In 1983, when the antiwar Greens first marched into the Bundestag bearing their potted plants like triumphant supernumeraries from Macbeth, you would have gotten a good laugh if you suggested that 25 years hence, this crowd would be the staunchest defenders of a German expeditionary force in Afghanistan.
Oh sure, Joschka Fischer, the high-school dropout and occasional taxi driver, may have traded in his battered sneakers when he entered parliament. But there was no hint that he and his colleagues would one day abandon the fierce pacifism that was their own absolutist response to the poisoned legacy of Hitler.
And yet there it is. Today, even with the latest Forsa poll showing 62 percent of German voters pressing to bring the Bundeswehr home from the Hindu Kush, preferably yesterday, the Greens’ Marieluise Beck and Winfried Nachtwei are the ones arguing most passionately that German soldiers must stay in Afghanistan long enough to protect otherwise defenseless villagers against Taliban insurgents. International soldiers are essential to “guarantee protection against illegal violence” in a threatening “environment of many violent actors” and to create the preconditions for the kind of development that alone can bring real peace, argues Nachtwei.
This striking Green evolution has made for quite a different “long march through the institutions” than the one prophesied by the original mélange of treehuggers, flower children, feminists, human-rights activists, Leninists, Spontis (from “spontaneity of the masses”), artists, knitters, nursing mothers, ne’er-do-well industrial scions who tossed their inheritance into the party pot, and assorted other disestablishmentarians. In the beginning, the Greens prided themselves on their revolutionary pranks and periodic non-pacific battles with police in the streets of Frankfurt or at the irrigation canals outside a nuclear power plant. They choreographed a hundred-kilometer-long peace chain from Stuttgart to Neu Ulm to protest the imminent stationing of American Pershing IIs in the Swabian hills. In the staid Bundestag, Fischer thrilled his freshman Green colleagues when he broke taboos and growled, “With all due respect, Mr. President, you’re an asshole.”
The Green collective rarely spoke with one voice, of course, as befits rebels who exulted in their Streitkultur—culture of ferocious argument. Back in the 1980s, the first intramural ideological clashes between the radical Green “Fundis” (from “fundamental opposition”) and the more pragmatic “Realos” (from “realpolitik”) presaged the later arguments over military intervention in Afghanistan. The Fundis accused the Realos of the sins of selling out to capitalism, compromising with the traditional parties, and, most unforgiveably in the case of Realos voted into the Bundestag, reneging on their promise to remain amateur politicians and step down at half-term in favor of “back-up” Green candidates who had initially failed to win their own seats in the election.
In 1990, the Greens fell below the 5 percent threshold necessary for Bundestag representation, in part because of their own success in goading Germany’s traditional parties into co-opting their signature environmental cause. But in the 1994 elections—bolstered by East German arrivals and a merger with Alliance ’90—the newly formed Alliance ’90/The Greens bounced back to a solid 7.3 percent of the vote, thus replacing the swing-vote Free Democratic Party liberals as the third-largest party behind the conservative Christian Democratic Union and the Social Democratic Party.
While this second cohort of Green politicians was largely “Realo”, it was hardly eager to send German troops into combat abroad. Even after Europe witnessed the atrocity of the Serbs’ siege of Sarajevo and the humiliation of UN peacekeeping troops in Bosnia, only four out of the 49 Greens in the Bundestag voted to authorize a Bundeswehr contingent to participate in NATO’s air support mission to protect UN peacekeepers in the war zone. Their fellow Greens condemned this intervention as impermissibly active “peacemaking” rather than passive peacekeeping. Marieluise Beck, a veteran with credentials as one of the first speakers elected by the Green MPs, was one of the four who voted to send German troops to the Balkans. She and her three associates felt they had no choice but to act against “a tendency to genocide” by unchecked Serb paramilitary forces.
During the Balkans debate, Winfried Nachtwei, then a novice in the Bundestag, still identified with the party’s “Fundi” wing, but he shifted his view after joining Joschka Fischer and a few other Greens on a tour of war-devastated Bosnia. It was, he says today, a “life-changing experience.” He recalls seeing the hills around Sarajevo where the entrenched Serbs rained mortars down on civilian clinics, marketplaces and rescue workers who rushed to the aid of those hit by sniper fire; more than 12,000 people were killed. In particular, Nachtwei remembers a conversation with a Catholic bishop in Banja Luka—which Serbs had ruthlessly “cleansed” of Catholic Croats and Muslim Bosniaks—that moved the visiting “hard-boiled politicians to tears.” This led Nachtwei and others to vow, as he puts it, to “defend peace against the destroyers of peace.”
