This spring, the Green Party was soaring in the polls and it even looked as though their candidate, Annalena Baerbock, could become chancellor. But then, it all fell apart. What happened?
For those in Germany suffering from a bit of nostalgia, September has been a great month. First, Abba announced that they would be releasing a new album. And then, Green Party co-leaders Annalena Baerbock and Robert Habeck actually made an appearance on the same stage together.
Several thousand people were on hand for the event in front of Frankfurt’s medieval city hall and the party’s campaign slogan – “We’re ready because you are” – was displayed prominently behind them.
Since August, the party co-leaders have been on the campaign trail in Germany. Baerbock, the party’s candidate for the Chancellery, travels in a green double-decker bus complete with a sleeping berth. Haback, who would have liked to run for chancellor, motors around in a slightly less glamorous minibus. The two have only rarely seen each other in the past several weeks.
One of those times was a joint appearance in a forest in the state of Brandenburg, where they presented an action plan for climate protection. Baerbock, who lives in Potsdam, the capital of Brandenburg, got the name of the town wrong, while Habeck looked like he was dying of boredom. They gave the impression of a husband and wife preparing to start couples therapy.
Frankfurt, though, was different. Both dressed in white. The sun was setting, and people were standing at the windows surrounding the square. It was a pleasantly warm, late summer evening.
Habeck got things started. He spoke of the fight for freedom and democracy, of the colors of the German revolution, of the current government’s abdication of responsibility and of the fight against the climate crisis, which is also, he intoned, a fight for freedom. It was a speech that spanned from the 1848 revolution all the way to 2021. Typical Habeck.
Baerbock, by contrast, spoke in shorter, clipped sentences, and her arguments were much more pragmatic. Protecting the climate, she said, is simply a must. It’s time to stop muddling along.
Freedom. The end of muddling. The strength of the message lay in the combination of the two, as it always has. He provides the grand narrative, she is there for realpolitik. The evening was a reminder of the reasons behind their success – of why they were so good as a team and why they were long seen as an example of a perfect political duo. The political version, if you will, of the Abba comeback.
But as is so often the case with reunions, it was also a reminder of what used to be – and of what no longer is. Abba will never again sound like they used to. And the Greens will likely no longer be able to get back to where they once were this year: the very top.
“Anything is possible” is another Green Party campaign slogan. Anything, including becoming the strongest party in the election, becoming Germany’s new big-tent party, moving into the Chancellery, leading the charge to renewable energies and changing the face of the country.
For those who have followed the slow Green rise from its niche-party beginnings, such ambitions always sounded a bit crazy, but in April, it really did look like all of that was within reach. Public opinion surveys that month showed the Greens at 30 percent, the conservatives at just 23 and the center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD) at 15. Not even five months ago.
It looked to be an historic opportunity for the Greens. The SPD was still mired in its deepest crisis since World War II while the Christian Democrats (CDU) were fighting with their Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU), over who should be their candidate for chancellor. The Union, as the two conservative parties are called collectively, were further hampered by stories of malfeasance in the procurement of facemasks. Beloved Chancellor Angela Merkel, meanwhile, had made it clear that she would not be running for a fifth term in office.
A Changing Party Landscape
The traditional structure of Germany’s party landscape – two big-tent parties surrounded by a bevy of smaller groups – appeared to be in flux, and the Greens were in an excellent position to take advantage.
Furthermore, many people in Germany have grown more open to environmental ideas, with a huge majority now seeing climate change as an immediate threat, in part because of the pressure applied by Greta Thunberg’s Fridays for Future movement. A vast change in thinking is underway, even in the business world. Furthermore, the Greens have amassed experience at the top: They are part of 10 governing coalitions in Germany’s states. In April, the possibility that the Green Party might grab the Chancellery seemed imminently plausible.
Then, in summer, the serious flooding in Germany clearly demonstrated that global warming is a threat to lives and prosperity here too. The report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change quickly followed, making it as clear as ever that we don’t have much time left.
The situation in Afghanistan a few weeks ago, when Kabul fell to the Taliban, highlighted the current government’s complete lack of preparedness. Yet the Green Party proved unable to profit. The party’s poll numbers continued to drop – after the flood, after the drama in Afghanistan. The Green hype, it seems, was rather short-lived.
Surveys, of course, are not infallible, but they do provide a bit of orientation. And the Green Party is currently polling between 15 and 17 percent. Since April, the party’s support has continually dropped. A consistent descent – or, as some would have it, a collapse.
