Blame it on the climate crisis. That’s what the German press has done. Winning 20.5% of the national vote in this year’s EU elections, Bündnis 90/Die Grünen (the Greens) nearly doubled their 2014 showing.
But, for Germany’s most popular centre-left party, there’s a lot more to it than meets the eye.
Sven Giegold, who headed up the Green EU list alongside Ska Keller, may have provided part of the answer.
Giegold has maintained that the German Greens are no longer the party that helped enact the neoliberal Hartz “reforms” under Gerhard Schröder in the early 2000s.
After leaving the national government in 2005, according to Giegold, “we learned our lesson”.
Since their founding as an “anti-party” in West Germany in 1980, the Greens have been divided between the archetypal antipodes of pragmatists and radicals (think Mensheviks and Bolsheviks), or in German parlance, “Realos” (hegemonic since the early 1990s) and an ever-dwindling contingent of “Fundis.”
Giegold, a reform-oriented wonk specialising in European tax and finance law, could be described as a left-leaning “Realo.”
If Giegold chose the path of parliamentary politics over activism from the outside, Jutta Ditfurth, a prominent Fundi who abandoned the party long before the Hartz laws were passed, is his polar opposite.
For years, in books, talks and interviews, she has accused her ex-comrades — and on several occasions, their voters — of selling out.
“All the parties tell lies,” she told Der Spiegel in 2011, “but there’s no party with as grandiose a difference between image and reality as the Greens.”
To see why she has a point, it’s useful to check Sven Giegold’s claims of a post-Hartz Green left turn against Green actions since they were voted out of the national government in 2005.
Nothing tested the political-economic ideology of governments and opposition parties across Europe like the financial crisis of 2008 and its aftermath.
Then came the Greek debt crisis and the possibility of a breakdown of the European Monetary Union on its Southern border.
How did the German Greens react to these circumstances? In particular, what role did the Greens play in the enactment of the European Fiscal Compact of 2012, which among other things demanded that EMU countries write budgetary austerity into their national legal fabric, even into their very constitutions?
One contemporary study on the negotiations leading to the Fiscal Compact offers some answers: “The SPD and the Greens had supported the (Merkel) government in all its measures to overcome the debt crisis, especially concerning financial aid to Greece.”
In 2009, shortly after the worldwide financial crisis began, the Grand Coalition passed a domestic version of what became the Fiskalpakt, the “Schuldenbremse,” (“debt brake”), a law writing fiscal austerity into the German constitution.
Here, the Greens had joined die Linke in opposition, although they had also expressed openness to a “reasonable, economical debt brake.” (Since then, they’ve argued for preserving the basic legislation, but adding exceptions for necessary infrastructure investment.)
By 2012, the Greens were on board with a much larger project along the same lines for the eurozone as a whole.
Upon reaching an agreement to support the Fiscal Compact, Merkel/Schäuble’s ordoliberal (social liberalism) straightjacket on the budgetary autonomy of eurozone countries as well as on the budget-making autonomy of the German Länder, the Greens justified their stance by claiming victory in defeat.
On the one hand, they argued that the new treaty doesn’t really change much of anything in extant EU law, to begin with, so what’s all the fuss about.
But Cem Özdemir, co-chairperson of the party at the time, went much further, absurdly using the occasion to celebrate the Merkel government’s non-existent “turn away from austerity”.
Jürgen Trittin, Green co-leader in the Bundestag, prefigured Sven Giegold in 2019 by announcing the end of the government’s “ideologically motivated blockade”.
In the run-up to the eventual passage of the Fiscal Compact, the Greens had indeed made a lot of noise about preconditions. Together with the SPD, they demanded, above all, a Europe-wide financial transaction tax, to which Merkel & Co. assented — in theory.
Seven years after the Compact passed with Green support, this still hasn’t been implemented.
Ultimately, what current national co-chair Robert Habek calls “Handlungsfähigkeit” (“pragmatic competence”) overcame any post-neoliberal qualms harboured by the Greens in the Bundestag.
And although there are prominent Green voices today that speak a more Keynesian language when it comes to budgets and government spending, a basic belief in the correctness of the “schwarze Null” (balanced budgets) still permeates Green economic thought.
This was certainly in the background when Robert Habeck charmed the Berlin Chamber of Commerce and Industry in a recent informal talk with gnomic utterances like, “We must rethink the idea of investment.”
Any hints of statist solutions to the climate crisis were sweetened with reminders that “the old polarities aren’t working,” that the Greens are about “building bridges” and that, like Sven Giegold, Robert Habeck knows how much there is to “learn” from talking to capitalists.
Above all, the Green co-chief philosophised to the captains of industry, mastering the climate crisis requires more “Handlungsfähigkeit.”
In no other area are Green pretensions and Green actions more out of whack than in matters of war and peace. It would take a separate article to describe this history in detail, but a few highlights will suffice.
