Martine & Stephen

Batchelor

This memoir of a meeting with the German Green political activists Petra Kelly and Gert Bastian in Berlin four days before their deaths was published in Resurgence, no. 156, Jan/Feb 1993.

Imagine returning to your desk to continue writing a letter in which you were interrupted in the middle of a word, having typed, say, “e-n-i” leaving “g-m-a” still to be completed.

Any typist knows how one writes blocks of words or clusters of thoughts, without being aware of the individual letters (unless uncertain of the spelling).  Even when my wife calls me with some urgency in her voice, I finish at least the word – more likely the sentence (it usually only takes a few seconds) befoe getting up to do what she asks.  But to be pulled away from a letter in the middle of a wordsuggests a sudden, unexpected and shocking interruption: like a stranger abruptly appearing unannounced in the room; a scream; a gunshot from a bedroom upstairs.

I did not know Gert Bastian and Petra Kelly well.  I met them only twice: once with Arnie Kotler, our common friend and publisher, over a dinner of intense, animated discussion at an outdoor café on the Kurfürstendamm in Berlin, then again briefly, the following afternoon at a Buddhist conference we were attending in the city.  Only the dates make the meetings significant: Saturday 26 and Sunday 27 September, 1992.  Gert and Petra left Berlin the following Wednesday afternoon to arrive home in Bonn late that night.  The next morning they were both lying dead from gunshot wounds.

According to official reports, in the early hours of the morning, half way through typing the word müssen in a letter to his lawyer, Gert Bastian was abruptly wrenched away from his typewriter either by the compulsion to kill his lover and companion of the past nine years and then shoot himself, or by the sudden urge to go upstairs to her bedside to carry out a suicide pact.  He took his twin-barrelled, .38 caliber derringer pistol, shot her in the left temple and then shot himself in the crown of his head.  The badly decomposed bodies were discovered by police nearly three weeks later on Monday 19th October.  The electric typrwriter was still humming.  Powder burns were found on Gert’s hand.  “Murder by third parties,” declared the Bonn prosecutor’s office the next day, “is certainly excluded.”

In the café on the Kurfürstendamm, Petra and I ordered tortellini, Arnie a salad and Gert a potato broth.  Petra discoursed incessantly on her current passions, with Gert injecting brief supportive comments in his softly caring voice.  She told us of a film they had seen that afternoon on the effects of radiation on the children of Chernobyl; she predicted that the extreme right would win seats in the Bundestag at the next election; she admired the sweet mournful voice of a Vietnamese nun we had heard sing that morning; she bemoaned the fact that the principles of Green politics seemed incompatible with the holding of power.  Her eyes were like animated emeralds, glittering from the dark brown pools that encircled them.

I need to be careful; for already I find my recollections of our meeting blurred and tainted by the media’s explanations for their deaths.  “A deeply exhausted and increasingly neurotic Petra Kelly held on tightly in a suffocating symbiosis with the aged general,” wrote Der Spiegel.  Such snippets combine to form a perception in the public eye that seems to make sense of what happened.  As we ate dinner I did not know that Gert was a former major-general.  In fact, I knew nothing about him or their relationship.  I was interested only in meeting Petra.  Later that night, I dictated my impressions of the day into a tape-recorder.  “She’s a very intense, passionate, obsessed woman,” I said.  “Her husband/friend/partner is a very sweet, elderly man.  They are both very committed and inspiring.”

History is a selection of memories credibly arranged in chronological order.  The episodes of which it is formed are, as Voltaire noted, convenient fictions. The evidence – powder burns, increasing neurosis, despair about Germany’s future, political marginalization – is structured to assure both author and reader alike that things really did happen in the way they have been described.  No matter how Gert and Petra died, their lives are now history.  They have joined those mute, powerless faces about whom endless stories can be spun but who can never answer back.

As the evening grew late a chill breeze wafted up the Kurfürstendamm.  I doubted whether Petra would ever pause long enough for me to ask the question that burned on my lips.  As part of my research into a book on Buddhism in Europe (The Awakening of the West), I wanted to hear her account of the Dalai Lama’s brief stopover in Berlin in December 1989 on his way to receive the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo.  I seized a rare gap in the rush of syllables.

She and Gert had arranged the visit, she said.  At the time they were both members of the Bundestag and were pressing the German government to take a more pro-Tibetan stance.  By chance, the Tibetan leader arrived on the very day when Egon Kranz was toppled from power and East Germany was plunged into a leaderless uncertainty. 

As the Dalai Lama recalls in his autobiography Freedom in Exile, he as able – “thanks to the co-operation of the East German authorities” – to stand by the crumbling Berlin Wall in full view of a still-manned security tower.  An old woman handed him a red candle, which he lit and held up.  “For a moment the tiny dancing flame threatened to go out, but it held and, while a crowd pressed round me, touching my hands, I prayed that the light of compassion and awareness would fill the world and dispel the fear and oppression.”