Hoping for the Passenger Seat
Baerbock no longer believes she has a chance at becoming chancellor. If you listened closely during the last televised debate between the three main candidates, she seemed to be offering her services to SPD candidate Olaf Scholz as a junior coalition partner. The same Scholz that the Greens didn’t take particularly seriously back when they were polling in the high 20s.
But the situation has now reversed, Scholz is again behind the wheel and Baerbock has to hope that he will keep the passenger seat open for her.
Her demeanor has also undergone a reversal – to a more positive one. Ever since the Chancellery faded out of reach, she has been far more effective on the campaign trail. She seems more relaxed and more combative – as though her dream of ending up on top was weighing her down. As though it was more of a nightmare.
Baerbock is an important factor in the question as to why support for the Greens has shrunk back to more normal levels in recent weeks. Still, it isn’t enough to explain why the party’s fortunes changed so rapidly. Why the party most likely won’t be able to capitalize on the historic opportunity it had – even if the Greens will likely end up with a significantly larger share of the vote than they did four years ago.
Was the idea of a Green republic an illusion all along? Did the party lose support because of the candidate, because of her mistakes and her inability to convince voters? Or is Germany, when push comes to shove, not nearly as environmentally proactive as it likes to present itself as being because the costs of radical change are too daunting?
A Series of Wake-Up Calls
It’s a mid-June evening, election day is still far away, and the campaign is only just getting started. It’s growing late, but Annalena Baerbock is still sitting in Station Berlin, an events venue in a former train station in the Kreuzberg neighborhood of Berlin. She is looking up at the stage, where just a few hours before, her party had voted in a virtual convention for her to become the Green candidate for chancellor. Two months earlier, she and party co-leader Habeck had announced their decision as to which of the two would become the candidate.
After that announcement, the party’s poll numbers shot upwards, from 25 percent to 26, then 28 and then 30. It was almost unnerving.
What came next was a series of wake-up calls. Inaccurate entries in the resume posted on Baerbock’s website; waffling in response to questions from her own party regarding bonus payments that she only reported to the Bundestag, Germany’s parliament, with significant delay. The impression she left early on was that of dishonesty and trickery. It was a terrible start to her campaign.
Baerbock got an early idea of just how difficult the campaign would be. And voters learned that the Greens didn’t necessarily always have a monopoly on the moral high ground. The party’s survey numbers quickly slid to 20 percent and the Union was once again in the lead.
The hope was that Baerbock would be able to smooth everything over during the digital convention in Kreuzberg, with an assertive speech, with strength and elegance. After the convention, the party insisted, the campaign would really get rolling, better than ever.
But Baerbock seemed timid, her eyes gazing down at her manuscript for extended periods, her gestures robotic and her speaking anything but fluid. Even the most attentive listeners had trouble identifying the essence of her speech.
Then, after 35 minutes, Baerbock authored a new addition to her blooper reel. “Today’s attacks primarily take place in the digital realm,” she intoned. “And our liberal enemies, at home and abroad, know how to take advantage. What earlier …” She stopped, looked unsure of herself, let out a brief chuckle and then corrected herself. “The enemies of liberal democracy, at home and abroad, know how to take advantage.”
When she stepped down from the stage after her speech, the microphone was still on. She patted Habeck on the shoulder and said: “Shit.”
Late that evening, she is sitting in front of that same stage without a staff member in sight. A solitary moment.
The off-the-record conversation that then followed cannot be quoted directly. But it is safe to say that on this day of her official coronation, Baerbock is already tired, fragile and frustrated because she feels she is being treated unfairly. The vehemence of the attacks has hit home. She was unprepared for their intensity. And how could she have been? Thus far, her political life has been astoundingly smooth sailing. Perhaps too smooth to be adequately prepared to run for chancellor.
The Path to Politics
Baerbock’s choice of a career in politics was rather accidental. After studying political science and public law at the University of Hamburg, she wanted to become a journalist traveling to crisis regions around the world. She even wrote a couple of early articles for the local newspaper in Hannover.
But she also wanted to gain a better understanding of practical politics, beyond the theory she had learned at university. She applied for an internship in Brussels with both the SPD and the Greens, and ultimately received a position with the Green member of European Parliament Elisabeth Schroedter.
