The German Greens – changing with the times. Photo by Michael Reuter

The German Green Party, or to give it its full name, Alliance ’90/The Greens (Bündis 90/Die Grünen), deserves serious consideration by anyone engaged in green electoral politics. It has travelled further down the path of political party development than almost any other green party. Its current co-leaders, Simone Peter and Cem Özdemir, preside over a political group with experience of governing a major European country between 1998 and 2005, and which is currently the senior partner is the state government of Baden-Württemberg, one of Germany’s most economically powerful states. The history of Die Grünen is impossible to separate from the last 50 years of German history, but it is one example of a radical political party taking the collective decision to directly seek government where before it had not; to move on from its base in social movements; and to reconcile environmentalism with capitalism. When it came across a crossroads in the late ’80s it took a decisive turn. Whether that leaves a history of compromise or incorporation is for others to decide.

Die Grünen formed in West Germany as an alliance of the student, environment and peace protests of the ’60s, ‘70s and early ‘80s, who had decided to seek political office. In 1979 several green groups joined together to form the Alternative Political Union, The Greens (Sonstige Politische Verenigung, Die Grünen) for the inaugural 1979 European Parliamentary elections. Petra Kelly was instrumental in this union and became something of a figure-head for the movement. She was instrumental in the following year when Die Grünen officially became a federal party.

On the back of both anti-nuclear power and weapons protests in the early ‘80s the new party quickly became successful, passing the 5% threshold to reach the Bundestag in 1983. Die Grünen’s development was not smooth, however, and in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, the party struggled to cope with twin crises of internal party conflict and German reunification. This was reflected in the 1990 federal elections where the West German Greens failed to make it into the Bundestag, although the East German Greens did make it past the 5% threshold.

The unification of East and West Green Parties coincided with the decisive resolution of the internal struggles, and the party built its strength throughout the ‘90’s, culminating in the triumphal entry to government in coalition with the Social Democratic Party of German, or SPD. Under the SPD’s Gerhard Schröder as Chancellor, Die Grünen leader Joschka Fischer became Vice-chancellor and Foreign Minister.

In coalition Die Grünen pushed through a batch of policies many long-time members considered a far cry from Die Grünen’s routes. The decision to support the intervention in Kosovo, inaction on nuclear power and support for Schröder’s ‘Third Way’ Agenda 2010 stand out. Despite, or perhaps, because of these compromises the period was one of stability of Die Grünen. In fact, they only left the government in 2005 because SPD loses made a restatement of coalition vows politically and arithmetically unfeasible.

In 2005 Die Grünen found themselves out of either federal or state government for the first time in two decades, and the resignation of Fischer marked a distinct new chapter in their history. Despite this Die Grünen vote has remained steady. In 2011 Die Grünen became the senior partner in the state government of Baden-Württemberg, under the leadership of Winfried Kretschmann. This was the first time in their history they had served as the senior partner in a state level governing coalition.

However, the future of Die Grünen remains uncertain. In many ways the history of Die Grünen can be divided into two parts – the journey from protest to government; and whatever it is that has come after it. This second period is barely a decade old but it would not be unfair to say that this decade has been spent pondering the journey made during the first period of Die Grünen history, and deciding how to deal with that legacy. I believe other green parties could gain significantly from considering the same question, and considering what Die Grünen’s history can tell us about green electoral politics.

The defining question of the first period of Die Grünen as I see it is: how could a party birthed in the peace movement be part of the government which deployed the first German troops to a foreign country since World War 2? One answer considers the role of the Die Grünen in German political history. As a relatively young party Die Grünen has had less of a historical memory and guilt from the Nazi period than other older and longer established parties. This has allowed them to take on the role as political taboo breaker, including again supporting military intervention. However, this is not a sufficient explanation because it doesn’t explain the transformation of the party from peace protesters to decisive military decision makers. We have also to look at the history of the party’s internal struggles.

The late ‘80s and early ‘90s is the defining period of modern German political history, and it is also so for Die Grünen. They not only had to contend with challenges brought by reunification, but had to do this whilst fighting their own internal battles. Over this period the greens in East and West were able to merge, and at the same time there was a hugely significant redistribution of power within the party.

Joachim Jachnow divides Die Grünen during that period into 4 distinct tendencies. The first, and initially dominant tendency came to be known as the ‘Fundis’. They were radical ecologists who believed in a new environmental politics that would overthrow the current system. Petra Kelly was an influential figure in the Fundis tendency, and argued for the need for an ‘anti-party’. A party which would not compromise, and as such rejected working in coalitions. Instead the Fundis took their lead from social movements and protests, using the Bundestag as a megaphone to reach a larger audience. They also became reliant on ‘celebrity’ figures, like Kelly, to carry their message to the wider German population.

