The Greening of the World: An Exclusive Interview with Petra Kelly, Founder of the West German Green Party and Anti Nuclear Activist

The Greening of the World: An Exclusive Interview with Petra Kelly, Founder of the West German Green Party and Anti Nuclear Activist

by Merle Hoffman

MH: How did you achieve your level of political consciousness and activism?

PK: One of my mottos is that “The personal is the political, and the political is the personal.” It started rather early when I left Germany after being in a Catholic convent in Bavaria. At age 131 came to the United States (not speaking a word of English) and ended up in places like Georgia and Virginia. It was a very racist, terribly discriminatory environment which you either adapted to and became very right wing, or rebelled against with social action. When I was 15 and learning English, I had my own radio program in Hampton where I debated issues like women’s rights, democracy and human rights. When I went to the American University in Washington, I ran for foreign student representative, was in the student union and organized International Week. I was also active in the civil rights movement, the anti-Vietnam movement and was very strongly involved in debates on international relations. So my education, from there through Amsterdam the European Economic Community the Social Democratic Party, and the Green Party were all very much linked.

A major activating moment occurred in 1970, when my sister died of cancer at age 10. I decided that I would do everything possible to find out why children die of cancer. This began my entire anti nuclear commitment and my strong interest in questions of health, safety, soft technology and alternative medical models. I built up charitable initiative of 180 members for cancer ill children for which I am collecting money in a very strict and defined way (not accepting it from corporations or industries). I am currently giving money to existing children’s hospitals with positive social programs as well as trying to build a model psycho/social center for chronically and cancer ill children which I will call the “Children’s Planet”.

MH: You have no children?

PK: I wanted a child very much but I had to have a medically indicated abortion which I never got over. I adopted a foster child who lives in India. She’s 19 and she has a child, but I have taken care of her since 1970.

When she was with me I began to become much more open to Buddhist philosophy, to the Tantric mysticism of the Dalai Lama. This teaches peace and nonviolence as was expressed in the way the Tibetans did not violently rebel against their political suppression. Last year I was able to put through a resolution on Tibetan Human Rights which was accepted unanimously in the German Parliament. The Chinese of course were very upset about this. The Dalai Lama came to a meeting in Bonn in September (after accepting my invitation). Being with him, I experienced a very non hierarchical leader. He is quite different from the Pope. Every time the Pope comes to Germany, I write an open letter to him in a very provocative way. This time I wrote to him about witches: “Welcome to the land where the most witches were burned.” I could sense all of the German press thought I was absolutely mad. His ideal of woman is one who is completely subservient to men.

She is either mother or whore. I don’t accept this picture; I never have. The only thing I wanted to become in the first 12 years of my life was a nun and go to Africa and save children. But I have a problem with Mother Teresa, when she says that poverty is beautiful. She does not try to transform the institutions that create poverty -she accepts the status quo. She could have so much more influence if she looked at the causes of poverty rather than the symptoms.

MH: What about feminism?

PK: Feminism was always a part of me. I was raised by my grandmother and mother, who was a war widow (she is now 81, and recently wrote a letter to Gorbachev, which was published in all of the Moscow newspapers). My father left when I was three or four years old, so I never had any patriarchal figure at home. There were always women around me in leadership positions and the only man I knew was the local priest, whom I couldn’t stand because he was such a classical patriarch. I grew up with a picture of women who were making it, who were out “using their elbows” and who had their own values. Also, if anything would make you a feminist, its being in a Catholic convent in Bavaria, where you are forced to take on all the ideals of the right wing conception of the way the Pope looks at the Virgin Mary. You end up either accepting that system fully or you go nuts paranoid- and you really begin rejecting it. I officially left the Catholic Church with a letter to the Pope when I was 16 years old. However, I feel I am still a very spiritual and religious person with a strong involvement in the movements for civil rights, human rights and women’s rights. It is an integral part of me.

MH: Some say that in this country much of the left is very male dominated and that, in the heyday of radicalism, the ’60s, there were a lot of women involved, but the majority were xeroxing or making coffee instead of revolution. There is a similar criticism of the Greens: that they do have women involved and they talk peace and equality but they are still very male oriented and dominated.

