How the Greens Went Mainstream

They were once Germany’s anti-establishment party. Now they’re on the verge of reaching the peak of power.

By Frank Uekotter, reader in Environmental Humanities at the University of Birmingham, UK.
An illustration showing Greens candidate Annalene Baerbock alongside an archival photo of anti-nuclear protesters blowing soap bubbles in 2005.
Left: Annalene Baerbock, co-leader of the German Greens Party, holds up a description of the party's policy program in Berlin on March 19. Right: Anti-nuclear protesters blow soap bubbles, as they occupy a railway track in Harlingen, Germany, on Nov. 21, 2005. Foreign Policy illustration/Getty Images

Four decades ago, a charismatic German woman enchanted the nascent world of global environmentalism. Petra Kelly made a lasting impression with her razor-sharp statements and her passionate embrace of environmental, feminist, and other alternative causes. She was the face of West Germany’s new Green party, and extensive travel made her known all over the world. Kelly and her political friends rocked the staid and male-heavy world of West German politics, and they were not bothered if people found it somewhat disturbing. The Greens did not just advance previously neglected causes. They were out to change the style of German politics.

Now another Green woman aims for the German chancellery. Annalena Baerbock is the party’s candidate for chancellor in September’s federal election, and she has a chance. Polls show that the Greens are within striking distance of Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats, and some recent ones even see them in the lead. Just like Kelly (who worked for the European Commission), Baerbock’s career path went via Europe. She graduated from the London School of Economics in 2005 and advised a member of the European Parliament until 2008. That is where the similarities end. Baerbock is a career politician who knows her party and German politics inside out, while Kelly thrived on the political ferment from the new social movements. Four decades after starting off as a rallying point for anti-establishment protest, the Greens are now eager to govern.

Baerbock’s candidacy is the result of two learning curves that the Greens traveled: one about party politics and one about green policy in a changing world. The transformation of Germany’s Greens was almost complete within a dozen years of the party’s founding in 1980. During the early years, party conventions were legendary for their chaos (members would call it vibrancy), and regional coalition governments with the Greens were rare and short-lived. The Greens had more than their fair share of scandals in the 1980s, but they maintained a core group of loyalists. After the many disappointments of leftist and alternative projects since the late 1960s, many from a generation of political idealists viewed the party as their last chance.

There were quite a few activists who left—more or less noisily—during the first dozen years, particularly those from the “Fundi” wing who were deeply skeptical of coalitions and the perils of governing. However, more pragmatic “Realo” politicians found that there were rewards for activism, even when the levers of power remained out of reach. In response to the green challenge, other West German parties sought to brush up their environmental credentials, and green issues thrived across the entire political spectrum during the 1980s. The Greens changed Germany far more than one would expect for a party that until recently claimed between 5 and 10 percent of the vote in state and federal elections.

The Greens, scarred by the disorder of the early years, learned to play by the rules of West Germany’s polity and its media. Romantic visions of grassroots democracy faded while the party became more disciplined and hierarchical. The final step was the incorporation of what was left of the East German dissident movement after reunification. Since the mid-1990s, the Greens have been run by a cadre of political professionals, many of whom learned the ropes in municipal and state politics. Journalists continued to pester politicians with questions about muesli and knitting socks, but that said more about worn clichés than about present realities. When the Greens entered a red-green coalition government on the federal level in 1998, it was their partner, the Social Democrats, that became a notorious source of political turbulence.

The greater challenge for the Greens was the changing meaning of green politics. In the 1980s, protest was good enough on many environmental issues, but the campaign mode ran out of steam after a while. The easy problems were solved swiftly, and lingering challenges were immune to short-term solutions. As a result, the focus shifted toward building a sustainable future: renewable energy, efficient public transport, organic agriculture. These challenges called for long-term strategies, a framework for investments, and coalitions with companies and other stakeholders. They also called for a new type of politician. Green politics did not need charismatics like Kelly anymore, and it could do with less of the activists’ emotional energy. The ability to compromise is crucial in a German political system where coalitions are the norm, and Green politicians managed to swallow some bitter pills. The red-green coalition only survived its first year because the Greens rethought their pacifist roots and grumblingly allowed Germany’s military to participate in the Kosovo War.

