After the end of the Cold War and the renaissance of nationalism and of the concomitant abuses of human rights of the worst kind, the pacifism that had been one of the German Greens’ founding principles came into increasing conflict with its active defence of human rights.

“For me, Auschwitz is unique. But I adhere to two principles. Never again war! Never again Auschwitz, never again genocide, never again fascism! For me, both belong together!” (Joschka Fischer, at the Federal Delegates’ conference, Bielefeld, 13 May 1999)

Several characteristic features of the internal dispute within Alliance ’90/The Greens can be inferred from this much-quoted statement by the former Federal Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer.

  1. The special legacy, with regard to the use of military weapons, of German history, and the special responsibility for the protection of civilians which follows from that, especially in the eyes of the political left.
  2. The passion and the authority of the man who was probably the most influential Green personality in the history of the joint party, and his effect on altering the political landscape around him.
  3. Above all, it illustrates the impossibility of reconciling the rejection of military options with a refusal to tolerate serious breaches of human rights or inhuman regimes.


Alliance ’90/The Greens was officially constituted on 14 May 1993 by the merger of two parties. It was a fusion of The Greens, which had been established in January 1980 by the merger of a number of different civil rights movements, with Alliance ’90, a party officially founded in September 1991 which had emerged from the civil rights movement in the former GDR. To characterise the founding Greens, one would think on the one hand of their ecological, social and bottom-up democratic principles, but also and perhaps especially of their aspiration to offer a non-violent, pacifist alternative to the established parties in the Federal Republic. In the context of the Cold War, they belonged – as did the parties from which the Dutch green party GroenLinks emerged – to the political core of the peace movement, which advocated nuclear disarmament and a peaceful resolution of the confrontation between the power blocs. The protection of human rights as a fundamental element of foreign policy was – even more for the civil rights campaigners of Alliance ’90, and at a more existential level, than for the Greens – an undisputed and central concern.

After the end of the Cold War and the renaissance of nationalism and civil war and of the concomitant abuses of human rights of the worst kind, right up to genocide, the pacifism that had been one of the party’s founding principles came into increasing conflict with its active defence of human rights. For the principle of pacifism meant a rejection of the use of armed force on principle, whereas the defence of human rights, in view of the scale of the conflicts arising at the beginning of the 1990s, demanded it when necessary.

The protection of human rights as a fundamental element of foreign policy was – even more for the civil rights campaigners of Alliance ’90, and at a more existential level, than for the Greens – an undisputed and central concern.

Three Tendencies

According to Ludger Volmer, later State Secretary for the Greens in the Foreign Ministry, whose doctoral dissertation examined the difficulties foreign policy posed for the Greens, in those years Green pacifism could be categorised into three tendencies:

  • ‘radical pacifism’, which rejects the use of violence of any kind, under any circumstances, on principle. Adherents of this tendency can be counted as belonging to the so-called ‘Fundis’.
  • ‘nuclear pacifism’, which rejects atomic weapons, but in principle accepts conventional forms of defence. These people can be counted among the ‘Realos’.
  • the ‘political pacifism’ found towards the left end of the party spectrum, which aspires to a world without weapons, but which recognises that this will be a long journey requiring intermediate steps of de-escalation, integration, arms control and disarmament. These people, loosely speaking, have moved from the Fundis to the Realos.

In the context of the war in Bosnia, during which from 1992 onwards Croatian troops too but above all Serbian troops committed horrific human rights abuses on the Bosnian population, members of the German Greens spoke out for the first time in favour of a large-scale military intervention by the West. Two moments during this conflict are worth highlighting in the context of the debate within the party.

At the meeting of the party’s States Council in June 1993 a resolution calling for the use of military force to protect the civil population in Bosnia from a threatened genocide achieved a majority. This was the first time in the history of the party that a call of this kind was endorsed by an organ of the party.

