#KnowTheirNames – Petra Kelly

Germany, 1979

Petra Kelly was a co-founder of Die Grünen, the Green Party of West Germany.[1] An ardent activist for at least a decade prior, she concluded that her passion for change would be most effective working within the German government, from within the power structures that effect the change she envisioned.

The Greens began as an offshoot of a multi-faceted but disjointed citizen activism in her Germany. At that time and place, issues of concern for Petra and others included the Soviet threat, nuclear disarmament, human rights, worker’s rights, Tibetan sovereignty, and indigenous peoples and women’s rights. Once the party formed, the Greens positioned themselves more generally as a grass-roots, ecologically-sensitive movement informed by a profoundly feminist and strictly non-violent philosophy.

Ecofeminism. The term was coined in 1974 by civil rights activist Françoise d´Eaubonne in Le Féminisme ou la Mort (“Feminism or Death”).[2] d´Eaubonne viewed pervasive patriarchy and its myriad suppressions as the “ties that bind” not just women, but also nature. With this idea Petra Kelly was firmly in agreement. She was particularly fond of this idea, which she quoted often: “[T]rue emancipation begins neither at the polls nor in courts. It begins in woman’s soul.”[3] Petra understood, somewhat counterintuitively for the time, that being green meant the emancipation of women and the emancipation of men: “without emancipation of women, without the emancipation of men, we cannot build a non-violent, ecological and non-military green republic.”[4] American activist Emma Lazarus approached the idea this way: “until we are all free, we are none of us free.”[5]

Yet Petra herself shied away from the label of ecofeminist. Yes, she championed those goals; indeed, she was seen by many to verily embody ecofeminism. Maybe it was just the political necessity to avoid being pigeon-holed, but possibly it was her conviction that environmentalism was itself so inherently feminist that this label, clever portmanteau though it was, would undermine the more expansive truth. Still, we can comfortably say that Petra Kelly was the world’s first activist to crystallize and amplify a blended feminist environmentalism.

Petra was born in Bavaria. Her father left the family when she was quite young. Her education was at the convent in Gunzburg that of course included an immersion in Catholicism. She considered becoming a nun herself until she was told that the rules of the Church did not allow for her mother to attend her confirmation ceremony. This first-hand experience with male dominance in the Church left Petra disillusioned enough to forget the notion of committing her life to the institution.[6] It did not, however, seem to affect her lifelong deep and personal embrace of faith.

Her mother remarried an American military officer, John Kelly, who took the family to the United States when Petra was just thirteen. Once in the US, she was increasingly influenced by the intense political scene that was the ‘60s in America. She paid particularly close attention to the US Civil Rights Movement. In college, she was active in opposition to the Vietnam war, leading to her first foray into national politics as a volunteer for Bobby Kennedy’s presidential campaign. [7]

Political violence was all around her, and landed in her life most traumatically in 1968 with Kennedy’s assassination. It was during this time that Petra began to develop the absolutist philosophy of non-violence that would inform all of her future activism.[8]  She built her political philosophy from an amalgam of several guiding lights on the subject, most specifically Gandhi and King. For her, non-violent activism found its great strength in the mental and spiritual power that could only be fully accessed by not engaging in physical violence. Truly non-violent protest, she argued, called for imagination and coordination, creativity and strategy. She understood the difficulty, knowing that when protesters hit the streets and the police come out in force there is a deeply human instinct to retaliate. She had been in the streets. She knew that the non-violent protestors’ strength lay in quelling that temptation, refusing to give the state authorities the physical engagement they sought.[9] [In the Appendix to this chapter you will find over sixty real-world examples of creative, non-violent activism, organized under the three generally accepted categories of activism: Protest, Non-Cooperation and Intervention].

From her time in the United States, Petra took away a real understanding of the power of imagery, symbolism and creativity in communication for political activists. While at American University in Washington DC, she ran for a position on the student union board. For her campaign poster, she made a provocative photograph of herself astride a muscular motorcycle, holding a flower and smiling at the camera – underneath the words “Vote for a Strong Woman.”[10] This, even on an ultra-liberal campus in 1968, stretched the boundaries of feminist politics. Precisely as she intended. And with it, she gained her first elected position.

