HAMBURG, Germany — The emergence of the Green Party as a leading force in German politics is not unlike the flowering of the Serengeti after a rainstorm: What had been mere seeds one minute, hidden but full of potential, sprout overnight, so fast and so fully that it’s hard to remember how things looked before.
After winning a modest 8.9 percent of the votes in the general elections in 2017, the Greens jumped to 20.5 percent in the recent European elections, scoring their best result ever on the national level. Then, in a poll last week, the Greens received 26 percent, topping Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union, which came in at 25 percent, and making the Greens the leading political party. Long considered a left-wing fringe group, the Greens are now in control of Germany’s progressive agenda — a fact that could reshape German politics for decades to come.
The party began as a motley crew of Marxists, ecologists and pacifists. Over time, it made its way step by step into the mainstream; Joschka Fischer, who served as foreign minister and vice chancellor, came from the Greens, and helped cement the party within the establishment.
But the Greens didn’t sell out; rather, their version of the political avant-garde helped form a new mainstream. German politics were once, and to some extent still are, dominated by old gray men and women. But it is the Greens, almost alone among the country’s political parties, who can speak with authenticity to and for the younger generations; among all but the oldest Germans, they come in first in the polls. The Greens have sprouted because they fit perfectly into a society in which unconventionality has become the norm.
Despite the trends, no one saw this coming. The Green Party leadership seems the most surprised by the prospect of a chancellor emerging from their own ranks. Yet others are also wondering: What is behind Germany’s Greenquake?
The first part of the explanation is easy. Last year, Germany witnessed the highest average temperatures since record-keeping began and the most arid summer most citizens could remember. It felt like a climate change turning point: After years of abstract talk, we were finally living through the new, ugly reality. The climate question is not just about angry activists worrying about the future of the planet: A majority of Germans today demand fundamental policy changes to confront climate change. Other parties have taken on the challenge as well, but the Greens have managed to make the fight against climate change their unique selling point.
Still, the astonishing rise of the Green party has another, deeper reason. Maybe it is best described as Merkel dissipation syndrome.
In the public eye, Angela Merkel, though still chancellor, has practically abdicated political leadership since December, when Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer took over leadership of the ruling Christian Democrats. It’s only in Ms. Merkel’s absence that Germans realize now how different she is from her party — an easy mistake, because she has led the center right since taking office 14 years ago. But Ms. Merkel did not stand for conservatism. In fact, she was the greenest chancellor Germany has ever had, driven by moral convictions, even as she did so with the air of a soberly rational physicist. Call it Merkelism.
It took the chancellor only days after the nuclear meltdown in Fukushima, Japan, to announce that Germany would phase out nuclear energy completely. A similar impetus informed her decision not to close Germany’s borders in 2015 after the European asylum system broke down, and to allow in more than a million migrants and refugees.
Determined yet empathic. Altruistic yet not naïve. Daring yet prudent, Ms. Merkel came to embody the self-image a majority of Germans craved. But it would also be fair to say that during her reign, the German people changed more than did the so-called people’s party — the nickname of the Christian Democrats. The public has become considerably greener thanks in part to her.
Now with Ms. Merkel on the way out, the public is not going to stick with the Christian Democrats. The one party coming closest to Merkelism is — you guessed it — the Green party.
But are the Greens really up the task? Many new supporters may soon feel disenchanted. The party, intended as an opposition force, will find it hard to digest its own quick growth and sudden burden of responsibility.
And Ms. Merkel had a quality that is hard for a young party to copy in the digital age: She never said a wrong word. Her mantra was better not to communicate than to communicate falsely. This calculated silence left room for very favorable interpretations of her policies.
During her recent address at Harvard, for instance, Ms. Merkel was praised for introducing same-sex marriage in Germany. The truth is that she opposed it and Parliament overruled her — but she also never voiced that opposition too strongly, so she can now claim some of the credit, after the fact. Also, while Ms. Merkel wins praise for her opposition to restrictions on migration, she quietly arranged it so that Turkey and other countries get paid to act as Europe’s doorman, keeping refugees away from the continent’s shores. And for all the hype about Ms. Merkel as a climate chancellor, Germany will miss its 2020 climate goals.
Ms. Merkel nonetheless offered the voters a good national conscience. The Greens could try to do the same. But it’s one thing for a nonaligned pragmatist like her to don that environmental mantle; it’s another for a party to come in promising to make climate change the core of its agenda.
Today, many Germans may like to think of themselves as trendy and green. But turning attitude into policies might prove harder for the Green party than is has been for the green chancellor.
Jochen Bittner is a political editor for the weekly newspaper Die Zeit and a contributing opinion writer.
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