Petra Kelly: an influential Green

Environmental concerns are dominant issues of the 21st century as we grapple with what we can all do to lessen the negative impact of human activities on our planet. But it was not always so, and the topics of concern have also changed over time. Back in the early 1980s my German A-level conversation classes often featured subjects such as acid rain (now largely forgotten) or debates around nuclear power. This reflected a growing interest in environmentalism in Germany where the Green Party (Die Grünen) had been established in 1980, one of the first in Europe. A founder member was Petra Kelly, born on 29 November 1947. 75 years on, and also just over 30 years since her untimely death, this blog post explores her life and legacy.

Little known now, Kelly was in her day a major international figure, featuring in the Sunday Times 1991 One thousand makers of the 20th century (1996.11.3552-3559), on the same page as Buster Keaton and John F. Kennedy. In a book published after her death (Thinking green!: essays on environmentalism, feminism, and nonviolence, 235.d.99.11) Mark Hertsgaard (co-founder of Covering Climate Now) wrote that

More than anyone, Petra Kelly personified Green consciousness, one of the ascendant social forces of the late twentieth century.

Petra Kelly was born in Bavaria but moved to the United States when she was 12 – her mother had married an American army officer, John Kelly. Spending her teenage and undergraduate years in America meant that she was fluent in English which was a help later on in her career. After a postgraduate year in Amsterdam she then moved to work in Brussels, first at the European Commission and later at the Economic and Social Committee. Alongside her work she increasingly became involved in politics and became known for her speeches and activism. Her 10-year old stepsister Grace had died of cancer in 1970 and Petra’s suspicions about the links between her cancer and her radiation treatment spurred her on to political engagement, particularly with the anti-nuclear movement.

In 1982 Petra Kelly was awarded the Right Livelihood award “for forging and implementing a new vision uniting ecological concerns with disarmament, social justice and human rights.” The following year she was among 27 Greens elected for the first time to seats in the Bundestag, the German federal parliament. The UL has an English translation of a book dating from around this time, Fighting for hope (9230.d.1911), described as her personal manifesto and with an introduction by Heinrich Böll, the Nobel prizewinning writer, who supported the Green Party. One of the other Greens to enter parliament in 1983 was Gert Bastian, a military officer who as a young man had served in World War Two and who in 1980 resigned from the military because of his opposition to nuclear missiles. He and Kelly became long-term partners.

Petra Kelly was a complicated person, difficult to deal with at times, and this is brought out well in the 2010 scholarly yet readable biography Die Aktivistin: das Leben der Petra Kelly (C209.c.1074) by Saskia Richter (who died of cancer in 2015). The Green Party increased its share of the vote in 1987 but lost all its seats in the 1990 elections which took place after German reunification. Meanwhile Kelly’s vision of the party as an “anti-party”, based on a more grassroots style of politics, led to her falling out with her party colleagues. By the early 1990s she had become politically marginalised.

In October 1992 the bodies of Kelly and Bastian were found in her house, both shot dead at least two weeks earlier. The official version of events based on the available evidence, not accepted by some of their family and friends, was that Bastian murdered her and then killed himself. Unanswered questions remained about the circumstances of their violent deaths and encouraged media attention. Just the next year Eine tödliche Liebe: Petra Kelly und Gert Bastian (571:73.d.95.102), written by the German feminist journalist Alice Schwarzer, was published, exploring why Bastian might have shot Kelly. Then in 1994 Die Finsternis der Herzen: Nachdenken über eine Gewalttat (9003.d.9702) came out, in which Till Bastian, son of Gert, considered what his father had done. The story of Kelly and Bastian was also considered interesting enough to be covered in the UK. 1994 saw the publication of The life and death of Petra Kelly (571:73.c.95.366) by Sara Parkin, a prominent British green politician who knew Petra Kelly well – this would be a good starting point for anyone wanting to find out more detail about Kelly. Later the events were also interpreted in a 2001 film, Happiness is a warm gun.

It is clear that at the time of her death Petra Kelly had been through difficult times but was looking forward to the future. In the foreword to Thinking green! (235.d.99.11) Peter Matthiessen wrote of her collaboration with him on this book, meeting him for dinner and supplying him with many pages of documents. And in an interview in 1992 in Frauenleben, Frauenpolitik: Rückschläge & Utopien (245.c.99.321) she was asked to give three wishes and one was for a long and productive creative life and work together with Bastian. 

In Thinking green! (235.d.99.11) Mark Hertsgaard stated that

Though she herself was never satisfied, the fact is that Germany became the world’s most environmentally conscious industrial nation, thanks largely to the efforts of the Greens.

Perhaps this is her greatest legacy and continues to be proved by the seriousness with which German households take recycling. This may seem to be rather a lazy national stereotype but is certainly borne out by my experiences in several different German holiday homes!

Katharine Dicks

Further reading

  • Petra Kelly: eine Erinnerung (2007) issued by the Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung, a think tank affiliated to the German Green Party. Contains many photos from throughout her life including one with the artist Joseph Beuys who was a co-founder of the Green Party
  • Petra Kelly – eine Graphic Novel (2022) by Simon Schwartz (PDF made available by the Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung)
  • Nonviolence speaks to power (1992, 214.c.99.242), collection of her essays and speeches from 1987 to 1991
  • Lebe, als müsstest Du heute sterben: Texte und Interviews (1997, 571:77.c.95.274), documents interviews, speeches and essays, some not previously published alongside memories of her 
  • Gedenken heisst erinnern: Petra K. Kelly, Gert Bastian (1994, 1995.7.454), containing short tributes

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