Germany Year 1968: Democratic Turning Point or Annus Terriblis? Germany’s debate over the rebellious sixties has everything to do with the present

“The upper hand in the interpretation of the past determines who will hold power in the future; this is why the historical view of the victor is always so vigorously contested.”  — German historian Edgar Wolfrum

There’s no place like Germany for wrenching, introspective public debates over national history and collective memory. This phenomenon itself is one of the legacies of the 1967-1969 student movement, known in shorthand here as “’68,” and last year – once again on an anniversary decade– the subject of bitter dispute. Like the hard-fought “historians’ controversy” of the 1980s over Germans’ understanding of the Nazi past,[1] this row is inextricably bound up with the present and the future: the historical legacy of the late sixties has been instrumental in shaping socio-cultural values in the Federal Republic and providing both legitimacy and orientation to progressive leftist movements and parties. It has thus been fiercely contested terrain ever since and this most anniversary, the 40th, was no exception. A critical reexamination of the anti-establishment, countercultural uprising that had peers across the globe filled the pages of newspapers and spawned dozens of new books and films.

The student movement, which in past years had been credited with the “fundamental liberalization”[2] of postwar Germany and extolled as a “second founding of the republic”[3] was being compared to the far-right German student movement of the 1930s and blamed with societal ills from teenage dereliction to the sagging birth rate. This reconfiguration is a process that is happening at a time when left liberal forces inGermany today, which consider themselves the heirs of ’68, are disoriented and lagging badly in the polls. Although there is little chance of a full-scale roll back of the progressive advances made in the “culture wars” of the 1970s and 80s — nor of a re-nationalization of German political culture — the socio-cultural assumptions of theBerlinRepublic remain disputed. WithGermany almost certainly entering a new conservative era, the place of the tumultuous sixties in the republic’s historical narrative is being challenged anew.

The current controversy must be distinguished from the efforts of German conservatives who have long tried to discredit the student movement and the kulturrevolution that followed in its wake. The modernizing tremors that reverberated from the sixties changed the way Germans thought about sexuality, gender, child-rearing, education, authority, the nation, civic responsibility, and the relationship of the Nazi past to the German present. This more liberal, heterogeneous republic jettisoned much of traditional Germanness–especially that considered tainted by Nazism — and introduced new lifestyle choices, from alternative family models to homosexuality. German conservatives argue that this process undermined Germans’ respect for law, the work ethic, the nuclear family, and the patria. The editor of the mass-circulation daily Bild-Zeitung, Kai Dieckman, recently summed up many conservatives’ feelings about ’68 as an “epochal shift [in German society] in the direction of egocentrism, mediocrity, and laziness.”[4] The current pope, Benedict XVI, a German who studied at West German universities in the sixties, claims that 1968 was where Germany, and indeed all of Western culture, took a wrong turn, from which it has yet to right itself.[5]

The difference between this cultural warfare and the present debate is that today’s critique issues from the ranks of the “’68ers” themselves. While their intent is not to restore the conservative mores of the 1950s, the impact of a debate that distorts the legacy of the student uprising in the long-term could lead to an erosion of the liberal postulates that underpin the post-1968 republic — the very issues at stake in the culture wars. Certainly it would deprive progressive forces of one of their most important sources of legitimacy at a time when they are out of power and in the midst of a painful realignment. A public debate over the West German student movement and its legacy  — including its flaws — is fully legitimate, but some of the present discussion lapses into populism. On the other hand, aspects of the inquiry are overdue and pose searching questions that this precocious generation has long evaded.

The German Studentenbewegung, 1967-1969

Although there had been growing student activism throughout the course of the 1960s, including protests against the US war in Vietnam since early 1966, leftist-minded West German students were outraged when, in December 1966, the opposition Social Democrats (SPD) and the party’s popular chairman, Willy Brandt, joined in a ruling “grand coalition” with the Christian Democrats, whose chancellor candidate was Kurt Georg Kiesinger, a former Nazi party member. The formation of the grand coalition convinced many that opposition could now only come from outside the structures of power, in the form of “extraparliamentary opposition.” Though the studentenbewegung had much in common with other like-minded movements around the world, these young Germans (born roughly between 1940 and 1950) had come of age in the shadow of the Nazi dictatorship. The conservative postwar governments led by Christian Democrat Konrad Adenauer had set aside a coming to terms with the Nazi past in order to get on with the business of stabilizing the war-ravaged country. From the very beginning the German student movement had a strong generational component: these young Germans took their parents and teachers to task for their complicity in and silence over the Nazi crimes. Armed with the critical theory of the New Left, they saw in the Federal Republic an authoritarian society that retained much of the ethos of National Socialism; evidence of this continuity was that former Nazis held leading positions in the universities, commerce, and the justice system, as well as government.

