Petra
Shaena Lambert
Random House Canada, CAD$22.95 (paper)

When the German Green Party (Die Grünen) first stood for a national election in 1980, its program demanded a “complete end to short-term focused economic thinking” and the “reorganization of life on an ecological basis.” Democracy was to be extended beyond the parliaments in order to offer “citizens and grassroots groups another opportunity to further their causes and realize their ideas.” The Greens failed to muster the 5 percent of the vote required to win seats in the Bundestag in 1980, but they were still perceived as a grave threat to West Germany’s hard-won, well-managed parliamentary democracy—not least by the parties of the establishment. Social Democrats compared them to “marching columns of Nazi Storm Troopers,” while Christian Democrats referred to the new party as the “trojan horse of the Soviet cavalry.”

If the polls are accurate, the Greens will become Germany’s second strongest party in the September 2021 election—the culmination of a decades-long effort to join the establishment.

Things have changed in the last forty years. The Greens are currently polling around 20 percent. The next elections to the German Bundestag are scheduled for September, and if the polls are accurate, the Greens will become the parliament’s second strongest party. But rather than ecological reorganization or an end to economic thinking, the party now advocates, as the Green vice-mayor of Munich recently put it, not only “a good climate for the economy, but also an economy that is good for the climate.” Speculation that the Greens will join the conservative Christian Democrats in a coalition government after the upcoming election epitomizes the sweeping changes that the party has undergone since its founding.


Political scientists have told the story of the German Greens as one of professionalization and adaptation to the customs and procedures of the political establishment. Some evaluate this process positively, arguing, as Andrei S. Markovits does, that “the Greens have successfully institutionalized in Germany’s mainstream a brand of progressive politics that” in the 1980s “was at best a fringe occurrence.” Others deride the Greens for jettisoning their radical past in order not only to join, but actually reinforce, the establishment. In so doing, the Greens have, in the words of Joachim Jachnow, “reduced the struggle for universal emancipation to the small change of ‘organic’ and ‘fair trade’ consumerism.”

Already in 1990, Green Party cofounder Petra Kelly was articulating this same critique of Green assimilationism. She proposed that her party had stopped “concretely and unflinchingly developing radical green utopias” and turned, in a radical about-face, to an effort to join the establishment.

But recalling the early green utopias of which Kelly spoke has proven challenging and contentious. For many within the party—who often have little or no memory of its previous incarnation—the Greens’ radical past is problematic, the party’s current popularity seeming to offer evidence that abandoning that radicalism was the right choice. Likewise can one argue that German society’s newfound willingness to address the climate crisis is a testament to the success of the Greens’ political work, and that the party’s transition to less radical, more economically friendly climate solutions is therefore a natural evolution. And especially in the current political climate, in which German democracy is widely perceived to be under threat by populism, touting the establishment credentials of the party is clearly incentivized. There is little advantage to be gained, it would seem, from reminding the public that the party was once seen as the enemies at parliament’s gate.


While standard modes of political discourse have left us at this impasse, fiction can offer valuable insights into the radical spirit of the early Green Party and what it might look like to recover it in the present day. The novel Petra (2020), by Canadian fiction writer Shaena Lambert, offers a fresh perspective on the Greens’ early days and the party’s subsequent transformation.

Set in the present as (fictional) veteran activist Manfred Schwartz reflects on the early 1980s, Lambert’s book is based on interviews she conducted with Kelly’s erstwhile comrades, as well as research she did in the Green Party’s archive. But as a work of historical fiction, it brings Kelly herself—and the radical green utopias she advocated—to the fore in a way that no biography or work of scholarship yet has. Presenting Kelly as Lambert imagines her closest comrades saw her, the novel offers insight into the way that connections—between people, struggles, and ideas—shaped Kelly’s prominence, but also her radical politics.

 

Fiction can offer valuable insights into the radical spirit of the early Green Party and what it might look like to recover it in the present day.

 

The novel uses Petra’s absence from the lives of her comrades and loved ones as a window onto her absence from public memory. “Petra. Sucked from history. Replaced by a gravestone of dancing children,” Manfred sums up, after ascertaining that young “political people” at a demonstration in support of Syrian refugees have never heard of his colleague who, a generation prior, had struck fear into the heart of the German establishment.

The idea that Kelly would soon be “sucked from history” would have been difficult to comprehend in the mid-eighties. Kelly cofounded the German Green Party in 1979 and gained fame as a leader of the peace movement, in which she opposed the Cold War status quo and fought for radical change. She was awarded the Right Livelihood Foundation’s Alternative Nobel Prize in 1982 and named “Woman of the Year” by Women Strike for Peace in 1983. Journalists, colleagues, and academics referred to her as the “Joan of Arc of the nuclear age.” Drawing on Hungarian writer György Konrád’s concept of anti-politics, she described the Greens as “an anti-party party, an experiment in radical parliamentary opposition unwilling to compromise fundamental values for the sake of expediency.”

