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The Greens grow up

November 19, 2010

Germany's Green party meets for its annual conference this weekend. It originally set out to be the anti-party party. Now, 30 years later after the party was founded, they're a force to be reckoned with.

The logo for the Alliance 90/Greens party
The Greens are today an influential party in German politics

West Germany was ripe for the founding of the Green party in 1980. There had been a lack of a serious political opposition during the 1970s and many intellectuals found the political system of then-West Germany to lean too far to the right. At the same time, new social movements were bringing the environment, women's issues, peace and civil rights into focus after having been largely ignored by the main parties. The Green party was going to reform the system from within.

"We're switching to the Greens. The only alternative. We're voting for the Greens."

With this slightly awkward slogan, the Greens began their first election campaign in 1980. Shortly before, the party had been founded at a national level in Karlsruhe. The party had its roots in the environmental movement, the anti-nuclear movement and civil society. Other issues key to the early Greens included questions about arms buildup and the NATO double track decision, which allowed for the stationing of American missiles in Europe.

Hans-Christian Stroebele
Stroebele is still fighting for the Greens' causes 30 years laterImage: AP

"There were serious problems in our society," said Hans-Christian Stroebele, a founding member of the Greens and, at 74-years-old, the oldest member of parliament for the Greens. “There was the threat of a nuclear-arms race and the destruction of the planet.”

The new party was formed as a result of criticism of the party system itself. The Greens wanted to do everything differently from how the established parties did things.

They saw themselves as the anti-party party. They wanted their own organization to be more democratic, pluralistic and transparent. To achieve this they introduced a number of strict rules that were only slowly abandoned over the years through struggles from within the party.

For example, originally, elected members of parliament were meant to give up their seats after two years to another party member as part of a rotation system meant to enforce a strict separation between the power of office and the mandate from the people. Both genders and different factions of the party had to be equally represented.

Even today the parliamentary group has two co-leaders, one of whom must be a woman.

The colorful oddballs enter parliament

In the 1980 elections, however, the Greens only won a disappointing 1.5 percent of the vote. But when an early election was called in 1983, they managed to get over the 5-percent hurdle to entering the Bundestag, Germany's lower house of parliament.

Two Green politicians with long hair and long beards
With their long hair and casual clothing, the Greens brought an irreverent attitude to politicsImage: AP

While the elected members from the other parties met for a church service before the first session of the new parliament, the Greens rolled a globe through the center of Bonn, then the capital of West Germany, and they carried flowers and branches into the Bundestag. With their casual clothing, beards and long hair, the Greens brought a little color into the normally dignified gray of the chamber. But it wasn't the way the Greens looked that was important, said Stroebele. "What was important were the new topics being addressed from the lectern."

At first the other parties found it difficult to work with these newcomers to the Bundestag. Only over time did they accept the Greens and integrate them into the parliamentary process. In 1990, however, the Greens suffered a setback. After reunification, they didn't make it over that 5-percent hurdle. Only by joining up with the Alliance 90 movement from the eastern German states were they able to secure their spot in the Bundestag.

The rise of Joschka Fischer

The early 1990s were a time of reorientation for the party. Internal disputes led several prominent left-leaning Green politicians, known as the fundamentalists, to leave the party. The so-called realists won out in the end with Joschka Fischer playing a significant role in determining the direction of the party at this time. Fischer had gotten government experience after his time as Hessen's environment minister beginning in 1985. In 1994, he became of one the co-leaders of the Greens’ parliamentary group.

Joschka Fischer outside the parliament chamber will a fellow member of the Greens
An anti-authoritarian in his youth, Fischer would lead the Greens into governmentImage: picture alliance / dpa

At a party conference in Bremen in 1995, Fischer broke a Green party taboo, arguing in favor of the German armed forces, the Bundeswehr, taking part in foreign military missions. The war in Bosnia and the massacre of Muslim men and boys in the UN-protected zone of Srbenica led Fischer to move away from the traditionally staunch pacifism of the Greens.

After the parliamentary election of 1998, the Greens joined the center-left Social Democrats (SPD) in a coalition government and Fischer became the country's foreign minister. In this new role he had to take some responsibility for Germany's participation in the Kosovo war. This change of course led to bitter arguments with the party base, which wasn't ready to endorse the militarization of Germany's foreign policy. At a special party conference in Bielefeld in 1999 things got downright tumultuous, and Fischer was hit in the head with a red paint bomb.

Joschka Fischer with red pain on his shoulder and the side of his face after being hit with a paint bomb
Fischer took a lot of flak for his support for Germany sending troops to KosovoImage: dpa

"This is a war," the then foreign minister explained to his party at the conference. "I never dreamed that this coalition of Social Democrats and Greens would be at war. But this war has cost hundreds of thousands of lives and that's the point where the Greens can no longer be considered a protest party."

In the end, the party members gave Fischer their support and a collapse of the SPD-Green coalition was avoided. The biggest victory for the Greens during their time in the government was the agreement to phase out nuclear energy use in Germany.

After the 2005 elections, the Greens went back to being in the opposition. In 2009 the party received its best election results yet, winning 10.7 percent of the vote.

Since then their position in the opinion polls has continued to rise. In some regions the Greens have long beat out the SPD in popularity and are seen as the main left-leaning party. According to Stroebele, in some parts of Berlin the Greens are more popular than any other party.

Author: Bettina Marx (hf)
Editor: Rob Turner