They called her Lady Di

James Buchan

  • Thinking Green! Essays on Environmentalism, Feminism and Non-Violence by Petra Kelly
    Parallax, 168 pp, £15.00, April 1994, ISBN 0 938077 62 7

On the evening of 19 October 1992, the decomposed bodies of Petra Karin Kelly and Gerd Bastian were found by police in the bedroom of the small house they shared in the village of Tannenbusch on the outskirts of Bonn. They had been dead for about three weeks. Both had been shot in the head with bullets from a little Derringer pistol. On the morning of the 20th, a Tuesday, the police announced they were certain that ‘no third person was responsible for their deaths.’

The manner of Petra Kelly’s death has haunted Green politics ever since. For if this really had been a suicide pact, as the evidence suggested, it abolished at a stroke the meaning of her short life. So the woman who professed an American high-school optimism and called her 1983 book of essays Um Hoffnung Kämpfen, ‘Struggle for Hope’, had given in to German despair! The champion of women’s independence had meekly lain in bed and been shot by a man! An advocate of non-violence, the disciple of Martin Luther King and Gandhi and Tolstoy and the Sermon on the Mount, had died by violence – ‘this way, by a gun!’ as Eleanor Mulloncy Lecain exclaims in one of the tributes to Ms Kelly that pad out this book.

Not surprisingly, many people in Germany and the United States – Ms Kelly’s two chief theatres of action – reject this tawdry suburban Mayerling and look for other causes of death: that Bastian murdered her and then himself or that a third party, perhaps from some state apparatus, had killed them both. This book, assembled by Californian Greens as a monument to Ms Kelly’s life and thought – and edited by them to an uncharacteristic coherence – averts its eyes from her ghastly end and, indeed, from the whole German side of her nature. Her misery evaporates in the Californian sunshine. Here is her world not as it was, but as it should have been. You would never know from this book that Germany has a bad history, that violence is the apple-pie of German politics; and that the greatest women of the German Left this century – Rosa Luxemburg, Ulrike Meinhof and Petra Kelly – all died by violence.

Petra Karin Lehmann was born on 29 November 1947, in the little town of Günzburg on the Danube in Bavaria, at that time in the American zone of occupation. She was the daughter of Marianne Birle and a refugee from Dresden named Siegfried Lehmann, who needed an address in the West so as not to be returned to the Soviet zone, and was taken in by Marianne’s mother. The wedding photograph that May shows a pretty girl in a dirndl, not noticeably pregnant, her curly blonde hair gathered at the back of her head, and a dark and sensitive young man, adrift in his suit. Siegfried had evidently been wrecked by the war; he moved from job to job and then, in 1951, got up and left. The Lehmanns were divorced in 1954, and Petra underwent the first of a series of operations on her kidneys, which cost her a year at her convent school. She said she fought continuously with the sisters and priests. When I asked her, in 1983, if she’d ever tried to look for Siegfried, she said: ‘I am well-known, now. He could find me now if he wanted to.’ I thought then that I’d seen straight into her heart and found the spring of her activity. All her life, she seemed curiously fixed in childhood.

In December 1957, Marianne met Lt Col John Kelly while working as an interpreter for the US Army, and they were married exactly a year later. On 25 May 1959, Petra’s half-sister was born and named Grace Patricia after the Princess of Monaco. Soon afterwards, John Kelly was transferred to Fort Benning, Georgia and took the whole family with him.

Petra threw herself into American life. ‘I want to let everyone know how much I love the USA,’ she wrote from Baker High in Columbus, Ga, in 1963. She did very well at school, and later at college. She also engaged with passion in the civil rights movement, came under the influence of Thoreau and the New England Enlightenment, worked as a volunteer in the Presidential campaigns of Robert Kennedy and Hubert Humphrey. She seemed to have a brilliant career in the US before her: in 1970 the Washington Post published a gushing profile of her.

But she was profoundly distressed – seems to have felt betrayed, even – by the assassinations of both King and Kennedy, and by the illness of her sister Grace, who had contracted a tumour of the eye in 1966. Petra wrote to Pope Paul and secured an audience for the family, which proved a disaster: the Pope’s distance and authority repelled her, and she later said she lost her faith that day. Grace died in 1970 after three months of intensive radiation therapy in Heidelberg that horrified and appalled her sister. The memory of these months gave Petra’s antipathy to nuclear power a violently emotional cast.

In the Seventies, she worked at the European Commission in Brussels and formed passionate friendships with two older men: Sicco Mansholt, the Dutch President of the Commission, and John Carroll, an Irish labour leader. She terminated a pregnancy in 1978. Meanwhile, she became increasingly prominent in her public protest against civilian nuclear power in West Germany.

In 1979, the scattering of various local and ad hoc Green organisations in the Federal Republic banded together to fight the elections to the European Parliament, with Ms Kelly at the head of the list. They polled more than 3 per cent. Under the German electoral system, a party needs only 5 per cent of the vote to gain seats in the Federal and State Parliaments, so the Greens were clearly in with a chance. In 1980, Gerd Bastian, a brigadier stationed in south Germany – an upright, chivalrous, argumentative, gallant and not especially intelligent officer – left his wife, daughter and the Bundeswehr to live with her. He once told me he’d been marked for life by a day in 1945, Führergeburtstag, 20 April, when he woke up in the Bavarian Forest and heard Göbbels speak on the radio and realised it had all been one big lie.