After the additional massacre of close to 8,000 unarmed Bosniak boys and men at Srebrenica, Fischer wrote an anguished open letter to his party. In it he argued that the “moral soul” of the German Left compelled it to respond to genocide in Bosnia by supporting international military intervention:
On one side non-violence as the vision of a world in which conflicts are solved through sanity, law, and majority decisions; . . . on the other side the damned dilemma of not being able to help human beings survive without military intervention. The conflict between our solidarity with survival and our commitment to non-violence—that is the dilemma.
His letter touched off a barrage of polemics that led to a special party convention in Beck’s hometown of Bremen in December 1995. In the end the Fundis won the vote, but the Realo majority in the Bundestag caucus let it be known that at the next test it might defy the party’s decision and support sending the Bundeswehr outside the NATO theater to defend human rights.
The next test came soon enough. After the 1998 election and the formation of the Federal Republic’s first Social Democratic-Green government, Joschka Fischer became Foreign Minister and Vice Chancellor. He had been in office only a few months when the Kosovo crisis erupted in March 1999. Whatever the role of the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) in provoking this crisis after a futile decade of non-violent resistance to Serbian repression, the Serb response was hugely disproportionate. Both uniformed and irregular Serb forces engaged in brutal ethnic cleansing of the province’s overwhelmingly Albanian population. They burned farms, killed unarmed as well as armed Kosovar adults and children, and swiftly turned some 300,000 Kosovars into refugees.
Smarting under the shame of their own inaction as 8,000 Bosniaks died in 1995, members of NATO now launched the alliance on the first hot war in its half-century of existence. The German government, Foreign Minister Fischer and the majority of the Greens in the Bundestag concurred even without having attained the international legal holy grail of European multilateralism: a UN Security Council resolution authorizing the use of force.
The parliamentary Greens had to account for their apostasy at the most tumultuous party convention ever, at Bielefeld, in mid-May. The only topic on the agenda was Kosovo. Fischer, waiting on stage for his presentation, confronted catcalls, whistles and a naked man streaking the convention hall. As he was about to speak, one of his colleagues in the crowd catapulted a bag of red paint through the air, scoring a headshot and injuring his ear. A video of the event captured what happened next. “Dear friends, dear adversaries!” Fischer began his appeal. A roar of “warmonger!” rose up, and Fischer retorted:
Dear adversaries! Yes, here it comes—I was waiting for it: ‘Warmonger! This is a warmonger speaking!’ . . . and if you’re so sure of yourselves, then you should at least listen to the arguments and marshal your own counterarguments. You won’t solve this issue with bullhorns and bags of paint!
Then the crowd, in a textbook display of what American radicals from the 1960s used to call “positive intolerance”, tried to shut Fischer up. “No, I won’t stop talking! I won’t give you that pleasure!” he shouted:
The precondition for peace is that men are not being murdered! Men are not being driven from their homes! Women are not being raped! That’s the precondition for peace. . . . I insist on two principles. Never again war, [but also] never again Auschwitz. Never again genocide. Never again fascism. [In Kosovo] an ethnic war, a chauvinistic policy, has returned that Europe must never again allow!
In retrospect Fischer allowed that this was not the best speech of his life. But it was certainly the most important in the history of the Greens. Singlehandedly, it won a grudging vote of 444–318 on an ambiguous resolution that could be interpreted as tolerating German and Western military intervention in Kosovo.
Less than three years later came the shock of al-Qaeda’s suicide strikes at New York’s twin towers and the Pentagon on September 11. Some 200,000 Germans, Greens among them, gathered spontaneously at the Brandenburg Gate to express solidarity with the United States. For the first time in its existence NATO invoked the obligation of all members to treat an attack on one as an attack on all. “For us it was a new stage of responsibility. With 9/11 it was impossible to overlook the threat we had not seen before”, reflects Nachtwei. The Greens’ “paradigm shift” had already occurred over Bosnia. But in the wake of the terror attacks, he says,
we felt for the first time the urgent need to protect our own open society. Here was a real threat to our common, community life. We had responsibility, not only for ourselves, but also toward the United States and our allies, as well as to generations yet to come.