But Kelly began to fade from prominence in the late eighties and lost standing within the party as she struggled to cooperate with her fellow Green parliamentarians. In 1992, at the age of forty-four, she was murdered—probably by her longtime partner, the military man–turned–Green activist Gert Bastian, their bodies undiscovered for weeks after what is believed to be a murder-suicide. Because there was no note and neither seemed suicidal, many unresolved questions remain about the circumstances of Kelly’s violent death. Combined with her political marginalization in her last years, Kelly’s unexpected, inexplicable murder overshadowed her tragically shortened life, turning her into a kind of cypher, difficult to place in any clear narrative of historical progress.

Scholars, journalists, even Kelly’s fellow Greens have been hesitant to work through her past, let alone to celebrate her legacy. To the extent her name is invoked today, it is usually to remember her headstrong personality, her perceived thirst for the limelight, or her independent streak. Meanwhile, Kelly’s ideas, her sophisticated approach to political change—the very reasons she garnered the attention and respect of people across Germany and around the world—are rarely mentioned.

By framing her novel around Manfred’s efforts to process Kelly’s absence from his personal life, Lambert is able to go against this trend, addressing Kelly’s disappearance from public memory in a way that has eluded nonfiction accounts. And she does so in a way that avoids the hagiographic: she forgets neither Kelly’s challenging personality nor her colleagues’ irritation with her in her final years; in fact, she foregrounds these torturous relationships.

 

To the extent that Kelly’s name is invoked today, it is usually to remember her headstrong personality, her perceived thirst for the limelight, or her independent streak.

 

Despite writing historical fiction, Lambert is not shy about using the tools available to her as a novelist. Two of the novel’s central characters are not real men, though many of their characteristics are borrowed. The character of Manfred, the longtime Green organizer and, in the novel, Kelly’s ex-lover, is a composite of several of Kelly’s colleagues amongst the “founding Greens.” Emil is likewise very closely based on, but not identical to, Bastian, Kelly’s partner and alleged murderer.

But these inventions, however loosely fictionalized, give Lambert the latitude to freely explore the dynamics, if not the exact specifics, that governed Kelly’s closest relationships with her Green companions. These fictional techniques, more importantly, allow Lambert to articulate what made Kelly such an influential speaker and activist. She describes Kelly’s influence on Manfred and Emil—and their politics—in the most visceral terms.

Manfred meets Kelly at an anti-nuclear demonstration in the mid-seventies. “We must be tender towards the earth, tender towards the animals and plants,” she calls out from the podium. “Love, not nuclear radiation, love—that is our task. That is how we’ll awaken a global consciousness.” Later, though Manfred struggles to recall her exact words, he can still vividly sense how they “caused such a warm vibration in [his] body”—an experience with obvious parallels to present circumstances, with Kelly’s influence everywhere, though the specifics have been effaced.

Emil’s first encounter with Kelly is more distant. It comes in the early 1980s, via a speech of hers he hears broadcast on the radio. “A single Pershing missile contains enough firepower to wipe out life on earth several times over. But will we stop loving, my friends?” she asks her audience. She answers her own rhetorical question by emphasizing the power of love: “They can knock down our bodies, but they cannot knock down our hearts.” By the end of the speech, “Emil’s heart had begun to hammer.”

Both men are drawn in by Kelly’s power as an orator. At demonstrations, Manfred concludes, “we were wrapped in Petra’s voice.” Her speeches were “a spell that magnetized us, so that years later, after her death, people would . . . tell me they could still hear her voice in their dreams.”

Lambert’s characters’ encounters with Kelly’s rhetoric return the reader’s attention to questions of Kelly’s absence from public memory and political consciousness. By comparing her to Joan of Arc or calling her the Greens’ first “figurehead,” Kelly’s contemporaries were, at best, offering backhanded compliments. Both comparisons underscore the consensus of her detractors that Kelly held “no important strategic function” for the Greens. They celebrate her magnetizing presence in the name of downplaying the practical weight of her approach to politics and the power of her ideas for the development of the Greens.

Reassessing Kelly’s significance in the past and the role of her legacy in the present, then, requires considering how Kelly’s approach to politics linked ideas and emotions, and why that mattered in the eighties—a project uniquely well suited to a novel centered on imagining Kelly’s close personal relationships.

Kelly reached the height of her fame amidst the so-called “Second Cold War,” the period beginning in the late 1970s and early ’80s when tensions between the superpowers rose again following a decade of détente. Kelly was first elected to the German Bundestag in March 1983, as millions of Germans protested NATO’s plans to station new nuclear missiles throughout Western Europe. To advocate a politics of love and affection, as she did, was a radical response to life on a continent that seemed on the brink of nuclear war. But her approach to doing so was not gauzy, but practically programmatic. Kelly argued that integrating love “into all areas” of life was a necessary step toward overcoming the “societal powers of isolation and division and hostility.”