PK: In the Green there are still many men who are able to be in politics because their women are taking care of their children. We had one case where a woman on the Executive Board had to resign because she couldn’t cope with her child alone and continue to be in politics. If Green men stand there and say, well, that’s her problem, then they have not understood what the Green party is about. There are also those who will say it is fine that the Green women have their own thing, their own group. If we have our own Green women’s program, I want it integrated into the full political program. I don’t want a separate program because the men will end up saying “That’s the woman’s part.”

In the Green Party, most of us talk about being against violence and the use of force. I have always said to those men, “if you don’t start speaking out against violence done to women in the same way you talk about other forms of violence, I don’t believe you.” And those men will claim they are talking about “World Politics” and the rest are “women’s issues”. They don’t connect to it, and those connections are probably the most important. That is the problem with the Green party: many men will speak about women’s equality in public, but often say, “My girlfriend is typing my speech.”

MH: What about professional discrimination?

PK: When I came back to Europe in 1970, I came as an intern into the European Economic Community and applied for a job at the Economic and Social Committee where I worked as a civil servant until 19& For 12 years, I was the only woman political administrator in a completely male environment. I was their “token woman”, their so called “feminist woman’ that they could show off. But at the same time, I made it very difficult for them because if they sent me to conferences on trade union affairs, they knew I would be critical of their philosophy. I had gotten a rather independent reputation in Europe -a someone who spoke out on women’s issues without any regard for my employer. There was a great deal of pressure against me because I went to court about my own promotion, and about an analysis on equal rights that I wrote. I won the case and they had to promote me retroactively noticed that most of the women secretaries or translators in lower positions did not really want to support me because they felt they could be hurting their careers. Others felt that I was ruining my own career. I told them that the issue was much more important to me as a feminist than the question of my career. They never understood. In fact, when I left the European Economic Community to go into the Green Party, many women could not understand why I would leave such safe employment and go into an all male arena.

Similarly, when I became a speaker for the Green, many Green men were upset. Women, including myself, were treated very badly in the sense that they tried not to ignore but to minimize us. For example, when I was on the cover of Stern, there was a great deal of ambivalence. They were proud on the one hand that the Green Party had achieved such prominence, but on the other hand they were somewhat ambivalent because there was woman on the cover instead of a man; their own leadership in the media was being challenged.

MH: But isn’t that part of the Green philosophy of “social conversion”? To decentralize power and redefine leadership?

PK: We have a very strong position regarding power sharing. We don’t want to be part of the established power system that is using and abusing power over people. We use power on the grass roots level to make positive and non violent social change. In the Green Party, unfortunately, there are many various political wings. One of the political wings is a more pro-Social Democratic and conservative type. Otto Schily is a member of this wing, which is ready to make certain compromises on key Green issues like joining the Social Democrats in government. Other key issues include feminist positions, the question of NATO membership and how soon to stop nuclear power plants. I am totally against this type of politics. There is also another wing in the Green which is turning more and more dogmatic and which also leaves open some questions concerning non violence.

The group of people to which I feel I belong is the more independent authentic Green who do not want to make compromises on authentic Green issues. My position on disarmament is, and always will be, very radical.

I am asking not only for the present level of nuclear disarmament which was finalized in December, but for the dismantling and removal of all mass destructive and conventional weapons. I’m asking for a bloc free non aligned demilitarized zone, a complete, comprehensive, test ban treaty; for the right of total draft resistance, not only for partial draft resistance, but for no alternative service if you don’t go into the military. I ask that the German companies stop supplying weapons to both sides of the Iran Iraq war, and that the American companies stop their interventionist policies in Nicaragua. The brutal war in Afghanistan must be stopped and we must call an end to all these immoral arm supplies. A total arms export ban -no more arms production whatsoever. I want to get rid of the cruise missiles in the ocean and take away battlefield nuclear weapons. There are some in the Green Party who believe that disarmament is more successfully done between Mr. Gorbachev and Mr. Reagan, but I still believe that one of the reasons that they made this agreement in December was due to the worldwide grass roots pressure against military thinking and the philosophy of deterrence. I don’t believe in bilateral arms control. I believe that there is only one effective way: that is radical and unilateral measures. Even though we had a modest success in December, I believe that you have to begin at home and you have to begin disarming in your own head.

