BERLIN — It seems like an eternity ago, back at the height of the East-West conflict, when members of Germany's newest party, the Greens, indignantly marched into the staid Bundestag with their long flowing hair, ragtag dress, and acid-rain-withered pine trees over their shoulders. The year was 1983, the hodgepodge of activists fresh from street demonstrations against the deployment of U.S. nuclear missiles in Cold War Europe. No one thought they'd be around for long.
Nearly 30 years later, not only have the Greens managed to hang around -- they're the lone German party looking healthy these days. The environmentalists are soaring at a time when Europe's economy is desperate; even in Germany, where the economy has picked up, there is frantic budget slashing. Polls gauge support for the Greens at 20 percent of voters, twice the proportion a year ago; it even threatens to outpoll the major parties, the Christian Democrats (CDU) and the Social Democrats (SPD), in the traditionally conservative stronghold of Baden-Württemberg, which is holding a crucial state election on March 27. This unexpected surge positions the Greens as kingmaker in a year packed with important regional votes -- and a shot at eventually returning to power in Berlin.
The Greens would say that it's a just reward for their success at transforming German political culture. They shook up a political landscape that was once content to dismiss environmentalism and "grassroots democracy" as unserious trifling. But however much the Greens managed, in the past several decades, to move Germany's political center -- toward leadership in combating global warming, an embrace of activist politics, and an openness in discussing multiculturalism, feminism, and gay rights -- there's also no denying that the party has itself changed at least as much as the country has.
Indeed, the former "anti-party party" has come a long, long way from its beginnings as a troupe of penniless tree-huggers. In its early days, two-thirds of Green voters didn't have a proper paying job. Now, one might be forgiven for mistaking a Green party congress for a convention of urban architects or private-sector lobbyists. Scan the crowd and you'll see well-trimmed haircuts, plenty of sleek laptops, and more than a few tightly tailored name-brand suits. One handsome face would certainly be party leader Cem Ozdemir, the man known as Germany's Obama: He's a clean-cut, 45-year-old southern German with Turkish heritage, known for attending anti-nuclear energy protests in a pressed, button-down shirt and loafers.
In 2011, the former anti-establishment party is the establishment: high-income, highly educated professionals, abundant among them lawyers, high school principals, college professors, and senior civil servants. In fact, no other party scores so well among civil servants (which, in Germany, includes teachers) as the Greens.
The Greens' well-situated and civic-minded constituency has everything to do with why they are peaking in the midst of the euro's worst-ever crisis and tight times in general. For one, it's because the crisis affects them and their secure, high-end professions less than most other Germans. It wasn't well-heeled Greens who went jobless when the economy nose-dived -- it was pretty much everyone else, most notably the low-paid, less-educated wage laborers.
In fact, despite the new threads, many of today's core Green voters are the very same who hung beads around their necks and brought the rebellious little party to life in the 1980s, desperately scratching together the 7 or 8 percent of the vote the Greens used to get in West German elections. Although critics today gladly mock them as snobs and sellouts for having grown up and gotten jobs, the Greens have remained remarkably true to many of their original themes, even if their style has changed. A case in point is their unwavering opposition to nuclear energy, a key Green stance then as now. Where the Greens' rhetoric was once focused on the apocalyptic dangers of nuclear meltdowns and ballistic missiles, the party now has sleek PowerPoint presentations that compare the relative efficiency of renewable alternative energy to nuclear power.