The view from the ground.

Green Is the New Black

Germany's Green Party was always loudly left-wing and proudly anti-establishment. So why, in the midst of an economic crisis, are they more popular than ever before?

Volker Hartmann/DDP
Volker Hartmann/DDP
Volker Hartmann/DDP

BERLIN — It seems like an eternity ago, back at the height of the East-West conflict, when members of Germany’s newest party, the Greens, indignantly marched into the staid Bundestag with their long flowing hair, ragtag dress, and acid-rain-withered pine trees over their shoulders. The year was 1983, the hodgepodge of activists fresh from street demonstrations against the deployment of U.S. nuclear missiles in Cold War Europe. No one thought they’d be around for long.

Nearly 30 years later, not only have the Greens managed to hang around — they’re the lone German party looking healthy these days. The environmentalists are soaring at a time when Europe’s economy is desperate; even in Germany, where the economy has picked up, there is frantic budget slashing. Polls gauge support for the Greens at 20 percent of voters, twice the proportion a year ago; it even threatens to outpoll the major parties, the Christian Democrats (CDU) and the Social Democrats (SPD), in the traditionally conservative stronghold of Baden-Württemberg, which is holding a crucial state election on March 27. This unexpected surge positions the Greens as kingmaker in a year packed with important regional votes — and a shot at eventually returning to power in Berlin.

The Greens would say that it’s a just reward for their success at transforming German political culture. They shook up a political landscape that was once content to dismiss environmentalism and “grassroots democracy” as unserious trifling. But however much the Greens managed, in the past several decades, to move Germany’s political center — toward leadership in combating global warming, an embrace of activist politics, and an openness in discussing multiculturalism, feminism, and gay rights — there’s also no denying that the party has itself changed at least as much as the country has.

Indeed, the former “anti-party party” has come a long, long way from its beginnings as a troupe of penniless tree-huggers. In its early days, two-thirds of Green voters didn’t have a proper paying job. Now, one might be forgiven for mistaking a Green party congress for a convention of urban architects or private-sector lobbyists. Scan the crowd and you’ll see well-trimmed haircuts, plenty of sleek laptops, and more than a few tightly tailored name-brand suits. One handsome face would certainly be party leader Cem Ozdemir, the man known as Germany’s Obama: He’s a clean-cut, 45-year-old southern German with Turkish heritage, known for attending anti-nuclear energy protests in a pressed, button-down shirt and loafers.

In 2011, the former anti-establishment party is the establishment: high-income, highly educated professionals, abundant among them lawyers, high school principals, college professors, and senior civil servants. In fact, no other party scores so well among civil servants (which, in Germany, includes teachers) as the Greens.

The Greens’ well-situated and civic-minded constituency has everything to do with why they are peaking in the midst of the euro’s worst-ever crisis and tight times in general. For one, it’s because the crisis affects them and their secure, high-end professions less than most other Germans. It wasn’t well-heeled Greens who went jobless when the economy nose-dived — it was pretty much everyone else, most notably the low-paid, less-educated wage laborers.

In fact, despite the new threads, many of today’s core Green voters are the very same who hung beads around their necks and brought the rebellious little party to life in the 1980s, desperately scratching together the 7 or 8 percent of the vote the Greens used to get in West German elections. Although critics today gladly mock them as snobs and sellouts for having grown up and gotten jobs, the Greens have remained remarkably true to many of their original themes, even if their style has changed. A case in point is their unwavering opposition to nuclear energy, a key Green stance then as now. Where the Greens’ rhetoric was once focused on the apocalyptic dangers of nuclear meltdowns and ballistic missiles, the party now has sleek PowerPoint presentations that compare the relative efficiency of renewable alternative energy to nuclear power.

A similar shift has taken place in the revolution of values that the Greens originally proposed. In the 1970s a new sensibility for topics like environmental responsibility, women’s emancipation, and human rights was termed the “post-materialist turn”; in a prosperous, export-enriched West Germany emerging from the Wirtschaftswunder — the bountiful economic boom of the 1950s and 1960s — it marked the younger generation’s concern with issues above and beyond the fulfillment of basic material needs. The Greens were a response to the mainstream parties that, they believed, single-mindedly focused only on the national economy and bigger, faster autobahns.

Now, the Greens’ post-materialism has a distinct economic component. “What used to be starry-eyed idealism can now turn a profit,” Reinhard Bütikofer, a Green EU parliamentarian says, referring to the economic potential of renewable energy, as well as the growth of the workforce by promoting women’s equality and openness to immigration — other original Green agenda items. The same goes, he says, for global warming, which, tree-hugging aside, will have calamitous repercussions for the economy.

The new voters swelling party ranks — young people born in the 1980s and thereafter, eastern Germans, previous non-voters, and scores of refugees fed up with the other parties — are attracted not only to the Greens’ pious promises to steward the planet, but also to their appealing plans for fostering economic growth.

“Greens aren’t traditionally credited with economic competency,” Bütikofer admits, but he argues that the party has played a large role in Germany’s current economic rebound. The country is now reaping the benefit of the hundreds of thousands of “green jobs” — 400,000 in the renewable-energy sector alone — created from 1998 to 2005, when the Greens ran the government in coalition with the Social Democrats. “Voters previously inaccessible to us, like farmers across Germany or skilled craftsman, have benefited from environmentally driven innovation — and they know it,” he says, citing the sprawling wind farms that dot northern Germany. “We’ve built a strong case for a green economy while all of the other economic models have lost credibility.”

But both the Social Democrats and Christian Democrats take full credit for the upswing and scoff at the notion that the Greens, who’ve never held a financial ministry of any sort, are the architects of the job market’s resuscitation. Chancellor Angela Merkel’s party, the Christian Democratic Union, intends to run on the good news (“Economy, economy, economy, that’s our campaign message,” one CDU official said) in the upcoming elections, while portraying the Greens as amateurs in need of adult supervision, especially when it comes to creating jobs.

Yet even if Greens exaggerate a bit, the party has made tremendous strides since the days when its activists ranted on about “ecosocialism.” In fact, they’ve lurched so far to the middle that coalitions with conservative and liberal parties — their archnemeses in the early days — are now possible, as is currently the case in Saarland, a diminutive German state along the French border. In all seven regional votes this year, the Greens will be in the running to assume control of state parliaments and help appoint governors as part of ruling coalitions. At present, the Greens are running neck and neck with the incumbent Social Democrats in Berlin, raising the specter of a female Green mayor in the capital city.

As much as the Greens have matured — and as high as they’re flying — observers surmise that the real source of their popularity is the other parties’ undeniable woes. The Social Democrats still suffer from trimming back the welfare state and leading Germany into war in Afghanistan. (Why, they want to know, don’t the Greens, their coalition partner at the time, suffer from the aftershock of these debacles, too?) The ruling conservatives and liberals are paying the price for a year of horrible missteps and fumbling: Merkel’s CDU and her coalition partners in the pro-business FDP have spent their time since being elected bickering over petty politics and stumbling into personal scandals.

But once the establishment parties right themselves, many believe, they’ll win back the votes. Or maybe not: It’s been a while since Greens traded their sandals for wingtips and became the country’s new establishment. They’ve earned the public’s trust by sticking to their principles, cosmetic changes notwithstanding. They might finally be in a position to scramble Germany’s political landscape for good.

Paul Hockenos is a Berlin-based journalist. His recent book is Berlin Calling: A Story of Anarchy, Music, the Wall and the Birth of the New Berlin (The New Press).

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