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Germany's Green party: How it evolved

Rina Goldenberg
September 24, 2017

Germany's Greens have been trailblazers for ecological movements around the world. But since the 1980s they have become increasingly conservative — and remain an opposition party.

Green party stickers
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/C. Pfund

The anti-establishment Green party started out as radicals: Hundreds of thousands of West Germans took to the streets to protest against the stationing of US intermediate-range, nuclear-warhead missiles on West German soil. They saw the missiles as part of the next phase in the global nuclear arms race.

Read more: Greens challenge Merkel with jobs and welfare package

Bearded green parliamentarians
The first Green members of the Bundestag in 1983 refused to don suits and tiesImage: picture-alliance/AP Photo


The Green party was founded in 1980, unifying a whole array of regional movements made up of people frustrated by mainstream politics. It brought together environmental, peace and human rights activists. They viewed themselves as a peaceful, ecological, feminist, grassroots democratic movement, more than an actual political party.

Many felt that those in power were ignoring environmental issues, as well as the dangers of nuclear power. The alternative agenda and informal style quickly attracted leftist veterans from the 1968 European protest movement. Adopting a phrase coined by one of its founding leaders, Petra Kelly, the Greens described themselves as the "anti-party party."

Joschka Fischer is sworn in as environment minister in Hesse
Joschka Fischer was sworn in as environment minister in the state of Hesse in 1985, wearing his sneakersImage: picture-alliance/dpa/H. Wieseler

Joschka Fischer, a former left-wing activist, became Germany's first Green member of parliament, when he took office as environment minister in the State of Hesse in 1985, after forming a coalition with the SPD. The picture of him taking his oath wearing a pair of shiny white sports shoes became the symbol of a new political era, where the Greens made a less conventional lifestyle acceptable in West German society.


With German reunification, the West German Greens merged with the East German protest movement "Bündnis 90". But the party never garnered much support in the former GDR.

In 1998, the Greens entered into a federal coalition with the Social Democrats; Joschka Fischer became the country's high-profile foreign minister and deputy chancellor. A key moment for the Greens came in a 1999 vote on the German participation in military missions in Kosovo, in which Joschka Fischer convinced the delegates at a party conference to give up on their pacifist agenda.


The coalition of the Greens and Social Democrats was defeated in the 2005 parliamentary elections, sending the Green party back to the opposition benches. Since Fischer, whom many regarded as the driving force within the party, left the political stage, less charismatic leaders have emerged.

Simone Peter and Cem Özdemir
Leaders Simone Peter and Cem Özdemir shepherded the party through failed talks on forming a governmentImage: picture alliance/dpa/B. von Jutrczenka

The Greens deliberately chose to select two co-leaders of the party: one male, one female, one of whom must come from the centrist, pragmatic wing of the party and the other from the leftist wing. Already in 1979, the party introduced a quota system regulating the gender proportions in leading positions, thereby requiring a minimum of 50 percent of all elected posts to be held by women.

Read more: Germany's Greens: Victims of their own success

Re-orientation as environmentalism goes mainstream

While environmental topics were once the exclusive prerogative of the Green party, those issues have become key issues across the political spectrum. Chancellor Angela Merkel was environment minister in her early political career. After the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster, she even became an outspoken opponent of nuclear energy. 

The internal make-up of the Greens has evolved as the first generation has grown older. Many have changed their priorities, morphing from former hippies to urban professionals. Green supporters are generally well-educated, high-earning urbanites with a strong belief in the benefits of a multicultural society. No other party fields more candidates with an immigrant background than the Greens.

Today, the party is not only focused on environmental issues and climate change, but a much broader spectrum of topics including education, social justice and consumer policies.

Winfried Kretschmann celebrates
Winfried Kretschmann was a biology and chemistry teacher before he became a politicianImage: Getty Images/T.Niedermueller

In 2011, after the Fukushima nuclear disaster, voters in the traditionally conservative state of Baden-Württemberg gave the Greens a majority. Sixty-three-year-old Winfried Kretschmann became the Green party's first-ever state premier, governing in a coalition with the conservative CDU.

The immensely popular and staunchly conservative Kretschmann has since been re-elected — and in 2017 openly backed CDU leader Angela Merkel for a fourth term in office.

The Greens' hopes of forming a governing coalition with the CDU and the liberal FDP after the 2017 general election were dashed when the latter declared irreconcilable differences. Thus, the Greens have kept their place in the opposition.