Petra Karin Kelly, 35, the stepdaughter of John E. Kelly, an American Army officer once stationed in Germany, is the most dynamic force behind West Germany's Green Party. The Greens are the loose alliance of antinuclear, antiwar and pro-ecology activists reminiscent of America's counterculture of a decade ago that may wind up holding the balance of power in the next government if it wins more than 5 percent of the votes in today's election there. Kelly, an elfin yet intense peace crusader, traces her political awakening back to the decade of the '60s, when she lived and studied in the United States and was inspired by the civil rights and anti-Vietnam war movements. Born to Roman Catholic parents in the Bavarian town of Guenzburg, Kelly spent six years in a convent and once thought she might become a nun or missionary. In 1960, when she was 13, her stepfather moved the family to Georgia. Later, the family transferred to Hampton, Va., where she remembers taking part in avid debates on the Vietnam war. She enrolled in the school of international service at American University and became involved in liberal circles of the Democratic Party. She became a protege of Hubert Humphrey and worked in Robert Kennedy's presidential campaign. The most traumatic event of her life, as she describes it, came in 1970 with the agonizing death of her 10-year-old half-sister, Grace Patricia Kelly, from eye cancer. To this day, Petra Kelly firmly believes that her sister died unnecessarily from an overdose of radiation treatments -- a powerful motivation in her resolute opposition to nuclear weapons and power plants. In 1972, she joined the staff of the European Community in Brussels, but her outide political activities have absorbed most of her time. After becoming disillusioned with modern Germany's version of a left-wing party -- the Social Democrats under Helmut Schmidt -- and his support of nuclear power, she quit the party to form the Green movement. Today, the Greens have capitalized on growing fears across Europe about modern nuclear weapons to turn the proposed deployment of Pershing II and cruise missiles into a central feature of their election campaign -- one that they hope will elicit enough votes to win the Greens seats in the Bundestag. If, as polls indicate, they do, and if no party wins a clear majority, they may acquire great power as swing voters in a coalition government, despite their outspoken antipathy to compromise with the "establishment." William Drozdiak is the Bonn correspondent of The Washington Post.
Q: You studied in Washington. Was it Georgetown?
A: No it was American University.
Q: Did you work for Bobby Kennedy's campaign?
A: In the time before he was assassinated, I founded the Students for Kennedy movement in Washington. I worked for several months in the campaign. His position on Indians and black people and minorities, I felt to be very strong and honest. At that time, I was so swayed by the way in which the Democratic Party appealed to this platform for minorities, for women. That impressed me because I never really expected the United States -- there are so few differences now between the Democrats and the Republicans. At that time for me it was a big difference.
After he was assassinated, my sister had cancer. (Hubert) Humphrey had cancer. She met Humphrey on a television program in '66. I developed a kind of very strong relationship between my family and his family with letters and seeing each other maybe once a year.
And it turned out then that I also learned quite a bit about this American campaigning. The most amazing way campaigns are run by public relations firms. How they're planned and plotted out consciously. This really surprised me. I learned a lot from that.
I learned all the experience of (Martin Luther) King's movement. When he was assassinated, the reaction of the blacks. And the terrible way in which a person like that who gave a vision about nonviolence can be struck down by violence very quickly. Then the movement that should be left behind has nobody to follow him. There were very few people who could have replaced him, apparently. It surprised me how in American society such a movement would just suddenly break down and not take off anymore. I learned quite a bit from that time. Especially on this idea of nonviolence as a political philosophy. I brought that back with me.
Then you did get this kind of formal black capitalism. I left in '70. I guess that was just the beginnings of that. The thing has been shocking me -- when I found out about the King center of nonviolence in Alabama. I am told that Henry Ford sits on the board of directors. I say, "Oh, my God! How is it possible? How can this man sit on the board?" This is of course, calming it down.
Harry Belafonte, when he was recently here in a meeting in Vienna, I met him quickly. He told me he had to go back to the Highlander School (a workshop on civil rights, energy, environmental and land ownership issues) for nonviolent training. To go back to the Tennessee school because the time showed that they had forgotten what had happened. I think it's amazing that they have to go back to those historical roots, especially now in the antiwar movement, to go back to that which in effect they always have had.
