The Greens Are Dead

Lützerath and German Environmentalism

Be careful what you wish for. It may be a cliché, but it’s one the Greens are learning all over again.

Cops and protestors. Lützerath, 8 January.

In this case, it was a coalition with the Christian Democrats (CDU) in Nordrhein-Westfalen (NRW). 

A group of squatters in an abandoned village are giving them second thoughts about having gotten in bed with Germany’s biggest conservative party.

More than two and a half years ago, climate protesters began squatting in the village of Lützerath, one of twenty villages in the Rheinland-Palatinate that had been emptied to make way for a gigantic lignite coal mining operation. 

The coal mining company RWE had partnered, some say connived, with the state government of NRW in putting the project together.

This would probably have resulted in a degree of bad feeling, irrespective of what the colouration of the state government might have been. 

At the time that the deal was concocted, Nordrhein-Westfalen was run by a minority coalition between the CDU and the slightly less right Free Democratic Party (FPD). 

Neither party has any problem with extractive industries and shares a similarly poor sense of political timing.

Germany, after all, was in a complex situation in terms of its energy supply long before the war in Ukraine led to the disruption of natural gas supplies from Russia.

Following the 2011 Fukushima disaster, as part of the Energiewende, Angela Merkel decided to close all of the country’s nuclear power plants by 2022.

But, in spite of enormous growth in renewable energy usage, Merkel’s decision left Germany more dependent on Russia than ever.

In order to compensate, the federal government found itself forced to extend coal-powered energy production with the promise of a cleaner solution further down the road.

The situation in NRW became markedly more complex after the state elections in 2022, when the Greens increased their share of the vote by more than 10%, becoming the third-largest party in the state after the CDU and the Social Democrats. 

The new government took office in July of 2022, with the CDU in the lead but with Green Party leader Mona Neubauer as vice-premier, holding the portfolio for environmental protection.

Though the Greens are no longer considered an anti-establishment party, their coalition with the Christian Democrats is still a study in contrasts. 

The CDU was once the leading party of postwar European Christian Democracy. Its founders hailed from right-wing circles less intimate – though, unsurprisingly, inconsistently – with fascism.

Under the leadership of Konrad Adenauer, the government focused on West Germany’s reconstruction, suppressing right and left-wing extremism and aligning with Washington.

Die Grünen, by contrast, have a much different history. The party is a product of the new social movements of the 1960s and early 1970s that made up Germany’s New Left.

The Greens were founded from a coalition of smaller groups, many of which percolated through the Easter Marches and other anti-nuclear activism in the 1970s.

Unlike the CDU, which had and clung to a very pronounced Cold War agenda, the Greens were, in certain respects, post-ideological. They accepted conservatives and leftists into their ranks. 

The latter included Joschka Fischer, a former street-fighting radical from the 1960s and a number of people who had been associated with or suborned by the East German secret police, the Stasi.

While the Greens were not a one-issue party, they were the only political organisation in Germany able to cut across the left-right divide established during the Cold War, which continues to shape modern German politics quite powerfully. 

While their tally of nearly 15% of the vote in the 2021 elections was regarded as disappointing, it resulted in the Greens’ inclusion in Olaf Scholz’s SPD-led government and the appointment of Robert Habeck as vice-chancellor and Annalena Baerbock as foreign minister.

That’s why the Greens-CDU coalition in NRW particularly stands out. It’s tantamount to the Social Democrats forming a federal government with Alternative für Deutschland (AfD).

For the Greens, the calculus is both similar and more complex. 

All other things being equal, the Greens are closer in orientation to the SPD. But, partnering with the CDU was an opportunity to potentially broaden their appeal to centre-right voters.

For a party that polls suggested might win the 2021 elections, this was another opening the Greens could build on to eventually get there.

What doesn’t make sense is how the Greens would manage this and find an acceptable solution to the political situation in Lützerath that would satisfy its environmentalist base. 

Matters have now come to a head there, and of the remaining protestors who have not been evicted by the time this article is published, it is certain that they soon will be.

Even the squatters concede that the occupation of Lützerath can’t result in victory if it doesn’t prevent the construction of a highly pollutive coal mining operation.

This is radical politics on the defensive, admitting that the ground cannot be held but hoping that a larger point can be made in the course of defeat. 

The Greens are being pummeled in the German media, not least by many of their own supporters who accuse the party of folding to pressure from RWE to keep the mining project on track.

There are a number of intriguing possible outcomes in terms of the effects on German politics. 

“Lützerath stays” has become a rallying cry for the German environmental movement. 

This comes at a particularly important time when the pressure to find alternative energy sources to replace Russian natural gas has brought other, dirtier forms of energy into play. 

At this moment, it is difficult to see exactly how this will play out, particularly given the likelihood that the conflict in Ukraine will continue unabated throughout 2023.

From a more practical perspective, the conflict over an abandoned village has turned into a political nightmare for the Greens.

Much as they had not gained to the degree that they had hoped at the federal level, the general trend for the party had been upward for the last five years or more.

Now, circumstances are compelling prominent party leaders to come out in defence of a coal mining operation which will result in some 200 million tonnes of new coal combustion. 

The argument that this will, in the long run, contribute to moves in a renewable energy direction seems to be cutting little ice with the party rank and file. 

The likely outcome is for the Greens to haemorrhage votes in both directions. 

Some voters will migrate to the SPD and what remains of Die Linke, while those lost to the centre-right are likely to end up in the CDU and FDP.

A not insignificant number of Greens will migrate to Alternative für Deutschland, continuing a process begun during the pandemic, when members could be found attending anti-vax protests.

This is by no means an argument for giving the Greens a pass in the name of keeping them solid and in power, in the hope that they’ll return to their environmentalist roots. 

Rather it is meant to make a point about supposedly non-ideological parties and how unstable they are. 

Those lacking a broader political outlook are, it would seem, easier to draw into support for ideas and projects that run counter to their stated goals.

The standoff in Lützerath remains tense yet instructive.

The police have shown little hesitance in evicting people, and it is only the cleverness of activists who have thwarted a more wholesale clearance thus far. 

While climate protesters hold out in the ruins of a town on the verge of destruction, the German environmental movement seems to be on the verge of a moment of clarity.

What this crisis teaches the country’s left will have ramifications for decades to come, the least of which will be the need to stick to its guns in its pursuit of political power. 

Some will point out that the Greens lost their credibility during the Kosovo War when the party broke with its pacifist principles and supported NATO’s bombing of Serbia and that it’s handling of the Ukraine crisis is no different.

But, with the rise of the Fridays for Future movement and youth climate activism, it seemed like the Greens were poised to capitalise on the continuum and reclaim some of their mandate.

Nothing proves this hope was more illusory than how the party has handled Lützerath. 

With Die Linke on the verge of collapse, it seems an opportune time to forge a new progressive party, combining the best aspects of class and climate politics.

Photograph courtesy of Stefan Müller. Published under a Creative Commons license.