Petra Kelly at 75: Histories, Legacies and Contemporary Meanings of Transnational Ecological Politics

Petra Kelly at 75: Histories, Legacies and Contemporary Meanings of Transnational Ecological Politics

Andreas Jünger / Stephen Milder, Rachel Carson Center for Environment and Society, München
Fand statt
In Präsenz
Vom - Bis
13.10.2022 - 15.10.2022
Frieda Ottmann / Emiel Geurts, Europäische Geschichte, Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität

On the occasion of Petra Kelly’s 75th birthday anniversary, this conference was convened to remember and discuss Kelly’s transnational political career. Furthermore, it also aimed to consider the meaning of her life and legacy in the present – a present in which the concrete consequences of the problems she addressed decades ago, concerning climate crisis and escalating world tension, are ever more ubiquitous. With Kelly as an analytical lens, the conference shed light on and simultaneously problematised various cutting-edge research themes such as the use of biographical methods, the shaping and development of transnational (women’s) networks, transfers of ideas, and the role of (self-)imaging in political careers. The conference did so not only by way of its academic panels, but also by engaging thoroughly with a broader interested public during two evening events and by inviting key Zeitzeugen such as keynote speaker SARA PARKIN and roundtable discussant ABRAHAM PECK (Portland, ME). The personal accounts on their friendship with Petra Kelly and their experiences in activism both shared an optimistic but urgent outlook on the future, thus setting the tone for the conference.

Following this, the first panel was concerned with the transnationalism(s) that were integral to Kelly’s activism and career. KATHARINA SCHARF (Graz) discussed the role and formation of women’s networks concerned with environmental protection. Scharf’s contribution was specifically enlightening because so-called ecofeminists – underrepresented in historiography – were crucial in linking ideas about suppression of women to the exploitation, subjugation, and objectification of nature into a holistic whole. Yet, while “women” were a common denominator in the networks discussed, Scharf highlighted many ambivalences – for instance between leftwing and rightwing activists – that were at times put aside for the common cause. Adding to this, ADAM STONE (New Brunswick, NJ) put forth the argument that these women’s networks can also add to our understanding of diplomatic history, which is far too often studied exclusively as a concern of traditional “high politics”. In his contribution, Stone argued that the Women for Meaningful Summits offered different conceptions of peace and security “from below” across the Cold War division, as this network asserted that elite politicians and diplomats did not necessarily represent women’s voices. Similar to Stone, MARTIN KLIMKE (Abu Dhabi) also assessed the intersection of grassroots movements and official politics by examining the Nuremberg Tribunal Against First Strike and Mass Destructive Weapons in East and West, organised as a grassroots tribunal against proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. The tribunal was not merely important for its symbolic power and the international media coverage it mobilised, but also in the sense that it helped foster the actors’ consciousness of being embedded in an international peace movement.

Despite the distinct methodologies and foci, the contributions all stressed the importance of individual agency in the various varieties of transnationalism, which discussant JAN-HENRIK MEYER (Frankfurt am Main) emphasised. Individuals such as Kelly add to our understanding of transnational ties, which were by no means structuralist accounts, but were instead advanced and carried forth by individuals with language skills and ideas. Important, too, was the addition in the open floor discussion that Kelly’s international contacts were not merely transactional and utilitarian; further adding a personal and individual dimension to transnational activism.

In a similar, yet more organisation-centred second panel, BAHAR TOPÇU (Leuven) and ANDREAS JÜNGER (Munich) traced the influence of Kelly’s activism and ideas on the establishment of the Turkish and Spanish Green Parties respectively. Topçu, together with co-authors SEVGI SIRAKOVA (Munich), and BARIS GENCER (Istanbul) illustrated that Kelly’s ideological orientation influenced the Turkish Green Party, but mostly in an indirect manner. Kelly provided the developing party with constant inspiration. For the Spanish case, Jünger discerned more direct connections, with Kelly explicitly supporting and advising the fledgling Los Verdes. ELISABETTA VEZZOSI’s (Trieste) contribution shed light on how Kelly, who functioned as a symbolic “mother”, together with female Italian anti-nuclear activists enhanced participatory democracy by undermining the traditional masculine public sphere of discussions thereon.

