Environmental activist Petra Karin Kelly was interested in social issues from a very early age. Born in West Germany in 1947, she moved to Columbus, Georgia, with her mother and stepfather, U.S. Army Lieutenant Colonel John E. Kelly, in 1960, where she immediately became involved in the civil rights movement. Learning English quickly, during high school she had a weekly radio program in current affairs. For college, she attended the school of International Service at American University where she studied world politics and graduated with honors in 1970. In addition to her studies, she was also very active in campus political movements—antiwar, antinuclear, and feminist, as a volunteer for Robert Kennedy’s presidential campaign, and later for Senator Hubert H. Humphrey, with whom she maintained a friendship and correspondence. Her focus shifted when her sister Grace died from cancer in 1970. Petra Kelly created a citizen action group centered in Europe to study the connection between cancer and environmental pollution, eventually campaigning full-time for the Green Party she cofounded in 1979 and spearheading the Campaign for a NuclearFree Europe. In one year, she estimated she held more than 450 meetings in order to get the Greens elected to the German parliament, becoming the first German woman at the head of a political party.
Petra had an innate understanding of the inner workings of politics, and together with her fellow Green Party members, including her lover Gert Bastian, was surprisingly successful in getting candidates into the governments not only of Germany, but throughout Europe, despite the Green Party’s radically pro-environment stances. As time went on, Petra’s actions became increasingly radical and drew more criticism from conservatives than ever before—she put together a “war crimes tribunal” at Nuremberg on the issue of nuclear weapons, and in 1983, staged a no-nukes demonstration that ended in her arrest, followed by another protest in Moscow. Petra led the Greens into more frays— blockading military bases all over Germany and leading protests in the U.S., Australia, and Great Britain.
Petra was an immensely charismatic leader, capturing the attention of thousands of people, especially young people, around the world. Her pure idealism and willingness to take personal risks captivated the youth of Europe. She received hundreds of letters each week offering support and was in high demand for lectures, articles, and books. Issues pertaining to children were especially close to her heart. She adopted a young Tibetan girl, Nima, and worked to educate the world about Tibetan genocide.
In 1991, Petra and her soulmate, Gert, were discovered dead in a suburb of Bonn by police, summoned by Kelly’s worried grandmother. They had both been shot and were in an advanced state of decomposition. Police have never been able to solve the double death, although the police believed it to be a double suicide. Others may have claimed it was a murder plot by anti-Green neo-Nazis who Gert had decried in newspaper articles. Police are basing the double-suicide theory on a powder burn on Gert’s hand and the lack of other fingerprints or footprints in the apartment, and they have produced background information on Gert Bastian as a former SS agent who had worked for the Nazis in his youth. Thirty years older than Petra, he had once been a virulent right-winger before doing a 180-degree turnaround to join the Green Party. Close friends recall Gert depressedly saying that the “new” Germany reminded him of the old Germany of his fascist youth.
Although we may never know what really happened to Petra Kelly, we do know that while she lived, she made important inroads to drawing the world’s attention to nuclear armaments, environmental destruction, children’s rights, and world peace. She lived entirely for the benefit of humankind.