Some Realos, among them especially former GDR civil rights campaigners, were influenced by delegate visits to Bosnia and by media reports about rape camps, ethnic displacement and the systematic cutting off of the Muslim civilian population from food supplies, and called for stronger intervention from the UN to protect the civilian population in Bosnia – if necessary by force.

Even though this resolution was only one of many similar ones, the resulting declaration of support for the use of military measures led to a dispute in the party. The radical pacifists especially, but also a large proportion of the political pacifists were appalled at this call for military intervention from their party colleagues.

At an extraordinary conference of Federal delegates (the party’s supreme governing body) in October 1993 it proved possible to smooth over the internal turbulence, as a very large majority at this meeting supported a resolution which – though it acknowledged an act of genocide against the Bosnian Muslims – rejected intervention on the grounds that human rights could not be won by military means. The Realos, who argued for military intervention in Bosnia, thus represented for the time being a small minority, but they had sparked a debate which in the following years was to be played out again repeatedly.

Inside the hall, the internecine anger of some members towards the Foreign Minister exploded in warlike cries of ‘murderer’, ‘warmonger’ and ‘criminal’.

Barely two years later, in the summer of 1995, Bosnian Serbs committed what was later officially classified by the UN as a genocide of the male Muslim population of Srebrenica in what had originally been designated a UN-protected Safe Area. Deeply shocked by these events, the then leader of the parliamentary party and later Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer addressed his party in a letter in which for the first time he openly called on the party to change course and support the deployment of military force. After the publication of this letter, a heated debate broke out again over what in Fischer’s letter was postulated as the duty of the international community to intervene in cases of genocide. At the following conference of the Federal delegates in Bremen in the late autumn, although those rejecting intervention remained in the majority, the internal balance had shifted, with as many as 40% of delegates now supporting it.

The Red-Green Coalition

Let us jump forward now to the year 1998: Gerhard Schröder’s SPD emerged as the winner of the September Bundestag elections, and he formed the first Red-Green coalition for the parliamentary term which followed. Joschka Fischer, who, after his four-year period as leader of the parliamentary party, had meanwhile risen to become the leading figure of the Greens, became Vice-Chancellor and took up the office of Foreign Minister.

The new government faced its first test even before the coalition negotiations were completed when in 1998 the conflict in the former Yugoslavia flared up once more – this time in the Serbian province of Kosovo. Ethnic displacements carried out by Serbs were being witnessed once again, following patterns already familiar from Bosnia. With the benefit of the experience gained from the earlier conflicts in the 1990s, the international community reacted more decisively and more quickly. The story is well-known: after Russia had used its veto to block the UN Security Council, the NATO Council, without a mandate from the United Nations, first issued an Activation Order (ActOrd) for the Supreme Allied Commander. When this increased pressure failed to have any impact in the negotiations taking place with Serbian President Milosevic, coordinated allied NATO flights began carrying out bomb strikes against the Serbs in March 1999. And Alliance ‘90/The Greens, with their Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer, were centrally involved.

The incoming Federal government, and Gerhard Schröder above all, were under enormous international pressure to demonstrate their credentials as reliable partners within the alliance.In an extraordinary session of the old Bundestag (the new elected Bundestag was still due to be constituted) convened at short notice, the parliament, with the votes of the Red-Green coalition, gave its approval to ActOrd. This brought out into the open once more the already widely-known divisions within the party. For even though a majority of Greens voted in favour of approving the NATO order, the radical pacifists especially distanced themselves from the parliamentary group’s decision. Although it seemed at first as if the efforts towards political de-escalation might begin to work under the pressure created by the ActOrd, within a few months the optimism turned out to be mistaken; and when on 24 March 1999 the first NATO fighter jets took off, the Federal Republic, with a small contingent of planes, found itself taking part in its first active combat mission since the end of the Second World War.

Legitimacy must be assured under international law on the basis of the relevant chapter of the Charter of the United Nations.

