Greens seek a way out of the political wilderness: After the deaths of Petra Kelly and Gert Bastian, John Eisenhammer in Bonn looks at how divisions laid waste a strong political force

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IT IS SAD testimony to the dramatically changed fortunes of Germany's Greens that it requires the macabre death of two of their former idols to thrust the beleaguered movement back into the headlines.

Humiliated and devastated after their drubbing at the general election in 1990, which saw them bounced out of parliament in Bonn, the western German Greens have been trying, well away from the public's gaze, to put back together the pieces of their once proud party.

It is not that long ago, however, that this party-cum-movement, bursting with freshness, inventiveness and missionary zeal, was creating powerful waves that crashed across West Germany's political scene, producing in turn eddies and swirls in other European countries.

It is to the credit of the German Greens, above all, that mainstream politicians, left and right, have for some years been obliged to pay more than lip-service to environmental issues. For the German party showed not just that the power of the street could shift political priorities, but that this could go so far as to break an established political mould.

When the Greens entered the Bundestag in 1983 they were the first new party to do so since the the 1950s. With their jeans, long hair and passion for knitting during debates, they were a strong challenge to the self-consciously staid world of German parliamentary politics, and proof that the country's post-war democracy was both flexible and strong.

It was this parliamentary success, crowned by the triumph at the general election of 1987, when the party won 8.3 per cent of the vote and 44 seats, that made Germany's Greens the role-model for movements elsewhere, and gave people such as Petra Kelly, one of the party's founders, a strong international resonance.

But the achievement of political success, so admired by struggling environmental and alternative forces abroad, brought tensions that eventually debilitated the party and discredited it in the eyes of all but its most fervent supporters. Already weakened by bilious internal quarrels, the sudden advent of German unification delivered the coup de grace.

The Greens, for most of whom the rejection of nationalism was an essential element of their alternative credo, found themselves totally at odds with the spirit of nationalist celebration that swept the country in 1990. Confused and alienated, with their environmental concerns relegated to a sideshow, they were deserted by more than half their supporters.

The 3.8 per cent they won in the west in 1990 was well below the 5 per cent required for parliamentary representation. Instead, the alternative banner was humiliatingly passed to the newcomers, two Greens from eastern Germany and six members from the civil rights movement there - eight deputies out of 662.

Suddenly deprived of central state funding, the Greens' Bonn headquarters sacked much of its staff. Amid yet another round of mutual recrimination, it seemed a pitiful end to a once powerful and colourful force. The Greens, founded in 1980, were from the outset a tempestuous amalgam of three different movements: pacifist opponents to Nato; ecologists and anti-nuclear activists; and a motley collection of 1968 anti- authoritarian groups, including the dogmatic far-left, radical feminists and anarchists.

The creative tension unleashed by this perpetual and uneasy search for co-operation among the different strands was one of the Greens' greatest strengths, but only so long as it could be effectively channelled. For a time, this coalition survived, because if it wanted to achieve, and stay in power, it had to compromise. But even before the 1987 electoral triumph the internal tensions were becoming unbearable.

So-called realists, who wanted to push the party further in the direction of a professional political force, capable one day of entering government in coalition with the Social Democrats, waged pitched battles with the fundamentalists, who wanted to preserve the 'anti-party party' origins, and its radical ethos.

The Greens' founding rules, which rigidly prevented individuals from holding party office and a political post at the same time, and which forced MPs to step down after a term in favour of newcomers, exemplified the original spirit of mistrust towards professional politics.

But they soon became the focal point of dissent, as the movements' most succesful politicians, such as Kelly and another founder, Otto Schily, fought against being pushed back into relative obscurity. Before the 1990 electoral disaster, Mr Schily had left for the Social Democrats, while Kelly, increasingly embittered, was pushed aside.

After the electoral debacle, the hardliners split off. The remaining majority promised, yet again, renewal, but is still trying to find a sustainable balance between moderates and radicals. The party is also trying to link up with the civil rights groups in the east, a move seen as essential for sucess at the 1994 election.

For the moment, the Greens live on mainly at state level, in four Lander governments. The party is far from dead. It is seeking a new role for itself, and common ground with a Social Democratic party which, under the pressure of xenophobic violence, is moving rapidly to the right.

Obituary, page 13

(Photograph omitted)