Nachtwei exercised his own responsibility as a member of the parliamentary defense committee before he retired from the Bundestag in 2009, embarking in this capacity on 14 study trips to Afghanistan. To keep his fellow MPs and constituents informed, he wrote reports of his visits that deliberately highlighted the progress he felt was being neglected by the German and European media. “Better News Instead of Bad News From Afghanistan”, he called his series. His accounts prominently featured reports of Afghan girls and women receiving new educational and civic opportunities, as well as images of bustling street scenes in Herat, Mazar and Kabul. In his final report last December, Nachtwei noted polls by the Asia Foundation showing that 42 percent (and rising) of the Afghan population thought their country was going in the right direction, against 32 percent who thought otherwise. More than a million children had been inoculated against polio, even in the insecure south around Kandahar and Helmand. A mobile theater sponsored by the Foundation for Culture and Community had carried its drama about “reconciliation” to 38,000 Afghan viewers. Young Afghans were again flying kites and learning to play the traditional musical instruments that the Taliban had outlawed. The six lakes of Band-e-Amir in Bamiyan province were set aside as Afghanistan’s first national park. And although the Taliban had returned to the Germans’ northern sector in 2008, Nachtwei reported that he was freer to travel there without special security precautions in Mazar and Feyza than ever before.
The companion reports that Marieluise Beck wrote from her own tour of Afghanistan this past February, in the company of Afghan women parliamentarians, included both good and bad news. Beck urged swifter indemnification of civilian casualties from the controversial air strike summoned by German forces outside of Kunduz last September. She found in Herat that the number of women docents at the university had risen greatly. Successive generations of women students, as measured in two-year cycles, were increasingly self-confident. The pedagogical school, which had had only three women students when it reopened after the Taliban were deposed, now had 2,500. The full university had swelled from 700 to 7,000 students in the same period. In the past five years infant mortality had dropped from 257 to 161 per thousand, for a difference of an extra 100,000 child survivors since the Taliban had fallen from power.
Not all the news Germans heard from their Green politicians was good. UN elements had to withdraw from many local posts because of threats stemming from a vacuum in civil reconstruction efforts. Despite new laws, many girls continue to be married off under the age of 16, and to be subjected to violence at the hands of their mothers-in-law as well as their husbands. Afghan mothers repeatedly pled with Beck not to leave them at the mercy of a resurgent Taliban, who might return to government under a new reconciliation policy. She concluded, “If international forces withdraw immediately—this was the unanimous opinion—you can count on even greater bloodshed than in 1992, when the mujaheddin took power.”
Beck and Nachtwei’s passionate pleas on behalf of Afghan women don’t sway all Greens, let alone most Germans. This past February, in the latest parliamentary vote to broaden the Bundeswehr’s mandate somewhat and increase the authorized ceiling of soldiers from 4,500 to 5,350, the opposition Greens split their voices three ways. Only Beck, former senior UN adviser in Kabul Tom Königs, Omid Nouripour, the Iranian-born Green who won the seat vacated by Nachtwei, and five others voted with the center-right government (and Social Democratic) majority. Thirty-seven Green MPs abstained (in the knowledge that the government resolution would pass without them); 21 voted no.
What Fischer, Beck, Nachtwei and a few others achieved, however, was a unique airing over the past 15 years of the substantive stakes in international intervention in Kosovo, Afghanistan and, in principle, any other failed state. The conservative party of Chancellor Angela Merkel has debated internally the need to support Germany’s American ally in Afghanistan without ever making a strong case for Germany’s own national interests in stabilizing Afghanistan. By contrast, the prolonged civil war among the Greens and within the heart of each individual Green—while it, too, has skirted any mention of a national interest—has at least established a public case for the humanitarian responsibility to protect. In the process, the old Green “basis” that once reviled the Realo parliamentarians has become convinced, with the counterintuitive result that Green voters, and Green voters alone, favor continuing Germany’s Afghan operation by a margin of 50 percent to 47 percent.
For grassroots Greens, if not yet for the broader German public, “no more Auschwitz” has finally trumped “no more war.”