The Berrigan brothers. I feel very close to them. I feel that one of the most important things they have shown is that to have individual nonviolent action and civil courage is the only way to make anyone take you seriously. If you risk yourself. We have more the quality in Europe -- especially the German people have many years followed -- they have become very much like sheep. Now that they are in effect becoming critical and antimilitary. It's an irony that the Americans who came here to watch out -- that Germany should never become a military power again, should never become militaristic -- now they have this peaceful idea, it's wrong again. In fact, the Americans should be happy that the country they tried to demilitarize, is becoming demilitarized. It's for me such an irony that it's now again, wrong. They should be glad that there's a postwar generation that is refusing to have all these things. I remember reading speeches in the '50s from the United States -- politicians -- how Germany could be a threat. I think they should remember what they had come to do here. This is what surprises me the most.
Q: Some people think that all of these ideas sound so utopian. Generally it seems that people start out with these idealistic notions and gradually they get worn down by the political system of compromises until they become "part of the system." Are you afraid of that happening to the Greens?
A: Well I belong obviously to the radical wing of the Greens. I was a member of the Social Democrats seven years. Young socialists. When I left I never meant to build up another established party. It's important that the Green Party doesn't turn reformist. There are certain topics -- the right to life, the right to health, the right to a safe environment that are not negotiable.
Australia has just now formed a Green Party. The Japanese have founded one. In Austria there are 26 Green Parties. It's a protest of citizens who want to become experts over their own life. They know much better than anybody else how distasteful, how disgusting the present situation is. What amazes me in the Green is that you get farmers, you get fishermen, you get really common, average citizens who can turn out to be more expert about their own subject. It has hit them that politicians aren't able to cope. Politicians who are well paid -- in their offices for 20 years.
But we have of course a radical change. We rotate. I can only be chairman for two years. I'm doing this all unpaid. I haven't been paid in the last 11 months. I've lived on no salary. It really shows the big gap between the way the Greens see themselves and the way that other politicians see themselves. It's an interesting experiment. It's not, I think, because of any romanticism. People are beginning to worry about what they are and not what they have. It's truly a change in consciousness. Even in the consumer habits. You see a lot of alternative stores. You realize there's a different network and it's changing. It's growing. I think it's amazing how people go back in the small shop than to the supermarket. There's a definite trend back to small is beautiful and back to the overseeable. Everything's become anonymous and computerized.
Now we're talking about microchips. Talking about a life really where you're just sitting in front of a screen, whether you shop or whether you do calculations. I think people are turning against it. There's definitely a sympathy for the thoughts of E.F. Schumacher (author of "Small Is Beautiful"), who have shown that when air and water and earth and food, the basic necessities, become completely threatened and full of poison, then something has gone wrong in this society. When the basic needs end up luxury items, then you have to start requestioning industrial society.
Q: That theme sounds very much like the counterculture movement that swept across the United States some years ago. Even though some remnants are still very much in evidence, it seems to have declined very noticeably. Why do you think that happened in the United States? And what makes you think that the Greens can have a lasting effect on Germany?
A: This counterculture movement in the United States, of course, is quite large, too. Except that it's not yet political enough. It is really still an out-of-parliamentary movement. Whereas we, of course, have tried to gain seats and gain votes -- which takes away the most precious thing that parties have, and makes them vulnerable.
I think it's not a passing phase because there's so much in German society -- at least as I see it -- that people don't accept any more. We have 16-year-olds. Everytime I'm in discussions, I'm shocked. I feel so old. It's not only a few people. It's a whole segment of society that has given up at the age of 16. Either they become completely established. They say I couldn't give a damn -- I want to become top manager. Or -- it's really the majority -- that says I can't cope anymore. I'm sick of this side. I'm sick of media. I'm sick of army. In the army there's many people leaving -- colonels and generals. I think that this is an amazing change. It was not known in military history for such high officers to quit in service. For some of them not to take their pension. To leave over an issue. I think it shows definitely that this is a change connected to many issues not just to one. It's really a consciousness change. Even if the Green as a party may not make it, I will never think that the movement itself will lose strength.
