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Petra Kelly

Petra Kelly

Petra Kelly (1947-1992), West German pacifist and politician, had the reputation of being one of the most active and best known protagonists of the European peace and ecology movement.

Petra Karin Lehmann was born on November 29, 1947, in Günzburg, Bavaria. Her father left the family when she was five. In 1958 her mother married an American army officer, John E. Kelly. Petra Kelly was given the name of her step-father, but remained a West German citizen. She was educated in a Roman Catholic convent in Günzburg.

The family moved to the United States in 1959, where Kelly attended high school at Columbus/West Georgia. From 1966 to 1970 she studied political science at the American University's School of International Service in Washington, D.C.

Back on the continent she completed her studies at the University of Amsterdam in the Netherlands. She worked as a research assistant at the European Institute, finishing with a M.A. degree. Between 1971 and 1973 she gathered practical knowledge at the European Community Commission (ECC) in Brussels. In 1973 she finally became a full-time civil servant, employed by the European Community to deal with social and labor problems, public health, and various aspects of environmental protection.

The experiences of her teenage years in the United States had influenced her political socialization intensely. She witnessed the non-violent struggle of the African American civil rights movement and was deeply impressed. She was also concerned with the U.S. military engagement in Vietnam. In 1968 she campaigned for presidential candidate Robert Kennedy, who became her political idol, and after his murder for Hubert Humphrey.

Setting Her Goals

The brutal political violence expressed by the assassinations of the Kennedy brothers and Martin Luther King made a strong impression on Kelly. It directed her towards non-violence, Christian charity, solidarity, and foremost, world-wide peace. Witnessing the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia during a Prague visit in August 1968 caused her to adopt another principle: "Human rights may not be handled selectively."

The death of her sister Grace from eye cancer in February 1970 at the age of ten, demonstrated in Kelly's view a dangerous modern syndrome: she called it the "cancerisation of the world, which is caused mainly by world-wide nuclear pollution." The struggle against the civil and military use of nuclear power and for mutual disarmament became the focus of her political work during the 1970s.

She engaged in numerous activities of the European peace and anti-nuclear-power movement. Her involvement included protest against politics as a male domain and against patriarchal structures in everyday life. Her preoccupation with environmental issues arose from a genuine concern about the direct physical threat posed to human beings by the industrial deterioration of the environment and from a growing awareness of the limits of growth in modern post-war industrial societies.

In 1972 she supported Chancellor Willy Brandt and joined the Social Democratic Party (SPD). Becoming politically disappointed, she left the party in 1979. Her interest turned towards the work in the "umbrella" organization of the environmentalist movement, the Bund Bürgerinitiativen Umweltschutz (BBU), which was founded in 1972. Between 1976 and 1979 environmentalist initiatives scored successfully in communal and state elections. Kelly belonged to those prominent activists who tried to integrate ideas and supporters of the ecology movement in a common program and organization. In the meantime she had been elected to the executive committee of the BBU.

Forming the Green Party

In March 1979 she took part in founding the "Other Political Association," called the Greens. The new party maintained the traditional goals of the West German citizen initiatives movement of the 1970s: the pursuit of ecological, social, grass-roots democratic, and non-violent policies. The latter culminated in the protest against the 1979 NATO decision that scheduled the deployment of more U.S. first-strike missiles in the Federal Republic of Germany.

Her activities in the Green Party made Kelly known to a broader public. In 1979 she was nominated for the European Parliament in Strasbourg. In March 1980 she was elected member and speaker of the Green Party's executive committee. She campaigned in the federal elections of 1980 as well as in the Bavarian state elections of 1982 but lost. Finally the federal elections of 1983 brought an overwhelming success. The Green Party gained over two million votes. Kelly, as member and speaker of the Green faction, entered the parliament.

Within the broad and heterogeneous political spectrum of the Green Party, which ranged from trade unionists, socialists, and veterans of the student protest movement of the 1960s to Christian pacifists and conservatives, Kelly covered a key position in the fundamentalist wing. She defined the Greens as an "anti-party party" and the parliament primarily as a "market place" to espouse her views.

Her fears were that the Greens would become a catch-all party which "seeks only to gain power," which would not allow them to make utopian proposals and to ask fundamental questions any more. She wanted the Green Party to stay "fundamentalist and uncompromising in basic demands."

Kelly was labeled the "Jeanne d'Arc of the nuclear age," and a "secular nun." Her charismatic appeal was used to promote her beliefs in an idealistic, romantic, and utopian society without "egoism and profit, war and disease." This goal was achievable by changing oneself and by collective, creative, and colorful non-violent means of civil disobedience. She perceived herself in the political tradition of Martin Luther King, Gandhi, the Russian revolutionary writer and suffragette Alexandra Kollontai, and the German socialist Rosa Luxemburg.

Kelly's favorite works included the writings of Henry David Thoreau, Virginia Woolf, Anne M. Lindbergh, and William B. Yeats. On her own, she published a volume of her most important articles, speeches, appeals, and letters under the title Fighting for Hope—the Non-violent Way to a Green Future. The book included a foreword by the German writer and Nobel Peace Prize winner Heinrich Böll.

In 1992, Kelly had gone to New York to address the United Nations (UN) on Chinese human rights violations in Tibet and to attend International Women's Day ceremonies and festivities. In October of that year, Petra Kelly was found shot to death at her home in Bonn, Germany, in what was presumed to be a murder-suicide, committed by her companion, Gert Bastian.

Further Reading

Petra Kelly's biography Petra Karin Kelly. Politikerin aus Betroffenheit (Munich, 1983, and Hamburg, 1985) by Monika Sperr is in German; analytic surveys of the Green Party include Elim Papadakis' The Green Movement in West Germany (1984); and Charlene Spretnak's, Green Politics. The Global Promise (1984); see also "Germany: Petra Kelly's Death" by Andrew Giarelli in World Press Review, December 1994; and "Last Words From Petra Kelly" by Eric Williams in The Progressive, January 1, 1993, vol. 57, no. 1. □

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