The Greens in those days consisted of many strands, of which three stood out. The first consisted of the heirs of various turn-of-the-century movements of hygiene and nature-worship, and even of some old gentlemen who had made the long tramp from the Wandervögel to the Greens by way of the free corps of the Weimar Republic and even the SS. The second comprised members of the grass-roots action groups, known in German as Bürgerinitiativen, which had sprung up in the Seventies in protest against the construction of nuclear power stations and other civil engineering works promoted by the SPD-Liberal coalition under Helmut Schmidt. The third, and most formidable, were the refugees from the 1968 student revolt who, after an appalling decade spent in little Maoist sects and street battles and on the margins of terror, were now exhausted and ready to compromise for the political power they felt they deserved. Among the celebrities of this last group were such gifted individuals as Rudi Dutschke, who died in 1979, Otto Schily, who had been Gudrun Ensslin’s defence counsel in the Stammheim trials of the Baader-Meinhof gang, and Joschka Fischer.

There was obviously no chance of constructing a party platform on which all these groups could stand and, indeed, the early party congresses were a chaos of uncompleted agenda, knitting, intrigue and rant. The same problem had confronted the National Socialists in the Twenties, but the Nazi solution – the Führer is always right, let the programme go hang! – was not to be countenanced: already the cult of Petra Kelly’s personality, nurtured by the Anglo-Saxon male correspondents in Bonn, was a source of deep resentment throughout the Party.

What gave the Greens their success was a single issue which seemed of such urgency it abolished all differences: the decision by Nato in 1979 to match the Soviet force of SS-20 missiles in the European theatre with a countervailing force, in West Germany and elsewhere, of ground-launched Cruise missiles and Pershing II ballistic missiles. The decision exposed the Federal Republic to the armoury of Soviet subversion, split the SPD, helped cause the Schmidt Government to collapse, and unleashed a wave of popular protest which washed Ms Kelly and Bastian and 26 other Green deputies into the Bundestag in the Federal elections of 6 March 1983.

In an essay in this book, Mark Hertsgaard writes: ‘George Bush boasted that he ended the Cold War and vanquished the nuclear threat. If any individual can make so grand a claim, Petra Kelly has a greater right to.’ As regards Ms Kelly, this is complete nonsense. If the Greens and SPD had gained enough seats to make a government, there would have been no Pershings in Germany. The Soviets’ riverboat gamble with the SS-20 – truly, their last throw – would have paid off, the pace of change in Europe would have slowed drastically, the authority of the CPSU would be more or less intact, and Gorbachev might still be in power.

Her achievements in this period were more modest. Because of her reputation in the US, she helped dispel from the German Greens their dialectical fug and boots-and-breeches earnestness and opened them up to the world. For a while, she kept the squabbling Greens together, not as a conciliator or because of her beauty or personality (which was fragile in the extreme), but thanks to the cast of her thought, which abolished all distinction. She saw the evils of the world, from nuclear weapons to environmental devastation, Grace’s cancer to the oppression of women, as consequences of the same masculine violence, and said this at a breathless speed that brooked no argument or interruption. ‘I often hear,’ she wrote in an essay included in this book, ‘people arguing about the world’s many evils and which should be the first confronted. This fragmentary approach is itself part of the problem, reflecting the linear, hierarchical nature of patriarchal thinking that fails to grasp the complexity of living systems. What is needed is a perspective that integrates the many problems we face and approaches them holistically.’

Later on, she writes: ‘In Green politics, we practise tenderness in relations with others.’ Nothing could worse describe the relations of the 28 Green deputies in the Bundestag between 1983 and 1990. The office building they occupied at the Tulpenfeld was the scene of the most poisonous battles, between Marxists and gym-teachers, Hamburg and Stuttgart, men and women. Sometimes, looking out from the window of the Financial Times office next door, I’d see Petra Kelly cross the Tulpenfeld, with the razors and knitting-needles of her colleagues still embedded in her neck and back. She did not prosper in the house. While Fischer scandalised the shiny suits and twinsets with his scurrilous oratory and Schily dominated Parliamentary committees, Ms Kelly could not adjust to the closed arena with its rules and traditions, nor to the ebbing of popular protest and the accumulating evidence that the last battle of the Cold War had been fought, leaving Nato in command of the battlefield. She was exhausted, unwell, fractious, petulant, dependent. I never saw her eat or drink anything, and she said she slept very little. Her celebrity – they called her Lady Di – was more than ever envied. Her office work was chaotic, a very serious offence in Germany. In 1984, Bastian resigned in a quixotic effort to protect her, but she stayed on, in defiance of the party congress that demanded she give up her mandate, until 1990, when the Greens were driven out of Parliament in the post-unification landslide for Helmut Kohl.

Once again, Petra Kelly was kicking against history. The Green movement she had courageously nurtured and supported in East Germany was engulfed in the brutal takeover of East by West: in which not only the industrial capital of the GDR but its entire society were written off against the unfathomable reserves of West German prosperity. The old German dream of a middle course – between East and West, capitalism and Communism, Dresden and Fort Benning, Ga – was not to be reality, or at least not yet. Ousted from Parliament, short of secretarial help, out of political fashion, is it a surprise she gave way to gloom? Life, as everybody knows, gets harder as you get older and hope is a struggle which can exhaust even well people. Bastian, too, seems to have become depressed about the outbreak of xenophobia in the new Germany. Perhaps he was thinking of the day he told me about, in the Bavarian forest in 1945.

For what it’s worth, I suspect the Greens of western Germany will return to the Bundestag at the elections this autumn; and, less confidently, that they will come to cherish Petra Kelly’s memory. Those who witnessed her particular via crucis will never forget it, or her.