Europe, Headlines

GERMANY: A 1968 Legacy Lives On

Clive Freeman

BERLIN, Mar 25 2008 (IPS) - Forty years ago, student activists set out to change German society. Driven by their charismatic leader Rudi Dutschke, left-wing students in Berlin set up the Extraparliamentary Opposition (APO) to fight for a different society, a different political system and a different way of dealing with the nation's Nazi past.

What impact did the student movement that peaked in 1968 have on the Federal Republic of Germany, and what remains of its leftist philosophy in today's multicultural society?

A burly police water cannon in front of America Haus, the former U.S. Information Centre in Berlin, symbolises the turbulent 1968 period when German students battled with baton-wielding police, and the city echoed to the chants of "Ho Ho…Ho Chi Minh" (the communist Vietnamese leader who fought off colonialism).

Student anger reached its peak that year, as demonstrators protested against the U.S. War in Vietnam, against West Germany's allegedly repressive education system, emergency laws, and Greek military dictatorship. They turned to Ho Chi Minh, Chinese leader Mao Tse-Tung and Cuban President Fidel Castro for inspiration.

It was the year of protest in Europe. In Germany, sharp divisions existed between a generation that had fought in Hitler's armies, and a younger generation that grew up under West Germany's post-war democracy.

Student rebels had nothing in common with a generation that tolerated as the nation's then president Heinrich Luebke, a man suspected of having designed concentration camps, and accepted as its chancellor Kurt-Georg Kiesinger, who had been a member of the Nazi Party.

Germany's university system was still deeply conservative in the 1960s, with attitudes reflected in the lack of say for students in the governance of their universities. There was anger at a system that allowed many former Nazis to resume their work at the universities, and in the judiciary and government after the war.

The students reacted by preaching a theory of permanent revolution against what they saw as a rotten society. "Little had changed in spirit in our universities since the Middle Ages," says Richard 'Fred' Riedel, 72, once a close confidante of Rudi Dutschke. "Professors reigned over our lives like princes."

At the Cafe Savigny, a favourite watering hole of artists, writers and theatre people in Berlin, retired university lecturer Riedel sits at a table by the window, recalling in a conversation with IPS the hectic events of 1968.

Riedel says he admired Dutschke, who was shot and seriously wounded by a right-winger in Berlin on Apr. 11, 1968. "What I most liked about him was his truthfulness. There were no tricks. He rejected violence against people."

Dutschke was not one to hate, Riedel says. But his heavy shoulders, bony jaw and shock of black hair gave him an air of Celtic ferocity. This misled millions who, encouraged by the cartoons and abuse in some sections of the conservative press, saw in him some kind of "mad axe man" from the east. (Dutschke died in Denmark from the delayed effects of his wounds in 1979).

A newcomer to Berlin in those days, this IPS correspondent witnessed the explosion of student anger when first a demonstrator Benno Ohnesorg, 26, was shot and killed by a plainclothes officer on Jun. 2, 1967, during a protest against a visit by the Shah of Iran.

The attempt on Dutschke's life followed, sparking a wave of violent protest across the country. Some 400 students and dozens of police were injured in clashes. It was in this atmosphere that political terrorism was born in April 1968 when four firebombs caused a blaze in two Frankfurt department stores.

The Baader-Meinhof gang (Red Army Faction, RAF) had formed, and would begin to wage a well-organised terrorist campaign against the state that would last almost two decades. But there was never a direct link between the APO and the RAF.

Riedel says the student movement failed to bring about changes in the political system, economy and workplace, but it did sharpen German awareness of injustice and wrongdoing in the world. It also "sensitised" society about Germany's Nazi past, helped the progress of women, and boosted civil rights and ecological movements, he said.

But the movement never won the backing of West Berlin workers and trade unionists, many of whom accused the students of being communist sympathisers. "They (the trade unions) never understood the students' motives," argues Riedel.

"It was the time of the post-war economic miracle (Wirtschaftswunder) in Germany. Most Germans were just happy to be in work, have a car and enough money to take the family on a holiday in Italy. Only later did Germans become more critical about world events," says Riedel.

Serbian-born Zlatomir Popovic, 69, who arrived in Berlin via Paris in the mid-1960s to study at the city's Free University, became an active member of the Socialist Students Union (SDS). He blames Berlin's then hardline police chief for helping radicalise West Berlin students in those years.

"They made Dutschke out to be a wild figure when in truth he was a decent fellow, seriously concerned about the state of the world," Popopvic told IPS. Although by the end of the 1960s the APO's activities had declined, the student battle went on – in communist groups, in the Social Democratic Party (SPD) and later in the Green Party, and within the framework of families, schools, public institutions and universities.

Heidemarie Wieczoreck-Zeul, Germany's development aid minister, was one of those active in the student movement 40 years ago, as also were former SPD Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder and former foreign minister Joschka Fischer of the Green Party.

This spring, a flood of lectures, concerts, exhibitions, art and film performances take place in Berlin, as the nation ponders the events of 1968 and debates whether or not the student movement helped liberalise post-war German society.

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