Few details of the death of Petra Kelly in October 1992 are more symbolic than the interruption that is assumed to have occurred during the typing of the word ‘must’. After relatives raised the alarm, German police entered her house in Bonn and discovered two bodies decomposed beyond recognition. Accompanying the gruesome scenario was the ominous hum of an electric typewriter that had been left running for nearly three weeks. In the carriage lay a sheet of paper on which Kelly’s partner, Gert Bastian, a retired army general 25 years her senior, had been writing a letter to his lawyer. Halfway through typing what might have been the word müssen (must), he stopped – he had only got as far as ‘müs’. Kelly’s brief life – driven by a sense of duty, urgency, powered by a constant feeling of ‘must’, haunted by the thought that she was never doing enough – could be summed up in this truncated word.
Kelly was only 44 when she died, and her murder sent shock waves throughout the world. As co-founder of the German Green party in 1979, she had been its most visible face. Her causes were manifold – nuclear disarmament, indigenous and women’s rights, sustainable development, demilitarization, democratization of the Soviet bloc, the liberation of Tibet – and she did what she could to introduce them into government policy. Yet, it wasn’t easy being a female politician and her fervour was often mocked by the opposition. At the Bundestag, where she held a parliamentary seat from 1983 to 1990, microphones were permanently tuned to suit a man’s voice, rendering a woman’s voice unnaturally shrill; only after some campaigning were they returned to default mode each time a woman spoke.
Aware of the perils of a coalition government, Kelly warned the Greens of the dangers of compromise and shared power. Nonviolent civil disobedience was her preferred weapon and, even when she was a member of parliament, she’d protest outside the Bundestag. Over the years, her stance isolated her; some later argued that her modest existence and abandonment by the Greens made her vulnerable and exposed.
To this day, the circumstances of the deaths remain a mystery. They found Kelly in bed with a bullet to her temple and Bastian in the corridor with a bullet to his forehead, his gun lying nearby. Many people concluded that he had murdered her. Others insisted it was a politically motivated third party – their alarm system had been switched off, the balcony door unlocked. Whatever the truth, the investigation was closed within 24 hours.
Two years after her death, a collection of Kelly’s writings, Thinking Green! Essays on Environmentalism, Feminism and Nonviolence, was published. It’s a powerful summons from beyond the grave. Each chapter is a call to arms, covering most subjects that were dear to her, fuelled by a hope that would be much harder to conjure up in the present. ‘Green politics must address the spiritual vacuum of industrial society,’ she wrote. The cover photograph shows Kelly in a helmet decked in yellow flowers, yet her smiling face doesn’t hide the fatigue. The dark circles under her eyes betray a chronic kidney disorder but also a restlessness and exhaustion: her anxiety for the planet internalized. In her last interview, she said: ‘Everything we do is like the labour of Sisyphus.’ It was as if the defiant mythical rock and the stones in her kidneys had melded into some sort of nominative determinism.
I met Kelly in 1991 in Morelia, Mexico, where my parents had organized a symposium for writers and environmentalists. She immediately stood out – magnetic, valiant, intense – and we stayed in touch afterwards via her beloved fax machine. In a strange twist of fate, my parents had scheduled lunch with her in Bonn the day after the bodies were discovered and had been trying to call the house for weeks. Months later, they received a package in the post, sent by her colleague, the Greens politician Joschka Fischer; upon unwrapping it, they found a carved wooden fish she had been planning to give them.
The battles to be fought today feel even more urgent and doom-laden than those of the 1970s and ’80s, though many of them, alas, remain the same. Kelly couldn’t have been more prescient when she said of the challenges confronting this century: ‘If we don’t do the impossible, we shall be faced with the unthinkable.’
Main Image: Petra Kelly participating in the blockade of the US military base in Mutlangen, 1983. Courtesy: Krewitt/Getty Images
First published in Issue 200