The breadth and tenor of the protests changed dramatically with the killing of student activist Benno Ohnesorg on June 2, 1967. Ohnesorg was shot by a West Berlin police officer during demonstrations against the Shah of Iran’s visit toWest Germany. Furious, students took to the streets and the ranks of the previously obscure Socialist German Student Association (SDS) swelled with new members. By 1967 the students also had a charismatic frontman by the name of Rudi Dutschke, a 27-year old sociology student. A gifted speaker, Dutschke was the face of a movement that espoused an undogmatic, anti-authoritarian socialism as an alternative to free-market capitalism and “bourgeois democracy” in the West, and the Soviet-style communism of the East. Another icon of the German student uprising was the Kommune I co-op inWest Berlin, a real-life experiment in communal living, free love, and drug-induced spirituality.

The student movement was in full swing inWest Germany’s university towns when in April 1968 a right-wing assailant shot Dutschke inWest Berlin. The man, who called Dutschke a “dirty communist pig” before firing on him, was in possession of newspapers published by the conservative Springer publishing house, which demonized Dutschke and portrayed the students as violent communist rabble-rousers. As Dutschke lay critically wounded in the hospital, riots broke out across theFederalRepublic. Stones and Molotov cocktails rained on the Springer facilities, presenting the country on the frontline of the Cold War with the gravest crisis of its existence. Dutschke’s shooting as well as the assassinations that year of Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy, the crushing of the Prague Spring, the rioting at the Democrats’ convention inChicago, and the passage of the notorious Emergency Law (a statute giving the West German executive special emergency powers), were blows from which the movement never recovered. By late 1969 the student uprising was a spent force and the SDS was splintering into sectarian groupings. No single unifying figure emerged to replace Dutschke and the SDS was officially dissolved in early 1970.

At the time, most of the student rebels concluded that their revolt had failed: it hadn’t stopped the Vietnam War, blocked the Emergency Law, mobilized the working class (as their French and Italian counterparts did, briefly), or so much as dented the Federal Republic’s structures. In its aftermath the ex-student partisans scattered across the left side of the republic’s political spectrum. Many, inspired by the new Brandt-led government that came to power in 1969, joined the Social Democrats.[6] Others struck out on their own engaging in single-issue grassroots projects called citizens’ initiatives, many of which focused on women’s and environmental issues. Yet there were others too, like the 22-year old Joschka Fischer, who refused to give up on revolutionary socialism. An eclectic array of Maoist, Leninist, and anarchist groups set out to do what the students couldn’t, namely to inspire the German working class and, ultimately, to overturn a state that they understood as proto-fascist.

Anniversaries Past

The first ten-year anniversary of the student revolt, in 1977-1978,[7] was anything but celebratory. It coincided with the harrowing German Autumn of 1977, the height of Red Army Faction (RAF) terror and, in response to it, the state’s crackdown on the entire West German left. The myriad of New Left groups and Marxist splinter parties that understood themselves as the studentenbewegung’s heirs were in disarray, shocked by their own violence and that of the authorities. Most of them acknowledged that they had also failed to entice the working class. With their radical agenda in tatters, the revolutionary project begun in the 1960s came to an end. Some of the radical left, like the anarcho-syndicalist Joschka Fischer, retreated from political activity altogether, deeply disillusioned with New Leftism and bitterly distrustful of the Federal Republic. As for ordinary Germans, the Bild-Zeitung summed up the feelings of many lumping the ‘68ers and the RAF together as “Hitler’s children.”[8]

It was in the wake of the New Left’s foundering in the late 1970s that the concept of the protest movement veterans as a distinct “generation” began to take hold: it encompassed those who shared the experience of the student revolt and peers who shared their socio-cultural affinities. Until then, the left had rejected the label of “generation” as being unpolitical and diffuse: it referred to a broad category of people of a certain age group rather than a specific political project or movement. But by 1978 this had begun to change: in the New Left journal Kursbuch one prominent author admitted that the “we” of the movement and a common socialist utopia had been replaced by a “we” of those in their mid-thirties who identified themselves in terms of the cultural revolution.[9]  The unity of the greater West German left was thus – at least culturally – reconstituted [reasserted].

Tellingly, the activists behind the citizen’s initiatives and the New Social Movements (NSM) that emerged from them in the mid-1970s (the environmental, the women’s, and the anti-nuclear energy campaigns) let the first ten-year anniversary pass without much ado. Although these movements and the civic imperative that empowered them would have been unthinkable without the student uprising, the grassroots campaigns didn’t consider themselves following in the footsteps of the student rebels in the same way that the New Leftists did. The citizens’ groups and social movements were far broader, incorporating urban and rural activists, different generations, and more equal numbers of women and men, many of whom didn’t see themselves as “left” at all. Moreover, in the late 1970s these diverse movements weren’t bemoaning a failed project but rather experiencing an unprecedented mass mobilization. They were also in the process of building “green” electoral slates to run in local elections —  the precursors to the Green Party, which would come to life in 1979.