Petra also had a passion for writing letters. Due to her public role opposing the war on campus, she was invited into the audience for a television interview of Vice-President Hubert Humphrey. In Q&A, Petra forthrightly challenged Humphrey on his position on the war. She wrote a letter to him in follow up. He surprised her with a response, and she maintained contact; ultimately, she went to work for his presidential campaign.

Later, she wrote a letter to the Chancellor of West Germany seeking financial assistance to travel home for Christmas. Her younger half-sister Grace, with whom she was extremely close, was fighting cancer and Petra ached to be with her. The Chancellor’s office replied with funds to cover her travel. Sadly, shortly after arriving in Germany, it became clear to Petra that Grace’s radiation treatments were not succeeding. Her sister was dying. Petra wrote a letter. To the Pope. Requesting an audience for her sister. The Vatican said yes. The family travelled to Rome, and received the Pope Paul IV’s personal blessing. Alas, Grace passed away shortly thereafter, an event that traumatized Petra deeply. Her deep knowledge and suspicions of nuclear energy moved Petra to investigate both the cause of Grace’s cancer, as well as the radiation treatments that had failed her. At one point, back in the US, Petra sought out and met Ralph Nader, the pre-eminent American anti-nuclear activist of the time. Her sister’s untimely death, coupled with her study of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, hardened Petra’s conviction in the immutable connection between the health of the environment and all life on Earth.[11]

After graduation from university, Petra headed to Amsterdam for a master’s degree in political science. Thereafter, she returned to West Germany. She was a political and public unknown, yet she fell in quickly with the various environmental and human rights groups, each struggling to find their voice and their place on the political map. Petra sought to coalesce these issues, their advocates and ultimately these myriad groups into something she conceived as an “anti-party party.”[12] She saw that a political party, odious though it may be, was a necessary vehicle to gain a seat at the table and, with that, national credibility for her cause. But her core objective with a non-party, as it were, was to use that seat to oppose with the greatest possible intensity the position, and sometimes the very existence, of the stagnated and grotesquely ‘political’ parties then comprising a desultory social and governmental status quo.[13] Her vision and extraordinary effort resulted in her becoming a co-founder of Die Grünen and thereby a member of the party’s executive committee.

In their first national election the Greens got shredded; they could not garner even the thimbleful of votes sufficient to gain a single seat in the Bundestag, the parliament of West  Germany. But a shifting national sentiment pushed their membership rolls solidly upwards and, by 1983, the national elections delivered the Greens a surprise victory, in the form of two million votes. Petra Kelly took one of the few Green seats in the Bundestag and with it the overwhelming popularity that came with being the face of the new Green movement in Germany. This celebrity status, useful though it was for a rising political star and her message, proved tremendously difficult for her personally.

She was new to realpolitik.[14] And female. And vocal. She knew the importance of embodying her philosophy, of walking the walk if she ever wanted to be heard when talking the talk. “If we want to transform society in an ecological way, we must transform ourselves profoundly first.”[15] She quickly met backlash, even rejection. Proof perhaps of just how ensconced was the patriarchal status quo she challenged, when Petra first arrived in the chambers of parliament she learned that the microphones were tuned for ideal amplification – of the male voice. Female voices came out weak and distorted, lacking gravitas; described by some with the cringeworthy label “unnaturally shrill.”[16]

In her first speech before the elected body, she was jeered, booed and interrupted with questions like ‘how many seats are Green?’ No matter her strength and charisma, or perhaps because of those traits, Petra faced a steep hill of quintessentially German and male obstruction.[17] Moreover, the Greens themselves suffered the internal turmoil so common in coalition parties. Disagreement on strategy and tactics devolved into internecine distrust and ad hominem attacks. Petra tried to calm the waters by directing her colleagues’ focus outwards, using the second prong of her strategy—to be solid on philosophical fundamentals, to remain independent and true to their positions. This meant little or no need to share power with other parties, or entertain political compromise on policy. Indeed, she made a point of immersing herself regularly in throngs of Green protestors on the steps of the Bundestag, challenging the activities of officials in the more powerful parties, working inside the very building and body in which she held membership. This type of activism she called “détente from below.”[18]

