Ethics/Nonkilling/Leadership/Petra Kelly

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Petra Kelly at the Bundestag, 1987.
  • This Course is based mainly on papers presented by Eva Quistorp (Former Member of the European Parliament) and Professor Nancie Caraway (University of Hawaiʻi) at the First Global Nonkilling Leadership Forum, Mu Ryang Sa Buddhist Temple, Honolulu, Hawai‛i, November 1-4, 2007. The Course is part of the Program on Nonkilling Leadership Development at the School of Nonkilling Studies.


PART I[edit]

Petra Karin Kelly (1947-1992). An outstanding peace and women’s activist, consumer lobbyist, writer, speaker, since 1968 a visionary, co-founder and a queen of the Greens 1978-1992, a German-American woman talking truth to power and truth to the so-called powerless, an eloquent and passionate speaker to grassroots people as well as to parliaments and presidents, against all mass destruction weapons especially nuclear weapons and its twin nuclear energy as well as against the arms race, a leader for a non-violent world society and a passionate eco-feminist with women for peace in East and West, a winner of the Alternative Nobel Prize, admiring others like Vandana Shiva or the Dalai Lama, a media star for a while and a suffering person, one of the rare women in the memory of public international life, giving inspi-ration to younger activists, criticizing corporate and information-disinformation technology speed-driven globalization and greedy life styles, creating alternatives with politics of hope [Petra Kelly Archive, Heinrich Böll Foundation, Berlin (www.boell.de) and Petra Kelly Foundation, Munich.]

Petra Kelly became my personal and political friend in Dublin during the Festival of the Holy Spirit in 1978. It was at an anti-nuclear energy conference organized by the Trade Union for Transport and the Housewives Association of Ireland. Maybe this was leadership of the holy mother earth spirit. In 1979, I worked with her, Joseph Beuys, her friend Ro-land Vogt, and women from regional citizen groups to build up the Greens in our first European electoral campaign. From 1980 on we worked to build a new kind of party. Petra and I introduced a quota for women and we worked for other measures such as ro-tation in office and limitation of income to distinguish Greens from ordinary politicians.

The last time I talked to her was sometime before her death in 1992 at an interna-tional conference for victims of low-level radiation and uranium mining in Berlin. We saw a film about the children of Chernobyl and went to the first European Buddhist conference with the leitmotiv “Unity in Diversity.” It was also the founding slogan of the Greens, often quoted by Petra and me. We thought about what it meant to live it—in personal relationships, in traditional and alternative institutions, and in the Greens which she wanted to be an “anti-party Party.”

In October 1992 it was only a few hours after I received the news of her death and that of her friend Gert Bastian, who was suspected as her murderer, that I received a tele-phone call from Glenn Paige in Hawai‛i who asked, “Eva, did you receive the package with Petra’s speeches in the book we published Nonviolence Speaks to Power?” This is a won-derful book which reached me at the right moment. I recommend it to you all. (Text online at www.globalnonviolence.org.) The book is not only about Petra but about the thinking and actions of the nonviolent social movements and thousands of creative non-violent actions in Germany and Europe, Australia, the USA, and India where Petra trav-eled. There are speeches which touch upon current debates such as the ongoing scandal of millions of children dying of hunger and HIV while budgets of the military, arms indus-tries, and security research rise in millions. (See Stockholm International Peace Re-search Institute, www.sipri.org; and International Peace Bureau, www.ipb.org.)

Historical Context[edit]

Petra Kelly’s life and death by being killed, her writings, talks, and political actions can only be understood in the context of 20th century history—the role of German militarism and different counter forces, strong trade unions, left parties, and the strong forgotten former women’s peace movement with Bertha von Suttner, Lydia Gustava Heymann, Anita Augsburg, and the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom.

