Germany's Greens: Missing the Unity Train

THE first all-German free elections since 1932 brought only one surprise - the failure of the western Greens to attain the 5 percent of the vote needed to send representatives to parliament. On Dec. 2, they won barely half the over 3 million West German votes they secured in 1987. Surveying the election campaigns in Germany as an observer, I encountered a Green party incapable of adapting to Germany's new political script. When the Greens entered the Bundestag in 1983, they ended 20 years of three-party stability in West German politics. The Greens shook up Bonn; they were disrespectful, they dressed in jeans and sneakers, they rode bicycles, they were utopians who dreamed of a world without nuclear bombs, national borders, industry, or discipline. The Greens defined a new political space, left of the Social Democrats, yet ``alternative'' instead of communist. Ecological and anti-consumerist, this new concept of ``alternative'' often resembled romantic pastoralism.

In the mid-1980s, the Greens won respect in the German political arena, credited by all with an ability to articulate the concerns of the future - anti-nuclear power before Chernobyl, environmentalist before the ozone hole. Since 1989, nothing remains the same. Newly unified Germany wants solid, old-fashioned, and conservative politicians to manage the rebuilding of the east. Among voters, the left is less popular than ever.

Ironically, just as the Greens gasp their last, newcomers are grabbing at their shrinking political market share. Gregor Gysi's PDS, the successor to the old governing Communist Party of East Germany, has borrowed so many Green positions that prominent Greens complain of copyright violations.

Many blame the Green electoral failure on internal bickering or the rotation principle. The ``Realo'' (realists) and ``Fundi'' (fundamentalists) wings never tire of lambasting one another. And even famous Greens like Petra Kelly and Otto Schily have had to ``rotate'' out of parliament in order to protect the anti-hierarchical structure of the party. Rotation has made the party faceless.

Analysts who criticize these defects imply that all the Greens need to do is reform themselves and kick out the fundamentalists, and all will be well. That advice neglects the root problem.

The social movements of the 1960s and 1970s, which spawned the Greens in 1980, are now dead. Peace movements, the anti-nuclear power movement, radical feminism, and anti-industrial environmentalism once claimed millions of sympathizers in Western Europe. Today, they possess about as much stamina as the average ``alternative'' parent after hand-washing a week's load of environmentally sound cloth diapers.

The party has lost its timeliness. Some of its positions, like opposition to NATO and to nuclear weapons on German soil, are irrelevant now that Europe no longer fears a World War III. Other positions, like equal access to careers for women, have been adopted by the older parties. And co-opting the heart of the Green movement, every party now promises to protect the environment (Chancellor Kohl's Christian Democrats pledge to ``preserve the creation'').

The biggest liability of the Greens is their opposition to industry and consumerism. The collapse of Eastern Europe was the most overwhelming vote for consumerism imaginable. Catastrophic pollution in the Eastern bloc has given Western producers a further image boost. Ecologists need a new generation of environmental disasters before they regain an audience.

The only hope for the Greens is to welcome rejuvenation through the peaceful revolutionaries of 1989. In my days in Berlin, I witnessed little such cooperation or even sympathy between the eastern left and the western Greens. The easterners view the westerners as arrogant and spoiled; westerners view easterners as naive and inexperienced.

Potentially a boon to the western Greens, this disastrous election result may humble them and focus attention on the eastern ``alternative'' rising stars who made it into the Bundestag. This continued spotlight on the heroes of 1989 might encourage the two leftist groups to integrate on more equal terms, and the result could be a strengthened alternative party able to address the difficulties of the 1990s. For now, all eyes are on the Greens' performance in state elections in Hesse on Jan. 20

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