Alas, Petra Kelly’s strong personality and visceral independence put her at odds with many of her compatriots, and quite deeply so. Her charismatic and fearless activism, coupled with her brutal work ethic—the very reasons for her meteoric rise to leadership and celebrity—made her the target for some of the harshest of the Green’s internally destructive energy.[19] She was admired as a passionate genius, but also disliked as high-strung, unfairly impatient and overtly demanding. She was notoriously difficult to work with; she routinely shed assistants. But the pivotal moment came when, in accordance with the rules of Die Grünen, the time arrived for her to yield her seat for the last two years to another member of the party. Petra stridently refused. The rule’s purpose was both to prevent corruption and more equitably share the privilege of the few seats, for which so many party members had labored. [20] Her decision to subvert the party’s rules and not share her seat may well have been the end of Petra’s ability to lead her party.

After the four-year term ended, Petra stood for re-election in her home district of Bavaria and was soundly defeated. Punished, actually. She found herself ostracized, permanently displaced from organized politics, outside the very party she created. It hurt her deeply. Even her strongest critics, however, knew she was better suited to being an individual activist rather than a party operative.[21] After a long time spent absorbing the defeat, Petra re-energized her activism globally, with international speaking engagements, a series of papers and books, and her unrelenting writing of letters.

*  *  *

For one who started out bookish, shy and alone, Petra Kelly embodies a magnificent achievement for global environmental activism. She built something out of nothing, by sheer force of will. She made it her life’s work to develop, crystallize and champion a powerful new philosophy: of environmentalism, of feminism, of non-violence. She identified disparate groups of activists, each with their own passion yet constrained by small numbers, limited energy, and quiet voices. She led them to coalesce around a larger message and thereby built an ‘anti-party’ of sufficient mass that it could develop its own gravity, enough to slot the Greens permanently into the solar system of German government. In the introduction to her last book, her editor said of Petra: “Neither Tolstoy, nor Gandhi, nor King created a nonviolent political party, stood in electoral competition as its candidate, and served as an exponent of its values in a national legislature.”[22]

Die Grünen achieved stunning political victories in Europe’s strongest democracy. Word went out to the world, of West Germany’s amazing Green Party and its charismatic leader. By sheer number of countries, the green party movement sprung to life most visibly in Europe. More importantly, the movement grew globally, from Brazil to New Zealand, Taiwan to Kenya. Indeed, Wangari Maathai, an environmental activist who led the Kenyan Green Party, received the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004. As for Die Grünen, shortly after the reunification of Germany it merged with the younger green party of East Germany under a new name, Alliance ‘90/The Greens. As of this writing, the Greens hold 118 (20%) of the seats in the Bundestag.

Tragically, Petra left us all too suddenly in 1992, and far too young at just 45. Yet the words she left behind for us remain painfully relevant: “I want to speak in parliament for the whales, because the whales need a representative. The vision [is] to be there for all life forms which don’t have a lobby – plants and animals… .”[23] All life has inherent rights, but the varied philosophies of sole human dominion over Earth, concretized and entrenched over the centuries, has served to violate and obscure the very existence of such rights. The practitioners of these philosophies are deaf to the voices of our ancestors and they are openly hostile to the birthrights of future generations. As activists for all life, we must begin by rejecting this exceedingly narrow, anthropocentric worldview. Petra knew that all forms of life have birthrights, which most humans have yet to fully comprehend, much less embody. And it is that embodiment that helps activate us, today, to become part of something much, much larger than just our individual selves.  #VoiceForAllLife.


[1] After Hitler was defeated in World War II, the resulting treaty created East Germany, as a satellite of the USSR, and West Germany, an independent democracy under Western influence. Berlin, the capital, would come to be located within this new East Germany. Thus, Berlin itself was also divided in two: East and West Berlin, separated by the infamous Berlin Wall which, ironically, served to keep East Germans in, not West Germans out. The reunification of Germany was a dream for many, but not all, Germans. That process began in November 9, 1989 with the memorable breach of the Berlin Wall, televised globally in real time. Shortly thereafter, the Brandenburg Gate was opened on December 22nd. Reunification was formally completed on October 3, 1990. 

[2] Francoise d’Eaubonne, Le feminisme ou la mort (Pierre Horay: Paris, 1974). See also, thesis p. 60

[3] Emma Goldman, “The Tragedy of Woman’s Emancipation,” from Anarchism and Other Essays (Mother Earth, 2nd ed., 1911) pp. 219-231.

