Nonviolence spoke to the power

- Prof Dr Ram Ponnu*

In a world struggling in violence and dishonesty, the further development of nonviolence - not only as a philosophy but as a way of life, as a force on the streets, in the market squares, outside the missile bases, inside the chemical plants and the war industry - becomes one of the most urgent priorities.

- Petra Kelly

Petra Karin Kelly

Petra Karin Kelly

Petra Karin Kelly was a German Green politician, peace activist, ecofeminist activist, a prominent advocate of nonviolence and women's rights, prolific writer, leader of the worldwide fight against nuclear missiles and the 1980s 'green queen'. She was an icon of the global ban-the-bomb and peace movements and a protagonist for ecology and human rights. She was a founding member of the European Green Peace Movement. She was also one of the founders of the German Green Party in 1979, which she described as 'a non-violent ecological and fundamental-democratic anti-war coalition of parliamentary and extra-parliamentary grassroots oriented forces'. It was the first Green party to rise to prominence both nationally in Germany and worldwide. Gandhi and his principle of Nonviolence inspired her towards Green and peace. In 1982, Kelly had honoured with the Right Livelihood Award for "forging and implementing a new vision uniting ecological concerns with disarmament, social justice and human rights."

Early Life

Petra Karin was born into a devout family of Roman Catholics on November 29, 1947, in Gunzburg, Bavaria (then the American occupied Germany), as the daughter of Richard Siegfried Lehmann and Margarete Marianne. She attended English Institute for Catholic girls in Gunzburg from 1954–59 and U.S. Army base schools in West Germany. In her school life, she learned and followed the ethics of discipline and hard work. At the age of six, her parents divorced in 1954. In 1958 her mother married John E.Kelly, a U.S. Army Lt. Col. with whom the family went to the United States when Petra was 13. Her name was changed to Petra Karin Kelly after her mother's marriage with John Kelly. She attended schools in Georgia and Virginia and graduated with honours from Hampton High, Virginia in 1966. She studied Political Science and International Relations in the School of International Service at American University, Washington, D.C. from 1966 to 1970.

As a student, she was active in the anti-war, civil rights, anti-nuclear, and feminist movements. In the U.S., she witnessed the nonviolent civil rights movement and was deeply impressed. She was an admirer of Martin Luther King, Jr. and also concerned with the U.S. military engagement in Vietnam. In 1968 she volunteered in the presidential campaign for Senator Robert Kennedy who became her political idol.1 After the assassination of Kennedy she worked for Hubert Humphrey in the 1968 U.S. elections. Humphrey won the Democratic nomination but failed in the presidential race against Richard Nixon. The failed campaign gave Petra insight into both the cruelty and exhilaration of political campaigning. The brutal political violence expressed by the assassinations of the Kennedy and Martin Luther King made a strong impression on Kelly. It directed her towards nonviolence, Christian charity, solidarity, and foremost, worldwide peace. Witnessing the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia during a Prague visit in August 1968 caused her to adopt another principle: "Human rights may not be handled selectively."2

Nuclear Pollution and Cancer

She graduated with distinction in International Relations in 1970, and her fellow students voted her 'outstanding woman of the year'. That year her younger half-sister, Grace, died at the age of ten from eye cancer after three years of treatment. Four operations and radiation treatments had left her disfigured. Her suffering and courage throughout her illness had a profound influence on Kelly's life and work. Her sister’s death demonstrated in Kelly's view a dangerous modern syndrome: she called it the "cancerisation of the world, which is caused mainly by worldwide nuclear pollution."3 The struggle against the civil and military use of nuclear power and for mutual disarmament became the focus of her political work during the 1970s. She spoke on a global scale for cancer-ill children, victims of nuclear radiation, the impoverished, indigenous peoples, and women--as well as for trees, plants, animals, and all the "offspring of Mother Earth." Four years later, Petra, along with her grandmother Kunigunde Birle, founded the Grace P. Kelly Association after her sister Grace for the support of cancer research for children in Nuremberg. It spans European nations as a citizen action group studying the connection between children's cancer and the environment, in particular the nuclear industry. A sister project, offering psychosocial children's care, the Children's Planet had founded to care for children with life-threatening illnesses. Her sister has been the motivation for all her work and efforts within the anti-nuclear and anti-war movement.4