Later, after earning a master’s degree at the London School of Economics, Baerbock worked for Schroedter for three years and headed up the MEP’s campaign office in Brandenburg. In 2009, Baerbock became head of the Green Party state chapter in Brandenburg, and rapidly gained a reputation for preferring to be among people rather than speaking down at them from the stage. The fact that she had earlier worked for the automotive supplier where her father was employed didn’t hurt. She was considered to be down-to-earth and not particularly ideological.
“She is a team player and doesn’t act as though she is better than others. That is something that you really notice in moments of stress, overwork and exhaustion,” says Benjamin Raschke of Baerbock. Raschke is floor leader for the Green Party in the Brandenburg state parliament and he led the party’s state chapter together with Baerbock for four years beginning in 2009. He used to share an office and staff with her, just as she now does with Robert Habeck. “She doesn’t just have books about power politics on her shelves, but also Astrid Lindgren. Never violence.”
Baerbock assembled a network in which political interests and friendships were mixed. When she became a member of the federal parliament in 2013, her closest allies tended to be the other women in the Green Party group. Her first daughter was two years old at the time, and the second would follow in 2015.
There were a few other mothers in parliament, and they bonded over the constant challenges associated with combining motherhood with career. Together, they pushed for the establishment of a room for breastfeeding in parliament.
Baerbock never showed much interest for the traditional battles within the Green Party pitting the more radical “Fundis,” the more leftist wing of the party, against the “Realos,” who are more focused on what can realistically be accomplished. She, herself, is more of a Realo, but also counts more left-leaning party members among her confidants. “She ran for party leadership with the ambition of bridging gaps in the party, which she has proven quite successful at doing,” says Claudia Roth, the Green Party’s Bundestag vice president and a member of the party’s left wing. Renate Künast, another veteran Green who once served as minister of agriculture, says that it was clear early on that Baerbock could go places.
Becoming the Candidate
When the Greens became part of the ultimately unsuccessful coalition negotiations with Merkel’s CDU and the business-friendly Free Democrats in 2017, Baerbock quickly gained a reputation for being extremely well prepared in the meetings focusing on energy and climate policy. Participants say that her knowledge of the details was so deep that even the chancellor was impressed.
The public, though, saw little of that. Baerbock wasn’t featured in many interviews, she wasn’t invited to the political talk shows and she didn’t launch any controversial debates. Her aura was more internal than external. And that would become a problem in this campaign: She didn’t have enough experience in the spotlight.
Even now, Baerbock will prepare for important party meetings by making late-evening calls to regional party chapters to ensure that she fully understands the subtleties of their amendment requests. In contrast to Habeck, she has a firm grasp of the details. Habeck once made it more than obvious on live television that he didn’t fully understand the tax write-offs available to commuters. Something like that would never happen to Annalena Baerbock.
Once those 2017 coalition negotiations failed, the Greens were eager for a new start with Habeck, a minister in the state government of Schleswig-Holstein and the author of intelligent books, as one of the party’s leaders. But it remained unclear for quite some time who would join him at the top. Several women were asked to take the position, including good friends of Baerbock, but they all declined.
Ultimately, Baerbock stepped up and took the position, which she told Habeck after informing the press. At the party convention in January 2018, she said: “We aren’t just choosing the woman at Robert’s side.” Three years later, she reserved the right to run for chancellor.
When it comes to choosing people for leadership roles in politics, ability is not necessarily the most important criteria, and neither is the potential for success. Such choices tend to have much more to do with internal party sensibilities. It has to do with power, with networks and with questions of balance.
Indeed, that is why the conservative candidate for chancellor is Armin Laschet instead of his counterpart from Bavaria, Markus Söder. And that is why Baerbock was chosen as the Green Party chancellor candidate over Robert Habeck. Many voters don’t really have a grasp for this internal party logic. And that has turned out to be a significant problem in this campaign.
Early this year, there wasn’t a huge power struggle in the Green Party when it came to choosing a candidate for chancellor, since Habeck would have lost anyway. He has more governing experience and is more attractive to undecided voters, but she nevertheless had a decisive advantage: an army of supporters within the party. The other parties only had men available as convincing candidates, leading many Greens to believe that it made more sense to name a woman as candidate.
Initially, it seemed to be a wise decision. In the days after it was announced that Baerbock would be running for the Greens, a kind of hype developed around her candidacy. In her first televised interview as candidate, the two moderators applauded her performance. DER SPIEGEL put her on its cover. An influential business leader likewise added his voice to the chorus of support.