Discussant KARRIN HANSHEW (East Lansing, MI) remarked that besides Kelly herself as a political actor, her identity as such became one too, as all contributions illustrated. Especially important was Hanshew’s remark about the notion of shared learning; while the contributions clearly illustrated how Kelly and other German Grünen influenced likeminded people abroad, it remained largely elusive as to how Kelly herself was influenced through experiences with her counterparts.

The contributions to the third panel reflected on different aspects shaping Green politics in the 1980s. In contemplating Kelly´s core beliefs, AMANDA NICHOLS (Santa Barbara, CA) introduced the quasi-religious concept of Gaian Naturalism. According to this holistic world view the biosphere is considered as a living being. The proclaimed interconnectedness of ecological justice, human rights, and global peace can be traced back to this idea. Referring to Martin Luther King Jr. and Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, Kelly also weaved the principles of non-violence and human rights as spiritual weapons into her activism.

Complementing the picture of influences on Green politics by external factors, FRIEDERIKE BRÜHÖFENER (Edinburg, TX) outlined the role of the national and international media. Within the excessive coverage of Kelly as a “Green superstar” the press drew an ambivalent picture of her. A “fragile” yet “strong” transnational character was pushed beyond the image of a political figure and she was even depicted as a sex symbol by particular newspapers. Whilst questioning the responsibility of the media, also regarding continuous comparisons to Princess Diana, Brühöfener pointed to the fact that Kelly herself used the public attention to advance her cause.

Positioning the German Greens in the wider context of the Federal Republic of Germany and US relations, ADAM SEIPP (College Station, TX) gave an insight into the surprisingly deep knowledge the Green Party compiled on the stationing of US-troops on German ground. Seizing on the concept of alternative security experts, Seipp elaborated on the influence of transnational knowledge and experiences in the Greens’ effort to inform the public. However, he also made clear that knowledge would not automatically translate into successful action and civil mobilisation. This became apparent in the failed rural protests against US-troops.

SILKE MENDE’s (Münster) comment on the aspect of gender and her exposition of Kelly as a mediator between the Green Party and the German as well as the transnational society sparked a lively debate. The discussants shared insights into the transnational dimension of the topic by differentiating between the German and international media coverage. In contrast to German newspapers, especially the British and US press interpreted Kelly´s visible exhaustion as a sign of hard work rather than weakness. Then, connecting Nichols´s and Brühöfener´s talks, the religious dimension was accentuated in accrediting spirituality as a potentially influential factor especially for women to join a Green network and in the portrayal of Kelly as “the Madonna of the Greens” in the media. This religious appropriation provoked a recurrent inquiry on the creation of heroes and heroines in society and the challenges a critical analysis that such deifications pose for academic studies.

The last panel transported the audience into the present. VALENTINA CAVANNA (Turin) raised the question of how Kelly´s legacy could be regarded as a tool to confront current global issues. Her form of politics was described as compassionate and dedicated to the objective of achieving “ecopeace”, which includes every human and living being and must be achieved by a common societal change. By additionally stressing the interconnectedness of problems, the need for a combined approach on crises such as the Ukraine War, the cost-of-living crisis and climate change became apparent once more. Linking Cavanna´s contribution to OLUFEMI MIRTH ADENITAN´S (Exeter) elaboration, the extent and boundaries of the adaptation of such a holistic approach to the global south were also considered. Adenitan highlighted that as an ecofeminist, Kelly represented those who could not speak for themselves. In the creation of Utopias, she saw the chance to deliver the idea of an alternative reality, inspiring people to become experts in their own right and to actively work towards their ideals.

STEPHEN MILDER (Munich) concluded the panel with his thoughts on Petra Kelly´s position on the Ukraine War would she still have been alive. Being aware of the limits such thought constructs pose, Milder convincingly argued that Kelly might have put the focus on the principle of civilian-based defence in the sense of mass-mobilisation for societal non-violent change. Given her uncompromising rejection of violence and weapons, avoiding further wars and rebuilding society might have been her strategy to address present and future issues.