Her speeches headlined the largest social movement in the history of West Germany, engaging millions—from all across society—and normalizing street protest in the still-young German democracy. Lambert’s descriptions of the emotions that Kelly’s speeches elicited from her audience show how Kelly’s deployment of love and affection influenced West German politics, and the West German public, in a way that has challenged historians and political scientists, whose disciplines often undervalue the importance of political emotions. In vivid descriptions of the way Kelly made her listeners feel, we catch a glimpse of how her rhetoric enabled Germans to think—and act—beyond the deadly Cold War logic of mutually assured destruction.

 

Reassessing Kelly’s significance in the past and the role of her legacy in the present requires considering how Kelly’s approach to politics linked ideas and emotions.

 

Despite the localized, existential threat posed by the new Euromissiles, Kelly sought to broaden the peace movement, finding links between the conflict of the superpowers and struggles for emancipation all over the globe. In her novel, Lambert quotes from Kelly’s wide-ranging, sometimes rambling monologues to illustrate not only the doggedness with which Kelly peddled her ideas, but also the relentlessness with which her efforts were rebutted by interlocutors within the Greens and beyond. In Lambert’s hands, this is dramatized, for example, when an impromptu exhortation on “the connection between sexual violence and the military outrage against men, women and children in the mountains of Tibet . . . or pornography and dissidents behind the wall” earns Kelly the scorn of an interviewer. Her colleagues in the Green parliamentary delegation scoff at her insistence that addressing human rights abuses in East Germany is seminal to the debate over NATO’s impending missile deployment. Her repeated efforts to advocate for the oppressed people of Tibet in the German Bundestag prove particularly galling to her detractors: “The Dalai Lama and the plight of Tibetan children weren’t central to West German politics,” one of Kelly’s harshest Green critics tells Manfred.

Kelly’s willful transgression of boundaries underpins the novel’s climax, when an anti-missile protest becomes a moment of reckoning. Departing a peace movement conference in West Berlin, Kelly, Manfred, and Emil cross the Berlin Wall under false pretenses. Within minutes of unfurling anti-missile banners on East Berlin’s central square, the Alexanderplatz, they are arrested by the East German People’s Police. Just as quickly, Kelly’s closest relationships unravel.

But the crisis sparked on the Alexanderplatz grows beyond Kelly’s relationships, highlighting not only the links but also the contrast between the personal and the political. After the bruised trio returns to Bonn, the tight, emotional bubble bursts. It is replaced by the angry, staccato assault of other Green MPs, outraged at Kelly’s “unilateral action,” which they deride as a “media stunt.” In their anger, Kelly’s colleagues attack her “as though she were the greatest single obstruction on the road to world peace.”

Though in real life, Kelly would serve another seven years as a Green MP following the 1983 protest in East Berlin, and though she never quit the party, Lambert positions the protest as the turning point when Kelly must begin imagining a political path “beyond the Greens.”


Published during a historical moment shaped by crises of climate and democracy, Lambert’s novel suggests how we might remember not just a forgotten activist, but also an overlooked brand of radical politics that blossomed in Cold War West Germany but depended on connections to the wider world.

Remembering Kelly at this particular juncture is not simply a matter of restoring a forgotten woman to her rightful place in history. Exhortations to get back to political “normalcy” or return to “pre-1990 levels” of carbon emissions suggest that simply reestablishing the status quo ante will get us out of our current predicament. But longing for a problematic past is precisely the sort of blinkered thinking that has left us with an arsenal of green-hued reformisms and made dreams of green utopias scarcer—and more necessary—than ever before.

 

Lambert’s novel suggests how we might remember not just a forgotten activist, but also an overlooked brand of radical politics that blossomed in Cold War West Germany.

 

We know already that mitigating the climate crisis is only possible with an understanding of the ways in which the struggles of marginalized people around the globe are linked with the advance of fossil fuel extraction and factory farming. We are more aware than ever that decisions taken in the German Bundestag do, in fact, matter in Tibet, as Kelly exhorted thirty years ago. We have seen that individual emancipatory struggles comprise potent weapons against right-wing populism, with its assumption of a white, male universal subject.

And yet, we often struggle to express these ideas in the political sphere, and we certainly lack the tools to realize them. By focusing on why Kelly has proven so difficult to remember, Lambert’s novel identifies the visceral and personal nature of her radical politics in a way that has eluded journalists and scholars. By imagining Kelly’s closest relationships, Lambert also brings the challenges and promises of radical green utopias into view.