The long, slow NATO-fication of Green security doctrine is one of the bitterest ironies of a party that was founded by committed anti-nuclear activists and pacifists in the 1980s.
Once in power, Joschka Fischer discredited his party among many on the left when he turned “nie wieder Auschwitz” (“never again Auschwitz”) into a battering ram to force through German participation in NATO’s war with Yugoslavia in 1998.
Not long after that, in the aftermath of 11 September 2001, the Greens joined their Social Democratic coalition partners in supporting the US invasion of Afghanistan.
But that was just the Fischer-Schröder-era Green Party, right? Wrong.
The Greens may have criticised Merkel’s 2012 Fiscal Compact from the left before acquiescing anyway; but when it came to the NATO invasion of Libya in 2011, their criticism was from the right.
Leading Greens, from the bombastic Realo Daniel Cohn-Bendit in Brussels to ex-Minister Fischer to left “humanitarian” interventionists in parliament, lambasted Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle (FDP) for abstaining from the vote in the Security Council to establish a “no-fly zone” in Libya.
It was this “R2P” wedge measure at the UN that ultimately (and predictably) led to all-out regime change within a matter of months.
Although the Greens in parliament were somewhat divided on the issue, parliamentary co-chair Renate Künast told Der Spiegel, with a Habeckian flourish, that “if (the government) didn’t want to participate in the no-fly zone, there were more elegant ways to express this than abstaining” at the UN.
Asked whether the Greens as a whole rejected Westerwelle’s vote to abstain, Künast said, “yes” adding that Germany’s non-participation had “divided Europe”.
Which brings us full circle to Sven Giegold, the European Greens, and the pro-European forces.
For the German Greens, pro-European has long meant pro-NATO, anti-Russian, and an unquestioned Transatlantic strategic partnership with the United States.
Hence: pro-war, especially if the conflict in question involves considerations of “R2P” and multilateral packaging.
As Cem Özdemir and Tobias Lindner (currently Greens spokesperson for security issues) wrote in a recent op-ed for the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, the aptly-titled Why a Green Foreign Policy needs the Bundeswehr:
“The defence of our country can’t be accomplished by Germany alone; we depend also on our alliance partners… In the same way, they have to rely on us. Making the army fit for the future is thus a question of solidarity with our EU and NATO partners.”
The Green duo is against the “unilateral insanity” of the German past, but recognises that “not only actions have consequences; inaction can as well.”
From a left-wing perspective, this is the deciding axis that separates the Greens, say, from die Linke, whose European elections platform calls, among other things, for dismantling NATO.
And this is yet another area of basic agreement between the Greens and Germany’s major non-left parties, which is also a reason why a Green-Black national government is no longer beyond the realm of possibility.
In fact, it’s as likely as any other scenario after the next national elections in 2021. So why has a party with so unspectacular a pedigree suddenly become the darling of a large segment of the disaffected German electorate?
The most common reason cited for the recent Green surge in Germany is, of course, widespread anxiety about the ongoing climate crisis.
Many have also pointed out how the Greens — and not the socialist left — have succeeded in occupying the position of symbolic antipode to the “populist right” embodied by the AfD.
For a long time, the Greens were known as the party of what might be called the hipster classes — relatively young, urban, middle-to-upper-middle-class and upward, proportionately female, educated, and primarily on the Western side of the what used to be the two Germanies.
With their recent electoral successes, the Greens’ appeal has spread beyond these demographic limits, but probably not for long. Writing for Der Spiegel, the conservative commentator Jan Fleischhauer hit the Green problem on the head when he wrote, “it’s easier to find a homosexual in the AfD than a non-academic among the Greens”.
Fleischhauer described the Green wave “not as a repoliticisation… but on the contrary as an escape from politics. Those who vote Green, vote for the path of least resistance.”
Here he echoes Slavoj Zizek, who recently wrote that the German Greens “were and are the perfect option for people who want to have the feeling of wanting to change things without actually changing anything”.
More thought-provoking still is Felix Klopotek’s analysis in the far-left magazine Konkret.
This generation of Green voters, buffeted by the precariousness of life in the neoliberal economy, “has been inoculated with pragmatism: there’s always a way to find a quick solution”, writes Klopotek.
“You can’t call this generation ‘blinded by ideology,’” he adds, “because they don’t associate the problems they encounter with a worldview, but see them as a setting of contradictions to be overcome one by one…”
Since at least the fall of the Berlin Wall (and actually much longer), it’s long been a feature of left introspection to decry the destructive dominance of ideology over the real, historical, fallible, malleable, messed-up human condition.
The Greens, however, show how ideology is still working even when you’re doing your level best not to admit it.
Not altogether unlike with Macron in France, Germany’s current “post-ideological” moment will probably not last long or end well.
Photograph courtesy of Bündnis 90/Die Grünen NRW. Published under a Creative Commons license.