Support from the Business World
Joe Kaeser, the former head of Siemens, who is now supervisory board chair of Siemens Energy, still remembers the precise moment when he realized that Annalena Baerbock was for real. It was late February 2020, and Kaeser had been invited to Berlin by the Greens to take part in a podium discussion as part of their economic congress. The focus of the discussion was paths to a more ecological social market economy, and he was sharing the stage with Baerbock. “I quickly realized how familiar she was with the issue,” he says. “It was difficult for me to keep up.”
But, Kaeser says, Baerbock also demonstrated an openness for new arguments and wasn’t dogmatic at all. “That is something you have to be able to do if you want to change this country,” he says. Of the three candidates for chancellor, Kaeser believes, she has the greatest potential.
His reasoning is instructive: Restructuring the market economy to make it more environmentally friendly is a generational task, he says. And Baerbock, he says, is more precise, and thus more honest, than Olaf Scholz and Armin Laschet about what that entails. He’s not only interested in the person at the top, but also in the fact that it is a core focus of the Green Party.
Several years ago, support from such a business leader would have been unheard of. Executives viewed the Greens with no small amount of suspicion, believing them to be little more than socialists in disguise. They thought the Greens would simply make their lives more difficult and that the party had no idea how prosperity was produced.
To be sure, a number of Greens had, by then, made the switch from politics to senior management positions, but powerful figures like Jürgen Trittin continued to perpetuate the party’s traditional image. And some members of the old guard on both sides still think in the same outmoded categories. People like Stefan Wolf, president of the German Employers’ Associations in the Metal and Electrical Engineering Industries, who recently labeled the Green Party platform as “pure socialism.” Most German companies, though, have begun thinking seriously about how long the business practices of today can continue.
“The percentage of Green voters in mid-management is now likely higher nationwide than in society at large,” Kaeser believes. At the very top, though, the situation doesn’t seem to have changed much yet, and it will take time for those from below to advance up the ranks.
It could have been a perfect situation for Baerbock: Support from an executive from one of the country’s best-known companies on the one hand, and on the other, a couple of not-exactly-young men as opponents. It seemed to be a golden opportunity for a heartwarming story of a meteoric rise: a young mother in the Chancellery – who even has support from industrialists.
It was not, however, a narrative that suited Baerbock. She is more at home in policy details. Child welfare policy, education, the phase-out of coal: unromantic issues, often discussed in never-ending sentences that lose their way. She tends to keep personality out of politics. It’s about the substance, she likes to say. And seems to undervalue the fact that the election on Sunday is also about personality.
When no cameras are around, Baerbock is quick to start talking and has a ready laugh. She talks about the anti-nuclear power demonstrations her parents used to take her to and of the Amnesty International brochures lying around on the coffee table in the living room.
Her father, a mechanical engineer, sometimes had trouble finding work because of his political views, according to friends. The family moved to Nuremberg for a time, which is where Annalena Baerbock spent her early childhood. Later, her father became head of personnel at the auto parts supplier Wabco and the family moved back north to Schulenberg, a small town south of Hannover.
Centuries-old, half-timbered houses line the narrow roads. One neighbor says that the mayor used to go door-to-door, and anyone who hadn’t swept the asphalt in front of their home had to pay a 20-mark fine. Baerbock’s parents bought a run-down house with relatives and renovated it over the course of several years. Today, it is one of the more upscale homes in the village. Their “hippy family,” as Baerbock calls it, didn’t immediately fit into these traditionalist surroundings. Baerbock grew up in the house together with her parents, uncle, aunt, two younger sisters and two cousins.
In her book, she includes only very few autobiographical anecdotes. She mentions her grandmother, who had to migrate westward after World War II when Germany lost significant territory in Eastern Europe. She writes of her mother, who became a social worker through Germany’s vocational education system. She discusses the bus that only rarely came. They are all personal stories that fit in well with the Green Party platform.
She provides no insight into how her views of society and of the state and its institutions changed over time. The book remains as monochromatic as the candidate herself.
The Book Storm
Despite all that, though, the book played a huge role in changing the course of the campaign. The storm broke just a few days after it was released, a storm triggered by a largely unknown blog run by Stefan Weber, a media researcher in Austria. Weber has made it his duty to hunt down examples of plagiarism, and he claimed that Baerbock had copied at least five passages in her book without citing where they came from. And that was only the beginning. Ultimately, fully 100 examples of alleged plagiarism were found in the book – which only has 240 pages.