MH: But then, some would say that you are not realistically cognizant of the Soviet military threat.

PK: No, no. When I presented the Green analysis of the Soviet military threat on Capitol Hill in the summer of 1987, there was a good understanding of our position. We feel that the NATO forces are quite superior to the Soviet military forces, but that both sides have criminally far too much of everything. We will never, ever, in any way, make human rights work if we don’t start disarming, because people can only create human rights in a situation when they are disarming. One must have an inner and an outer peace. We cannot accept a peace which oppresses us.

MH: But can you have capitalism without militarism?

PK: Of course, that is the other question, but that is part of the Green solution. When we say we want a third way, it doesn’t mean socialism, it doesn’t mean capitalism. It means a very strong, self-determination of ecological economies, decentralized economies. Of course, you cannot change it overnight, but we already have many ecological networks that have created an alternative republic within the Republic of Germany. In Germany, the weapons and nuclear industry are 15 percent of the economy. Instead of producing military helicopters for Turkey or for Iran, why don’t we start producing rescue helicopters? Why not start producing artificial kidneys in companies that once produced weapons? I would never say, as some do, that we cannot do anything until the economic system changes. We have to do it now. We must make people understand that the disarmament that has taken place in December affects only three percent of the total number of nuclear weapons -from 50,000, only 2,000 are to be removed- it is a small but psychologically important beginning.

MH: Whom do you see as the greatest threat to world peace, the Soviet Union or the United States?

PK: Very clearly, in their internal policies, I prefer a Western democracy because it guarantees many individual human rights. I have often been in Eastern Europe, and in Moscow, and I know what they suffer internally. I condemn the foreign policies of both super powers. But should Reagan or Gorbachev do something that is O.K., I would say so. I have no loyalty to those two people. We have no loyalty to the White House or the Kremlin. We have loyalty to the issues and to the people who are struggling within those blocs. We have contact with people who think like the Green in Eastern Europe. Very courageous women and men in the Soviet Union; people on the staff of the Glasnost Press Club, people in the independent groups in East Germany who have recently been imprisoned. We are loyal to those people. At the same time, we condemn the Afghanistan war, we have demonstrated in Turkey because of the Turkish military rule, and, in: 1983, we also demonstrated in Red Square for more disarmament and human rights. Even though we have demonstrated openly in the Soviet Union and have created problems there, the people around Gorbachev invited me and Gert Bastian (ex general and Green member) to a Peace Forum in Moscow in February 1987 where we met and spoke with Gorbachev. I also went to the International Women’s Conference in Moscow in June 1987 where I was very, very critical about the imprisoned Soviet feminists. I gave a list of 39 imprisoned women to Mrs. Gorbachev asking for their immediate release. She seemed very upset by it as she insisted there were no political prisoners in the Soviet Union. She told me that the most important thing was to obey the law in each country. I pointed out to her that she had congratulated the Greenham Common Women for breaking the law because they occupied the missile sites in Great Britain. But there were some women at the Congress who said, “Don’t disturb the harmony. We have to depend on Mr. Reagan and Mr. Gorbachev.” I think that is wrong, because even if there is an arms agreement, it is only a small beginning.

MH: And along with disarming, the Greens want to neutralize the bureaucrats, the experts and the technocrats.

PK: Also the military/industrial complex. We would like to have all foreign troops removed from East and West Europe. We are fearful that the European governments, especially Paris, Bonn and London, will begin creating a third nuclear and military super power called Western Europe. One day we would like a decentralized, regional Europe, of course, including East European self governed regions.

We have a joint history with the Soviet Union, which in my opinion also belongs to Europe because of the suffering we have caused them. We should never forget that 20 million died because of German militarism, I will never shut up about human rights; to me that’s the one of the most important issues: I will never accept a peace that suppresses. Peace is very important, but only if there is social justice, and human rights. If there is injustice, you can’t have peace. Some people believe in disarmament at any price but I believe that disarmament and personal freedom belong together. You cannot use unjust means for a just end, and you can’t use violent means for non-violent ends. There are some Green who say that: non violence is only a tactic But if people say that it’s a tactic, then it is no longer a Green philosophy. Non-violence is a way of life.