Petra learned her political lessons in the Civil Rights Movement and election cam-paigns of Hubert Humphrey and Robert Kennedy in the USA. Like many of her gen-eration she had the chance to admire Martin Luther King, Gandhi, the Berrigan broth-ers, the women’s liberation movement, the Boston health collective, Bella Abzug, Jimmy Carter, Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Mahalia Jackson, John Lennon and Yoko Ono, Nelson Mandela and Miriam Makeba, Rachel Carson, and the nonviolent United Farm Workers led by Cesar Chavez and Dolores Heurta.

The historical context at the end of the 1970s when Petra stepped forward to provide nonviolent leadership to bring different milieus, groups, and personalities together was ex-tremely violent. There were heavy debates and internal struggles about the use of violence among left and anti-nuke movements, anti-imperialist and anti-militarist groups and sects, and about the Soviet Union and guerrilla wars in Latin America. 1977 saw left terrorist vio-lence of the Red Army Fraktion (RAF), partly state overreaction, and the start of terrorist violence in Palestine with invitations to young fanatics to join terrorist training camps.

To be engaged and lead within social movements amidst such burdens, internal strug-gles, and media hysteria was difficult. Are you on the side of the state or with left vio-lence? Only small groups in Germany such as members of the War Resisters International (WRI) were fully convinced believers in nonviolence. Most people had no knowledge of the nonviolent actions of Gandhi, Rosa Parks and the Montgomery bus boycott, Solidarity in Poland, or Gene Sharp’s history of the power of nonviolence (The Politics of Nonviolent Action, 1973). The thinking of Hannah Arendt, George Orwell, or Vaclav Havel was not known to the broader public or even to the academic community before the 1990s. The thinking of Erich Fromm (“To have or to be—the art of love”) had come up in the 1960s but had been forgotten. Many did not like the violence of the left but had no clear spiritual and political leaders for nonviolent alternatives. Rudi Dutschke, the German student movement leader, a friend of mine who supported the Greens in 1979, had been nearly killed when he spoke out clearly against terror in the history of the left and against so-called counter-violence against violence of the state and imperialist powers.

Many Germans did not know about nonviolent resistance at various times in their own history. For example, parts of the Protestant Reformation can be seen as a wave of nonviolent change before the outbreak of the Thirty Years War. The democratic strug-gles in Europe around 1848 can also be viewed as part of a nonviolent tradition of so-cial and democratic change which provided the context for Petra, the Greens, and the people’s movement of the 1980s.

Lessons[edit]

Given this context what are some important lessons from Petra’s leadership experience?

  • 1. Petra Kelly was open and talented to learn critically about the history of her birth country Germany and to learn in the United States, a more free country at that time, how to empower herself as an academic woman and how to get in-volved in public debates and election campaigns for the sake of peace and dis-armament, for defense of the climate, environment, and consumer interests. She prepared herself well to be ready to take a public role, speaking different languages and collecting professional experiences in the European Commis-sion, reading about international security politics and knowing its institutions.
  • 2. Petra was very much motivated to be almost overactive and courageous be-cause she saw herself first as a representative of her little sister Grace who died young from leukemia which she attributed to nuclear radiation. Petra followed her suffering in the hospital. Then she came to see improving the dignity of ill and dying persons in hospitals as a global issue. Thjs led her to fight against nuclear radiation from uranium mining, testing of weapons, and building and deploying nuclear weapons. She vowed that war crimes such as Hiroshima and Nagasaki as well as using indigenous people as “guinea pigs” for testing should never happen again. Petra was very sensitive to the suffer-ing of people both near to her and far away. She sought to give them voice and to organize help and recognition of their dignity. She did not fear to show emotions and sometimes to express them directly. She had high moral standards and worked to change the situation of suffering people, including verbally attacking those who caused their pain.
  • 3. Petra wanted daily violence against women and girls to be taken as seriously as academic debates about new weapons systems. She brought a lawsuit against the magazine Stern because they portrayed her in a sexist way, some-thing that males and even gay politicians nowadays do not need to suffer. She was aware that nonviolent leadership for women faced more tasks and chal-lenges in view of centuries of violence against women in different cultures and religions, renewed in the modern media age by commercialization of nearly every value and sensibility.

