New Times, 13 March 1998

Everything was looking good for the German Greens when they met in the eastern city of Magdeburg last weekend for their last conference before the 27 September Bundestag election.

The opinion polls said they were set to take a healthy 10 per cent of the vote – more than ever before in a federal election. Joschka Fischer, their leader in parliament, arrived at the conference with a reputation as the most impressive left-of-centre politician in the country, widely tipped for a post in government in coalition with the Social Democrats (SPD), possibly as foreign minister.

The Greens had to show that they were capable of brokering a deal with the SPD, now with the populist Gerhard Schroeder confirmed as its candidate for the federal chancellorship after his stunning victory in the Lower Saxony Land election earlier in the month.

That, however, did not seem to be an insurmountable problem.

Schroeder himself is no friend of the Greens, not least because he has Volkswagen in his home state and is a shameless populist on petrol taxation. But his party would undoubtedly prefer a coalition with the Greens to one with the centre-right Christian Democratic Union, the other possible outcome of the Bundestag election that has been widely discussed.

Moreover, days before the Greens met in Magdeburg, Oskar Lafontaine, the SPD party leader and a strong opponent of a “grand coalition” with the CDU, had won himself a key role in drafting the SPD’s election programme after anointing Schroeder as “chancellor-candidate” – a job he craved for himself. With Lafontaine in a position of influence, a “red-green” coalition, giving the Greens seats in federal government for the first time since entering the Bundestag in 1983, appeared more credible than ever before.

Yet somehow the Greens conspired to damage their prospects in the most spectacular fashion. On Saturday evening, after an acrimonious debate, they voted by 275 votes to 274 to reject Fischer’s proposal to support the use of German troops in peace-keeping forces in Bosnia.

This is not merely a personal blow for Fischer and a sign that the Greens have not grown out of their youthful enthusiasm for factional disputes. The vote also has a crucial symbolic importance. For Fischer and the party leadership – as indeed for most Germans – opposing the use of German troops in international peace-keeping efforts is an abdication of responsibility. They believe that it is imperative for Germany to play its part in preventing ethnic cleansing, however understandable it is that many peace-loving Germans shudder at the thought of deploying their country’s military might abroad.

Fischer and his colleagues are right. The crimes of the Third Reich or indeed of imperial Germany before it are no excuse for failure to face up to the – non-German – crimes of today. The Green fundamentalists’ pacifist isolationism is gesture politics at its worst. The rest of the world needs Germany to take its fair share of peace-keeping tasks.

As with their opposition to German unification in 1989-90, the Greens appear to have misread the political circumstances out of misplaced fear of resurgent Nazism. Whether the misreading is quite so politically disastrous as it was then remains to be seen. In 1990, the Greens and Lafontaine, who took much the same line as chancellor-candidate for the SPD, gave Helmut Kohl a free ride with their anti-nationalist rhetoric. This time, not so much is at stake – and Schroeder is too canny to fall into the same trap. The problem is that Schroeder without the Greens would be too much like Tony Blair without Robin Cook and John Prescott.

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