Baerbock’s campaign hired a prominent media lawyer to challenge the allegations and spoke of character assassination. Several weeks passed before Baerbock saw fit to admit her own mistakes and acknowledge that hiring the lawyer had sent the wrong message. It took a couple of months before she was able to tell confidants that the book had been a bad idea. But the damage to her reputation remains, in part because her advisers were unable to find a way to adequately deal with the crisis.
The book is a hectically assembled work. The author, Michael Ebmeyer, interviewed Baerbock on several occasions, during which she told him the story of her life.
When she became the Green Party chancellor candidate, though, she apparently decided to completely change the focus of the book. The biographical sections were toned down and the policy sections were expanded. Staff members delivered sections on short notice and Baerbock herself wrote through the manuscript – with the publishing house ratcheting up the pressure all the while. Apparently, nobody thought about citations or identifying sources. How, though, is it possible for a team with aspirations of being elected to the Chancellery to make so many mistakes?
The Green Party insists that it conducted an extensive background check prior to announcing Baerbock as its candidate, searching for past mistakes, weaknesses and skeletons in the closet. They say they didn’t expect problems with the candidate’s resume, since she had a reputation for scrupulousness, so they didn’t take a close enough look. And apparently nobody recognized how dangerous the book could turn out to be.
Since the book debacle, the Green candidate has seemed tentative, and not just onstage. In meetings with party allies behind closed doors, she sometimes glances around nervously and speaks in a low voice, even though there is nobody around who could listen in. Others say that she has had moments of desperation when she has thought about scrapping her candidacy entirely so as not to further harm the party.
There have also, though, been moments of success from this campaign for the Greens. The recognition, for example, that the country has already made large strides in the direction of environmental sustainability. And that the party has expanded significantly in recent years on all levels of politics. Voters no longer only identify the party with environmental issues, but also believe they can do much more, such as run a municipality. Katja Dörner is a prime example.
Dörner, 45, receives her guests in her office on the 12th floor of Bonn’s City Hall. It is a sizeable office with a view of the Rhine and the verdant hills behind it. Dörner has been mayor of Bonn since last November, after winning a run-off election against the CDU incumbent.
She isn’t the only successful Green politician in the state of North Rhine-Westphalia, which used to be an SPD stronghold. The mayor of Wuppertal is from the party, while Aachen is also run by the Greens. Furthermore, the party has the most representatives on the Cologne city council. “It represents a marked shift in the region’s politics at the municipal level,” says Dörner.
And their mission has remained the same as it was when the Greens got started four decades ago: They want to change the country from below, starting in the municipalities. Just as Dörner is doing.
In Berlin, she used to be the deputy floor leader for the Greens in the federal parliament. Now in Bonn, she finds herself leading negotiations over the expansion of 30-kilometers per hour speed limit zones in the city. Dörner believes doing so is something of a reality check for herself and for her party. “I ran for office here to prove that the things we Greens want to do nationwide are also doable at the local level – whether it is transportation reform or climate protection,” she says.
Dörner’s world, though, is quite a bit brighter than that of Baerbock or of all the others who are directly involved in the general election for the Greens.
Much attention has been focused on other elements of the Green Party platform, such as the call for a wealth tax and a top income tax rate of 48 percent. They also want to raise gas prices by 16 cents per liter. Merkel’s coalition with the SPD has similar ambitions, but that has largely been ignored.
Indeed, the Greens have long been saddled with the cliché of being a party focused on raising taxes and imposing prohibitions, in part because their political opponents level such accusations in almost every interview they give. And the Greens have found it difficult to swing the focus back to the party’s core issues.
It’s a Monday in August and Baerbock is sitting in a campaign bus wearing a blue blouse, next to her is former Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer in jeans and a white shirt. It is the only appearance that Fischer has agreed to in this campaign.
Their destination is Frankfurt an der Oder for a bit of nostalgia on Germany’s eastern border with Poland. They are to walk across the bridge where Fischer met with his Polish counterpart Wlodzimierz Cimoszewicz 17 years ago to celebrate the accession of Poland and nine other countries to the European Union. Baerbock, then an intern, was also there. She says it was a moment that helped her realize what Europe could mean, and how influential politics could be. She joined the Green Party just a few months later.
