The West German political scene of the 1980s has been transformed by the emergence—for the first time since the foundation of the Federal Republic—of a socially radical force with a significant electoral following in the society at large. The Greens have changed the map of the traditional party system and its prospects in the country. In a wider perspective, they have represented the breakthrough of a novel and unorthodox kind of left politics in the West, at a time when the labour movement has been on the retreat and the neoconservative right in the ascendancy. Socialists everywhere, both within and without Germany itself, have looked to the phenomenon of the Greens with hope and interest, against the background of a pervasive international reaction installed as much in Bonn as in London or Washington. In March 1983, the West German elections brought a coalition of the Right to power under Helmut Kohl—the Rhenish answer to Thatcher and Reagan. Simultaneously, however, the Greens narrowly cleared the undemocratic five per cent hurdle to parliamentary representation and established themselves as a national political force. For the first time since the banning of the old Communist Party in the 1950s, the Social Democratic Party (spd) was confronted with an organisation to its left that rejected the official ideological consensus of the Bundesrepublik. In the 1984 European and regional elections the Greens kept up their momentum, increasing their vote yet further. Political speculation about the possibility of an spd—Green alliance as a governmental alternative for the Federal elections of 1987 started to become widespread.

In the spring of 1985, however, the forward march of the Greens suffered a series of severe set-backs in important regional elections. In West Berlin, a rightist spd leadership rejected all forms of collaboration with the (Green) Alternative List—thereby excluding any realistic possibility of a replacement of the cdufdp city administration. In these circumstances, the Alternative List succeeded in raising its share of the vote from 7.2 per cent to 10.6 per cent, while the spd recorded its worst ever poll in the city. West Berlin, however, is a special case, juridically and sociologically. Far more significant were the elections in the Saar and North-Rhine-Westphalia. The Saar is the region worst hit by the economic crisis in the country, because of the depression in the steel industry. There, a powerful spd organization successfully appealed to the mass movements as well as to its traditional labour constituency, under the slogan of a ‘reconciliation of economics and ecology’, cutting the Green vote to 2.5 per cent and winning a convincing absolute majority. At the start of the campaign Oskar Lafontaine, the nationally known leader of the spd left wing, proposed a coalition agreement to the Greens, but a majority of their regional and federal leadership opted for a strategy simply seeking to ‘expose’ the spd, with disastrous results. Still more serious for the Greens was their defeat two months later in North-Rhine Westphalia—the largest state in West Germany, which includes the Ruhr and embraces nearly a third of the population of the Federal Republic. The Greens, after an inept campaign, sank to 4.6 per cent of the vote—3.4 per cent down from the eec elections of 1984, while the spd climbed to 52.1 per cent, its best-ever result in the region, under the lacklustre leadership of party moderate Johannes Rau. The ‘end of the Greens’ is now equally confidently bruited in the press, and although this prediction is evidently a journalistic exaggeration, the Greens undoubtedly do at present face a deep crisis of organization and perspective.

For its part, the coalition of the Right under Chancellor Kohl appears for the moment to be in sharp and unrelieved decline. In the Saar and North-Rhine-Westphalia the cdu fell below 40 per cent, and in the Ruhr itself it did not even reach 30 per cent of the vote. The spd has obviously been the main beneficiary of this change in electoral climate. But gains have also been registered within the ruling coalition by the liberal fdp. Unlike the cdu, whose austerity drive has perforce been somewhat tempered by the pressure of its base among Catholic workers, the more purely middle-class fdp has embarked on an aggressive campaign against organized labour, whilst adroitly combining this with a more liberal stand on East—West relations, abortion legislation, immigrants’ rights, and so on. If, as seems likely, the fdp manages to stabilize its vote at about 5 per cent nationally, the outcome of the 1987 elections will depend crucially on the strategic choices made by the Greens over the next year and a half. The purpose of this article will be to assess the nature of the Green phenomenon, the various currents within it and the different options before it, as it approaches a political crossroads.

What explains the coming of the Greens? Why did they emerge as a political force of national scope specifically in West Germany, rather than any other advanced capitalist society? There would appear to be some four or five principal reasons that worked together to generate Green politics in the Federal Republic. First, and perhaps foremost, was the length and character of spd rule—or joint rule—in Bonn. It is often forgotten abroad that German Social-Democracy was in office uninterruptedly for 17 years, in successive coalitions. In that period, it was responsible for an Ostpolitik that for a time broke with the worst traditions of the Cold War in Central Europe. But otherwise, it presided at home over an undeviatingly orthodox administration of West German capitalism, without the slightest pretension at deep-going reforms, let alone socialist objectives; and ended up institutionalizing the negation of civic rights in the Berufsverbot, initiating the erosion of social advances with Schmidt’s austerity, and spurring nuclear rearmament by nato. Disillusion or disgust with this record was becoming widespread among a younger generation towards the end of the seventies.

By then, the New Left forces that had erupted against the Grand Coalition in 1968 had also largely burnt themselves out. Once the student movement itself had subsided, by 1970, these had generated a wide array of far left organizations—whose dominant inspirations, however, were Maoist and spontaneist. Neither perspective afforded any realistic basis for long-term political consolidation. By the mid-seventies, most of the spontaneist organizations had already declined. The Maoist kpd dissolved itself without opposition at the end of the seventies; while its rival the kbw (Communist League of Germany, the biggest and financially strongest Maoist grouping) split. The collapse of these groups left both an empty space on the left, and a political layer—formed by them, or the earlier student radicalization—looking for alternative forms of progressive politics. Finally, the West German context was particularly susceptible to the raising of the issues of a peaceful environment that became the rallying-point of the Greens. On the one hand, all-out industrial exploitation had created extraordinary levels of pollution and natural devastation. No less than a quarter of West Germany is covered by forest areas: by the eighties, it was revealed that up to half of the trees in them were dying from chemically induced diseases, many of them from the exhaust fumes of motorways without speed limits. In a country with a long cultural tradition of romantic naturalism, social reaction to phenomena like these—widely publicized in the national media—was bound to become a powerful force sooner or later. The multiplying nuclear reactors of the late Schmidt period provided a symbolic bridge to the other great issue that made the Greens a mass force. West Germany already had the densest implantation of missiles, all under foreign control, of any country in the world at the height of detente. The nato rearmament programme of late 1979 signalled the onset of a new phase of Cold War, with German soil the prime platform for missile deployment. The peace movement that responded to this escalation of the nuclear arsenal in the Federal Republic provided a tremendous groundswell for the growth of the Greens.