Petra later laboured tirelessly on behalf of children with cancer: she collaborated on a report on children and cancer for the European Commission. She wrote a book about children and cancer entitled Viel Liebe gegen Schmerz: Krebs bei Kindern (Love can Conquer Sorrow: Cancer in Children) in 1986. In the same year in which she pushed through a bill in German Parliament allocating two million marks for research into facilities for children with cancer. The death of her sister and the belief that environmental poisons caused her cancer sparked Kelly's life-long interest in environmental causes.5 She had sponsored a formerly orphaned Tibetan foster-daughter, Nima, adopting her in 1973.

Return to Europe

Kelly retained her (West) German citizenship throughout her life. She returned to Europe and graduated from the European Institute at the University of Amsterdam in 1971 with a Master's Degree for a thesis on European integration. At this time, she became increasingly critical about the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church but did not formally leave the church until 1980. Despite her doubts, Kelly never lost interest in questions of faith and remained deeply spiritual. For Kelly, politics needed spirituality. She registered for a doctorate with the Institute of Political Studies at the University of Heidelberg in 1972 but later abandoned doctoral research for political activism. Between 1971 and 1973 she gathered practical knowledge at the European Community Commission in and took a job in the Commission. In 1972 Kelly became active in the West German Federal Association of Citizens for Environmental Protection. At this time she also joined the Social Democratic Party of Chancellor Willy Brandt. She resigned from this seven years later in protest of the defence and energy policies of Helmut Schmidt, Brandt's successor.6

Public Life

In 1973 she became a full-time civil servant, employed by the European Community to deal with social and labour problems, public health, and various aspects of environmental protection. After working for two years, she moved to an administrative post at the Economic and Social Committee, where she championed women's rights. She studied the writings of Mahatma Gandhi and drew nonviolent inspiration from him. Sara Parkin, Kelly's biographer, says, "Petra's gods were Gandhi and Martin Luther King. Her bibles were Thoreau and Gene Sharp."7 She also interested in Buddhism. She befriended the Dalai Lama, with whom she travelled and appeared in public on several occasions.

From 1971 she actively participated in numerous peace and environmental campaigns in Germany and other countries. In 1975, Kelly was a speaker at the first demonstration against the "fast-breeding" nuclear reactor in Kalkar. In 1976 she travelled to Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In 1977 she undertook a lecture trip upon the invitation of the Australian anti-uranium movement. In 1979 Petra Kelly was the leading candidate of the Greens for European elections. She became ever more involved in politics. Toward the end of the 1970s, she organized rallies, wrote countless articles, gave innumerable speeches, and attempted to forge associations between the grassroots, anti-nuclear, and environmental groups in Germany. With the formation of the Bundesverband Bürgerinitiativen Umweltschutz (BBU), an umbrella organization for citizens' ecological action groups in 1972, Kelly became one of its first board members.

In her international political work and public speaking, Kelly concentrated on the four themes: peace and nonviolence, ecology, feminism and human rights, and the links between them. She used her status as the world's most famous 'Green' to bring her passionate concern for the rights of the victims of oppression and violence to the attention of everyone she met, from heads of government to groups of activists. Her grandmother Kunigunde Birle, a war widow, remained a central force in Petra's life; she supported Kelly's political endeavours, travelled with her to rallies, and allowed her apartment to use as Kelly's first campaign office. In the 1980s, Birle was well-known in Germany as the "green granny."8

Gandhi's inspiration

Green movements had always claimed an affinity with Mahatma Gandhi. The International Green Movement acknowledged Gandhi's inspiration. Petra Kelly had publicly asserted: "In one particular area of our political work we have been much inspired by Mahatma Gandhi. That is in our belief that a lifestyle and method of production which rely on an endless supply and great use of raw materials generate the motive for the violent appropriation of these raw materials from other countries. In contrast, responsible use of raw materials, as part of an ecologically oriented lifestyle and economy, reduces the risk that policies of violence will be pursued in our name".9 For Kelly, ‘non‑violence is a natural element which relies on the power of truth rather than the force of arms and flows from a sense of the underlying unity of all human beings.’