[4] Kelly, Acceptance speech for The Right Livelihood Foundation laureate, December 31, 1982, archived at: https://www.rightlivelihoodaward.org/speech/acceptance-speech-petra-kelly/

[5] Emma Lazarus, An Epistle to the Hebrews, a series of open letters published between November 1882 and February 1883. See, Jewish Women’s Archive at https://jwa.org/media/quote-from-epistle-to-hebrews

[6] A Green Utopia: The Legacy of Petra Kelly, by Rebecca Jane Lloyd (2005).

[7] https://biography.yourdictionary.com/petra-kelly

[8] “For me, non‑violence…is a natural element which relies on the power of truth rather than the force of arms and flows from a sense of the underlying unity of all human beings.” Petra Kelly, acceptance speech for the Right Livelihood Award, 1982. She closed her talk on this point: “As Gandhi said, the non‑violence of the weak must become the non-violence of the brave. I believed that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality.”  https://www.rightlivelihoodaward.org/laureates/petra-kelly/

[9] Nonviolence Speaks to Power (Center for Global Non-Violence)(1992) at p. 26. See also, Mit dem Herzen denken, p 229 “Offener Brief an die Anti-Atombewegung,” signed by Kelly and 50 others. (see thesis p 81).

[10] Monika Sperr, Petra Karin Kelly: Politikerin aus Betroffenheit, Bertelsmann Verlag: Munchen, 1983, at p. 64.

[11] A Green Utopia: The Legacy of Petra Kelly by Rebecca Jane Lloyd (2005).

[12]Anti-politics strives to put politics in its place and makes sure it stays there, never overstepping its proper office of defending and refining the rules of the game in a civil society. Anti-politics is the ethos of civil society, and civil society is the antithesis of military society.” Hungarian activist Gyorgy Konrad, quoted by Petra Kelly in Nonviolence Speaks to Power (Center for Global Non-Violence)(1992) at p. 21 (emphasis added).

[13] What Killed Petra Kelly, The Independent, by Isabel Hilton 1992.

[14] ‘Realpolitik’ is merely a fancy word for a simple idea: political hardball, a type of positional policy negotiation based on power, with little or no referent to an ideology or moral fundament. 

[15] Petra Kelly, Nonviolence Speaks to Power (Center for Global Non-Violence )(1992) p.2.

[16] Particularly cringeworthy because the statement implies that the female voice is already naturally ‘shrill.’ https://www.rightlivelihoodaward.org/laureates/petra-kelly/ After some effort, it appears that Kelly was able to get the audio settings re-adjusted to address this issue.

[17] Petra Kelly, Lebe, als musstets du heute sterben pp. 49-51 51. (“Live like you had to die today”).

[18] “The most internationalist task for us all is to practice ‘detente from below’ across all national boundaries and ideologies. This means that we should stay in touch with those high up in places of power, but at the same time we should devote our time and efforts equally to those in nonviolent political opposition, to those working on independent initiatives who are still harassed and politically suppressed.” Kelly, Nonviolence Speaks to Power p. 25 (emphasis added).

[19] Quoting, Isabel Hilton, What Killed Petra Kelly, The Independent (1992): “Who needs a Joan of Arc in politics? ‘Such brilliance,’ said Helmut Lippelt, a co-founder of the Green Party, ‘has a dark side. It was extremely demanding to be close to her.’ Lesser mortals fell away in droves. In eight years in the Bundestag, she got through 17 secretaries. ‘I loved her dearly,’ said Heinz Suhr, a Green Party spokesman, ‘but some hated her. They called her a vampire, sucking the energy out of those around her. She was too big a star.’”

[20] “Kelly understood that to enter into politics was to face the danger of compromise and complicity and realized that any political party which were to attempt to change the government from within must be fully aware of the corruptions and develop basic rules to ensure that the new party would remain faithful to its original goals.”  Lloyd, ibid, pp. 26-27.

[21] Lloyd, ibid., pp. 36-37.

[22] Glenn D. Paige, editor; Non-Violence Speaks to Power, p 7.

[23] Petra Kelly, “Lebe, als musstets du heute sterben ebe.” (“Live like you had to die today”) p. 28

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