKE HOLLERSEN, SIMONE KAISER, ALEXANDER NEUBACHER, CHRISTOPH SCHWENNICKE, MARKUS VERBEET