Obituary: Petra Kelly
Wednesday 21 October 1992
THE UNTIMELY death of Petra Kelly, following hard on that of Willy Brandt, has deprived Germany of another symbolic figure of its recent past. The two represent the twin faces of the German Left. Whilst Brandt was the patriarch of social democracy Kelly was the doyenne of the Green movement which swept through the Federal Republic in the 1980s.
Kelly's background was as turbulent as her political career. She was born in Gunzburg, Bavaria, of German-Polish parentage in 1947. In her teens she left Germany for the United States following the divorce and remarriage of her mother to an Irish-American army officer, John Kelly. Her formative years were marked by the American civil-rights and peace movements of which she was a passionate adherent.
After studying at the American University in Washington, she worked briefly in the office of Senator Robert Kennedy. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that her political style, in particular her talents as a media publicist, reflected her background in the US. In some ways this marked her out as something of an outsider in the more sober political environment of the Federal Republic.
Returning to Europe, she worked in the early 1970s in the Economic and Social Committees of the European Community, where she attracted the attention of EC notables. Bureaucratic discipline did not suit her passionate nature, however. It was in the more flamboyant world of the New Politics movements of environmentalism and peace that she made her career.
In common with many in this milieu, she was an exile from the Social Democratic Party of Brandt and Helmut Schmidt. Recoiling from the pragmatism of the Schmidt government, and accusing the Chancellor of turning West Germany into 'an outlying nuclear colony of the US and Nato', she threw her considerable energies into the burgeoning movements for ecology and peace. Petra Kelly's career reached its apex in her leadership role in the Green Party which emerged from these movements in 1979. The new party had a seismic effect, entering parliament in 1983. As chairwoman and one of the party's principal parliamentarians, Kelly was at its vanguard. In sharp contrast to the earnest intellectualism of many of her party colleagues, her ebullience and charm were an unfailing magnet for media attention. For many Germans, and for most foreign observers, she personified the Greens.
Her relationship with the party was never an easy one. Kelly herself had coined the term 'anti-party party', signifying the rejection of orthodox party politics. In particular the Greens rejected the cult of leadership which many believed she was cultivating. Moreover, Kelly refused to comply with the party's ultra-democratic rules which obliged their members of parliament to stand down midway through their term.
In this she acted in unison with Gert Bastian, her long-standing partner in political and personal life with whom she died. Bastian stood out from the Green milieu even more than herself. In an abrupt volte-face, the ex-bookbinder's apprentice had renounced a distinguished military career in which he had risen to major-general, becoming a trenchant critic of his country's security policy.
Whilst Bastian later receded from the forefront of Green politics, Kelly retained her seat in parliament until the 'unification election' of 1990, when the Greens in the West lost their parliamentary status. In many ways this electoral disaster vindicated Kelly's criticism of the party for its political dilettantism and internal disorder. Despite her passionate idealism, she had a firm grasp on political reality. In the repeated and ultimately debilitating schisms between the 'realists' and 'fundamentalists' in the party's ranks she was firmly aligned with the former. Her death occurs at a time when the Green Party is trying to relocate itself nearer the mainstream of German politics.
It also coincides with a deep crisis on the German Left. Wedded to many aspects of the 'old' Federal Republic, the Left has failed to meet the challenges of unification, and finds itself in a political cul-de-sac. Through force of personality, Petra Kelly was capable of reaching out to those who would not normally share her political views. The Left can ill afford the loss of such a figure. To many, two years after unification, all the German parties appear jaded and sterile. The tragedy of her death reflects their malaise.
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