Petra laughed as I recounted the episode.  Not only was the “old woman” the young East German human rights activist Bärbel Bohley, the “crowd” was a hand-holding circle of radicals from both Germanies, including Gert and herself, and the location was unambiguously the East Berlin side of the wall.  Against all regulations, Petra had made an official government car available for the Dalai Lama and his staff to cross into the Soviet zone at Checkpoint Charlie.  “I was very afraid,” she remembers the Dalai Lama telling her.  Having performed the ceremony, they were escorted by the East German Secret Police (Stasi) to a Jewish old people’s home, where His Holiness laid a white Tibetan offering scarf on a gravestone that stood as a memorial outside.  The party was then driven to a meeting of the “Round Table of the Citizen’s Action Movement.”

By now I was scribbling Petra’s words on to a paper napkin.  This was the first time the Dalai Lama had encountered “a genuinely revolutionary situation,” she said.  With the fall of Kranz, the Communist Party had lost its grip on power.  In the chaotic but potent vacuum that now prevailed, the Citizen’s Action Movement was confident that it would take over the government to create an independent, demilitarized, nuclear-free and environmentally aware East German state, which would subscribe neither to the capitalist nor communist dogmas.  The Dalai Lama was assured that he would be the first official guest of the new rulers, who also promised to recognize the independence of Tibet.

She recalled how both the Dalai Lama and the aspiring government were deeply moved by the meeting.  She also remembered the nervousness of his staff, some of whom wanted to cut the meeting short and hasten back to the safety of the West.  The dreams of the Citizen’s Action Movement were never to be realized. They had underestimated the power of the West German institutions to control the course of events.  Within a matter of weeks the stage was set for the reunification as defined by the Federal Republic.

Petra’s heartfelt respect for the Dalai Lama often clashed with her frustration with his political advisors, whom she considered largely reactionary and ill-informed.  She told us how she and Gert would insist on meeting His Holiness alone, so she could vent her passion freely and he could speak frankly with them.  The autobiography’s failure to mention the meeting with the Citizen’s Action Movement could simply reflect a concern of the Dalai Lama’s staff that His Holiness would be associated with a failed political movement.  History is a process of selection: its convenient fictions as much a reflection of what one chooses to omit as what one decides to include.

It was nearly eleven o’clock.  Arnie made some final arrangements about a manuscript of speeches and essays that Petra had just given him to publish. Gert stood up to take a photograph.  Arnie, Petra and I moved our chairs together to get into the picture.  The flash didn’t work.  Petra jumped up and took the camera from Gert, who sat down in her place.  We smiled.  She pressed the shutter.  The flash dazzled us.  It was the last frame on the roll of film.

The second and last time we met was at two o’clock the following afternoon when I bumped into them in the foyer of the conference hall.  Petra mentioned that she had caught a slight chill from sitting outside so late.  As a result of her staying in bed that morning they had missed the conference’s concluding panel discussion.  They were in the same buoyant spirits as the night before.  We shook hands and said goodbye.

They arrive at their small terraced house in Bonn late on Wednesday night and go straight to bed.  As is his habit, Gert rises in the early hours of the morning, dresses in shirt and trousers and sits at his desk.  He types a letter to his estranged wife Charlotte in a casual, chit-chat tone, and seals it in an envelope.  He inserts another sheet of paper in the typewriter and begins writing to his lawyer.  He stops after typing the letters “m-ü-s”. 

October 20th.  I am staying with friends in Big Sur, California, idly gazing at the sun-speckled Pacific while breakfast is being prepared.  Arnie Kotler and his wife Therese had driven down the day before.  Now they are strolling in the garden on the clifftop.  It’s a holiday, a reunion.  The phone rings.  A friend from Berkeley announces in a shocked and urgent voice what he has just picked up on cable TV:  Petra Kelly has been murdered, probably by Gert Bastian.  No dates, no details.  Arnie and Therese come in, relaxed and smiling.  They sit down.  I tell them.

Two days later Arnie and I issue a statement describing our meeting.  “The relations between them seemed caring, relaxed and intimate,” we write.  “Since the entire tenor of their presence was overwhelmingly forward-looking, courageous and life-affirming, we cannot believe that either Gert would murder Petra and then take his own life or they would both choose to die as part of a suicide-pact.”

Now, a week later, my certainty is being upset by a flood of counter evidence from the media.  A court psychiatrist in Berlin explains that the tragedy obeyed the “specific laws” peculiar to their kind of relationship.  Close friends of Gert Bastian suggest a tragic “accident” in his heart or brain that triggered the fatal deed.  In the very course of writing this piece, I have typed “e-n-i-g-m-a” in the opening paragraph rather than “m-u-r-d-e-r”.

I cannot reconcile the memory of those two compassionate and vital people sitting across the café table with the image of their bullet-pierced, decomposing corpses.  I cannot accept that I would not have noticed at least some indication of the fate that would befall them four days later.  I cannot bear the awful possibility that people so committed to the exposure of injustice and the relief of suffering might be presenting a brave façade that conceals their own unbearable agony.

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