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From Limb by Limb Magazine
Dec 27, 2004 - 02:06   Edit Post Delete Post Move Post (Moderator/Admin Only)
The Death of Petra Kelly

Chloe Aridjis

Over the past few decades, as environmental movements around the world have strengthened and solidified, the influence of grass roots activism has been repeatedly called into question. Both critics and collaborators have asked themselves whether all change should ideally be initiated from the base of society - that is, from its grass roots - or whether there are other methods of incurring reform.

Perhaps some causes are simpler to fight at grass roots level than others; once green parties are formed, governments may be more inclined to treat them as political radicals rather than as civic representatives, and take them even less seriously. Grass roots implies more freedom, and far less (if any) rules or boundaries, aside from that of passive disobedience. The most current issue affecting our society is of course that of genetically modified foods, and it is through the surge and wrath of public opinion that Western governments have finally turned around and addressed the matter. Biotechn-ological corporations such as Monsanto were duly exposed, and the effect has been seismic as damning information continues to be disseminated throughout the world. Edward Goldsmith, founder and co-editor of The Ecologist (which devoted an entire issue to Monsanto), firmly believes in the power of public debate. When I spoke to him on the issue of grass roots, he remarked that since all governments are now controlled by industry - the result of our behemothian global economy - the only way to make a government take heed of environmental issues is by the power of public opinion. Yet though this may be the case, and the solution, not everyone is willing to take that brave step forwards.

Those individuals who have risked their lives to voice public concerns have occasionally met an early end, even in our 'safe' democratic Western societies. There is perhaps no better example of such a valiant and generous spirit in the environmental movement than Petra Kelly, co-founder, most visible member and erstwhile spokes-person of the German Green Party. Although a parliamentary representative for the Greens in the mid-1980s, she was always wary of 'shared power', and believed it was nearly impossible to solve problems at government level. The force of all change, she insisted, had to originate within the grass roots movement. By vehemently adhering to this premise she alienated herself from many of her fellow activists to such a degree that by October 1992, it took three weeks for people to even realise she was missing.

For many, Petra Kelly's assassination remains a mystery to this day. The fact that the Bonn police closed the investigation within 24 hours after her corpse was discovered, and, despite international pressure, have refused to reopen it, suggests a possible cover-up. Once, when asked in a newspaper questionnaire how she wished to die, she answered, "Not alone." This poignant reply took on a sinister resonance years later, when she and her partner of more than a decade, Gert Bastian, were found shot dead in their Bonn townhouse.

Although the bodies were not instantly identifiable due to the degree of decomposition, the shattering truth emerged within a few hours: Germany's most charismatic and passionate environmentalist had been killed with one shot in her left temple, while Bastian, an ex-General and Commander of 12th Tank Division, had perished from the impact of a single bullet through his forehead. There were no signs of struggle or disarray.

The following day, newspapers around the world, echoing the hypothesis put forward by the Bonn police and the German government, propagated two possible explanations: double suicide or murder/suicide. Either way, Bastian would have had a hand in both deaths. Friends and family around the world were left in a profound state of shock and speculation. A farewell note was never found: perhaps this was the most damning lack of evidence for those who insisted on a double suicide theory. It was almost implausible that someone as politically-minded and compassionate as Petra Kelly would choose to end her life without leaving a written testament, without making one final point, without taking leave of her beloved grandmother. As for Bastian, he too was an advocate of non-violence (having defected from the German army in 1979 in protest against NATO's plan to deploy nuclear missiles on German soil), and it was hard to imagine him turning a gun on Kelly and himself.

Aside from the absence of a farewell note, more alarming signs pointed to the possibility of a third party's presence: inexplicably, the alarm system to the house had been turned off; the front door keys lay on the floor at the entrance; the upstairs balcony door was found unlocked. When they entered the house, police and relatives were met by an ominous hum: that of Gert Bastian's electric typewriter, which had been running for at least 18 days. Still in the machine, a sheet of paper revealed the contents of his last letter; he had only typed ten lines, when in the middle of the world "mü¤en" (we/they have to, must), something interrupted him. To not even finish a word - he got as far as "mü¤" - suggests that a loud noise or movement may have interrupted him.

