The Greens were supposed to be Europe’s new hope. At the twilight of the Trump era, their champions on both sides of the Atlantic argued that they would be the perfect antidote to the far-Right. Back then, the largest and most powerful Green Party in Europe was Germany’s, and it was said to be uniquely positioned to counter polarisation. According to liberal logic, the Greens would excite voters bored with Germany’s conventional centre-Right (CDU) and centre-Left (SDP), “stabilise” the political centre, and unite different segments of the electorate with their “hopeful message” and “outsider status”. A Green wave, it was hoped, would crush the rising populist tide.
But something went wrong. In fact, it appears that the exact opposite has happened. The Greens have been eclipsed by the far-Right they were supposed to counter: the Greens are currently polling at 13%, while the far-Right Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) has seen its popularity soar to 20%. Since last summer’s high of 23-24%, the German Greens have plummeted ten points in the polls. And in Bremen last month, they saw their worst regional election result in the northern state in over 20 years.
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The poor showing in the north-western city is symbolically significant: it was there that the party entered a state parliament for the first time, in 1979, as the Bremen Green List. And while Germany’s smallest state is not considered a bellwether, the loss is a reminder that the party remains deeply unpopular with vast swaths of the poor and working class. In Bremen, fears that the Greens’ climate policies will inflict harm on Germany’s industrial base are felt especially acutely: when the city’s powerful shipbuilding industry collapsed in successive waves in the Eighties and Nineties, tens of thousands of workers lost their jobs. The end of the Cold War compounded the devastation, as the city-state’s booming defence industry was subject to dramatic cuts.
To this day, Bremen has not recovered. The current unemployment rate stands at 11.4% — about twice the national average and the highest in Germany. One in four people is at risk of poverty. While the Greens have paid lip service to voters’s economic concerns, claiming that climate-friendly policies need not “come at the expense of social justice”, many are unconvinced. It is not difficult to see why. One of the Greens’s most controversial plans, which will probably come into force next year, will phase out old oil and gas heating systems, replacing them with climate-friendly heat pumps. The process is expected to cost up to €13,000 per household.
The Greens have always been perceived — rightly or wrongly — as a party of privilege. In 1979, the US ambassador to West Germany, Walter J. Stoessel J, described party members as “unpolitical dreamers, mellow lifestylers, counter-culture, anti-nuclear, anti-technology, back to nature romantics with a few cynical leftists thrown in for good measure”. He also noted that they “drew most of their supporters from the urban areas, specifically from well-educated middle and upper-middle class voters under 30”.
In its earliest days, the party was comprised largely of young militants. The Green movement emerged out of the tear gas and violence of the 1968 student revolt. It was virulently opposed to prevailing social norms, which they understood as not only inherently oppressive, but also key to understanding their parents’ submission to Nazism: “authoritarian” social structures, embodied by both the state and the family, could explain why the previous generation had so tragically failed to resist. The Greens concluded that society could inoculate itself against the resurgence of fascism through the deliberate destruction of social taboos.
This line of thinking led the young Greens down a dark path. The protests of 1968 had revived interest in the works of Freud disciple Wilhelm Reich, who described the supposed links between authoritarian submission and sexual repression. In his book Mass Psychology of Fascism, he wrote: “Suppression of the natural sexuality in the child makes the child apprehensive, shy, obedient, afraid of authority, ‘good’ and ‘adjusted’ in the authoritarian sense … it paralyses the rebellious force.” Influenced by these works, early Green party members pushed for the removal of the two sections of Germany’s penal code that criminalised sex between adults and children.
There were also visible manifestations of paedophile activism during the Eighties. “Paedosexual” rights groups showed up at Green Party events in Nuremberg, bringing with them street children housed at the Indianerkommune. About a decade ago, the Greens ordered an investigation into the party’s past involvement with pro-paedophilia groups and child sexual abuse. During the investigation, it was discovered that the influence of paedophiles on the party was much stronger than previously thought — and that for a brief period in the mid-Eighties, the Greens “practically served as the parliamentary arm of the paedophile movement”. In November 2014, the party held a press conference, at which leaders apologised to the victims of sexual abuse.
It was a long, strange trip for the Greens from the tear-gas choked streets of 1968 to the Reichstag. But in 1998, the party at last entered national government as part of Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder’s “third way” coalition. Power would quickly render them unrecognisable: within a year, the pacifist party was breaking the post-WWII German taboo of going to war.
The Greens occupied the foreign ministry then, and at its helm was Joschka Fischer, the leading figure of the party’s “Realo” wing – the realistic, more mainstream segment of the party that was amenable to compromise with established parties. The Realos clashed with the “Fundis” — party fundamentalists who believed that the Greens should never abandon their founding principles. This internal clash reached a zenith in 1999 with the Kosovo War. While Fischer supported participation in the Nato intervention on humanitarian grounds, the Fundis were wary about Germany bombing a city that the Nazis had attacked 58 years previously. After a bitter debate, Fischer’s Realos won out. The Green Party forever abandoned its pacifism, and Germany its unofficial prohibition on war.