German Green Party

In March 1979 she took part in founding the "Other Political Association," called the Greens. The new party maintained the traditional goals of the West German citizen initiatives movement of the 1970s: the pursuit of ecological, social, grassroots democratic and nonviolent policies. It culminated in the protest against the 1979 NATO decision that scheduled the deployment of more U.S. first-strike missiles in the Federal Republic of Germany.10 Her activities in the Green Party made Kelly known to a broader public. In 1979 she had nominated for the European Parliament in Strasbourg. In March 1980 she was elected member and speaker of the Green Party's executive committee. She campaigned in the federal elections of 1980 as well as in the Bavarian state elections of 1982 but lost. Finally, the federal elections of 1983 brought overwhelming success. The Green Party gained over two million votes. Kelly, a member and speaker of the Green faction, entered the parliament.

Kelly referred to Die Grunen as an 'anti-party party'. She tried to create a culture of Gandhian-style civil disobedience permeating all levels of the polity. She wrote in her book Nonviolence Speaks to Power in 1992: "All of us in Germany would benefit if we were to learn at last the liberating and constructive art of civil disobedience - not just in the extra-parliamentary movement, but also within parliament and political parties. civil disobedience has to be practised in parliament or even within our party if we become too dogmatic, powerful, or arrogant."11 The vision he saw was not only a movement of direct democracy, of self- and co-determination and nonviolence but a movement in which politics means the power to love and the power to feel united on the spaceship Earth.12 How the Greens, particularly in Germany, adopted Gandhian techniques to arouse human consciousness and how they operationalised their strategy, and the bold assertions made by Petra Kelly about the way Gandhi influenced them, also indicate that it is not the cultural traditions of a country or continent that would make the efficacy of particular philosophy or attitude viable. Still, it is the willingness and readiness of people to react and respond that matters.13 Like Gandhi, Kelly's politics flowed from a deep inner spirituality. She firmly believed: "we cannot solve political problems without addressing our spiritual ones."14

In 1979, Kelly helped to found the German Green Party as "a nonviolent ecological and basic-democratic anti-war coalition of parliamentary and extra-parliamentary grassroots oriented forces."15 On January 12–13, 1980, the informal Alliance turned into a formal political party, Die Grunen (the Greens). Its new members agreed upon the "four pillars" of the Green Party: ecology, social responsibility, grassroots-democracy, and nonviolence. From March 1980 to November 1982, Kelly was one of three speakers of the Green Party. Along with Lukas Beckmann, Joseph Beuys, Rudi Dutschke, Milan Horacek, Roland Vogt, Gerda Degen, Halo Saibold and others from many ecologically concerned groups, Petra founded the Green Party in 1979. She became the spokesperson in 1980, holding that position until 1982.With this position, she became the first female head of a political party in Germany.


In her words, her party was "based on human solidarity and democracy among its members and the rejection of performance and hierarchy-oriented approach governed by rivalry hostile to life."16 Kelly said, "The spiritual dimensions of nonviolence as lived by Gandhi are to me most important."17 She claimed that her ecological values flowed from Gandhi: "In one particular area of our political work, we have been greatly inspired by Mahatma Gandhi. That is in our belief that a lifestyle and method of production which rely on an endless supply of raw materials and which use those raw materials lavishly, also furnish the motive for the violent appropriation of raw material from other countries. In contrast, a responsible use of raw materials, as part of an ecologically-oriented lifestyle and economy, reduced the risk that policies of violence will be pursued in our name. The pursuit of ecologically responsible policies within society provides preconditions for a reduction of tensions. It increases our ability to achieve peace in the world."18 Like Gandhi, Kelly was committed to active nonviolence and truth. Nonviolence for Kelly entailed "seeking opportunities for dialogue or taking actions which would liberate people from the violent system (of thinking) which prevented them from seeing the power of rightness of nonviolence."19