MN: Do you feel confident in America’s ability to remain world leader?

PK: The two Super Powers should stop trying to act like world leaders. They should begin to respect smaller countries and independent initiatives. In fact, most governments become arrogant towards other systems. I would prefer it if Germany and Europe were to become neutral. In Germany, we are all sitting on a power keg. Both Super Powers commit many crimes in their backyards. For example the U.S. in Central America and the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. One problem is that the neutral states must begin to organize themselves much better. What we are looking for is a kind of a belt of pact-free states, states that are going to start getting closer and closer in a neutral Europe. If the, Super Powers want to have nuclear weapons, fine; but don’t put them on foreign soil. Obviously, the best solution is to get rid of them altogether.

People in Germany have grown accustomed to living in a military bloc. They grew up with Hershey bars and American soldiers. They grew up with NATO -it’s part of their lives and that is why it is so difficult to start dismantling NATO. There is a deep feeling of friendship with the Americans because of the way they treated the Germans after the war. It was far better than how some of the Russians behaved. The economic dependency between Europe and the United States has created strong capitalist societies along with a strong military pact. At present there is a change of thinking and conservative politicians like Thatcher, Strauss and Kohl would like to set up a second pillar next to NATO which would be a very dominant and militarized European Economic Community; which according to their wishes should turn into a kind of “U.S. of Europe”. This would mean a new sharing of tasks so that the U.S. would have its hands free to deal more effectively with the third world while letting the Europeans organize their own defense. My personal fear is that the Federal Republic of Germany will become a very strong European power with a desire to have nuclear weapons. This is the type of Europe we reject.

MH: How has the Green Party addressed the issue of the Holocaust, and the Germans remembering their past?

PK: The Greens have been criticized (and it has hurt them) that they are anti-Semitic. This is completely wrong. There have been Green delegations to Israel who have criticized violence on all sides: the Arabs, the Israelis, and the PLO. They have spoken out for the right of self-determination for the PLO, but at the same time support the integrity of the state of Israel. The Green have many contacts in the Israeli and Arab peace movements. We have also tried to do as much as possible to raise the issue of racist thinking in the German Parliament However, it’s been the Green (and I give them a lot of credit for it) who initiated the first trip of a Parliamentary delegation of the Bundestag to Auschwitz. The Green were the first group in parliament who tried to get money for all the victims of the Holocaust including homosexuals and gypsies; they also fought very hard to have homosexuals recognized as victims of the Holocaust. On the other hand, there have been very terrible incidents of conservative German politicians making anti- Semitic statements. There also was a local mayor who literally had to leave office because of such statements. Also, the mistakes that Chancellor Kohl made surrounding the trip to Bitburg make me feel very ashamed. After Reagan came to Bitburg, even, Fascist and neo-Nazi group crawled out of the woodwork and began meeting publicly. At the time of the Bitburg visit, we initiated a symposium reconciliation with Gene Sharp, Adolfo Esquivel, Ramsey Clark, Philip Berrigan and other leading anti-fascists. At the beginning the press was fully enthusiastic, but when the reconciliation forum took place, they all went to Bitburg. Not one -not even one- American journalist stayed for our meeting. That showed me that, in the end, sensationalism was more important to the press than our attempts at reconciliation.

In Germany, of course, one can’t say that there is a “new Fascism” but one certainly must say there are some forms of hatred toward foreign workers, and towards what is different. It’s become much worse in Austria. Every single day many more facts are being presented about Waldheim’s role in the war. Yet up to 70 percent of the Austrian population supported him fully and want him to remain in office. I am very fearful that Chancellor Kohl will invite Waldheim to Germany on an official visit.

MH: I find it quite fascinating that the radical, visionary peaceful agenda of the Green comes out of the ashes of the Holocaust.

PK: There are some critics who say that the peace movement is forgetting Auschwitz because of Hiroshima. What we try to point out is that Hiroshima, Auschwitz, are all the same, they are all the results of human evil and human greed. People, not machines, committed these crimes. The Green also point out that it is the silent ones, the people who allow this to happen, that are just as much the criminals as the ones who have done the deeds.