Leadership of women is an especially complicated challenge when they are not imitating the rules of competition, authority structures, quotation circles, and power games—but wish to have children, care for their parents or grandparents, and want to be independent of narrow role models. Women leaders face daunting tasks when they stand against sexism, subtle forms of discrimination, disrespect of good mothers, while expressing emotional and spiritual qualities and carrying on the unseen and mostly unpaid work of inte-grating and empowering groups and democratic movements.

  • 4. Petra wanted and could relate directly and indirectly to democratic traditions and nonviolent traditions of resistance in European, American, and German history. She related directly to Sophie Scholl and the White Rose, to Pastors Niemoller and Bonhoeffer of the confessing Church, to the many women who helped Jews to survive, and to those who fought against propaganda of the Nazi regime even in 1933. Many of them were murdered like those who tried to kill the tyrant Hitler and Goebbels as did George Elser in Munich in 1939. One of her heroes was Rosa Luxembourg who believed that the international work-ers’ movement could stop the First World War. Another was the less men-tioned but important role model for peace activists and journalists, Bertha von Suttner, who founded the German Peace Society, and organized women against the First World War. Bertha von Suttner inspired many in the anti-war move-ment with her book Die Waffen Nieder (Lay Down Your Arms, 1889) and encour-aged her friend Alfred Nobel to establish the Nobel Peace Prize.
  • 5. Petra’s leadership emerged amidst the pregnant momentum and birth giving of the new anti-nuclear and ecology movements of the 1960s and 1980s when creative actions were possible and new thinking and forms of organiz-ing started all over Europe and in parts of Latin America, the United States, and Asia. It was a time of reforestation and tree planting by Wanghaari Mathai in Africa, of food cooperatives, first solar cookers, of houses for bat-tered women, of new rural and urban projects in community family living. It was at a time of struggle between community living projects, critical scien-tists, and trade unions against Reagan superpower Cold War policies involv-ing NATO. Then Petra Kelly and the German Greens got their moment in history in cooperation with dissident groups in Eastern Europe.

They grasped the moment and started to build new democratic institutions, created a broad critical public and electorate, new forms of democratic politi-cal participation, alternative media, and new peace and ecological research in-stitutions. It was our chance and we used it with fresh enthusiasm for a lively democracy and more participation of citizens in global issues to defend our common goods. We should not forget that Charter 77 started at the same time in Czechoslovakia and that Solidarity in Poland started in 1980 one year after the Greens were founded.

  • 6. Petra Kelly, like some other founding personalities of the Greens and coor-dinators of the national peace movement, knew how to use the moment of global awakening in the fields of ecology and women’s rights. They built upon growing citizen groups and knew how to use the very good postwar German Constitution for a democratic experiment to institutionalize new al-liances of eco-women, peace movements, and projects. They used the spirit of Willy Brandt, his new Ostpolitik and the North South Commission. Not to forget! “Demokratie wagen!” Take courage for democracy!
  • 7. One of Petra’s talents for nonviolent leadership was always to be well in-formed about different views in the country in which she was traveling and acting. She sought to support democratic tendencies wherever she went through nonviolent interventions. Like many women activists of the 1970s and since, she linked the rights of women and girls with issues of peace and a just world economy. She stood against the politics of hunger and poverty by big business, global banks, financial speculations, unjust terms of trade, industrial agriculture, and structural adjustment programmes of the International Mone-tary Fund (IMF). Beyond protest, however, all the speeches and writings of Petra Kelly are marked by enthusiastic search for nonviolent alternatives.
  • 8. Petra was open to learning from and cooperating with personalities and groups in different fields who were struggling for new thinking. Among them, Mikhail Gorbachev, whom we both met in Moscow in 1987; writers like Nobel Literature laureate Heinrich Böll in Germany and Lew and Olga Kopelew in Russia; Ralph Nader, consumer lobbyist against big multinational corporations; common friends like Daniel Ellsberg, Randall Forsberg, and Joan Baez in the USA; Vandana Shiva in India; Solange Fernex in France; Helen Caldicott in Australia; Freda Meissner Blau in Austria; Emma Bonino in Italy; and not least the Dalai Lama whom she loved a lot and to whom she introduced me in 1987. She also was writing letters to Pope John Paul II.
  • 9. Like many leaders for active nonviolence, justice, and disarmament, Petra could not continue her work and life as she hoped. She could not finish the work and plans she had in mind. She died too early at age 47, probably murdered by her friend, Gert Bastian, whom she called “soul mate,” with whom she had been living for many years and who suffered from some kind of depression.