A second tendency were the Eco-socialists. They connected the struggle against environmental destruction, to the struggle against capitalist exploitation. They were a smaller tendency, concentrated in northern cities where they attempted, largely unsuccessfully, to forge links with workers movements and organised labour. Whilst the Eco-socialists also rejected much of the contemporary political system, they were willing to work in coalition with the SPD as the historical party of the working class.

The third tendency became known as the ‘Realos’. Concentrated in southern states such as Baden-Württemberg and Bavaria, the Realos were centred on figures such as Fischer, Daniel Cohn-Bendit and Hubert Kleinert. They argued for drastic compromise, in order to form coalitions with the SPD and thus achieve direct influence on mainstream policy, seeking to shift it in a green direction.

A final, much smaller tendency were the Eco-libertarians. They believed that market forces should be used to combat the environmental crisis. Despite being small in number, they were able to wield influence by being well-connected and wealthy. The four tendencies came into direct conflict during the late ‘80s, and though the primary clash was between the Fundis and the Realos, the smaller Eco-socialists and Eco-libertarians tendencies made key decisions at key moments which ultimately saw the Realos overhaul the Fundis to become the leading tendency within the party.

Despite the great success Fundis leadership had brought – they earned 8.3% of the vote in 1987 following Chernobyl protests – they suffered from two key weaknesses in comparison to the Realos. Firstly, the horizontal organisation of the Fundis party structure meant that a small, but well organised group within Die Grünen could wield disproportionate influence over the membership. The Realos were just such a small organised group, and were well funded by the Eco-libertarians. Secondly, in order to motivate this horizontal organisational structure, the Fundis relied on high profile figures and on the tide of popular protest, rather than developing support for a more detailed analysis and policy program amongst members and potential allies, such as organised labour. This reliance on the media spotlight enabled the Realos, with the help of sympathetic journalists, to project themselves into highly visible positions, and to convince a large portion of Die Grünen’s membership to support their program.

However, the triumph of the Realos over the Fundis cannot be separated from the changes affecting the whole of Germany at the time. Re-unification was the final nail in the Fundis coffin. The first issue re-unification forced Die Grünen to contend with was the East German Greens. The East German Greens initially opposed re-unification but were forced to merge with the pro-re-unification Bundis ’90, a liberal coalition of civil rights activists. This was partly due to the need to reach 5% in order to enter the Bundestag, and partly because the Realos had used their influence to pour unilateral funding and support into Bundis ’90, rather than the East German Greens. This move caused many Eco-socialists to leave the party, angered by the move to fund a coalition focused only on individual rights, over a party which also fought for collective rights. With that, the Fundis’ most significant allies within the party were gone.

The second issue thrown up by re-unification was the electoral arithmetic. In the 1990 federal elections, the 5% threshold to enter the Bundestag was calculated separately in East and West. As a result, whilst the Bundis ‘90/East German Green alliance was able to enter the Bundestag, the bitterly divided Die Grünen in the West were not. This electoral disaster made two things possible. Firstly, it necessitated the merger of Bundis ’90 and Die Grünen, in order to reach a Germany wide 5% threshold at the next election. This brought in the more liberal Bundis ’90, who were far closer to the Realos than the Fundis. Second, the disaster convinced many members of the need for radical change in the party. At a conference in 1991 the Realos largely de-democratised the party structures, and took total control of the party, with the full consent of the majority of members.

By the end of this process Die Grünen were firmly in Realos control. The murder of Kelly by her partner and fellow Die Grünen politician Gert Bastian in 1992 was a tragedy symbolic of the end of the power of the Fundis. The triumph of the Realos was realised in 1998 when they entered into coalition with SDP and Fischer took the Foreign Ministry, becoming Vice-Chancellor of the re-unified Federal Republic of Germany.

After 7 years in government, SPD losses made a continuing ‘red-green’ coalition impossible. Die Grünen found themselves out of power at federal and state level for the first time in two decades. Fischer’s subsequent retirement from front-line politics marked the transition into the second period of Die Grünen history.