Schroeder and the Greens presided over an increasingly unpopular “neoliberal shock-therapy programme”, and in 2005, they were voted out. The Greens were in opposition for 16 years until 2021, when they returned to power with their strongest ever electoral showing. The party took about 14% of the vote in the federal election, and became part of the “traffic-light coalition”. The Greens had five key ministries, with party leader Annalena Baerbock becoming minister of foreign affairs, while her co-leader Robert Habeck became minister of economic affairs and climate action. They promised a new clean politics, uncomplicated by the baggage of the two major parties.
But it soon became clear that Greens can be as dirty as anyone else. This spring’s “best-man affair” revealed that Habeck’s state secretary, Patrick Graichen, had helped get the best man at his wedding appointed head of the state-owned German Energy Agency (Dena). Further investigation revealed that Graichen had also approved government funding for a climate protection project that his sister had worked on. A few days after the Greens were defeated in Bremen, Graichen resigned. He had been a major player in Germany’s decarbonisation efforts; his resignation signalled another stinging defeat. The scandal has also hurt Habeck’s popularity. In September 2022, 57% of Germans polled said Habeck was doing his job well; when asked the same question last month, that number had fallen to 39%.
More worrying for the party, however, is that their climate policies are increasingly unpopular. According to one Allensbach survey, 80% of Germans are opposed to the plan to phase out fossil fuel heating systems next year. Some say that voters are fatigued by the back-to-back shocks of Covid and the war in Ukraine, and are therefore reluctant to accept more dramatic transformations to their way of life. Indeed, the current conditions in Europe are not fertile ground for the Greens: recent academic research has shown that Green parties are most successful in good economic times. Meanwhile, far-Right ones thrive in times of crisis, and the Greens have provided them with plenty of fodder. The AfD have characterised the party’s environmental policies as “climate hysteria” and “eco-dictatorship” — aiming both to mobilise “climate sceptical” voters against the Greens and fuel polarisation against the issue.
But the Greens are also under fire from their activist base for abandoning some of their own signature policies. After Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, the German government scrambled to end its dependence on Russian gas. This entailed making compromises on coal and nuclear power. But for climate activists, the biggest betrayal was the Greens’s “backroom deal” with the German multinational energy firm RWE, which allowed for the razing of Lutzerath to make way for a coal mine. Well-publicised protests and activist occupation of the town followed; Greta Thunberg was even detained there by German police. Adding insult to injury, a long-time aide to the Green party leader took a job as chief lobbyist with RWE.
These days, it seems that the only thing the Greens will not compromise on is war, sometimes out-hawking Washington in their rhetoric. Critics have characterised Baerbock’s tenure as foreign minister as undiplomatic, even hostile to diplomacy; her defenders more charitably describe her approach as “straight talking”. In her opposition to peace negotiations, she is also opposed to German public opinion. Last month, a YouGov poll commissioned by DPA revealed that 55% of Germans now favour peace negotiations to end the war in Ukraine; only 28% are against them. Furthermore, 54% of Germans are against inviting Ukraine to join Nato; only 27% support it. Meanwhile, the AfD have defined themselves in opposition to the Greens on the war in Ukraine, fashioning themselves as Germany’s “peace party”. AfD MP Petr Bystron claims that the party’s popularity surged in the polls immediately after the unveiling of their peace plan. Indeed, with their denunciations of BlackRock and American arms companies, AfD sound a lot like the Greens of yesteryear.
Keen observers note that AfD’s appropriation of peacenik rhetoric is a clever smokescreen for a worryingly pro-Russian agenda. Some media reports allege that Bystron recently made a secret trip to Belarus. Nevertheless, supporters of the Green’s foreign policy will eventually have to contend with the mounting public opposition to their current approach, beyond labelling critics Putinists or unwitting dupes of Russian propaganda. Opposition to uncompromising German militarism predates Putin, let alone Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, by many decades — and no one should understand it better than the formerly pacifist party.
In the failure of the party that was supposed to lead the “green wave” across Europe, there lies a lesson for environmentalists everywhere. Green parties cannot succeed unless they shake their associations with liberal privilege; from today’s vantage point, they seem like a luxury from better times. The public has roundly rejected the naïve idea that the Greens are “outsiders” charting a new, exciting kind of politics. Instead, voters see them as part of politics as usual, even if their machinations are hidden behind pretty verbiage and green paint. Far from embodying a hopeful, unifying message for Europe, then, Germany’s Green dream is out of reach for too many; in fact, it looks like little more than the right to purchase a clear conscience while demanding that the poor subsidise it.