Gert Bastian

In 1980, Kelly was elected to the speaker's body of the first national executive committee of the Green Party. It was then that Petra met one of her fellow protestors, Gert Bastian, former German military officer. Before long, the two became a couple, and Gert left his wife and daughter. In November 1980 she and Gert Bastian initiated the Krefelder Appell against the stationing of Pershing II and Cruise missiles. They collected over five million signatures. She also was a co-initiator of the Bertrand Russell Campaign for a Nuclear-Free Europe.20

In 1981, Kelly was involved in a protest of 400,000 people in Bonn against nuclear weapons and spoke at the peace movement's first major rally in Bonn. In 1982, Gerhard Schroder wrote a contribution in Die Zeit for the book Prinzip Leben, edited by Kelly and Jo Leinen, which discussed ecological problems and a possible nuclear war. In the same year, Kelly received the Right Livelihood Award "for forging and implementing a new vision uniting ecological concerns with disarmament, social justice, and human rights."21

In Parliament

In 1983 she held over 450 meetings and lectures to get Greens elected to the German national Bundestag, the German Federal Parliament. Petra Kelly becomes its parliamentary group's speaker. She was subsequently re-elected in 1987 with a higher share of the vote. On May 12, 1983, Kelly, Gert Bastian and three other Green Bundestag members unfurled a banner on Alexanderplatz in East Berlin, which said "The Greens – Swords to Ploughshares".22 After being briefly arrested, they met with East German opposition parties. The East German authorities tolerated this since the West German Greens repudiated the NATO Double-Track Decision. In October 1983, Erich Honecker, the leader of the German Democratic Republic(GDR), met Kelly, Gert Bastian and other Greens. Kelly demanded the release of all prisoners of the East German Peace Movement and asked Honecker why he repressed something in the GDR which he supported in the West. Kelly wrote the book Fighting for Hope in 1984. The book is an urgent call for a world free from violence between North and South, men and women, we and our environment.

In 1985, together with Gert Bastian, she organized in Bonn the Forum Reconciliation (The Other America) with six hundred participants. With Gert Bastian and other Green MP's she also occupied for forty-eight hours the German Embassy in Pretoria to protest German economic ties with South Africa.

In 1987, Kelly was re-elected to the German Bundestag, but her party was badly defeated three years later at the first elections of a reunited Germany. In 1987, she participated in the Moscow Peace Forum, where she met with the Soviet dissident Andrei Sakharov and the Soviet head of state, Mikhail Gorbachev. From1988 to 1990, she served as chair of the German Association of Social Defence. In April 1989, with Gert Bastian, she organized the first international non-partisan hearing on Tibet and human rights. It was held in Bonn's Parliamentary House and brought together more than forty experts with six hundred other participants. This was followed by similar hearings in other countries. In 1987, 1989, and 1990 she introduced parliamentary resolutions condemning Chinese human rights and martial law violations in Tibet that were unanimously passed by the Bundestag in October 1990.

In 1990, Germany was seized by national euphoria and unification fever. For the West German Greens, who had opposed unification, it was a disastrous election, for they lost all their parliamentary seats. For Kelly, who had been dropped as a candidate, it was the last chapter of disillusionment with the party. She felt the loss of office deeply. Suddenly she had no secretary, no researcher and no free postal and telephone services. Then the salary stopped too. At the party conference in Neumunster, in 1991 Petra Kelly received only a few votes for her candidacy for the national executive board of the Greens.

