My history hero: Caroline Lucas chooses Petra Kelly (1947–92)

Caroline Lucas, Green party MP for Brighton Pavilion, chooses Petra Kelly as her history hero.

Petra Kelly. “Through sheer force of will, Petra Kelly put green politics on the map. Her success in Germany in the 1980s inspired green parties across the world to shake things up,” says Caroline Lucas. (Photo by Schulze-Vorberg/ullstein bild via Getty Images)

This article was first published in the February 2019 edition of BBC History Magazine

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Petra Kelly was a German Green politician and activist who co-founded the German Green party. Educated in Germany and the US after her family relocated there, she returned to Europe in 1970. She was elected to the Bundestag in 1983, and became one of the German Green party’s leading lights. In 1992, she was shot dead by her partner, ex-general and Green politician Gert Bastian, who then killed himself. She was aged just 44.

Q: When did you first hear about Petra Kelly?

A: I first heard of Petra in the early 1980s when she was involved in the founding of the German Green party, and I had the honour of meeting her in the early 90s.

Q: What kind of person was she?

A: She was absolutely full of energy and life – and a force to be reckoned with. She worked day and night for the causes she cared about, and demanded utter dedication from those around her. I only met Petra once, but got a real sense that she was interested in what I was doing. She emanated a contagious energy and enthusiasm.

Q: What made her a hero?

A: She put green politics and environmental protection on the map. Through sheer force of will, she helped the German Greens to succeed, and always tried to keep them radical. Her commitment to non-violence and direct action were a real inspiration. She operated in a world where countries were flexing their military muscles, and she managed to provide an alternative vision of peace-building. She gave the green movement a boost across the world, as she became a figurehead for doing politics differently. Indeed, the Greens’ success in Germany in the 80s spurred on other environmental parties across the world to enter parliaments and shake things up.

Q: What was her finest hour?

A: Her work on opposing nuclear power in Germany was groundbreaking – and she was a leader in mass protests against nuclear weapons in the early 80s. To oppose nuclear weapons at that time, when the western media was full of communist scare stories, was incredibly brave. Another high point was in 1982, when she won the Right Livelihood Award for her work on peace, ecology, feminism and human rights. Her commitment to a politics that combined these elements was a real inspiration to me, as was the way she always focused on the next battle.

Q: Is there anything you don’t particularly admire about her?

A: The flipside of Petra’s dedication was a complete inability to stop working, and she was known to make big demands of those around her. I imagine it might not have been all that easy to work for her.

Q: Can you see any parallels between her life and your own?

A: Petra was an international superstar, and a real giant in green politics, so I wouldn’t compare myself to her. What does unite us is being elected as early representatives for our parties, and dedicating ourselves to fighting for planetary protection.

Q: If you could meet her, what would you ask?

A: I truly wish Petra was still alive, and still feel so sad and angry about her terrible murder. If she were here, I’d ask her for some of her energy! Sometimes it can feel awfully lonely – as well as utterly exhausting – being the only MP from my party in parliament. I think the fire in Petra’s belly would be hugely energising.

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Caroline Lucas is a former leader of the Green party. She has been the member of parliament for Brighton Pavilion since 2010, when she became the Green party’s first MP. Caroline Lucas was talking to York Membery.