Ten years later, in 1988, the twentieth anniversary of the student movement was another story entirely: the ’68 generation, as the ex-student partisans now proudly referred to themselves, gushed with confidence and self-congratulation. The labels “’68 generation” and “’68er” constituted an ersatzidentität for protest movement progeny that had the distinct advantage of enabling them to speak in the name of a whole generation associated with modernization rather than a diminutive revolutionary subject on the fringes of society.[10] Moreover, the assumptions of the kulturrevolution now prevailed across large swathes of West German society; counterculture blended into and transformed the cultural mainstream. In a way that the activists of 1968 could never have foreseen, their experimentation with alternative lifestyles and questioning of societal norms had set processes in motion that changed the way Germans thought, lived, and loved. The ‘68ers basked in the glow: “Everyone loves 1968,”[11] one commentator wrote in 1988.

Sixty-eight received such good press not least because the German media was now full of ‘68ers. Uniquely, the ‘68ers were able to write their own script, which for years enabled them to dress up past exploits and gloss over less noble aspects of the student uprising. Indeed, by the late 1980s their “long march through the institutions” of the republic was well underway: The movement veterans had inundated not only the media but the school systems, the social services, the universities, and many professional fields like psychiatry and law. And this entry into the institutions didn’t preclude civic activism: in the early eighties several million protested the deployment of additional nuclear missiles in northern Europe, reflecting a new critical geist that challenged authority but not the state itself. In 1983, the Greens, a grab-bag of activists from the NSM and the detritus of the New Left parties, put 28 people into the Bundestag thus infiltrating one of the establishment’s last bastions. Just two years later the ex-anarchist Joschka Fischer assumed a ministerial post in one of the laender (regional states). The ‘68ers – and most observers as well — were convinced that before the decade was out their march would end in the chancellor’s office, in the capitalBonn.

Five years later, the student movement’s 25th anniversary in 1993 happened against an altogether different backdrop, with the Greens and the SPD nowhere near power. The collapse of Soviet communism had resulted in German unification, something that the ’68 generation had neither foreseen nor desired. They were children of the old Federal Republic who had grown up in a Cold War-divided Germany and harbored a deep suspicion of nationalism, particularly of the German variety. Germany’s division was the rightful price that Germans had “paid for Auschwitz.”[12] The Greens opposed unification until long after it was a fait accompli. And even though most of the German left had been harshly critical of East Bloc communism, the ungracious demise of “real existing socialism” implicitly delegitimized its agenda and the possibility of new left-wing experiments. Whatever one may have thought of the Soviet system, free-market capitalism was now triumphant. Quite suddenly, the student rebels’ utopias of the past looked infantile, if not destructive, and the right was able to reoccupy the high ground of interpretive authority. In an article entitled “The Generation of Failures,”[13] historian Kurt Sontheimer lambasted the ’68ers’ “ideological escapades” as “reactionary” and their influence on the republic as harmful in almost every way: “It is only because [the Federal Republic’s] democracy could assert itself over and against the protest movement … that it was possible to chase the genie [of the ‘68ers] back into its bottle and, in the end, integrate this generation into the political system.” Its legacy, he concludes, is political chaos (the Greens), a value-free society, naïve pacifism, and discursive intolerance.

A further blow, theFederalRepublic’s new citizens – 17 million eastern Germans – neither shared the experiences ofWest Germany’s ‘68 generation nor its post-materialist credo. The backlash of unification and the new conservatism had immediate political consequences: in 1990 (and again in 1994) the conservative government led by Christian Democrat Helmut Kohl swept to victory. His party’s 1990 campaign slogan was “no more experiments.” The Greens experienced an electoral debacle that could be traced straight back to their ambivalent response to unification: for the first time since 1983 the party failed to win representation in the Bundestag.

Five years later, in 1998, the tables turned again. Unification euphoria had petered out as had unsuccessful attempts by conservatives to “re-nationalize” the country. A Social Democrat-Green (“red-green”) government replaced the conservatives after 15 years in power. The ’68 generation was back en vogue, the heroes of the moment, its most prominent faces being foreign minister Joschka Fischer and the new SPD chancellor, the’68 fellow traveller Gerhard Schröder. The red-green administration was hailed as the “political project of the ‘68 generation” and the government’s cabinet was stocked with protest movement progeny who radiated modernity, change, and cool. Weaving the movements of the 60s and 70s into the narrative ofGermany’s liberalization, the first postwar-born leadership took credit for theBerlinRepublic’s cultural modernization and its place in the European mainstream.

