The Political Decomposition of the German Greens




(This article originally appeared in the North American Green journal Synthesis / Regeneration in 1997.)

At the beginning of the decade the German Green Party was on the verge of collapse. Torn throughout the 1980’s by bitter internal struggles over basic questions of political direction, the party was entirely unprepared for the tumultuous events of 1990-91: German re-unification and the Gulf war. In the first elections of the newly “united” Federal Republic in December 1990, the Greens fared miserably, failing to garner the 5% of the popular vote needed for representation in parliament. Many Germans concluded that the great experiment of Green politics had already run its course in the country where it first came to prominence.
But history rarely follows through on our expectations, and today Germany’s Greens have emerged from their crisis stronger, in mainstream political terms, than ever before. After purging all the troublesome radicals from its ranks, the party successfully united its Eastern and Western wings and commenced an unseemly rush to repudiate virtually every principle it had stood for since its founding 17 years ago. As a result die Grünen now stand poised to assume the king-maker role in German politics, potentially calling the shots as the indispensable junior coalition partner in the next national government. The latest regional elections in March of this year confirmed the Greens’ strength with over 11% of the popular vote. Both internally and in public opinion, the German Greens are ready to rule.
This spectacular electoral and public-relations success, however, mirrors a massive political failure. The formerly activist-driven “anti-party party” has shriveled to a coterie of thoroughly professionalized career politicians without any ties whatsoever to grassroots movements. In the words of radical ecologist Jutta Ditfurth, a former leader of the Greens’ left wing who quit the party in disgust in 1991, die Grünen have metamorphosed from “an expression of societal opposition” to “an alibi for their clientele.” The party’s social base has shifted to an increasingly comfortable and complacent middle-class milieu which still feels a need to identify with “progressive” causes; voting Green soothes their consciences. Thus de-fanged, chic environmentalism has effaced the possibility of ecological and social transformation.
Indications of this advanced stage of political decay abound. After a decade of battling within the party for grassroots democracy and political integrity, most left greens departed in ’90-’91 when the reformist tide seemed insurmountable. Since then the party has drifted steadily toward the right. A number of prominent Greens supported the Gulf war, and the entire party quickly made its peace with Helmut Kohl’s forced re-unification of the two Germanies. With the collapse of the Eastern command economies, the party’s mainstream declared its definitive dismissal of “the left” along with the entire right-left schema. Suddenly the ridiculous slogan “neither right nor left”-which despite widespread North American misconceptions had never been part of the Greens’ self-image in the 1980’s-came to define the party’s public profile. Hand in hand with this went the ascendancy of a new ideological dress code: the “primacy of ecology.” This shibboleth served not to deepen the party’s commitment to ecological integrity but to jettison once and for all any pretense to social commitment.
Having finally abandoned the last vestiges of political opposition, the Greens have worked tirelessly to integrate themselves into Germany’s status quo. Not content to simply trumpet its unquestioning devotion to capitalism and the state at every opportunity, the party has gone to great lengths to prove its enthusiasm for “the free market, efficiency, and privatization.” Joschka Fischer, the Greens’ most prominent spokesperson, has called for privatizing publicly owned utilities. The party’s candidate for President in 1994, Jens Reich, argues for cutting social spending and privatizing social services. In the state of Bremen Greens in the ruling coalition carried out immense “development” projects that mostly benefited Mercedes-Benz; and in 1995 a Green mayor of Munich presented an environmental award to Siemens, Germany’s largest nuclear power corporation, just as a massive boycott of the company was underway, supported by over one hundred grassroots groups.
On foreign policy the party has done no better. The most important question facing European environmentalists, labor organizers, and civil rights activists is the shape that continental integration will take. The German Greens have greeted successive versions of the Maastricht treaty (the European Union’s counterpart to NAFTA) with a cacophony of confusion, failing utterly to offer any cogent critique of the treaty’s schemes for militarization of the continent and boundless appeasement of capital-despite enormous popular opposition to this vision of “unity.” Today the Green leadership’s responses to the EU’s plans range from a meek to an enthusiastic “Yes!” to whatever “Europe” the elites design.
Die Grünen have also thoroughly disgraced the peace movement that once brought them to power. From demanding the abolition of NATO during the 1980’s, many Greens, especially members of the Bundestag or federal parliament, are currently pushing for NATO’s expansion into Eastern Europe. More appallingly, in 1993 the party’s highest federal body endorsed “humanitarian intervention in foreign lands” by the German military, thus violating a taboo which has held even within the German political mainstream since the second world war.
Worse still, some of the disturbingly reactionary themes that have always lurked at the margins of Green politics have recently come to the fore. The party’s highest ranking public official, Vice President of the Bundestag Antje Vollmer, has gained notoriety for her open embrace of old-fashioned German nationalism. Her July 1995 speech to the parliament appealed to the archaic resentments (the loss of the Sudetenland!) and made references to Heimat, or homeland, which still ferment in the psyches of many of her fellow citizens.
It is hardly surprising, then, to find the Greens have joined in numerous coalitions with the euphemistically named Ecological Democratic Party (ÖDP), a tiny sect of right-wing extremists founded by the would-be eco-dictator Herbert Gruhl. The authoritarian ÖDP is shunned by Germany’s established conservative parties, but the Greens have no trouble cooperating with their candidates. In Bavaria there have even been a few instances of Green collaboration with the far-right Republicans, a much larger party which unlike the ÖDP poses a serious threat to Germany’s already tenuous democratic tradition.
