Germany is emerging from the land of dreams, and the Green Party, an unlikely avatar of realism, is paving the way. Forty years ago, the Greens came out of nowhere with a tough ideology: no US nuclear weapons, no nuclear power, no use of force. Call it ‘ecopacifism’ or ‘peace über alles’.
In the 1980s, they mobilized millions against the deployment of medium-range missiles by the United States and blockaded civilian nuclear sites. But where you stand depends on where you sit. Today, the Greens are a pillar of Germany‘s three-party coalition government. Their co-leaders, Annalena Baerbock and Robert Habeck, are respectively Minister of Foreign Affairs and Minister of the Economy.
Like the White Queen in Alice in Wonderland, Greens once believed in many impossible things before breakfast. Like most Germans. The country would get plenty of cheap Russian gas, safely shut down its last three nuclear power plants by the end of 2022, and replace oil and coal with sun and wind.
Germany could also allow its army to rot, reducing it from 500,000 to 180,000. The old Reich would act as a “power of peace”, faithful to its culture of abnegation (military). Trade and investment would tame Russia and other aggressors. Made in Germany would prevail.
Then Russian President Vladimir Putin pounced, inflicting unimaginable cruelty on Ukraine. The traditional ruling parties – the Social Democrats and the Christian Democrats – were caught off guard. Send tanks and long-range artillery? We must not annoy the bear who then represented 55% of German gas consumption, the highest share in the European Union. Cancel the Energiewende, the green energy transition imposed by German Chancellor Angela Merkel? Certainly not.
But the Green leadership has undergone a bewildering reversal, shifting from pacifism to warmongering, from anti-Americanism to anti-Putinism, at breakneck speed. Habeck set the new tone: “Ideology should not stand in the way of extending the life of nuclear power plants. After visiting the killing fields in Ukraine, Baerbock spoke for everyone: “We could be those victims.
As early as 2015, Baerbock warned that Putin could use gas as a weapon. “We woke up to a different world,” she said following the invasion. “We can’t dodge, we have to take responsibility.”
Returning from the horrors of the battlefield, a young Green member of the Bundestag, Robin Wagener, advocated delivering modern heavy weapons, as well as air defenses, armored vehicles and intelligence technology. Even a veteran, Daniel Cohn-Bendit, 77, has made peace with the war: “I am pained by reality, not having to face it. The Greens like him faced it, making it “at this stage the most rational party in Germany”.
How do you solve the enigma of a party that has long clung to ecopacifism as a secular religion? Why would Baerbock accuse Putin “of having broken all the agreements concluded by Europe to ensure peace”? Why would the Greens, who have so long revered on the altar of pacifism, turn against Russia?
One of the reasons is what the Germans call “the normativity of facts”. Or, as John Maynard Keynes may have said, “When the facts change, I change my mind.”
The facts are dire. Putin is trying to restore the former Soviet empire, threatening Europe’s unprecedented 77 years of peace. After Ukraine, will Moldova and the Baltic countries be next? Having been regularly victimized by Russia throughout history, the Poles have every right to fear Putin’s armies on their eastern border, which bodes ill for Poland’s western neighbour, Germany. Thus, the strategic logic demands rearmament and deterrence, plus, finally, heavy weapons to Ukraine.
But, despite realpolitik, the left-wing old guard remains committed to the old truths of German Ostpolitik. Cooperate, don’t confront. Peace beats power. Let’s give Putin an exit ramp, let him keep his gains so he doesn’t lose face and escalate. Weapons for Ukraine will only prolong the slaughter, as if Ukraine were bombing Russian civilians, schools and hospitals. In contrast, Baerbock proclaims: “If you don’t feel anxiety [about this war of aggression]you are either dishonest or obtuse.
A second explanation is generational. Today’s Green leaders grew up in a world where their now grizzled or deceased ancestors held both political and cultural power. Having inherited a country tainted with the greatest crimes against humanity, this post-war cohort desperately sought to restore moral value to the Fatherland.
This meant a 180 degree turn away from The Fuhrer. Peace, not panzers; community, not conquest; kindness, not greed. Germany presented itself as a moral superpower, which had a practical advantage. When harassed by the United States to provide troops in various military theatres, German leaders invoked their country’s untold past: Not us! At best, they would send token contingents while the US and UK shoulder the heaviest burden.
The new generation of Greens and their young constituents are not working under the moral burden of their elders. They need not hide behind the past and preach the moral superiority of pacifism to prove Germany’s redemption. By the time they came of age, the country had long since regained moral worth. A solid liberal democracy, firmly rooted in NATO and the EU, Germany no longer needed to maintain its posture as a reformed outlaw.
Putin helped, of course. Anton Hofreiter, a former chairman of the Greens, fumed that Putin is waging “a war of imperial and colonial aggression”. Hofreiter is 52 years old. A generation ago, the Greens and the left in general would have cowered behind the crimes of Nazism. Today, only the extreme right and the extreme left support Putin. Together they get 17% in the latest poll; the Greens command a solid 22%.
Don’t just attribute it to Putin’s imperialism. The new Greens need not preach the convenient moralism of the past; they are the beneficiaries of a redemption won by two previous generations. As this cohort consolidates its power, the country as a whole could come of age. Today, some 70% of Germans even want nuclear power plants to continue to operate.