It is a story she would like to tell on this day, but the carefully staged campaign event on this Monday morning is torpedoed by world events. Over the weekend, the Taliban took control of Kabul and the focus is now on those whose lives may now be in danger, particularly local hires who helped the German military. Refugees, in other words.
The two politicians are surrounded by a clump of journalists and they have a hard time getting to the bridge railing for the photo op they are after. The scene is anything but relaxed.
Fischer, who was foreign minister when Germany joined the U.S. in the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan, is asked if the decision was the right one. “What would you have done?” he snaps back. Later, speaking to a small group of party allies, he would say that the Greens are a humanitarian party and that it must now call for the most humanitarian approach possible to Afghanistan.
Baerbock, though, avoids the issue, apparently believing that she can’t score any political points with it. Speaking into the microphones, she promotes the acceptance of a contingent of refugees “in the five figures.” Later, the number 10,000 is circulated, the lowest possible five-figure number.
She does not make a sweeping humanitarian appeal on this day. Baerbock chooses to avoid the risk. Indeed, fear is an important factor in her campaign.
Several weeks later, the focus is again Afghanistan when the German parliament meets for a special session. Annalena Baerbock steps up to the podium and manages to do something that isn’t terribly common for her: She delivers a memorable speech.
She focuses her attentions on the SPD. “Mr. Mützenich, you have been in parliament long enough,” she says, addressing SPD floor leader Rolf Mützenich, who has proposed a working group to solve the Afghanistan morass as a way of warding off a parliamentary investigative committee. “With an investigative committee, you can call witnesses and examine files. A working group merely draws conclusions for the future. How, though, can we draw conclusions for the future if we aren’t prepared to talk about past mistakes?”
It is a rare moment for Baerbock. It is more often the case that she fails to find the right tone and has trouble reaching people. Sometimes, it can be rather embarrassing.
One of those moments took place at a campaign appearance at a village festival in Bavaria, not exactly a core region of support for the Greens. Young men in regional costume had just finished playing a few folk songs, local politicians had made their appearances and it was finally time for Baerbock to step onstage.
“Ho, ho, ho, what an atmosphere,” she says. “Even if I sometimes have to concentrate, with this excellent music, to understand every word, even though I once lived just 150 kilometers from here as a child, but somehow the northern German influence has always stayed with me when it comes to the language, but this warmth, this wonderful atmosphere that you have here, something really, really special and I feel just a bit at home like I did back then.”
It was a typically labyrinthine Baerbock sentence. Not exactly the way to win over a village festival in Bavaria.
To be clear, campaigning for the Greens is no easy task. How can you score political points when you feel it necessary to describe the coming climate apocalypse and the political constraints that it will create? When it is left to you to discuss the bad news that the other parties prefer to ignore? It requires an extreme degree of political finesse.
The Greens Are Everywhere
In this narrative, a new party is needed to push for the necessary transformation in this era full of threats. A party that practices a different style of politics, yet still sees itself as a big-tent party. One that loses sight of nobody: the young and the old, the poor and the wealthy. A party that has a clear goal in mind, but which can nevertheless imagine alternative routes and is open to forming coalitions with others. That is the grand narrative that many Greens have been pursuing for years. But in the campaign, Annalena Baerbock has increasingly distanced herself from it.
In a new campaign video, she is standing among green trees. A drone camera pulls away to reveal a brown, dying forest. It is a gloomy video, the apocalypse on screen. With a serious voice, Baerbock says: “Before it is too late.” Leaving one to wonder whether fear is a tool that can attract new voters.
Beyond the mistakes made by the Greens in this campaign, though, is the question as to whether the country is even ready for Green Party leadership. The Germans and the climate: It is a complicated relationship. On the one hand, there is a widespread awareness of the problem, with a third of respondents to a recent survey commissioned by German public broadcaster ARD identifying climate protection as the most or the second-most important problem currently facing the country.
And you find Greens wherever you go, pretty much in all groups of society and in all careers, even those that you might not immediately associate with environmental awareness. Daniel Hecken, for example, a 37-year-old officer in the German military, is active in the party. As is Oliver von Dobrowolski, a 45-year-old policeman from Berlin, who founded the organization BetterPolice.
But when it comes to what the majority of Germans are willing to sacrifice in the fight against global warming – that’s when things get more complicated.
At the beginning of this year, a YouGov survey found that 86 percent of Germans support the expansion off renewable energy. But when people were asked how they felt about clean energy being produced in their neighborhood, the results were quite a bit different.