2008: Twilight of the ‘68ers

The 40th anniversary of the student revolt this year comes at a conspicuous moment for the ’68 generation itself: in their sixties, they are nearing the end of their professional lives. Schröder and Fischer, for example, who left office when the red-green administration was voted out of power in 2005, are no longer involved in domestic politics. The “political project of the ’68ers” is considered to have run its course. In politics, as well as elsewhere, the protest generation is making way for younger generations for whom 1968 is a historical footnote. The new chancellor, Angela Merkel, is from eastern Germany, and like her fellow easterners feels no special connection to the West German 60s. She even disputes that the changes brought about by the protest movements have anything to do with her becoming Germany’s first woman chancellor.[14]

Although the ’68ers may be retiring, they continue to dominate the debates about 1968’s legacy. But in contrast to previous skirmishes, this time the gravest detractors come from their own leagues. Politically, the discussion comes at a time when the Greens are in opposition and unsure of the way forward in the post red-green world. The Social Democrats, though sharing power with the Christian Democrats in a grand coalition, find themselves in deep crisis, haemorrhaging voters and party members faster than ever before. Moreover, a new left-wing party, the Left Party, seems to have found a place in the German political landscape, signalling the necessity of a realignment of the republic’s left-wing parties.

The most current re-evaluation of ’68 began well before 2008, in fact it commenced shortly after the fireworks of 1998. The single most crucial event was the rise and fall of the red-green government, so closely associated as it was with the sixties. For its loyalists, the administration etched into law an array of progressive measures that reflected the essence of the protest movements: liberal citizenship and gay marriage statutes, anti-discrimination law, and ground-breaking environmental measures, including the phasing out of nuclear energy. Yet the red-green coalition left office not with a bang but with a whimper, and its accomplishments are not generally touted. Leftist sceptics argue that the red-green leadership compromised so much, on so many core issues [examples?] that its record amounts to a betrayal of the movements that brought the Greens to life and catapulted red-green coalitions to power across the country. Furthermore, the red-green government took Germanyto war for the first time since World War II, in Kosovo and then in Afghanistan. Although Schröder and Fischer stood up to the U.S.on Iraq, Schröder reverted to nationalist populism on the campaign trail in 2002. Perhaps most egregiously, the Social Democrat-led coalition embarked a neo-liberal economic course that cut taxes for the well-off and reduced welfare benefits for the jobless. By 2005 the coalition lacked the majority it needed to continue and in early elections it was soundly voted out of office, replaced by the present conservative-led government. “The retreat of the generation that influenced every aspect of our society since 1968 has begun,” announced the weekly Die Zeit. In a multi-page spread entitled “Democrats in Spite of Themselves,”[15] the middle-of-the-road weekly Focus wasted no time in demolishing “the myths of 1968:” the student protesters didn’t liberalize the Federal Republic, the author argued, but rather the country became liberal in spite of the Marxist radicals.

It was, however, a series of episodes in 2000 and 2001 that restarted the debate over 1968 — and first threw a distinctly negative light on it so soon after the inauguration of the red-green administration. Although it was well-known that the Greens’ Joschka Fischer had been an anarchist during the 70s, many Germans were not aware of the details of his part in the fierce street militancy of those years and his group’s relationship to the urban guerrilla factions. Bits and pieces about Fischer’s past trickled out slowly, beginning with the trial in early 2000 of one of his less reputable street fighting comrades, Hans-Joachim Klein, who was charged with murder in a 1975 terrorist attack in Vienna. Fischer, though not involved in Klein’s guerrilla troupe, was required to testify at his trial. Shortly thereafter, information emerged that Fischer’s co-op inFrankfurtmight have sheltered a RAF fugitive. Another awkward fact surfaced, namely that as an SDS activist Fischer had attended a PLO solidarity congress inAlgiersin 1969.

While these events provided grist for the opposition’s mills, it was in January 2001 that the monthly Stern dropped a bombshell: a series of black-and-white photos showed Fischer in 1973, then 25-years old, doling out a beating to a Frankfurt police officer together with two accomplices. Fischer is head-to-toe in leather and wearing a menacing black motorcycle helmet. The source of the incriminating photos contributed to the sensational nature of the revelations: it was Bettina Röhl, the daughter of the late Ulrike Meinhof, one of the founding members of the RAF. Even, it seemed, their own children were turning on the ‘68ers.[16] The flood gates were now wide open and a cascade of questions, charges, and incriminations followed about the ’68ers’ relationship to violence, terrorism, and the rule of law in general. ”Can a man who threw stones and beat up police officers represent the Federal Republic and the chancellor to the rest of the world?” asked the newsweekly Der Spiegel.[17] Although the scandal faded away with Fischer still in his office, much to conservatives’ dismay, the brouhaha brought one of the less flattering aspects of the era to light and posed serious questions about the radicalism of those years — more were to come.

