Petra Kelly's Death
This piece from the Independent newspaper archive was written in 1992 by Isabel Hilton a few days after Petra's death. It serves both as an obituary, and also as a contemporary account of the circumstances of her death.
What Killed Petra Kelly
On the second floor of the Bundestag office building in Bonn, the shattered leaders of the German Green Party are occupied with funeral arrangements. They are absorbed in their task, red eyed, worn, all too conscious that they are celebrating in death something they failed to appreciate in life - the extraordinary phenomenon that was Petra Kelly.Since the stark police announcement on Tuesday that no third party was involved, hundreds of people who knew and admired them both must have struggled to swallow the thought that gentle, courteous, devoted Gert Bastian had dispatched Petra Kelly with one well-placed bullet in the head. And then himself - leaving no explanation, no apology, no goodbye.
Petra Kelly was 44. For nearly 20 years she had lived a life of extraordinary intensity, a politician with no time for political parties and little for the art of compromise, a woman for whom there was no visible line between public and private concerns. 'She was,' said one prominent politician, 'like Joan of Arc.'
Born Petra Karin Lehmann in Bavaria in 1947, she suffered from a kidney condition that often put her in hospital. Some say it was that which gave her spiritual strength and her first ambition - to be a nun. When she was seven, her father abandoned the family and her mother later married John Kelly, a US army officer with whom the family went to the United States when Petra was 13. There she served her political apprenticeship in the idealistic and iconoclastic Sixties. She studied political science and international relations in Washington and threw herself into the anti-war and civil rights movements.
In 1968 she worked as a volunteer in Bobby Kennedy's election campaign and in 1970, the year she graduated with distinction, her fellow students voted her 'outstanding woman of the year'. That year came a personal tragedy which was to mark her deeply: her younger half-sister, Grace, to whom she was devoted, died of cancer at the age of nine, after three years of treatment that included the removal of an eye.
When Grace died, Petra characteristically translated her grief into action: she began to investigate the links between nuclear power and child cancer and set up a foundation to change the emotional approach in hospitals to seriously ill children. She returned to Europe, studying in Amsterdam and working as a researcher in the Europe Institute. Despite her fierce criticisms of the European Community, she took a job in the European Commission in Brussels. She was not cut out for bureaucracy. Why, she demanded of irritated EC officials, could the Community's agricultural surpluses not feed the starving in Africa? Why did the EC squander money on bureaucracy?
She became ever more involved in politics. An admirer of the then West German Chancellor, Willy Brandt, she joined his SPD in 1972, but in 1978 she disagreed with Mr Brandt's successor, Helmut Schmidt, over defence and energy policy and left the party.
In Germany, the Sixties generation had begun to take up the ecological cause. There was no shortage of concerns: the Rhine was virtually a dead river in its northern German reaches. German forests had begun to die from acid rain, and the construction of nuclear power plants had begun. In 1979 a motley assortment of parties and groups came together to found the Green Party. Petra Kelly was invited to join them. That year the party fought the European elections with Petra Kelly heading its list. They won 3.2 per cent of the vote, not enough to win any seats but enough to force the recognition that they were now a national organisation.
That same year the Schmidt government agreed to a Nato plan to station a new generation of intermediate-range nuclear weapons on German soil. The decision triggered a convulsion in Germany.
The government's decision set General Gert Bastian, war hero and commander of the 4th Tank Division, off on a political journey that seems almost inconceivable. As a young man, an apprentice bookbinder, he had volunteered for the Wehrmacht and had fought on the eastern front in the Second World War, during which he was wounded and decorated. After the war, he was among those Wehrmacht officers who went back into military service to try to build a new kind of army for Germany.
The Bundeswehr was to be an army of citizens in uniform who would be taught according to the doctrine of Innerer Fuhrung - the idea that the soldier was a professional man who retained his right to think and express his views, to engage in politics and to refuse to obey an order that he deemed immoral. The doctrine was important for men such as Gert Bastian, profoundly scarred by memories of the Third Reich. But it had its critics and its limits. Bastian was shortly to test its limits for himself.
