Petra Kelly Brings a Fresh Look to German Politics: American Activism, '60s Style

UPDATED 11/22/1982 at 01:00 AM EST Originally published 11/22/1982 at 01:00 AM EST

This week Helmut Kohl arrives in Washington for his first visit as Chancellor of West Germany. Kohl is the most conservative leader in recent West German history, but, ironically, a frail, American-educated political activist may help determine how long he holds his new job. Petra Kelly, 34, is the leader of the Greens, the fastest-growing political movement in West Germany. With her antinuclear, pro-environment message and a following that polls say includes 40 percent of West Germany's youth, Kelly may soon hold the balance of power between the country's two major parties. Only four years old, the Greens have won seats in six of the 11 state parliaments.

If in many ways Kelly seems a throwback to the American campus movement of the late '60s, that's not surprising. Kelly is the stepdaughter of a former U.S. Army officer and learned her first political lessons from, of all people, Hubert Humphrey. Although she is a West German citizen, she spent her adolescent years in this country and graduated from American University in Washington in 1970. In the 1968 presidential election she worked first for Robert Kennedy and then, after his assassination, for Humphrey. Although she now believes that "the Kennedys misused their power and influence," she was impressed by Robert Kennedy's efforts to help minorities. Having lost a scholarship because she was not an American citizen, Petra complained personally to Kennedy and won his support.

She caught Humphrey's attention by challenging his Vietnam positions during a TV talk show with other foreign students in Washington during her sophomore year. Talking to him after the show, Petra began to revise her ideas about the Vice-President. "I learned to respect Humphrey very much," she says. "He was a person who had socially just ethics and deep political feeling. He seemed to me to be one of the very few uncorrupted politicians in America." When Petra's younger half sister died of cancer of the eyes in Germany in 1970, Humphrey came to the American University campus immediately and organized a special Mass for her.

For the past nine years Kelly has worked as a social policy adviser to the European Economic Community in Brussels, which she considers "a corrupt organization squandering a lot of taxpayers' money." Still, it's more than a living—she donates 70 percent of her $23,000 annual salary to the Greens—and the position provides her with "access to a stream of information on a wide range of subjects, including nuclear power." Kelly devotes all of her free time to the Greens and is presently on leave of absence to campaign for them. The Greens, who were founded by a group of young environmentalists in 1978, are steadfastly opposed to all peacetime as well as military uses of nuclear energy, and they refuse to cooperate with any political party that will not endorse a total ban. Believing that small is beautiful, they battle against superhighways, airport extensions and industrial pollution. They also promote sexual equality, higher occupational health standards and an end to discrimination against foreigners, gypsies and homosexuals. "All of the things we stand for are very contradictory to the German mentality, which is to be obedient to the party and the church, never deciding for yourself," says Kelly. "We are seeking to bring about a whole new quality of life in German politics. People are attracted to that."

A frail child who underwent four operations for kidney problems between the ages of 9 and 19, Petra was raised in Virginia and Georgia after her divorced, German-born mother, Marianne, married Army Lt. Col. John E. Kelly. Since college, where she majored in political science, Petra has devoted most of her time to idealistic causes. "Petra has always been peace-loving," says her stepfather, now retired in Newport News, Va.

In Brussels, where she lives in a cozy, souvenir-filled four-room apartment 70 miles from the German border, Petra managed to find time for a two-year relationship with Sicco Mans-holt, a Dutch former agricultural commissioner of the Common Market. She is now reportedly "close" to—but not living with—Irish trade unionist John Carroll, 57. Having begun 10 years ago to sponsor financially a Tibetan orphan girl who lives in northern India, Kelly would like to adopt her. "But at the moment that is not legally possible because I am unmarried," she explains. For now, at least, she is wed to her work, facing perhaps the greatest challenge of her political career—success. "It frightens me how quickly we have met success," she explains. "I am fearful that we will become an established third party in the traditional sense. That's not what I want. My dream is having an uncompromising party on questions of life, death and jobs."

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