Right on its heels, for example, came the publication of independent scholar Gerd Koenen’s Das rote Jahrzehnt: Unsere kleine deutsche Kulturrevolution, 1967-1977.[18] Koenen coined the term “red decade” to refer to the journey of the extraparliamentary left from Ohnesorg’s death (1967) to the German Autumn (1977). The two moments of violence as bookends for the years under study reflects the gist of his thesis, namely that violence was integral to the era. Moreover, “red decade” implicitly excludes the civic-minded products of the studentenbewegung, such as the citizens’ initiatives and the NSM. Koenen, a veteran of theFrankfurt radical left himself, treats the student revolt as a farce perpetuated by middle-class kids with father complexes. The self-important students stuffed themselves with Marxist jargon and became convinced that they were among the vanguard of a worldwide revolution. The ‘68ers’ theoretical framework — from Adorno to Mao — contributed to the radicalization that culminated in the terror of the armed factions.

Two works by historian Wolfgang Kraushaar released in 2005 were even more consequential. Kraushaar is the pre-eminent chronicler of Germany’s postwar social movements and has contributed mightily to their study. Like Koenen, he also marched in the late 1960s and went the way of the radical splinter parties in the seventies. Until 2005 Kraushaar counted as one of the more enthusiastic pro-’68 voices in Germany. “1968” was, in his words, “the year that changed everything.”[19] This, however, changed with the publication of Die Bombe im Jüdischen Gemeindehaus[20] and Rudi Dutschke Andreas Baader und die RAF.[21] [note to eds.: there is no comma between Dutschke and Andreas in the book’s title]The former presented the startling revelation that in late 1969 a guerrilla group calling itself the Tupamaros West-Berlin[22] had planted a bomb in Berlin’s Jewish Community Center. The devise was anticipated to explode on November 9, 1969, (the anniversary of Reichskristallnacht) when several hundred visitors, including Holocaust survivors, would be there for a commemorative event. The plot’s mastermind was Dieter Kunzelmann, a leading student activist and co-founder of the legendary Kommune I. The bomb failed to detonate, and information about the group and the attack lay buried in archives for decades. Extrapolating from the episode, Kraushaar draws larger conclusions about anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism in the latter years of the student movement. While the charge of anti-Semitism in the 1970s New Left was nothing new, its currency in the student movement was thought to have been less tangible. Although SDS had been firmly pro-Israel in the fifties and into the sixties, for example actively facilitating kibbutz exchanges and lobbying for Israel’s recognition, many students adopted the Palestinians’ cause after the Six Day War in June 1967 (which broke out just days after the killing of Ohnesorg) and began criticizing Israel as the US’s bridgehead in the Middle East. Kraushaar argues that the students’ assumption that as leftist anti-fascists they were somehow immune to anti-Semitism hindered a constructive processing of anti-Semitic continuities in their thinking and preserved them under the guise of anti-Zionism and even philo-Semitism. For some, like the Tupamaros West-Berlin, the Middle East replaced Vietnam as the central theater of the anti-imperialist struggle, Israel replaced the US as the main enemy, Zionism replaced fascism, Al-Fatah replaced the Viet Cong, and the Palestinians replaced the Jews as the victims. According to Kraushaar, the thin philo-Semitism of the student movement was punctured easily, opening the door to the more blatant forms of anti-Semitism.

The second jolt delivered by Kraushaar concerned Rudi Dutschke, the iconic student leader who was shot in 1968 and died from attendant complications in 1979. As symbol and martyr of the movement, Dutschke’s reputation had been sacrosanct — at least on the left. He was the eloquent proponent of SDS’s anti-authoritarian wing, and just before his death one of the founders of the Greens. But in an extended essay Kraushaar portrays a Dutschke who not only advocated revolution but actually put his words into practice. Although there was plenty of talk about armed struggle in the 1967-1969 period, it was considered to have remained rhetorical until the 1970s when the urban guerrilla factions emerged (and Dutschke was not politically active inGermany). While Dutschke expressly approved of anti-imperialist Third World revolutions, – and even said he’d take gun in hand in such circumstances — he said armed struggle “wasn’t necessary” in the Federal Republic; “violence against things, not against people” was the appropriate means to expose bourgeois society’s contradictions and reveal its inherently repressive nature.

In “Rudi Dutschke and the Armed Struggle,” Kraushaar argued that new evidence had come to light (a 1967 SDS paper, Dutschke’s personal notes, and a biography by his widow, among other sources) that proved that Dutschke had backed “urban guerrilla warfare” in the Federal Republic since 1966 – making him the very first student activist to do so — and that he had even transported explosives on two occasions for use in attacks (that never materialized). Dutschke, according to Kraushaar, actively strove to put Che Guevara’s theories of guerrilla warfare into practice by creating an “urban military apparatus” in West Germany.[23] Moreover, in contrast to the image of Dutschke as an undogmatic leftist, Kraushaar contended that the Chinese dictator Mao Se-Tung was particularly central to Dutschke’s thinking, much more so than previously thought. He concluded: “Alone the example of Dutschke shows how far the idea of armed struggle had progressed before 1968. And he was not alone with his adoption of Guevara’s focus theory and thoughts about the creation of an urban guerrilla group.”[24]