How this tragedy happened and under what conditions are heavy questions which perhaps we cannot answer. But we have to pose them with sensitivity and clarity. This is because we cannot make too simple heroes and angels out of leaders for strategies for nonviolent change in international politics, not even Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Nel-son Mandela, or the Dalai Lama who did not have the difficulty of being a woman in that role. Maybe some secret services were involved in her murder as in other political cases. But human weaknesses always have an influence in victories and defeats of social movements and in implementation of visions. Among them envy, jealousy, fear, lust for power or fame, sexism, anti-Semitism, racism, lack of patience, procrastination, lack of a sense of reality and of the historic or social moment, incapacity for good compromise, maximalism, opportunism, and illusions.

Petra Kelly Today[edit]

What would Petra Kelly say or do if she were active today? How would she see her own party and movement in different countries? What would she have learned about herself?

This is what I think as a longtime political friend and partner in the global women’s peace movement and in the European and global Greens. I think she would relate to lady leader Aung San Suu Kyi in Burma and to journalist Anna Politowskaya in Russia. She would have invited both of them to the German parliament. Especially at a time when the politics of the empire of fear are not only weakening democracy and reason in the USA but also in Russia, China, Iran and other areas. She would join human rights and women’s rights activists to develop multiple critics of power in the globalized world economy faced with the challenges of climate change and the nuclear arms race in Asia and the Middle East. Petra immediately would have flown to Guantanamo and put questions to Parliament on if and where secret services are using torture.

She would have criticized Al Gore and Bill Clinton for not signing the Kyoto Pro-tocol or the Treaty for the International Criminal Court. She would have participated in the World Social Forums in Porto Alegre and Mumbai together with Arundhati Roy. She would support the Climate Alliance of Cities and Mayors for Peace. She would visit Shirin Ebadi in Teheran and little Greepeace groups and students in prison there. She would miss Anna Lindh, the murdered foreign minister of Sweden. She would deeply miss her Grandmother. But maybe Petra would take more time to listen to music, to go to the grave of her sister Grace, and to buy local food or cook with products from fair trade—boycotting products of Monsanto, Nestle, and Coca Cola and all the structural killing done by bio-pirates of multinational companies and their legions of scientists. Maybe she would learn to walk without fear along the river Rhine and choose men more luckily who would support her. She would think about her own carbon emissions by flying and try to reduce them or compensate.

She would love to be with everyone in the First Global Nonkilling Leadership Fo-rum in Honolulu and to join the work in progress for creating a Center for Global Nonkilling and a Global Nonkilling Leadership Academy.

I close by quoting her: “Peace has a wide meaning, I believe, for all of us here; it means far more than the absence of weapons of mass destruction and the absence of the thinking of military blocs. Peace is also the positive external and internal condition in which people are free, are not exploited and are living so that they can grow to their full potential.”

PART II[edit]

Context and Personality[edit]

The reductionist description required by the publicist of my play Soulmates, The Passion of Petra Kelly, which was performed at the National Women’s Museum in Washington, DC in 1992, cannot begin to capture the spirit and gravitas and courage of the historical Petra Kelly. Although the inspired sweep of Kelly’s rambunctious life evokes high drama, lofty ideals, and the tragic mood of grand opera, Kelly’s worldview and political originality are deeply grounded in modernity’s most audacious experiment in radical social change.