In his comment DARREL MOELLENDORF (Frankfurt am Main) wondered whether it was feasible for actors in the so-called “West” to speak of politics of love and compassion given the worldwide suffering due to social injustice, the environmental crisis, and the ongoing wars. His doubts opened the debate for reflections on the difficulties in speaking for others, who could not raise their voices. To what degree could Kelly´s ideas be transferred to the Global South? How much of her concepts had to be adapted and who could even access them? The discussion was wrapped up with a reminder to consider whose perspectives and interests received attention and whose agency might be lost on the way.

The conference was an important contribution to the study of Kelly, transnational activism, and particularly the role of women therein. For the future, the reciprocity concomitant to transnational ties such as those between Kelly and the various (women’s) organisations discussed, and the co-construction of ideas in this sphere, could be explored more thoroughly. While Kelly was without doubt a crucial actor, her ideas were neither predestined nor immutable. The conference’s set-up, furthermore, brought into conversation a broader public interested in Kelly and her ideas, eyewitnesses and fellow activists, and academics, which allowed for a remarkable degree of valorisation and dissemination. This interplay stimulated broad discussions that illustrated the wide variety of ways in which Kelly is remembered. Input during the public events was reflected upon during the academic panels, and academic input was used to address the contemporary crises of climate change and war.

Conference overview:

Keynote speaker: Sara Parkin: Petra Kelly at 75: Kelly’s Legacy and its Meaning Today

Panel I: Varieties of Transnationalism
Chair: Helmuth Trischler (Munich)

Commentator: Jan-Henrik Meyer (Frankfurt am Main)

Katharina Scharf (Graz): Environmental Women: Petra Kelly and Her Fellow Activists

Adam Stone (New Brunswick, NJ): Asserting Women’s Power: Petra Kelly and Women’s Transnational Anti-Nuclear Weapons and Peace Activism in the 1980s

Martin Klimke (Abu Dhabi): The Nuremberg Tribunal against First Strike and Mass Destructive Weapons in East and West (February 18-20, 1983)

Panel II: Petra Kelly’s Ideas and Legacy Abroad
Chair: Thomas Süsler-Rohringer (Munich)

Commentator: Karrin Hanshew (East Lansing, MI)

Bahar Topçu (Leuven), Sevgi Sirakova (Munich), and Baris Gencer (Istanbul): Tracing Kelly's Legacy in Turkish Green Politics

Elisabetta Vezzosi (Trieste): Petra Kelly's Thinking and Italian Female Antinuclear Experience

Andreas Jünger (Munich): Imagining a Different Spain: Petra Kelly and Spanish Environmentalism in the 1980s

Roundtable: Petra Kelly, “68er”? A Reflection on Kelly’s Place in Her Generation
Chair and commentator: Belinda Davis (New Brunswick, NJ)

Abraham Peck (Portland, ME): Germans and Jews after the Holocaust: An Unknown Chapter in the Life of Petra Kelly

Panel III: Shaping 1980s Green Politics
Chair: Andreas Jünger (Munich)

Commentator: Silke Mende (Münster)

Amanda Nichols (Santa Barbara, CA): Petra Kelly: Green Politics and Dark Green Spirituality for a Resilient Future

Friederike Brühöfener (Edinburg, TX): Grüne Prominenz: The Media Coverage of Petra Kelly in the 1980s

Adam Seipp (College Station, TX): Doctrine and Dissent: Transnational Knowledge, Green Politics, and the US Army, 1975-85

Panel IV: Petra Kelly Today
Chair: Belinda Davis (New Brunswick, NJ)

Commentator: Darrel Moellendorf (Frankfurt am Main)

Valentina Cavanna (Turin): Petra Kelly’s Legacy as a Tool to Face Current Global Issues

Olufemi Mirth Adenitan (Exeter): Environmental Politics from an Ecofeminist Perspective: Examining Petra Kelly’s Ideology of Peace, Feminism, and Human Rights in Modern Political Dispensation

Stephen Milder (Munich): ‘What Would Petra Kelly Say?’ Remembering the 1980s New Peace Movement amid the War in Ukraine”

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