Two further incidents set the tone for the 2008 debate. The first was the media attention around the pronounced right-wing drift of a handful of prominent ‘68ers. The most spectacular case was that of Horst Mahler, one of the student movement’s high-profile activist-lawyers and a founding member of the RAF. First in 1998, Mahler, who had served ten years in prison for armed robbery, expressed his sympathies for a volkish German nationalism and then in 2000 he joined the neo-fascist Nationaldemokratische Partei Deutschlands. Following the Mahler publicity came the outing of Bernd Rabehl, a close friend of Dutschke’s and student activist of the first hour whose nationalistic convictions led him to circles around the right-wing weekly Junge Freiheit and the far-right group Danubia. To these audiences like those of Danubia, Rabehl argued that ’68 was really a nationalist movement and that German unification had been a top priority for Dutschke. The two close friends envisioned a “nationalist socialism” in a unifiedGermany that was free of both superpowers, theUS as well as theSoviet Union. Three further well-known ’68ers – among them “Hamburg’s Dutschke” Reinhold Oberlercher —  were also exposed as sympathizers of the far right. [Guenter Grass covered up his SS past.]

Not least, the student movement’s 40th anniversary followed the 30th anniversary of the 1977 German Autumn. Although there was very little new information about the climax of the showdown between the West German state and the RAF, there was a flood of media attention around the 2007 decennial, including an array of documentary and feature films, an exhibition, several novels, and a play. The hype underscored the lines of continuity reaching from the student revolt to the terrorism: more than a few RAF militants had belonged to SDS; Andreas Baader was a regular at Kommune I; Meinhof was editor of the New Left monthly Konkret. The RAF’s issues were the same as those of the students – imperialism, the Middle East, the war in Vietnam, and the falseness of bourgeois democracy. The terrorists, implied Spiegel editor and RAF expert Stefan Aust in a two-part TV documentary Die RAF, just took the students’ thinking one step further.

Thus the latest revision of ’68 was already in full swing by 2008. A sign perhaps of a larger trend, the new French president Nicolas Sarkozy chipped in blaming 1968 for a crisis of “morality, authority, work and national identity.”[25]  The European Green MP and prominent ‘68er Dany Cohn-Bendit protested that “’68 was being held responsible for „everything.“ In Germany, although a score of new publications have appeared —  not by any means all negative[26] — the brunt of debate has focused overwhelmingly on historian Götz Aly and his Unser Kampf: 1968 — Ein irritierter Blick Zurück (Our Struggle: 1968 – An Irritated Look Back.) Aly is another ‘68er and a well-known expert on the Holocaust. Born in 1947, Aly studied in Munich and then in West Berlin where he participated in the student movement as of late 1968. In the early 1970s he belonged to a short-lived Maoist group and then to Rote Hilfe, a solidarity group concerned with incarcerated urban guerrillas. He was one of the founders of Germany’s left-liberal daily Die Tageszeitung and has held a number of adjunct professorships over the past twenty years. For this reason, among others, Unser Kampf, which as the title implies draws parallels between the 1960s students and the Nazis, came as such a shock and has received such vast media interest. Unlike Aly’s other works, Unser Kampf is written in a provocative tone that often reads more like a political pamphlet than a standard work of history, something fellow historians have pointed out disapprovingly.[27] Yet many of his arguments buttress those made over the last ten years.

In the course of the 200-page tract Aly compiles a litany of charges against the sixties’ rebels, many familiar, accusing them of romanticism, hypocrisy, middle-class naiveté, and a narcissism that amounted to egomania. In his researches, Aly discovered an unexpected sympathy for the students’ adversaries of that day, such as the students’ Number One hate-object, the former Nazi and 1966-1969 chancellor, Kurt Georg Kiesinger, who Aly concludes was far more open-minded than the fanatic students. But most damning is Aly’s comparison of the 1960s studentenbewegung with the far-right nationalist German studentenbewegung of the late 1920s and early 1930s, whose ranks infused the Nazi movement. Aly argues that both groups of student activists were deeply illiberal, those of the 1960s – when shorn of their libertine, anti-authoritarian trappings — every bit as totalitarian in both theory and practice as their National Socialist predecessors. Aly provides quote after quote comparing the students’ forms of protest, movement character, language, fascination with violence, and cults of personality. Like the Nazi students, the young Germans of the 1960s endorsed collectivist notions of gemeinschaft over bourgeois liberal concepts of gesellschaft. It wasn’t by chance that the co-ops of the 1960s and 70s were called wohngemeinschaften. Both movements rejected parliamentary democracy as a ploy of the powers-that-be, and called for university reform, politicization of the student body, and new faculty. In the spirit of the national conservative thinkers like Carl Schmidt and Ernst Jünger, the student activists – and Dutschke foremost among the ‘68ers — embraced the actionist strategy of inspiring revolutionary will power through direct action and struggle: A new consciousness – and ultimately a “new man” – would come about through participation in acts of violence.