From here it is not difficult to imagine a possible scenario: It was late at night, or possibly during the early hours of the morning of 1st October (when the letter was dated), and Gert sat at his typewriter. He and Petra had returned that evening from a conference on Global Radiation Victims in Berlin. (Incidentally, Gert had that same day purchased a year-long senior citizens' railway pass). Exhausted, Petra went straight to bed in her track suit, in which she was found. In his study on the ground floor of their house Gert continued working, until he heard a loud bang from the first floor, coming from the direction of the couple's bedroom.

Gert slowly mounted the winding staircase, as he was enfeebled by an injury to his knee received in a car accident the previous March. He met the killer in the hallway outside of the bedroom. The gunman quickly moved towards him and at close range shot the defenseless 69-year-old general in the forehead. The gun used was a Derringer calibre .38, one which Bastian had kept from his army days.

Although gunpowder was found on his hands, it could easily have been planted. The police ascribed the 'unusual method' in which he shot himself (in the forehead, rather than in the temple or through the mouth) to a 'certain technical knowledge' acquired during his army days.

The corpses lay until they were discovered at roughly 9:30 pm on 19 October. Forensic evidence shows that Petra Kelly was asleep at the time of her death. At her side lay her reading glasses and an open book, Letters from Goethe to Charlotte von Stein . There is nothing to suggest she was prepared to die.

At the time of her death Petra had been nominated for the Andrei Sakharov Award, a prize of $100,000, with which, if she won, she planned to open a human rights office in Germany. My parents, who head the environmental Group of 100, were friends of Petra and Gert. On 12 September they received a fax from Gert requesting support for the nomination; marked 'Confidential', it mentioned Petra's 'tireless and continued efforts on behalf of indivisible human rights, ecology and peace... [Her] dream of opening a small but effective human rights office in Germany could come true with this award. She has been struggling with so little resources...'

Sent less than a month before their assassination, this document reinforces the belief that both of them still harboured ambitious plans for the future and, despite recent financial hardship, retained their optimism. The spring of 1992 had not been easy for either Petra or Gert; Gert was knocked down by a taxi while crossing the street, Petra suffered a breakdown a few days later. Both of them checked into the Black Forest Clinic and for the first time in years they acknowledged the need to rest from their strenuous activities. '...I broke down - very upset over Gert's operation & accident & my whole exhaustion and low blood pressure gave in!' Petra wrote to my parents that May. She would rarely sleep more than four or five hours a night, and was often likened by journalists and friends to a candle burning at both ends. Her slight frame and the dark circles around her eyes, which betrayed a chronic kidney disorder, gave her the appearance of frailty - yet she spoke with tireless energy. Up until her death Petra would receive some 200 letters a day, many simply addressed 'Petra Kelly, Germany.'

In 1980 she signed the 'Krefeld Appeal,' the founding document of the German Peace Movement, which called on the government to reverse its decision to deploy new missiles on German soil. It was then that Petra met one of her fellow protestors, Gert Bastian. Before long the two became a couple, and Gert left his wife and daughter. Those who knew Petra and Gert usually recall him as watchfully lingering in the background; he was, however, her emotional, ideological, and political ally, and the only real constant in an overwrought, anxiety-ridden life.

My family met them in September 1991, at a conference in Mexico organised by the Group of 100. Among the dozens of writers and environmentalists present, Petra proved to be one of the most driven and impassioned. Yet even when she was working, Gert was by her side; his English was weak, and she would translate the world around them into German.

Most of Petra's remarks during the symposium still seem relevant today, particularly regarding power-sharing for the Greens. The current coalition government in Germany, in which the Green Party plays a prominent role, includes several individuals from Petra's past. One of the main figures with whom she disagreed in the 1980's was Joschka Fischer, former Greens leader and now Germany's foreign minister. Another more controversial figure is Oskar Lafontaine, the country's former finance minister and former leader of the Social Democratic Party (who has occasionally been referred to as 'the most dangerous man in Europe').