The Green have taken the issues of human rights and liberty away from the Right. The Left has far too long intellectualized these concepts. The Left ends up not fighting, not opposing what they are supposed to oppose and change, but each other -intellectualizing constantly from within, and always believing that they have some great effect when they don’t have any anymore. It would be very sad if the Green ended up like some old Left Wing party of the ’70s… we have gone beyond that, far beyond. As long as we can still get political consensus between a young biological farmer, a woman in a mothers’ group and a feminist we are able to stay together. That’s the miracle of the Green up to now. At present, the Green are in danger of falling apart because each political wing in the Green Party would like to have all the power. This means that the political consciousness which holds us together is being questioned by different wings on key political questions. One example is that one party of the Green Party has now dropped our demand to take the first step out of NATO and is in fact trying to moderate the entire party program. The other wing reacts by threatening to leave the party if this position becomes a major position. What we end up having is a great deal of senseless struggle about internal power politics, and we forget that we were trying to convince people on the outside that NATO has many negative effects. At the present time the situation is delicate because some people in the Green Party are becoming more and more opportunistic about power.

MH: What is the German political situation concerning AIDS?

PK: The Bavarian philosophy is the worst. In Bavaria there is a witch hunt against homosexuals, foreign workers and women who live alone. Instead of providing the very best possible care for AIDS patients, they are considering a very drastic law which would include stopping people by force of law and requiring them to have an examination. The Bavarians are also closing their borders to anyone who might even be suspected of carrying the AIDS virus. This is the most inhumane way we can think of to deal with this problem.

MH: On a different subject. We heard you are suing Penthouse Magazine.

PK: Yes. A calendar was produced in 1985 called VIP. A caricaturist -I wouldn’t call him “artist” -Jewish, from Israel (which makes it even more difficult) produced these so called “caricatures”, 12 men, including the Pope; but the worst of it was this horrifying lewd picture of me standing completely naked (except for a holster with guns) at a bar in a Western saloon wearing very high black leather cowboy boots. The expression on my face was a very pornographic, ugly expression; the body was done in such way, that it was not only pornographic but disgusting.

I have taken this case to a German court and for the past two years have struggled with Penthouse in attempting to sue them for defamation of character. I have also taken this case to court in the name of all those women who have been discriminated against by this type of magazine. The Penthouse company used the most ridiculous argument in defending themselves, implying that I should be honored to be included in the calendar and also implying that as a publicly known figure, I had to put up with all types of publicity. In fact, many male intellectuals criticized me for going to court, claiming that freedom of artistic expression was much more important than the dignity of women. I was suing for 80,000 DM. The money, of course, was not for me but for a charitable organization for women. When I went to court we discovered that Penthouse had misled us for two years. I was forced to sue another company of the Penthouse corporation. Recently, I lost the first level of the court battle. The judge ruled that as a public figure I had no right to privacy and no right to go against the pornography industry. The entire male press seemed to be on the side of Penthouse. But this court case has been of help because we now have a large campaign against all forms of pornography. Women in Germany are finally seeing pornography as a political issue. The Green are preparing anti-pornography legislation because many men and laws don’t differentiate between pornography and eroticism.

MH: In conclusion, how do you continue? What keeps you going?

PK: I have many moments where I more or less fold up, moments when my head says stop but my heart keeps going. My belief is that people can be basically good and that they will change if they receive all relevant information and if they can be empowered to resist. This has to begin on the personal level and then move to the political. Another strong belief has always been that if you want to reach your goal you can never let yourself be distracted. You must always go forward. You have to go to the end of your road.

MH: What do you see at the end of your road?

PK: I do not want to tell people how they should move or how to manage their lives, but I would like them to know what personal power each person has within themselves and that in fact, one is never in any way powerless. As soon as you begin to change something, then something does change. But if you keep saying, “I will do it one day”, it will never change. That’s what I think is really important. It’s kind of my motto: you just do it; you just begin it and it will change.

Merle Hoffman is publisher/editor-in-chief of On The Issues magazine and founder/president of both Choices Women’s Medical Center, Inc., and Choices Mental Health Center.

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