As unsettling as such cases are, they so far remain relatively isolated. The Green tendency that favors cooperation with traditional conservatives, on the other hand, is growing rapidly. Chancellor Kohl’s Christian Democrats (CDU) are the coalition partner of choice for a steadily increasing number of Greens. There are already local CDU/Green coalitions in Hessen, the Rhineland, and especially North Rhine-Westfalia, Germany’s largest state. In addition, the state Green parties in Baden-Württemberg and Saxony have strong pro-CDU factions. Even the Hessen-based Realos, a competing Green tendency devoted to Kohl’s major opposition, the Social Democratic Party, are saying that Green coalitions with the CDU make sense in other states. And this February the Greens’ spokesperson on budgetary issues made headlines by publicly endorsing a CDU-Green coalition at the national level.
Overtures toward the Christian Democrats are still quite controversial within the Greens, but the reason has nothing to do with any principled stand against cooperation with the hopelessly corrupt political establishment. It is simply that the other wing of that establishment, the Social Democrats (SPD), are a more promising partner to satisfy the Green lust for executive power. The Realo faction, led by Fischer, has single-mindedly pursued this strategy for well over a decade, and their dream of a federal red-green administration seems closer today than ever. At the beginning of March an internal memo from Fischer’s office reached the press, revealing Realo plans to split the Greens by isolating those opposed to coalition with the SPD and forcing them out of the party. The Realos’ timing is impeccable; the remaining fragments of the left within the party are divided beyond repair on this issue. The “moderate” wing of the “Left Forum” faction is now aligned with the Realos; if they weren’t, the red-green coalition currently in power in North Rhine-Westfalia, which is supposed to serve as the model for the Federal Republic as a whole, would have collapsed already.
So what do we get with red-green in office? In North Rhine-Westfalia we get the deportation of Gypsies under the guise of a “reintegration program.” In Hessen we get accommodation to the nuclear industry. In the city of Tübingen we get a Green mayor clearing public parks of the homeless. All in the name of “pragmatism” and “ecological reform.”
The function of die Grünen today is to neutralize any remnants of potential resistance to the German economic and political elites’ plans, to bring “progressive” folks into the fold, to definitively marginalize any possible social alternatives. Anybody working for fundamental change has long since left the party behind: the Greens are no longer an ally, they are an opponent.
Are there alternatives? Certainly there is still enormous potential for broad-based, radical social-ecological opposition. In early 1997, tens of thousands of Germans went into the streets to block nuclear waste transports (and yes, the Greens tried to piggyback on this upsurge). There is a large, well-informed and well-organized movement against biotechnology and genetic engineering. And anti-EU protests remain widespread if somewhat ideologically diffuse.
Many left greens who are now unable to work within the party they helped build continue to be politically active in other venues. In particular, the radical ecologists around Ditfurth and her comrade Manfred Zieran have regrouped in the Ecological Left, an organization that has learned from the past mistakes of parliamentarism although still struggling with sectarian habits. They are active in grassroots movements across the country, including the East, and publish an excellent journal called ÖkoLinx (contact them at Neuhofstrasse 42, 60318 Frankfurt, Germany). The Ecological Left also collaborates with the Hamburg eco-socialists Rainer Trampert and Thomas Ebermann, one-time leaders of the Green left. While these efforts are impressive and inspiring, they remain numerically small.
What can North American left greens learn from this depressing history?
• We need to rethink the role of electoral activity. Thanks largely to the hard work of Zieran and others, the German Greens established innovative organizational safeguards against internal hierarchy and parliamentary co-optation. But these mechanisms, stringent as they were, proved insufficient; even Ditfurth has admitted that she didn’t reckon with how quickly a flirtation with electoral success can eviscerate a grassroots movement.
• Remember that an endorsement of parliamentary democracy means a rejection of participatory democracy. If we are going to venture into the electoral arena, we need a coherent strategy for integrating this endeavor with the real work of building social counter-power. Form and content are inseparable; reformist politics go hand in hand with organizational hierarchy, and professionalization leads straight to political complicity.
• Hard work in locals isn’t enough. We need to push for radical positions nationwide, throughout the whole organization. The left within die Grünen was initially the predominant influence in Frankfurt, Hamburg, and Berlin, three of Germany’s four crucial cities. They failed to maintain this influence partly through an inability to consolidate their strength at the federal level. The need for an organized left presence does not disappear once the broader group has adopted radical positions.
• We should be intransigent in our insistence on anti-capitalism and anti-statism. Opposition to corporate power is on the rise, and left greens must be prepared to offer a clear understanding of the system that underlies it. Similarly, our anti-statism must mean a fundamental, not a coincidental, opposition to the state.
• Don’t be fooled by middle-class receptivity to innovative ideas. Capitalism constantly needs new ideological grease to keep its cogs turning. Every single one of the German Greens’ leaders who are presently carrying the party inexorably to the right began their political careers as committed radicals. They were swallowed up by the apparent ease of their early success, and are now buoyed along by nothing more than Yuppie enthusiasm for cosmetic environmental renewal. The fetishization of media-ordained “effectiveness” is anathema to genuine social change.
For better or worse, the saga of the German Greens is not yet over. By 1998 they may have realized their perverse fantasy of assuming state power in the Federal Republic. Or their courtship of the Social Democrats might end in tears with a “grand coalition” of CDU and SPD. But no matter what the outcome of this partisan maneuvering, the basic contours of German society will remain the same, and the Greens will have done nothing to modify them.