He was no leftist - he was a member of the ultra-conservative Bavarian Christian Social Union for nearly 10 years. But as a professional soldier, he believed - contrary to the official view - that the Soviet armed forces were defensive, not offensive, in organisation and doctrine. He survived that disagreement but not the the one on deployment of nuclear missiles. 'I think to understand how Gert Bastian felt you have to remember that all Bundeswehr officers who thought about it at all realised that they were defending a country that was going to be Nato's theatre of war,' said Otfried Nassauer, a peace campaigner and military expert who knew Bastian well. 'He was the first and the highest ranking officer to express that point of view.'
Bastian resigned from the army. In 1980, with Petra Kelly and others, he signed the founding document of the Peace Movement, the Krefeld Appeal, which called on the government to reverse its decision on the deployment of a new generation of nuclear missiles.
Meeting Petra Kelly was to have an overwhelming effect on Bastian. The man who once sat in the councils of Nato was now sitting down outside military bases and being arrested. The man who had known a life of military discipline and order was plunged into the chaotic world of Green politics. And at the centre of the maelstrom was the frail, intense charismatic figure of Petra Kelly.
Bastian was 57 and had renounced his world. Kelly was 33 and launching herself into a decade of passionate political engagement. He was to become her political companion, protector, and lover. Kelly's commitment was never less than total. She often campaigned to the point of total exhaustion. And he, from then on, was always there, as a friend put it, 'the statutory two paces behind'.
Together they campaigned in the elections of March 1983, which gave the Greens their breakthrough - 5.6 per cent of the vote and 27 seats. For the first time, the generation of '68 - the rebellious, fractious political alternative - had arrived in parliament.
Petra Kelly seemed ubiquitous that year. In May 1983 she was arrested for demonstrating in East Berlin. In June there was a massive rally in Krefeld. In July she was in Washington. In September she was at a three-day blockade of a US military base in Baden- Wurttemberg. In October, with Willy Brandt, she addressed a 200,000-strong rally in Bonn. In November it was East Berlin again, then Moscow for an anti- nuclear demonstration in Red Square, then back to Bonn to fight the parliamentary vote on missile deployment. To her intense disappointment, she lost. Inside the Bundestag, the Green Party was riven by the tensions that had existed since its foundation - squabbles over strategy and doctrine, personality clashes and a chaotic style that descended frequently into bitter infighting.
In February 1984, Bastian resigned from the parliamentary party. Kelly herself was ambivalent, unwilling to compromise or negotiate, yet opposed to at least one of the party's fundamentalist doctrines - the one that ordained strict rotation of parliamentary seats. When it came to her turn to rotate, she resisted and, alone of the Green MPs, succeeded in retaining her seat for two full terms.
Gert Bastian never claimed to be a politician, but Petra Kelly did, without being one. Perhaps that was the beginning of her tragedy. 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.'
Ideologically opposed to the very idea of a charismatic leader, the Green Party made no attempt to deal either with Kelly's hyperactivity or the extraordinary public demand for her time and attention. She took to going into her office at night, leaving notes for her staff. 'A great many notes,' said Mr Lippelt, 'about things to be done. Then she would ask why they hadn't been done. She would say, 'Why aren't you working? Thousands of children are dying each day'. 'Without Bastian,' he added, 'she would never have survived. He was always there, supporting her, protecting her.'
By the mid-Eighties, the Greens' squabbling had begun to damage their credibility, but they were saved in the 1987 parliamentary election by the Chernobyl disaster the year before. They got back with 8.6 per cent and 46 seats and Petra Kelly was again an MP. But by the time of the next elections, in 1990, Germany was seized by national euphoria and unification fever. For the West German Greens, who had opposed unification, it was a disastrous election: they lost all their parliamentary seats. For Kelly, who had been dropped as a candidate, it was the last chapter of disillusionment with the party. She felt the loss of office deeply. Suddenly she had no secretary, no researcher, no free postal and telephone services. Then the salary stopped, too.
Loyal Gert took up the burden of organising her life. Sympathetic friends allowed her to use their offices and telephones at night to maintain her worldwide communications network. Kelly decided to run for the leadership of the Green Party - and suffered a humiliating defeat.
Petra Kelly's friends are bitter about the way the party treated her. 'In the beginning,' said Eva Quistorp, a Green Party MEP, 'we gave everything to the party, we gave three years of our lives unpaid. Now the party is full of salaried bureaucrats who have never given the way we have. And when she needed a job, those bureaucrats would not find her one.'