Justified By History

Joschka Fischer, who at this time dominated the party’s (foreign) policy-making both through his roles as Vice-Chancellor and Foreign Minister, justified the German position primarily by referring back to German history. His maxim, cited earlier – never again war, but also never again Auschwitz – became from this point on the most striking statement of belief within his argumentation, one which became famous above all because of his speech at the extraordinary conference of the Federal delegates in May 1999 in Bielefeld. The aerial war against Serbia had by then been in progress for almost two months without the Serbs capitulating, and emotions within the party were reaching boiling point. There were tumultuous scenes outside the hall in Bielefeld and a large police presence was needed to protect the party congress. Inside the hall, the internecine anger of some members towards the Foreign Minister exploded in warlike cries of ‘murderer’, ‘warmonger’ and ‘criminal’, and culminated in a physical attack on Fischer with a bag of paint, injuring his eardrum.

The Foreign Minister, roused by this to even greater anger and motivation, eventually brought his party round by dint of a committed, passionate and emotional speech to passing the motion of the Federal executive for a continuation of support for the NATO mission against Serbia by 444 votes to 318. That day can certainly be seen as the culmination of the internal party dispute over the balancing act between the two fundamental party principles of its traditional pacifism and the defence of human rights. This debate over principles, which had been conducted over several years and which in the context of the Bosnian war had served to polarise the tendencies within the party, had almost torn it apart. But it was down to Fischer – in part, indisputably, because of the pressure exerted by the responsibility of being in government – that for the first time a majority in the party voted in support of military intervention at a conference of the Federal party delegates.

What Stands Out?

  • The internal party conflict over the dilemma between the two fundamental principles of human rights and non-violence was always played out in the 1990s and the early 2000s in a full and frank debate; this went as far as open conflict and even included physical attacks, as shown by the events at Bielefeld in 1999, and it brought the party to the brink of a split. However, the bitter debates were also conducted very thoroughly, and eventually, after a very painful journey, the party rose to the challenges presented by new global political conditions and conflict patterns.
  • Clear-cut conditions were formulated and attached to the approval of military operations. For example, all non-military options must be exhausted, and they must in any event be given priority. Legitimacy must be assured under international law on the basis of the relevant chapter of the Charter of the United Nations. Missions take place in a multilateral framework and must be clearly defined and approved by the Bundestag. The rejection by Alliance ‘90/The Greens of the military operation in Iraq in 2003 (which is not covered in this shortened version) should be understood in the context of these clearly-formulated conditions.
  • The fact that the party, as stated in its manifesto, remains committed to meeting the challenge presented by the conflict between non-violence and violations of human rights is demonstrated for example in the annual renewals in the Bundestag of the mandates for the OEF and the ISAF in Afghanistan. Although neither mission was granted a free ride by Alliance ‘90/The Greens, as demonstrated at the extraordinary conference of Federal delegates in the year 2007, the operation itself was not fundamentally questioned, not even by the more critical grassroots membership – and that at a time when the party had returned to the opposition benches. In the context of a deteriorating security situation in Afghanistan and an imminent Bundestag vote on whether to send Tornado fighter jets into the area of operations, a further militarisation of the German role in Afghanistan was rejected. The party congress supported a step-by-step demilitarisation of the mission, but a total and immediate withdrawal from operations was not on the agenda for discussion.


The party’s new perspective – pragmatic, more shaped by Realpolitik – can be summed up – especially for the period of government responsibility from 1998 to 2005 – again, and to conclude, in the words of Joschka Fischer on 11 September 2001: “But whatever challenges and tests the future might hold for us, we held responsibility and we had to act, and especially on that day.”


This is an abridged version of a presentation given at the symposium Burgers beschermen: GroenLinks van Koude Oorlog naar humanitaire interventie, on 11 September 2014 in Utrecht.

Peace, Love and Intervention
Peace, Love and Intervention

The 10th edition of the Green European Journal seeks to identify what makes the Green approach to foreign affairs distinctive, and asks whether ideals of peaceful resolution can stand up against the reality of a world ridden with complexity and conflict.

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