This second period of its history has been a reckoning of the first period, played out across state and federal elections in Germany for the last decade. Red-green coalitions have continued, but many black-green coalitions with the conservative Christian Democratic Union of Germany (CDU) are also common. The formation of Die Linke, or The Left, in 2007 as a left-wing alternative to both Die Grünen and the SPD has added a new dynamic to German politics, and has been controversial amongst Die Grünen. In particular, there have been several instances in which Die Grünen have rejected red-red-green coalition with the SPD and Die Linke, to form a black-green coalition with the CDU, for example in Hamburg in 2008.

Die Grünen are struggling to form a new identity in the post-Realos period. The once young, activist supporters are now older, more comfortable, and the new young supporters are urban, educated and wealthy. Whilst this allows them to avoid the tides of populism that sweep Germany, it prevents much expansion beyond their traditional 8-9% of the vote. There is no longer the same connection with social movements that they had started with, and so prospects for growth seem to be limited.

Symbolic of Die Grünen’s current predicament is their greatest success of recent years, becoming the senior partner in a state government for the first time in Baden-Württemberg, with Winfried Kretschmann as their first Land-Minster President. Baden-Württemberg had been controlled by the CDU since 1953, so the arrival Die Grünen in coalition with the SPD was something of political earthquake. The CDU had become incredibly unpopular due to a planned expansion of Stuttgart railway station, clearing the way for Die Grünen and the SPD. It is a mark of the crisis of identity within Die Grünen that Kretschman has since continued building that station expansion.

Whatever the future holds for Die Grünen, how they come to understand their history will be central. The history of Die Grünen also raises key issues for green parties in the rest of Europe. In electoral political terms Die Grünen have been a great success. They’ve achieved a significant and steady vote share, and regularly participated in government for over 2 decades. However, I have my doubts that the Fundis of the early ‘80s would consider this a success. Bombing in Kosovo and Agenda 2010 would surely seem more like incorporation to the very political system the anti-party was set up to break. Equally, the Realos would argue that it is only though directly seeking power that the party can make a difference to the lives of the German people. This is not an empty statement. The pro-immigration and internationalist stance of Die Grünen whilst in federal government is reflected in the wide acceptance of humane asylum processes and immigration policies amongst politicians at the Federal level.

So, the history of Die Grünen serves as an illustration of the effect you can have if you choose to directly seek power, rather than to never compromise your principles. It also raises the issue of the connection between green parties and social movements. The Fundis showed during the ‘80s that significant success can be achieved by acting as the political tip-of-the-spear for social movements. But Die Grünen also show the limits to co-operation between social movements and political parties. The reliance on social movements, rather than a significant support for an analysis and program of their own, left the Fundis vulnerable to the Realos, and therefore, as the Fundis would see it, vulnerable to incorporation to the status quo.

It is possible to go further than this, to argue that the formation of Die Grünen was a symptom of the failure of social movements to achieve change, that the formation of a federal party was itself the act of incorporation, and the subsequent Realos takeover was inevitable from this point on. This seems too fatalistic to me. The Realos takeover was just as much the result of historical circumstance, and the failure of the Fundis to build any internal strength. The Realos had a program to implement. It may have been distant from the routes of Die Grünen, but it was a coherent program of environmental and social reform. The Fundis had no equivalent programme of their own.

This brings me to my final point for consideration. Whilst led by the Fundis, Die Grünen never reckoned with the relationship between environmentalism and capitalism. Whilst it is quite clear the central figures of the Realos had decided that capitalism was compatible with environmentalism, the fact that the Eco-socialists were a small and niche tendency, and that the Fundis never directly addressed this question meant no serious discussion was ever held within Die Grünen on the subject. The triumph of the Realos decided the issue out of political necessity, but no conscious decision was ever made by the party. It seems to me that this lack of discussion has played a major role in the party’s current identity crisis. Die Grünen still contains members sceptical of unfettered capitalism, particularly in the northern cities and in Berlin. But it also contains free-market conservatives in places such as Baden- Württemberg. I believe that it is an issue the party will have to address if it ever intends to expand from its current position. And I also believe that any green party needs to address this question directly, whatever decision is finally reached, on order to build sustained and lasting success over the many decades it can take for green change to take place.

These three issues – whether to compromise in order to directly seek power or to stick to fundamental principles; how a green party should relate to social movements; and what approach a green party should take to the relationship between capitalism and environmentalism – are fundamental to the history of Die Grünen. My aim has not been to settle them, but use the history of Die Grünen to raise and illustrate them. They are key issues for any green party at a crossroads in its history to consider, and, in my view, the Scottish Green Party, and the Green Party of England and Wales, are both coming up fast on just such a junction.