GDR History

The Green Party in the GDR

The Green Party in the GDR was officially founded on 24 November 1989, but its history began long before this. The party’s political debut was made possible through both the support of the West German Greens and the peace and human rights movement in the GDR. (21 Nov 2022)

Dramatic news from the entire Soviet sphere of power had been accumulating since the summer of 1989. Apparently, the decline in communist leaders' power across the Eastern Block could no longer be stopped. This was not helped by the daily television broadcasts of GDR refugees in Budapest and Prague trying to force their way out.

It was urgently required that opposition groups begin organising themselves politically - even in the GDR. An appeal by the »New Forum« on 12 September 1989 was the stone that set the avalanche rolling. Political parties were formed, mostly in church circles, and the Greens were one of them. The environmental movement had its roots in the peace and human rights movement, which had been active under the protection of the church since the late 1970s. Many of these groups were dedicated to civil rights, democracy and environmental issues, and fought against the stationing of medium-range missiles in East and West.

Environmental destruction in the GDR

The effects of ecological catastrophe were palpable in the GDR, and the state did nowhere near enough to limit this damage. There were concrete reasons for this. The economy was struggling due to rising oil prices in the 1970s, and restrictions on living standards were out of the question for fear of political instability. Therefore, the GDR was made to rely more and more on lignite as an energy source. The consequence of this? Massive environmental damage. In addition, the GDR had been trailing behind the West technologically for a long time. The chemical industry worked with outdated technology that did not meet modern environmental standards.

This environmental damage could be seen everywhere, for example through the uranium mine »Wismut« in the Ore Mountains and through the Chemical Triangle between Halle, Merseburg and Bitterfeld, where the most important but also the most polluting chemical sites of the GDR were located. Nevertheless, all problems were swept under the rug of the state; environmental data was kept secret and the issue was hardly discussed in public. Members of the environmental groups were treated as enemies of the state and persecuted by the state security. By 1988, about 80 environmental groups had organised themselves in this way. Despite this, the activists of the ecology movement achieved some spectacular successes. In 1988, the documentary film »Bitteres aus Bitterfeld« (Bitter Things from Bitterfeld) was made and broadcast on West German television. It showed the dramatic effects of releasing toxic substances into the water the surrounded the chemical district in Saxony-Anhalt.

Cover page »VEB Leuna Werke Walter Ulbricht«

Fig.: Performance report for the year 1966 of VEB Leuna-Werke »Walter Ulbricht«

The role of the West German Greens

The support of the West German Greens was very important for environmental groups in the GDR. Leading Green politicians, such as Petra Kelly and Gert Bastian, campaigned for civil rights in the GDR and had to defend themselves both against bans on entering the GDR and against opposition within their own party. This was because the decision to intervene in East German politics as a West German party was not supported by all party members. The Greens' intervention in the GDR's environmental politics would - some felt - jeopardise the progress of the policy of détente. But not all members gave up. On 12 May 1983, for example, some West German Greens travelled to East Berlin to take part in a demonstration organised by GDR oppositionists on Alexanderplatz. They were arrested by security forces after displaying a poster with the »swords to ploughshares« symbol. The symbol - a combination of a Soviet sculpture, which can be found in front of the UN headquarters in New York, and a quote from the Old Testament - had been used by the GDR peace movement since 1978.

Founding of the Green Party

On 5 November 1989, the »Initiative for the Foundation of a Green Party in the GDR« published a founding appeal. Three weeks later, on 24 November 1989, the initiative group presented their appeal at the 6th Berlin Ecology Seminar, where the Green Party was then founded. This establishment of the party was very controversial amongst activists of the environmental movement. At the same time, a Green League was formed on 26 November 1989, which was primarily concerned with concrete measures for environmental protection and feared a party-political narrowing of its ecological concerns.

From the beginning, the East German Greens tried to distinguish themselves from their West German counterparts. For example, the party chose its own logo in contrast to the sunflower chosen by the West German Greens.

On 18 March, the last democratic election for the People’s Chamber in the GDR took place, in which the Green Party, in an electoral alliance with the Independent Women's Association (UFV), received only 1.97% of the vote and entered parliament with 8 representatives. The party had decided against running together with the newly founded electoral alliance »Bündnis 90«, a merger of the »New Forum«, the »Initiative Peace and Human Rights« (IFM) and »Democracy Now« (DJ). The Bündnis 90 won 2.91% of the votes in the People’s Chamber elections on 18 March 1990 and thus 12 seats.

All in all, this was a bitter defeat for the groups which had been in opposition for years and had initiated the Peaceful Revolution, despite the prestige and media presence of the protagonists of the civil rights movement being unbroken. First and foremost, however, the majority of voters wanted German unity and regarded all other issues as secondary. They expected miracles from the adoption of the Deutschmark. The Greens, however, were already warning against selling out the East.

Logo Green Party of the GDR, Bundesarchiv, Image 183-1990-0208-015 / CC-BY-SA 3.0

Fig.: Logo Green Party in the GDR, Bundesarchiv, Image 183-1990-0208-015 / CC-BY-SA 3.0

The East German Greens in the Bundestag

On 2 December 1990, the first Bundestag election in a reunified Germany took place. Due to a decision of the Federal Constitutional Court, voting took place in two electoral areas, and for the former GDR the five-percent hurdle was lifted. Whilst the West German Greens failed to clear the five-percent hurdle in the old Länder with 4.8 percent of the vote, the Green Party, together with Bündnis 90 and other civil rights movement groups, won 6 percent in the new Länder. This meant that only the East German Greens were represented in the first all-German Bundestag. They utilised the legislative period very successfully to push through specific East German concerns, including the establishment of the Office of the Federal Commissioner for the Stasi Files.

The road to unity

On 21 September 1991, the Eastern and Western Greens formally united to form the party »Bündnis 90/Die Grünen«. Specifically ecological issues were neglected in the East in the following three decades. People's main concern was not ecology, but rather unemployment and the poorer living conditions in the East. In particular, the cessation of lignite mining in Brandenburg and Saxony generated little enthusiasm. Since the Russian attack on Ukraine in February 2022 and the resulting sanctions, there has been considerable opposition to the federal government, in which the Greens play a central role. Since then, justified economic concerns, attachment to Russia inherited from the GDR, »Ostalgie« (Eastern nostalgia) and anti-Western resentment have increased the potential for politically dangerous protest. In this political climate, the Greens are having a hard time gaining support for their traditional concerns.

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