It was here in this sacred space, the Mu Ryang Sa Korean Buddhist Temple in Honolulu, that I first met Kelly in the mid-1980s. I feel her presence in this nurturing space. Kelly would have been 60 years old at the end of this month (November 29, 2007)—and to honor the materiality of this connection, I have brought mementos (books, photographs, Tibetan prayer flags, Die Grünen posters, and the silk scarf given to me by The Dalai Lama in Kelly’s memory) to symbolize her life and works. In addi-tion, I wanted to add nuance and texture to an academic talk because, inarguably, Petra Kelly was unlike any other of the male nonviolent leaders discussed here today.

She was a modern, high-spirited, playful woman—“larger than life” would not be an exaggerated description of her personality. Kelly’s political theory was influenced by the very European leftist theorists and activists about whom I was devoting my gradu-ate research at that first meeting back then: Rosa Luxembourg, Emma Goldman, and the revolutionary German Social Democrats. Her life embodied their teachings—defused of male aggression and the residual patriarchy common to all social theory at which the Greens directed their critiques. Like Luxembourg and Goldman, Kelly pos-sessed riveting rhetorical brilliance, humanity and compassion. Her fierce commitment to a nonviolent politics and world remains her most powerful teaching.

Overblown clichés like “tireless” and “selfless” hover over Kelly’s image, but it must be said that her commitment and dedication to the most vital causes of the end of the last century—world peace, nonviolence, human rights, environmental protection and feminism—astound in their intensity. She wisely eschewed the corruptions of hero worship and moralism, but displayed considerable residues of determination. The world of political expediency, compromise and greed—the “old, top-down politics from above” as the Greens defined the status-quo political zeitgeist—would more than once exert a wounding personal toll on Kelly.

Kelly’s ideas—and those of her daring, albeit bellicose, colleagues in the Greens, sparked a burning global movement to change politics as usual and to link leadership to the grass-roots as Green principles avowed. The Greens’ ideology was based on the fol-lowing major “pillars”:

  • Ecology
  • Social responsibility
  • Grassroots, people’s democracy
  • Nonviolence

The eclectic Greens’ triumphant march into the German Bundestag in March of 1983, ushered an epochal moment into global reformist politics. The bold German ex-periment quickly swept to Western Europe, the US, Australia, Canada, Japan and the metropoles of Latin America. The sight of the long-haired, casually-dressed Green par-liamentarians—Kelly herself wore blue jeans, high boots, and carried a tree seedling—in their parade to the Parliament—became iconic images to the world media. Kelly said of these exhilarating times, “When we entered the Bundestag, we offered a splash of ir-reverence to those somber chambers.”

By virtue of Kelly’s charisma and her fluency in English (she had attended school and university in the US), Kelly became the spokesperson for the Greens. Masters of creating daring symbolic politics and slogans, Green ideas quickly spread to other fledgling Green initiatives around the world. The “new paradigm” for authentic politics taught:

  • Think globally - act locally.
  • Greens are neither left nor right, but in front.
  • Greens are the anti-party party.

Lessons, Pedagogy and Petra Kelly’s Legacy[edit]

Given the combative, verbal mode of German political debate, the Greens were not immune to jealousies and criticism. Kelly, possessed of a healthy ego herself, became the lightening rod for much of the internal Green dysfunction. Coupled with a largely un-treated tendency toward panic attacks, Kelly was often hospitalized for “exhaus-tion.” She often spoke of feelings of anguish and loneliness to her close confidants. In this her life illustrates the existential implications of political life—and a lack of com-mitment among the Greens to acknowledge the need for nurturing antidotes (retreats, exercise, meditation, conflict-resolution skills). The structural demands of working with hostile “mainstream” attributes of German public life, contributed to breakdowns be-tween principles and realpolitik:

  • The dichotomy between the personal and the political
  • The savage interpersonal dynamics within the Greens—ideological battles among the “red” (Marxist) and “green” (spiritual/feminist) factions
  • The difficulty of transforming a grassroots social/citizen’s movement into an electoral, parliamentary system.