Solar parks were seen as being relatively tolerable, with 62 percent saying they would welcome such a facility in their area. Biogas plants were viewed with far greater skepticism, with just 32 percent support. And only 22 percent of respondents were prepared to accept the construction of an overhead power line in their area.
The phenomenon, referred to as NIMBY, or “not in my backyard,” is hardly new. When it comes to one’s own view out the kitchen window, or the value of one’s home, even the most passionate environmentalists can show a selfish side.
Allensbach, another polling company, recently found that 55 percent of Germans are not prepared to pay more for climate protection measures. A July survey from Forsa, by contrast, found that 57 percent of Germans would be prepared to pay more for fuel if it would help protect the climate.
It is, in short, difficult to know precisely where Germans stand, but one thing can be said for certain: While it would be inaccurate to say that Germans are a green society, the cliché of Germans being unwilling to make sacrifices for the climate is likewise untrue. The truth is somewhere in between. And that is precisely where there might have been a significant degree of potential for Baerbock’s candidacy.
The Germans have lived with bad tidings from the environment for several decades, without making significant changes. Acid rain, dying forests – it was simply too easy to carry on as before, and eventually the problems dropped out of the headlines. The result has been the development of a sense of security, one that could be dangerous in times of climate crisis. It takes time for views to change, which is what makes support for the Greens so fragile.
The second hurdle: Capitalism and its blessings. Germans have enjoyed decades of prosperity and growth, with no apparent limits. It has become a deeply rooted reality accepted by German society.
Belt-tightening is seen as something from a dark past. Elderly Germans associate it with the war years, while it is a foreign concept for younger members of society, who have seen prosperity grow and grow throughout their lives.
Like no other party, the Greens are an embodiment of the greatest challenge facing our era. But that alone is far from enough to guarantee a victory on election day. The same was true of the Social Democrats for many years. The party fought for workers’ rights and social equality, they represented the interests of the masses – but they only became broadly acceptable once they renounced the concept of class warfare in 1959.
The Greens are facing a similar problem today. There are numerous Green Party finance ministers in state governments, and they were part of the coalition under Chancellor Gerhard Schröder that sent the German military to war. But many people still see them as a chaotic group that can’t deal with money and which is trying to transform Germany into a country of vegetarians. The fact that even Baerbock eats meat doesn’t seem to help.
It sometime seems as though the clichés about the Greens are more powerful than the party itself.
And there is still another reason why many remain put off by the Greens. Their voters and membership are more educated than average and earn salaries that are higher than average. The Greens and their supporters are doing rather well – and those who aren’t doing as well don’t want to be told how to live their lives. Particularly not in a preachy tone.
For the Greens to become a real political power in Germany, they don’t just have to broaden their voter base, they also have to broaden their membership base. They need more people who don’t live in the ivory tower. They need more workers. More Opels and fewer Teslas.
Not even the successful party leadership duo of Baerbock and Habeck have managed to achieve such diversity for their party. The Greens’ potential remains too small to become a real big-tent party.
For Baerbock, election day on Sunday will mark the beginning of a difficult phase. Even if the Greens manage to become part of a governing coalition, Robert Habeck is clearly frustrated. Many people believe he has performed far better than Baerbock in this campaign. His appearances have been convincing, in part because of the personal elements he has included. Furthermore, Habeck has plenty of experience with political headwinds and below-the-belt attacks.
Baerbock, by contrast, has been unable to escape her missteps. Nobody has yet openly challenged her position in the party, but depending on how they perform on Sunday, that could quickly change. It is anything but clear that Baerbock will have priority in the party when it comes to choosing a ministry as part of a governing coalition. And if they have to go back into opposition, things look even worse. Change at the top would then be just a matter of time.
And then? Would that mean that the dreams of a Green big-tent party would be dashed? Would other parties steal the Greens’ most important issues?
A week and a half ago, after the final televised debate between the three leading candidates had come to an end, Baerbock celebrated her performance with a glass of chilled white wine. Later, she would climb onto a bus for the trip to yet another campaign appearance in Nuremberg. For the time being, though, she was satisfied. Surveys showed that viewers again found Olaf Scholz to be the most convincing, but Baerbock performed better than expected. Her supporters were there, important members of the Green parliamentary group, like Renate Künast, Franziska Brantner and Irene Mihalic.
Only one person was missing: Robert Habeck.