Try as they did – and this is the crux of Aly’s argument – in the end the West German students (and he considers himself among them, often using the pronoun “we”) couldn’t escape their parents or their early socialization. Young Germans wanted desperately to break with the values of the World War II generation – with its anti-Semitism, anti-Americanism, and authoritarian mindset–but, ultimately, they fell back into/onto/ the only categories they knew. Thus the same students who lit candles for the murdered American president John F. Kennedy could shout “USA-SS-SA,” comparing the Nazi regime, just a few years later. Unconsciously, they redirected their furor from its initial object, their parents, to the state, the Federal Republic, which Aly argues had already begun liberalizing reforms and a self-critical processing of the Nazi past. The children of mass murders found themselves paying homage to Mao Se-Tung, another mass murderer. ”Ho-Ho-Ho Chi Min” replaced ”Heil Hitler.” One of the few differences Aly notes between the two movements is that that of the ‘68ers failed, fortunately.

Whatever one’s opinion of it, the Aly book served to rekindle debate for the anniversary year by prompting a spate of reviews, published interviews, TV talk shows, and public panel discussions – some of which wound up addressing a number of highly relevant, and hitherto glossed over, issues. To begin with, more than one critic took the opportunity to call attention to the broad heterogeneity of the studentenbewegung. All too often, they argued, “the student movement” was spoken of as a homogenous entity or reduced to the SDS leadership when in fact it included a diverse spectrum of young people including liberals, social democrats, Catholics and Protestants, high school pupils, and even some non-students (like Joschka Fischer). Many of them didn’t belong to SDS at all and disagreed fundamentally with Dutschke and the SDS leadership.[28] It was pointed out that SDS never had more than 2500 members, just 10 percent of the nationwide student body, which itself was only five percent of young people of that age. And even within the Marxist-oriented SDS there was constant clashes and permanent discussion over almost every issue. Berliner Zeitung editor Harald Jähner argued: “Dutschke and Rabehl certainly thought of themselves as the avant guard of social transformation. In fact they were only secondary figures in the transformation process that we label ’68, and that included experimental film, provocative pop music, androgynous fashion, redefined sexual relations, the rejection of the Protestant work ethic, and the refusal to save money. Everywhere there were changes in the way people lived in western industrial societies. This reached much deeper into lifestyles and civilization than the rhetoric of a few political science students.”[29]  The “we” that Aly refers to, several observers pointed out, was actually just the movement’s most radical elements, which Aly (as well as Koenen and Kraushaar), belonged to. Aly’s critique and self-criticism, it was noted, was welcome and overdue but it did not apply to the movement as a whole: Unfairly, critics like Aly and Koenen read the militancy of the seventies back into the student movement years and ignore the civic off-shoots of the studentenbewegung, like the NSM, which were far more relevant to the Federal Republic.

Only the conservative standard bearers in the media like the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung and Die Welt expressed any sympathy for the comparison of the 1960s’ students to those of the 1930s. As historian Norbert Frei documented in his contribution to the ’68 commemoration[30] – filling a gap in the scholarship — the rebellious sixties was a thoroughly global phenomenon with counterparts in Asia, Latin America, North America, and on both sides of the Iron Curtain. How can the West Germans’ protests against the Vietnam War and for university reform be traced back to the Nazis when young people in Paris, Prague, and Chicago took to the streets for the same reasons? Frei, among others, noted that the German students’ foremost influences came via the U.S., from the Berkeley Free Speech Movement, the civil rights campaign, and the Marches on Washington, as well as popular culture.[31] More than one reviewer also criticized Aly’s empirical evidence as superficial and formal: both German student movements may have wanted reforms and new faculty, and criticized liberalism, but this says nothing about the content of those demands: “Without content and functional differentiation everything remains in the in dark: murderers and surgeons both use knives,”[32] argued historian Rudolph Walther. In the same vein, others charged that the comparison of the 1930s student movement with that of the 1960s implicitly relativized the misdeeds of the Nazi-allied students, who constituted an important source of support and personnel for the regime. In the old Federal Republic, observed one critic, such a gaffe would have resulted in censure, not media stardom.[33]