In the final years of her life, Kelly became increasingly estranged from most of her party colleagues owing to the pragmatic turn taken by the Greens at the time. At the same time, she continued to oppose any alliance with traditional political parties. Kelly engaged with several issues at the global level – human rights, women's oppression, environment, structured violence of the military, nuclear issues, and the divide between the rich and the poor. Her main concern was poor and the oppressed and to this end, she said, "To my mind, the purpose of politics and political parties is to stand up for the weak, for those who have no lobby or other means of exerting influence… I view my political work as acting for and with people."23

In private life since 1991 she had been greatly in demand as a speaker and activist, receiving two hundred to three hundred letters each week. In January 1992, she began to moderate a weekly television program Five to Twelve on global environmental issues. Along with her political and environmental activism, as a prolific writer, Kelly published a volume of her most important articles, speeches, appeals, and letters under the title Fighting for Hope—the Nonviolent Way to a Green Future, with a foreword by the German writer and Nobel Peace Prize winner Heinrich Boll. She published several books viz., Nonviolence Speaks to Power, The Anguish of Tibet, Children's Cancer and Environmental Issues and Thinking Green! Essays on Environmentalism, Feminism and Nonviolence. She had written on Green issues together with Gert Bastian, whom she celebrates as her soulmate.


Kelly's last public appearances were in September 1992 at the World Uranium Hearing in Salzburg and the Global Radiation Victims' Conference in Berlin. Their presence was overwhelmingly forward-looking, courageous Petra Kelly and Gert Bastian. Nobody could believe that a few days later, the nice elderly gentleman would kill Petra Kelly. On September 26, 1992, Kelly and Bastian met with a publisher and a Buddhist teacher and writer. The spring of 1992 had not been easy for either Petra or Gert; Gert was knocked down by a taxi while crossing the street, Petra suffered a breakdown a few days later. Both of them checked into the Black Forest Clinic, and for the first time in years, they acknowledged the need to rest from their strenuous activities. She rarely slept more than four or five hours a night and was often likened by journalists and friends to a candle burning at both ends. Her slight frame and the dark circles around her eyes, which betrayed a chronic kidney disorder, gave her the appearance of frailty - yet she spoke with tireless energy. Up until her death, Petra would receive some 200 letters a day, and many simply addressed 'Petra Kelly, Germany.'

On their way home from Berlin to Bonn the night of October 1 1992, Petra and Gert had stopped to pay tribute at the Sachsenhausen memorial to victims of the Holocaust. Little did they suspect that within a few hours they too would join the death. On October 19 1992, the decomposed bodies of Kelly and her partner, ex-general and Green politician Gert Bastian, were discovered in her house in Bonn by police officials after they received a call from both Bastian's wife and Kelly's grandmother. She reported that they had not heard from either Bastian or Kelly for a few weeks. The police determined that Kelly was shot dead while sleeping by Bastian, who then killed himself. Police estimated the deaths had most likely occurred on October 1. Still, the exact time of death could not be pinpointed owing to the delay in finding the bodies and their resultant state of decomposition. Kelly had been killed with one shot in her left temple, while Bastian had perished from the impact of a single bullet through his forehead. There were no signs of struggle or disarray.24 Petra Kelly who met her death in Bonn in 1992 at the age of 44 was buried in the Waldfriedhof (forest cemetery) in Würzburg, near the village of Heidingsfeld in Lower Franconia, Bavaria. And, despite international pressure, have refused to reopen it.25 Petra Kelly's death remains a mystery to this day. Their murders were never investigated as such but quickly closed by the police as "murder-suicide" within 24 hours after her corpse was discovered. Most of her friends and colleagues disagreed with this determination. David Hardiman rightly points out, "Kelly's death represented a profound failure for the principle of nonviolence at the most personal of levels”.26


Kelly received Swedish Parliament's Right Livelihood Award (known as the Alternative Nobel Prize) in 1982 and Peace Prize of Women Strike for Peace in 1983. Sunday Times of London included her among one-thousand most influential personalities of the twentieth century in 1991. In 2006 Kelly was placed 45th in the UK Environment Agency's all-time list of scientists, campaigners, writers, economists and naturalists who, in its view, have done the most to save the planet. Kelly took position between the tropical ecologist Mike Hands and the national parks visionary John Dower.