In defence of the Greens, Mr Lippelt insists that relations were not as bad as they looked. 'She cursed the party, certainly, but she would have cursed any party. She met ignorance and hostility, but also support and understanding. And in the last year, relations had improved: she was talking about being a Green candidate for the European Parliament.'
And if it was a bleak patch, it was hardly the end of public life. She was still an international celebrity and the invitations still came in and the causes went on. Hundreds of groups in many countries looked to Petra Kelly for inspiration and support. 'I tried to explain to people in the party,' said Heinz Suhr, 'how important she was. That when she went to Australia, she was front-page news. That she could call on Gorbachev or the Dalai Lama. That she had brought thousands of people into the cause through the force of her personality.'
In June she lost a television contract and though there was an offer of a lectureship in the US, she felt unable to leave her grandmother. Petra Kelly was not alone, but the two people most important to her would not be there for ever: her beloved grandmother, who had been at her side in the early demonstrations, was 87. Gert was 69 and beginning to show the strain.
In June, as he crossed the road to buy her some fruit, Gert was knocked down by a taxi and suffered a severe fracture of the knee. 'A few days after his accident,' said Mr Suhr, 'Petra had a breakdown. She just could not live alone. They ended up in the Black Forest Clinic together.'
Gert Bastian recovered, and by September the pace of their lives had resumed. There was a meeting with Green Party colleagues, with another planned for December. There was a trip to Hawaii, to give a lecture, then the conference of indigenous peoples in Salzburg followed by a 10-day conference in Berlin on radiation victims. Friends found them cheerful and relaxed in Berlin, Petra full of plans and ideas. On 28 September she sent a postcard to her friend Sarah Parkin, commiserating over the latter's departure from the British Green Party. 'Call me,' she wrote. For two weeks Ms Parkin called the couple's flat in Bonn, but was not alarmed that there was no reply. Kelly was known for her erratic movements.
Their neighbours in Swinemnderstrasse, in the modest suburb of Bonn Tannenbuch, were accustomed to the couple's frequent absences. Only two people expected to hear regularly from Petra and Gert: her grandmother and his ex- wife, Charlotte. The latter had long been reconciled to Gert's relationship with Petra Kelly and was on friendly terms. Only his daughter, Eva, did not forgive. Petra Kelly, she complained, asked too much of her father.
On 30 September, Petra Kelly sent her grandmother a parcel. Then there was silence. The police still do not know exactly when it happened. They do know that on 1 October, Bastian started to write a letter. He wrote 10 lines, then broke off. Sometime after that, as Kelly lay on the bed, he took his Derringer pistol, which takes only two bullets, placed it against her temple and fired. Death was instantaneous. In the doorway of their bedroom, he shot himself.
Nearly three weeks passed before the combined concern of Charlotte Bastian and Petra Kelly's grandmother led them to call the concierge. In the first shock of the news rumours multiplied: it was a neo-fascist murder; they were killed by arms traders; Bastian was a Stasi agent and feared exposure; there was another man and Bastian was jealous. One explanation that nobody who knew Petra Kelly can accept is that it was a suicide pact.
'I cannot believe,' said Eva Quistorp, 'that Petra lay there and waited for Gert to shoot her. Or that she would have allowed herself to die without making a statement. It is inconceivable.'
What, then, went through Gert Bastian's mind that night? In September, he had written an open letter on the rise of neo-fascism in Germany in which he talked of his youth in the Third Reich. 'Then,' he wrote, 'it was the homes of Jews that were burnt. Now it is the homes of foreigners.'
It was a letter, friends said, without hope. Old and sick, drained by the years at the side of the passionate and demanding woman in whom he had found his purpose and his inspiration, perhaps he could not bear the thought that her political fight seemed, in 1992, to have been lost. Despair was not an emotion familiar to Petra Kelly. But perhaps Gert Bastian knew he could not support her much longer. Perhaps he could not imagine her living without him. Perhaps, more painfully, he could imagine it all too clearly. Even now friends and admirers struggle to understand the motives of the companion who travelled from one end of the political spectrum to the other without ever revealing the emotional cost.
'Whatever was in his mind,' said Sarah Parkin, 'I am convinced that he saw what he did as an act of love.'
The original article is archived on the Independent website.
Author: Isabel Hilton
Published: Tue Mar 20 2018
Last updated: Tue Mar 20 2018
- Sources: Taken from the Independent newspaper. October 1992. (original here)