The Greens managed to transform their policies, but the inner nature of the party changed along the way. The new social movements that sparked the party’s founding dwindled or transformed into establishment organizations, and the activist base lost its former preeminence. Many of the old leftists drifted away after reaching retirement age, though some who came to the Greens through the far-left splinter groups of the 1970s showed remarkable staying power. Jürgen Trittin, who served as minister for the environment in the red-green coalition, is seeking yet another election to the German parliament this year, and Winfried Kretschmann, the Greens’ sole minister-president, was recently elected to a third term in the southwest German state of Baden-Württemberg. Having communist cadres on board was an unexpected blessing for the young Greens. Unlike grassroots activists, cadres knew how to play hardball politics.

For the first quarter-century, the German Greens survived in the face of countless predictions of impending doom. Many observers were confident that the new party would be a temporary aberration or a project for a single generation. To a significant extent, the party’s resilience was due to projection from outsiders. In the early years, the Greens were more popular with the wider public than within the rank and file. But in the long run, it was crucial that the Greens never disavowed any of their founding causes. They continue to stand for a dedicated environmental and climate policy, for a more sustainable form of agriculture, for more peaceful international relations, and for human rights of all kinds, including feminism and LGBTQ rights. The party recognized, however, that new times call for new political means.

Having attended anti-nuclear protests in Gorleben, Baerbock knows how it feels when a popular demonstration meets an opposing police force armed with water cannons. But those were childhood trips in the company of her parents. Her candidacy today rests on her eagerness to try new policies and the negotiation skills that are so crucial for German politics. The Green party rests on a network of professionals in think tanks and academia who supply the expertise and management skills for green governance. The ranks remain rather thin compared with other parties, but the Greens make up for lack of numbers through enthusiasm. There are numerous paths into Green party politics, but they always demand a good dose of political passion. Germans who joined parties for career purposes had more secure and lucrative options with the Christian Democrats.

But having dedicated members and professionalism is only one part of the resilience of the Greens. The other is about the agenda of environmentalism, which seems like a good match for Germany’s export-oriented industrial sector. Since the 1980s, it has been conventional wisdom in Germany that green politics create jobs. Strict environmental standards were supposed to coax German industrialists to develop low-pollution and resource-efficient technologies, which would turn into premium products on the world market. As a result, Germans never warmed up for the culture wars that environmentalism and climate policy triggered in other countries. For 10 years, Kretschmann has been minister-president of Baden-Württemberg, the exemplar state of Mittelstand companies with many jobs in the automotive sector, without a significant spat with the industrialists.

The trajectory of the German Greens has deep roots in the country’s peculiarities, especially its western half. But if there is a lesson beyond the German context, it is about building a coalition internally and externally. The German Greens claimed an array of issues from the start, and they sought links and collaborations beyond their core constituents. Some voters were always beyond their reach: The CEOs of industrial companies were unlikely to ever vote Green. But many party members favored policy debates, even contested ones, over lofty rhetoric about our planetary commons. The German Greens also had some good luck along the way, and it began before the start. The party formed in the aftermath of the 1979 European Parliament elections, when a loose band of green activists gained enough votes to qualify for generous state subsidies. The German Greens were probably the only party that had a budget before it existed.

The Greens remain less predictable than other German parties. For all the professionalism in internal structures and campaigning, the alternative roots are not completely dormant, and competitors continue to paint them in glaring colors. Conservative parties and the German media had a field day when the Greens’ platform for the 2013 federal election included a suggestion that workplace cafeterias have one meatless “Veggie Day” per week. The clause was condemned as a harbinger of a coming eco-dictatorship, never mind that vegetarianism has long gone mainstream in Germany and elsewhere. Baerbock’s candidacy also triggered male anxieties that seem strangely out of place after 16 years of Merkel. However, the fact remains that Baerbock has never run a ministry. She is also the first Green nominee for chancellor. As recently as four years ago, it was unconceivable that any Green candidate would have had a chance.

The Greens have come a long way since the 1980s, but there is one way in which the current boom brings back memories from the early years: The party owes much of its success to the failings of its competitors. When the party was first elected to the federal parliament in 1983, it ran against an uncharismatic Helmut Kohl, a struggling liberal party, and Social Democrats who were exhausted after 13 years in power. Now Baerbock is running against uninspiring free market liberals and Social Democrats while the Christian Democrats suffer from a post-Merkel leadership crisis. The Greens may be bound for another lucky moment.

Frank Uekotter is reader in Environmental Humanities at the University of Birmingham, UK.