There is an object lesson in this week's collapse of West Germany's first and only coalition between the Social Democrats and the countercultural Greens. That much all the Greens agree on. What they don't agree on is just what that lesson is.
For party ``Fundis'' (fundamentalists), the failure of the coalition in the state of Hesse shows that the Greens should stick to their beloved ``culture of resistance'' and not ever trust the established parties to come around to the Greens' vision of a pollution-free, nuclear-free world.
Well before Social Democratic Premier Holger B"orner finally fired Green Environment Minister Joschka Fischer this week the Fundis had been counseling a break over what they considered the Social Democrats' perfidy in not rejecting a ``plutonium economy'' in the form of the Alkem nuclear fuel plant.
Alkem has been seeking permission to increase its start-up production of half a ton to 6.5 tons to feed West Germany's forthcoming fast breeder. The Hessian Social Democratic Economics Ministry has provisionally approved 2.5-ton output over the next 10 years, but the Greens threatened divorce unless all plutonium production was banned. Mr. B"orner accepted the divorce and, before himself resigning from politics for reasons of health, precipitated early state elections next April.
For Mr. Fischer, one of the Greens' leading ``Realos'' (realists), the lesson of Hesse is that coalition, however troubled, is possible. He still sees hope that the Social Democrats might mend their ways after the elections and revive the one-and-a-quarter-year-old experiment.
Much now rides on the April election, since those who advocate and those who detest the idea of a Social Democratic-Green coalition at the federal level are both looking to Hesse - the only one of the seven states in which the Greens have legislative seats to have tried coalition - as their model for success or disaster.
The Realos would not only like to revive the Hessian experiment but would also hope to win enough votes in the three or possibly four other state elections this year to forge left coalitions in these states as well. Such success could not only shift the left-right balance in the federal Bundesrat, or upper house. It could also make regional coalitions the forerunners of a federal coalition, possibly after the 1991 election.
At the federal level nuclear power will also be the hottest controversy between Greens and Social Democrats, with the Greens calling for immediate shutdown of nuclear plants and the Social Democrats calling only for a gradual phaseout. Another issue between the two opposition parties is the Western alliance; the Greens want Bonn to withdraw from NATO, while the Social Democrats (with the exception of rising star Saarland Premier Oskar Lafontaine) pledge loyalty to NATO.
When asked who will win between the Realos and Fundis on the federal level, Greens assert that neither will win. They say that unlike the other, hierarchical parties the Greens can live with ``plurality'' - radical grass-roots democracy, and the cacophony of individual ecologists, feminists, Gray Panthers, advocates of alternative agriculture and business, supporters of foreign causes ranging from the Sandinistas to Kanak independence in New Caledonia, and sheer eccentrics.
Despite these brave words, observers expect Realos and Fundis to wrestle mightily for the soul of the party when the new executive committee is elected in April.
Whichever faction predominates, the Greens will then still have an uphill battle to win recognition of their legitimacy throughout the country. This upstart party may already have won more than 3,000 seats in local elections, but the irreverent style and quirkiness of the sweatered, sneakered Greens - much of which seems quite refreshing to Americans - often offends local politicians used to more authoritative modes of government.
Conservatives routinely call the Greens ``Nazis,'' ``witches'' (when the targets are women), and ``communists'' (rather more often than the number of ex-Communist militants in the party would seem to justify).