Moving into the electoral system placed enormous stress on the Greens and Kelly in particular. The demands of campaigning and the constant critical scrutiny of the media, always ready to highlight fights among Greens and ridiculing their “hippie” dress, etc.—intensified negative interpersonal relations. The Greens were expected to spit out fully-developed positions on scores of issues almost as soon as they were elected. And because “true” Green politics demanded nothing less than “a transformation of the self,” their own efforts at achieving a “peaceful” politics failed. Kelly wrote in her 1994 collection of speeches and essays Thinking Green:

But eight years of self-destructive and fruitless infighting among our various factions had paralyzed our political activities and created an atmosphere steeped in jealousy and dis-trust, and this was too much even for the Greenest voter. In the course of eight years in Parliament, our internal feuds grew worse and worse. We became intolerant, know-it-all, and smug.... In weekly intervals, we fought our battles in the most aggressive and inhu-mane ways, often denouncing each other, quarreling, and pointing fingers at whatever fac-tion was unwelcome at that particular moment. We could not succeed if the ways we treated each other made more headlines than the substance and aims of our policies (p. 123).


Kelly felt this existential challenge perhaps more acutely than the dominant male Green leaders, surely to her disadvantage. Her isolation intensified when she suffered a humiliating loss in her bid to join the national executive board of the Greens in 1991, re-ceiving only a few votes. The story of Kelly’s alienation from the party for whom she had been the leading candidate for European elections in 1979, is a complicated spiral of be-trayal and disappointment, and beyond the scope of this paper (See Sara Parkin’s biogra-phy The Life and Death of Petra Kelly). A nuanced understanding of her life as a path break-ing feminist public figure, is indeed a cautionary tale about the personal toll that can be exacted on highly-visible women public figures. Buffeted by jealousies and the loss of a public platform as a Green leader, Kelly’s sense of abandonment was intense. Friends re-port positive steps in her struggle to rebuild her public life at the time of her brutal murder at the hands of her fellow Green, Gert Bastian, in 1992. The cruel irony that the life of one of the world’s most visible nonviolent advocates ended by the ultimate violent human action, murder, echos back to the motivating impulse for a nonkilling politics itself.

Kelly’s legacy is rich in inspiration. Her life warns us to avoid the urge toward self-righteousness. Kelly’s uniquely tragic life doesn’t offer a vision of sainthood—she sub-scribed much too deeply to a modern consciousness of pessimistic optimism which condemns us to live together in a constant challenge of co-existence. I think that Kelly would say to us in our own moment of global vulnerability—a world more threatened than the one she left in 1992—we may not succeed in transforming our deepest selves, but that we may revisit our losses with less regret.

As with the lessons learned from the tumultuous history and anguished wisdom of President Abraham Lincoln, Petra Kelly now “belongs to the ages” (Adam Gopkin, “Ängels and Ages: Lincoln’s Language and its Legacy,” The New Yorker, May 28, 2007). She lived in the skin of our times and tried to embody the peacemaker’s maxim: “Peace begins here with me.” In Fighting for Hope (1984), Kelly’s meditation on nonviolence, she evokes Martin Luther King’s struggle: “We are not armed and we make an easy target, but we will not cut ourselves off from life. We have gentleness, force of numbers, free-dom from domination on our side, and the solidarity to overcome all divisions. Our motto is: ‘Be gentle and subversive’” (p. 32; italics mine).

If this motto—to be both gentle and subversive—animated Kelly’s life, it most cer-tainly reveals her contradictions as well. In the end, her life as a nonviolent peacemaker is worthy of the highest celebration and the most passionate observance .