From Red to Green

Andrei Markovits

University of Michigan

Andrei S. Markovits is an Arthur F. Thurnau and the Karl W. Deutsch Collegiate Professor of Comparative Politics and German Studies at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.

A Transfer of Power on Germany’s Left

Spurred by the catastrophic consequences of once-in-a-century devastation by torrential rains, the Bundestag election of Sunday, September 26, might well usher in a new era in the history of modern Germany as well as that of Western liberal democracies. Opinion polls indicate that there is a good chance of the Green Party’s emerging as Germany’s foremost party of the left. There is good reason to believe that the horrible floods will have catapulted the already supercharged topic of climate change onto an even higher ground of German politics that will enhance the presence of Germany’s Greens, the sole party whose very formation and essence has centered on environmental policy reform. Were this to happen, this would mean the triumph of the “new” Green left over its “old” Red rival, progenitor, and partner, the Social Democratic Party (Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands, or SPD). The Green Party’s journey commenced on university campuses in 1967 and gained steam in the world of the “new social movements” of the 1970s before the Greens officially became a party in January 1980 and joined the government in the late 1990s as the junior coalition partner. Now, with this election, the Green Party will have finally arrived at the pinnacle of political power.

In this fifty-year journey, the Greens have embodied every facet of what today is considered iconic for the left or progressive politics. Unlike in the case of the old Red left, where there was no American influence, the new Green left has been deeply affected by America’s movements for civil rights, environmental activism, and feminism. The long-forgotten Petra Kelly, a German eco-feminist activist who lived and studied in the United States, was, after all, one of the mainstays of the Green movement and party in the 1970s and 1980s.

As their party’s name evidences, the Greens are the vanguard for ecology and environmentalism. Both these words—ecology and environmentalism—are commonplace today, but they were barely known before the Greens’ arrival in politics. The Greens altered the way we perceive nature in advanced industrial societies. If one of the old left’s defining tenets was humans’ complete mastery of nature, the opposite viewpoint has come to prevail due to the Greens’ commitment and advocacy. In America, too, it was the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) and other mega projects of this kind that defined the essence of the old left, whereas it was the survival of the snail darter (an endangered species of fish threatened by the TVA’s construction of the Tellico Dam) that characterized the core of the new left.

Unlike in the case of the old Red left, where there was no American influence, the new Green left has been deeply affected by America’s movements for civil rights, environmental activism, and feminism.

In many ways, this new green politics—what I have called the politics of compassion—has reshaped public discourse in both the United States and Germany on many issues, from gender and race to technology and nature. This politics of compassion enhances the democratic essence of both countries by bringing those who were previously excluded into the realm of the legitimate and acceptable. Thanks to the Greens, non-human actors are also included as authentic voices in the democratic chorus.

Most significant, perhaps, of this moment, will be the Greens’ displacement of the Social Democratic Party as the mainstay of the German left. In an uncanny temporal parallel to the Greens, it also took the Social Democrats about fifty years to grow from a marginalized, even vilified, movement into the main representative of German workers. Founded in 1863 as the General German Workers’ Association, the Social Democratic Party is the oldest political party still active in contemporary German politics. It took the SPD until the 1912 election to become the largest party in Germany, and it was not until 1918 that it furnished the president and political leadership of the newly established Weimar Republic. Its mission from the beginning was to emancipate German workers, releasing them from the shackles of the proletariat and empowering them as autonomous actors who could enjoy full equality in a burgeoning industrial society.

Most significant, perhaps, of this moment, will be the Greens’ displacement of the Social Democratic Party as the mainstay of the German left.

The question of whether the emancipation of German workers was possible within the confines of capitalism, or whether this would necessitate capitalism’s defeat and transformation into something called socialism, has been a source of internal conflict for the SPD throughout its existence, though the party’s mainstay has opted for a reformist path and shunned the extremes of a revolutionary overthrow. While the SPD failed as a transformative force of capitalism, it succeeded in making capitalism work for the male industrial working class, catapulting workers into a comfortable livelihood with full political rights and thus establishing one of the main ingredients for the Federal Republic’s success as a prosperous liberal democracy. The Greens have performed the identical feat for women, immigrants, and others hitherto excluded from Germany’s public life and politics.

While recent allegations of plagiarism have hindered Annalena Baerbock’s campaign for the Bundestag election, these accusations have been blown out of proportion by political opponents employing misogynist tropes that, on one occasion, assumed openly anti-Semitic overtones. Under auspicious circumstances, Baerbock could become Germany’s second female chancellor and its first Green one, thus embodying the fulfillment of a fifty-year cycle that commenced in the protest movements led by the Greens’ ancestors in a still divided Germany in the late 1960s.


Andrei S. Markovits’s memoir The Passport as Home: Comfort in Rootlessness will be published by the Central European University Press in Budapest, Vienna and New York in August 2021. The German translation Der Pass mein zu Hause: Aufgefangen in Wurzellosigkeit will be published in April 2022 by Neofelis Verlag in Berlin.

The views expressed are those of the author(s) alone. They do not necessarily reflect the views of the American Institute for Contemporary German Studies.