To conclude, for nearly 20 years, Kelly, a charismatic, hard-working woman with global interests, lived a life of extraordinary intensity. She was a politician with no time for political parties and little for the art of compromise, a woman for whom there was no visible line between public and private concerns. Mahatma Gandhi had much inspired her political work. She was at one with Gandhi and King, in possessing a keen sense of the spiritual roots and strength of nonviolence. She was a driving force in founding The Greens, as well as a continual inspiration for the anti-nuclear movement. Kelly was an aggressive and tireless campaigner for peace and environmental issues and the feminist face of Germany's anti-nuclear movement in the 1980s and of the "anti-party" Greens Party, which spearheaded Europe's most powerful environmental movement. The Green Party, a non-violent, ecological and basic-democratic anti-war coalition of parliamentary and outer-parliamentary grass roots-oriented forces within the Federal Republic of Germany, was at the moment the only hope she had to change not only the system of structural and personal violence but also to find a way out of the insane policies of atomic deterrence. To further Petra Kelly's ideas and political message, the Petra Kelly Foundation was established in 1997, to recognise the people and civil society organisations for their outstanding achievements in respecting human rights, fostering non-violent conflict resolution, and protecting the environment with International Petra Kelly Prize.


  1. Encyclopedia of World Biography: Hoxha-Kierkegaardm, 1998 vol.8, p.486
  2. Petra Kelly
  3. Encyclopedia of World Biography: Hoxha-Kierkegaardm, 1987 vol.2, p. 284
  4. Right Livelihood Award, Acceptance Speech by Petra Kelly, December 9, 1982
  5. Stephen Milder, Petra Kelly and the Transnational Roots of Green Politics, Arcadia, 2013, no. 8
  6. Petra Kelly - New World Encyclopedia,
  7. Sara Parkin, The Life and Death of Petra Kelly, (London: Pandora, 1994), p. 106
  8. Kunigunde Birle (1905-2003) - Find A Grave Memorial,
  9. Claude Markovitz, The Un-Gandhian Gandhi: The Life and Afterlife of Mahatma (New Delhi: Permanent Black, 2004), p.72
  10. Gale Research Inc., Encyclopedia of World Biography, (Detroit: Gale Research, 1998),vol. 8, p. 487
  11. Petra K. Kelly, Nonviolence Speaks to Power, Glenn D. Paige and Sarah Gilliatt(ed.), (Honolulu: Center for Global Nonviolence, 2001), p.148
  12. Right Livelihood Award, Acceptance Speech by Petra Kelly, December 9, 1982
  13. N.Radhakrishnan, Lessons from Gandhiji's Life, Employment News, Editorial 44
  14. Petra K. Kelly, op.cit., p. 17
  15. Right Livelihood Award, Acceptance Speech by Petra Kelly, December 9, 1982
  16. Sara Parkin, op.cit., p. 131
  17. Petra K. Kelly, op.cit., p. 33
  18. Ibid
  19. Sara Parkin, op.cit., p. 108
  20. Sabel Hilton, What killed Petra Kelly?: They had been heroes of our time, www.independent., October 24 1992
  21. Acceptance speech -Petra Kelly - The Right Livelihood
  22. Charlie Connelly, Great European Lives: Petra Kelly, The New European > Brexit News, September 30, 2018
  23. Petra K. Kelly, op.cit., p. 125
  24. Chloe Aridjis,‘The Death of Petra Kelly’ Gert Bastian | Murderpedia, the encyclopedia of murderers, December 27, 2004
  25. Chloe Aridjis, 'The Death of Petra Kelly', People in Action, December 27, 2004
  26. David Hardiman, Gandhi: In His Time and Ours, (London: C. Hurst & Co. Publishers, 2003), p. 293

* Principal (Retd.), Kamarajar Govts. Arts College, Surandai, Tirunelveli Dist., Tamil Nadu. Email: