Petra Kelly and the Transnational Roots of Green Politics

by Milder, Stephen
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Arcadia, 2013, no. 8
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Petra Kelly talking in front of peace activists and artists supporting the "Krefelder Appell" against the NATO Double-Track Decision (1982)

During the 1970s and 1980s, Petra Karin Kelly (1947–1992) traveled the globe, visiting sites of anti-nuclear protest that included rural West German villages, the Australian outback, and Hiroshima. Her travels also took her to world capitals like Washington, Bonn, London, and Brussels. In moving between sites of local activism and capital cities, Kelly played an essential part in the networking of grassroots anti-nuclear activists and helped carry their message to centers of political power. She envisioned the West German Green party, which she co-founded in 1980, as a powerful tool that could redirect “chain reactions” of grassroots protest towards parliaments and thus create a new, more participatory form of liberal democracy.

The roots of Kelly’s transnational approach to politics are evident in her biography. Born in provincial Günzburg on the Danube in 1947, Kelly left Bavaria for the United States after her mother married an American GI in 1959. She attended high school in Fort Benning, Georgia, and then Newport News, Virginia, before enrolling in Washington DC’s American University in 1966.

It was at AU that she became politically active, serving as a lead student organizer on the 1968 presidential campaigns of Robert F. Kennedy and later Hubert H. Humphrey. Though she was not deeply involved in the student movement while she was at AU, the direct action protests carried out by civil rights activists during the early 1960s and by students later in the decade clearly affected Kelly and informed her approach to politics after she returned to Europe in 1970.

During her employment at the European Economic Community in Brussels during the early 1970s, Kelly began to connect her desire for social change with the need to incorporate “the people at every local level” into political decision-making processes. The death of her half-sister, Gracie, from cancer in 1970 sensitized Kelly to the problems of nuclear radiation. Her discovery of grassroots anti-nuclear protest in the mid-1970s helped her to see anti-nuclear activism as the means towards an alternative, more inclusive politics for Europe.

Petra Kelly at the press conference of the West German Greens (together with Otto Schily) after the party's first election into the Bundestag (1983)

Intent on bringing the energy of grassroots anti-nuclear protests into parliamentary politics, Kelly helped found the West German Green Party. She served as the party’s lead candidate for the European elections in 1979, and also headed its list for the 1980 and 1983 federal elections. After the Greens finally entered the Bundestag in March 1983, Kelly’s continued focus on the sort of transnational grassroots politics that had propelled her to Bonn and her growing personal celebrity alienated many of her Green colleagues. She saw the direct action protests that she mounted within the Bundestag chamber, as well as in front of the White House, on East Berlin’s Alexanderplatz, and in the West German embassy in Pretoria, South Africa, as a means of utilizing her parliamentary mandate to further important causes, create transnational networks, and expand liberal democracy. Others, however, saw these actions as contrary to the serious behavior expected of an MP.

By 1992, when she was murdered by her partner, the former Bundeswehr general Gert Bastian, Kelly had almost completely fallen out with the Greens. Yet her transnational approach to politics, through which she sought to connect grassroots activism with centers of political power, had been essential to the Greens’ initial entrance into the Bundestag and played an important part in the incorporation of environmental matters into West Germany’s political mainstream.

How to cite

Milder, Stephen. “Petra Kelly and the Transnational Roots of Green Politics.” Environment & Society Portal, Arcadia 2013, no. 8. Rachel Carson Center for Environment and Society. https://doi.org/10.5282/rcc/5279.


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ISSN 2199-3408
Environment & Society Portal, Arcadia

Further readings: 
  • Bevan, Ruth. “Petra Kelly: The Other Green.” New Political Science 23 (2001): 181–202.
  • Heinrich Böll Foundation. Petra Kelly: A Rememberance. Berlin: Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung, 2008.
  • Kelly, Petra. Fighting for Hope. London: Hogarth Press, 1984.
  • Milder, Stephen. “Thinking Globally, Acting (Trans-)Locally: Petra Kelly and the Transnational Roots of West German Green Politics.” Central European History, 43, no. 2 (June 2010): 301–26.
  • Parkin, Sara. The Life and Death of Petra Kelly. London: Harper Collins, 1994.
  • Richter, Saskia. Die Aktivistin: Das Leben der Petra Kelly. Munich: Deutsche-Verlags-Anstalt, 2010.