Q: But when you talked about these younger kids -- who now consider the Greens too established -- what does that tell you about German society?
A: Well, there's an impatience by young people. They're looking for values. They're afraid to be sucked into a system where they feel they can't break out. And I think they feel the Green Party should just stay a movement. They feel that the parliament is shown to be totally ineffective. What we're trying to prove to them is that you can use the structures and information and bring it back to the people.
Since June I was nearly every day for five months on the road at different political meetings and speeches. I was completely shocked at what I saw there. There was so much groping for being. Saying I would rather be a person and develop myself spiritually and psychologically then to start having a lot of things. This was especially in the younger people. I think it is definitely these 20 years of building up German society and becoming number one economically again -- but not knowing what it's for.
Q: From your time in America and now with you here in Germany, how would you compare the two societies? And what did you learn in America that you found you can apply here?
A: I think that Americans are much more pragmatic. They have more of this drive to do things before you discuss it theoretically. What frightens me sometimes here is that even the Green Party, you discuss for five hours first of all theoretically, before you do even one step. Everybody has to discuss it first. I think in the United States many people just go ahead and do it without speaking a lot about it.
There's much more voluntary will. You have this idea of volunteers which in Green office here -- I mean it's very difficult to get this idea of voluntary service. Of voluteering for something. I also have learned that -- as is the same here -- there's a lot of talk on emancipation. A lot of talk of liberating men and women. But in fact -- deep, deep down -- the American society is truly patriarchal. Pioneering in the old sense. I think the women's movement -- as here -- is quite dead. In the United States, perhaps even more dead, since Mrs. Reagan is back into the White House. I've noticed that every time I've been back on my visits.
The other thing I noticed is that when they do unite on a common cause --. For example, I was in California for the first time in my life this summer at this famous meeting of the Rose Bowl. (On "Peace Sunday," June 6, 1982, 70,000 people met in the Rose Bowl to promote "peace with justice and global nuclear disarmament.") I was so amazed about the spread of people from the media, from television, from the arts, from artists and from writers, who then come together on a common cause very quickly. Whereas here, it takes first a year to be organized.
They see the connections, for example, between social needs and military cuts or social cuts and military budget, more quicker than we see it here. It takes us much longer. Always what impressed me about the United States is they're very efficient. They don't go about around the bush very long. They try to solve it.
But what amazes me is that you cannot get political groups. We have now invited Barry Commoner with the Citizens Party. I was at their congress this year. I noticed that they're living with a two-party system that seems to me first, electorally corrupt -- the electoral laws. Second, it gives no minority group the chance to move, practically. And third, it gives a small party like the Citizens Party -- or anyone challenging the other two -- no thought of bringing a program across. Because it is so much run by who has the most money. I find it not to be very democratic. They call that a democracy when 27 percent voted Reagan in? I wonder if people are turning so apathetic about their own parliamentary democracy in the United States that in fact they talk about it a lot, espouse it as very democratic and they're very free, but in fact, they hardly use it. They don't use the many rights they have.
That's why I would think a Green movement in the United States, if it goes political, could very quickly, I should think, could gain support. It's amazing me that they're not trying to get into the state legislatures. Or into, let's say even the city councils. Why they are not doing that? I don't understand it. A movement like Ralph Nader or other movements have enough people and sympathy to be able to do that. And we've shown that even the very strong German tradition, where it's difficult to break through, we have been able to break through. Although for two years the media was against us. But we did make it.
Q: Nader might feel that he's more effective working outside of the political party system.
A: But I am sure there is people of his kind. They always say it's already hopeless. Because the Democrats and the Republicans -- it's hopeless. I think that now the antiwar movement is so strong that they could, in fact, wage a Green kind of campaign. There's been a lot of Green groups that have written me, but they seem just to be splinter groups. Just a few people behind it, who want to build up a Green Party like we have. But who seem to be totally shattered by the idea that they cannot get into any major office.