During the discussions in Mexico, Petra condemned Lafontaine's recent exportation of two severely polluting coal-fired power plants to India - alarming, as the plants had been closed down in Germany thanks to pressure from the Greens. "And that's why I've become so pessimistic," she concluded, "I've seen us becoming adaptable."

One can say with near certainty that Petra would be deeply disappointed by the current state of German politics, both nationally and abroad. Many of her friends and sympathisers find it disconcerting that all the energy she channeled into convincing other members of the Green Party about the dangers of compromise have been rendered futile by today's coalition government.

In her last interview with the German newspaper Suddeutsche Zeitung, she said of her work, "Es ist alles Sisyphusarbeit, was wir machen." (Everything we do is like the labour of Sisyphus). She was referring to the Greek myth of the hero Sisyphus, condemned to an eternity of rolling a rock up a hill, from the top of which the rock immediately rolls down again. The myth has an equally disturbing yet even more unfortunate interpretation, examined by Albert Camus: that of suicide.

Ultimately, Petra's work possessed elements of both. She was indefatigable until the last, despite the number of times she had to return to square one. And her death was, most likely, a consequence of her work.

Theories as to why Petra and Gert may have been murdered abound: among the suspects are nuclear power coalitions, the Stasi or the KGB (some say Gert was a secret agent), neoNazis (a few weeks before they died Gerthad published a letter denouncing the rise of xenophobic violence in Germany), the Chinese mafia (they were both highly active in the Tibetan cause, and Petra was a close friend of the Dalai Lama). They had received death threats in the past, and at one point the Bonn police declared Petra Kelly their top security risk. They offered her armed protection but she declined, stating that her commitment to non-violence was greater than her fear of being attacked.

When I spoke to someone in the Bonn police press office, he did not voice a single doubt as to Gert Bastian's active role in their deaths. Gunpowder had been found on his fingers, and that said it all: the humming typewriter, unlocked balcony door and switched off alarm system "added nothing" to the case. He said the investigation had been closed within 24 hours because the "answer" was so obvious...

Working at grass roots level implies limited budget and private spaces, and Petra Kelly ran all her campaigns out of their home. Her office was a room upstairs with an endlessly ringing fax machine. In the end, her adherence to a low-profile, modest existence made her vulnerable and exposed in ways she would not have been, had she remained part of a political party. On their way home from Berlin to Bonn the night of 1 October 1992, Petra and Gert had stopped to pay tribute at the Sachenshausen memorial to victims of the Holocaust. Little did they suspect that within a few hours they too would join the dead. To this day their case remains closed, but the grass roots movement continues to flourish.

Limb by Limb Magazine
© MM Speakeasy Media Ltd, UK

German student
Dec 29, 2004 - 14:59   Edit Post Delete Post Move Post (Moderator/Admin Only)
Very interesting - this has helped me greatly with a German A-level oral project, thankyou.

Mar 24, 2014 - 01:09   Edit Post Delete Post Move Post (Moderator/Admin Only)
Actually, the 1980s Pershing II missile stationing was instrumental in the eventual fall of the Soviet Union and the resulting re-unification of Germany. Petra Kelly and Gerd Bastian were unwitting accomplices to Soviet propaganda aimed at preventing Pershing II stationing through "peace movements."

Historical Background: As a response to the stationing of Soviet SS 20 missiles, Chancellor Helmudt Schmidt pressured Jimmy Carter to counter the Soviet threat by stationing Pershing II missiles to avoid a "decoupling" of nuclear defense policy. At first Carter was unwilling, but later changed his mind. Ronald Reagan embraced the idea wholeheartedly.

Your article is very interesting and I too doubt this was a homicide/suicide. Had this happened in 1983, one could speculate of western complicity, but by 1992, Germany was reunited.

Jun 11, 2014 - 16:15   Edit Post Delete Post Move Post (Moderator/Admin Only)
The death of Petra Kelly and Gert Bastian stand as incontrovertible proof that, despite their self-professed, self-absorbed moral superiority, members of the Left are no different that everyone else. They get sick, they grow old, they shoot or are shot by their partners. Like their opponents on the political Right, they also subscribe to fanciful conspiracy theories whenever it suits them.

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