By Eric K. Williams
(Editor Note: The following article was originally published in THE PROGRESSIVE Magazine’s January 1993 edition. It is re-printed here with the magazine’s permission. With the current and dramatic flood of refugees from the Middle East escaping violence in Iraq and Syria now surging across Western Europe, the words of the late activist Petra Kelly ring truer now than when she uttered these thoughts more than a quarter century ago.)
When I talked with Petra Kelly last Spring, German unification was entering its second year and violence in the eastern half of the country had not yet reached a fever pitch. But eastern Germans were already beginning to feel like second-class citizens; vicious jokes about them were becoming commonplace. And Chancellor Helmut Kohl’s promise that there wouldn’t be a tax increase to help pay for unification was coming to resemble George Bush’s 1988 campaign promise, “Read my lips.”
Kelly, a founder of the Green Party-the environmental and political movement that led massive anti nuclear demonstrations in Germany during the 1980’s and was a model for similar movements across Europe and in the United States-was found shot to death in mid-October, along with her longtime companion, Gert Bastian, in their suburban Bonn home.
The circumstances of Kelly’s death were intensely debated among friends, Green Party members, and assassination buffs. Police ruled out an unknown murderer and speculated that Kelly and Bastian might have died as a result of a domestic dispute or a secret suicide pact. The badly decomposed bodies could have been lying in the house for up to three weeks, police said.
In the weeks following Kelly’s death, rightist violence against foreigners, asylum seekers, and people of color have continued in both halves of Germany. But early last November, more than a half million Germans demonstrated against racist violence-and against curbing Germany’s liberal asylum laws-in several German cities, including Bonn, Berlin, and Frankfurt. Chancellor Kohl and President Richard von Weizacker have been the targets of severe criticism in recent months for responding too slowly to the rightist violence, and Kohl has been called a “white collar skinhead” by some leftist groups. Weizacker hid behind police shields after being pelted by eggs at the massive demonstration in Berlin. Even former Chancellor, Helmut Schmidt, a Social Democrat, recently said that he saw “moral decay” in Germany after two years of unification.
In March 1992, Petra Kelly made a short visit to New York City, to address the United Nations on Chinese human rights violations in Tibet and to attend ceremonies for International Women’s Day. On the evening before her return to Germany, we spoke for nearly an hour, probably her last interview with an American journalist.
Kelly seemed deeply troubled by the results of unification. German society as a whole, she believed, was becoming increasingly intolerant, not only of asylum seekers but of Green Party politics. And she thought all of the Western European nations were “being very arrogant in turning their backs on so many of those trying to get into Western Europe.” These included, she said, not only refugees from political and economic uncertainty in Eastern Europe, where the bulk of immigrants are coming from, but those fleeing the Third World because of social turmoil due to “weapons exports or because of the way we have tolerated and helped regimes who torture their own people.”
From the time she burst onto the international scene a decade ago, Kelly was described by the mainstream media as energetic, intelligent, and charismatic. On this occasion, too, she answered all of my questions in rapid-fire fashion, offering details on what she thought about certain pressing issues and pausing, almost coming up for air, as a new thought occurred to her.
“We try to keep defending the German constitutional right to political asylum,” she said, “because Germany has liberal asylum laws, thank God, because of its own historical background. But political parties like the Christian Democrats and the Liberals are about to change this and want to introduce quota systems and very stringent new laws to keep out foreigners.” With Germany’s economy now stagnant, she added, “there’s always the discussion of ‘misuse’ of immigration by people coming in who are not seeking asylum.”
I pointed out when German conservatives claim that most asylum seekers are economic rather than political refugees, they mirror arguments advanced by the last three U.S. Administrations against admitting refugees from Haiti. I wondered whether she saw an international parallel.
“Well, many have tried to come to Germany because because of their structural poverty and economic insecurity,” Kelly said. “I am among those who believe that we are responsible for these terrible conditions because the North has exploited the Southern countries and the Third World to an incredible extent. There is much proof of this.
“But, there are also as many Eastern European immigrants coming who have relationships to a German grandfather, uncle, or whatever, and of course that gives them the right to German citizenship because of this strange law which says that only by blood are you German. It’s an antique, and one of the most repressive laws I can think of, dating back to the Hitler days. So the people who can prove any German descent whatever suddenly are German, while a foreign worker who might have lived thirty years in Germany with his family, has paid taxes, contributing to society, may not get German citizenship. Yet, a person coming from Poland can become German overnight. The situation is rather ridiculous.
“On the other hand,” Kelly added, “I feel that with so many people who come for reasons of dire poverty, it’s very difficult to say that one is seeking asylum and the other one is not. I think the rich Western European countries, especially very rich Germany, have to do far more in sharing, and in trying to understand why there is misery in the world, why in fact very few-10 per cent-try to come to Western Europe, while the other 90 per cent go to the poorest countries, countries like Iran, India, Pakistan, and Africa, which take up most of the refugees.”
Resentment of immigrants and people of color had been building for months before the outbreak of neo-Nazi violence in the eastern city of Rostock last August, and Germany’s short-wave radio service, Deutsche Welle, had aired a series of reports on hostile confrontations. Those stories were true, said Petra Kelly, and she painted an even uglier picture.
“I think the mainstream of German society is moving very much toward intolerance,” she said. “If you look at the attacks, they have happened not only in eastern Germany, but in western Germany to an even greater degree. There have been more than 700 attacks in the area of Nordrhein-Westfalen over the last few months. And so it is a rather major crisis, not only in terms of how the mentality has changed. And the mood in Germany is a rather strange one at the present time. There’s a lot of economic fear in the eastern part, and a high suicide rate. There is a two tiered citizenship, with the eastern Germans feeling they are second class citizens-and they are. There is a terrible feeling that Eastern Europe will become a kind of Latin America.
“So, at the moment, it is not developing into the Green model we had for Germany, let alone the model we had for Europe. It is the vision of Mr. Strauss in the 1960”s that is now becoming reality.” (Her reference was to Hans Josef Strauss, the leader of Germany’s Bavarian-based Christian Social Union, whose ultra conservative policies resemble those expressed in the United States by Patrick Buchanan.)
Our conversation covered not only Kelly’s fears of growing racial intolerance in Germany, but also her apprehensions about growing violence against women as an outgrowth of the racial violence. She also expressed concern about some officials in the armed forces who are calling for a German military role outside NATO. But her strong focus was on one of the major issues for women in united Germany-abortion laws.
“In eastern Germany,” she said, “there was a right to have an abortion in the first three months, and it became like an assembly line, something that I didn’t think was right either. After unification, there was supposed to be a kind of transition period where both regions would have the right to keep their own laws. It turned out completely the opposite. This has divided women very much.
“It all came about through the debate about reunification. There was no moment in the parliament when there was any discussion of abortion. Now the discussion is led very emotionally by bishops, and led entirely by men. We’re back to the 1960’s, when we have to go back out in the streets, so to speak, and do very dramatic actions to say a woman has to want to be a mother; it has to be a responsible motherhood. And if a woman does not want to have a child, she will never feel responsible for that child.”
Whether addressing nuclear disarmament, East-West relations, women’s rights, indigenous people in North America and Australia, or the environment, Petra Kelly was an important spokesperson for the Green Party. Her celebrity helped to keep the movement in the public eye.
The political tragedy of her death is that recent polls show the Greens’ popularity is again on the rise. After much internal dissension and a bitter factional split that left Kelly largely isolated, the political fences in the party have been mended. Kelly reportedly had planned to run in the 1994 European parliamentary elections. She was forty-four years old.