Despite the thoughtful responses to Aly and the others, the legacy of ’68 has definitely been dealt a blow at a time when the ’68 generation itself is on the way out. The republic, it seems, has entered a conservative era that will last for some time, if past experience is any measure. The debate around ’68 is just one indicator of this; it is also a resource that could serve to support a new conservatism. In terms of extraparliamentary movements, there is nothing comparable to those of the seventies and the negative ’68 clichés are regularly used to discredit grassroots movements such as the anti-globalization group Attac. The achievements of the NSM are so underrepresented in the republic’s collective memory that most young people today have no idea even who the internationally renowned peace activist Petra Kelly was. Interestingly, the Left Party (a merger of a handful of western German socialists and the followers of the reformed East German communist party) has picked up on ’68 for its own purposes, even naming its youth organization “SDS.” But the association of this dubious mixture of disenchanted radicals and former East German cadre with ’68 serves only to undermine it further. The up-and-coming young generations of Greens and the Social Democrats, as well as extraparliamentary groups like Attac, seem to be searching for new sources of legitimacy and inspiration, ones that pertain more directly to their own experiences. One option is to sever ties with ’68 and to throw in their lot with the conservatives by way of a vague consensus that skirts controversial issues like immigration, domestic intelligence gathering, and educational reform. (This is possible only because the aftershocks of ’68 transformed the conservatives too, whether they admit it or not.) The Social Democrats are already in a ruling coalition with the Christian Democrats, who dominate the administration’s agenda and are flying high in the polls. The Greens are shopping for new partners now that the red-green project is passé — and lacks majorities these days because of the SPD’s weakness.  In fact, there are Christian Democrat-Green (black-green) governments inHamburgandFrankfurt, which seem to be working quite well. The journey of ’68 is not over with the fading of the ’68 generation, but its concerns are unlikely to have the same profile unless a new generation with an inspired and progressive vision steps up to fill its shoes. There is, however, none in sight.



[1] See Charles S. Maier, The Unmasterable Past: History, Holocaust, and German National Identity (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1988).

[2] Jürgen Habermas, Die nachholende Revolution. Kleine Politische Schriften VII (Suhrkamp: Frankfurt/M. 1990), p. 26.

[3] Claus Leggewie, “erordnete Gründung—verfehlte Nachgründung—vertane Neugründung,” Blätter für deutsche und internationale Geschichte, 6 (1993), p. 698.

[4] Der große Selbst-Betrug: Wie wir um unsere Zukunft gebracht werden (Munich: Piper, 2007) p. 13.

[5] Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, Milestones: Memoirs 1927-1977 (Ignatius Press, Ft. Collins, CO, 1998)

[6]  Between 1969 and 1972, 300,000 new members joined the Social Democratic party (SPD).

[7] By the first 10-year anniversary of the student uprising neither the label of “’68” nor the concept of “’68 generation” had taken hold. Also, at the time 1967 was considered the pivotal year of the studentenbewegung, and not 1968. Wolfgang Kraushaar, 1968: Mythos, Chiffre und Zäsur (Hamburg: Hamburger Edition, 2000), p. 256.

[8] The label was also used by British author Jillian Becker in her 1978 book on the RAF Hitler’s Children.

[9] Albrecht von Lucke 68 oder neues Biedermeier: Der Kampf um die Deutungsmacht, (Wagenbach, Berlin 2008) pp. 30-32.

[10]  Von Lucke, p. 35.  The moniker of  “68ers” also had the added benefit of drawing a parallel with the “48ers’ of the liberal democratic revolution of 1848.  Edgar Wolfrum, “ “1968” in der gegenwaertigen deutschen Geschichtspolitik,” Aus Politik und Zeitgeschichte 22-23/2001, p. 31-32.

[11]  Von Lucke, p. 36

[12] See Joschka Fischer’s long Tageszeitung article in Paul Hockenos, Joschka Fischer and the Making of the Berlin Republic: An Alternative History of Postwar Germany (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008), p. 220.

[13] „Eine Generation der Gescheiterten,“ Die Zeit, 15/1993, p. 11.

[14] Merkel has made it clear that she does not see 1968 as a caesura in the history of the republic. In 2001 she said: “Our state, the Federal Republic of Germany, has been a free, socially minded, worldly republic continuously since 1949 and something that we can all be proud of.”  Wolfrum, p. 31.

[15] “Demokraten wider Willen,“ Focus, August 1, 2005.

[16] So Macht Kommunismus Spass! Ulrike Meinhof, Klaus Rainer Röhl und die Akte Konkret (Hamburg: Europäische Verlagsanstalt, 2006).

[17] „Mit Molitow-Cocktails nie etwas zutun gehabt,“ Der Spiegel, January 18, 2001.

[18] (Trans.: The Red Decade: Our Little German Cultural Revolution, 1967-1977), Kiepenheuer & Witsch, Cologne 2001.

[19] 1968: Das Jahr, das alles verändert hat (Munich: Piper Verlag, 1998).

[20] (Trans.: The Bomb in the Jewish Community Center),Hamburg:Hamburg Edition, 2005.

[21] Wolfgang Kraushaar, Karin Wieland, Jan Philipp Reemtsma (Trans.: Rudi Dutschke Andreas Baader and the RAF)Hamburg: Hamburger Edition, 2005.

[22] Tupamaros, also known as the MLN (Movimiento de Liberación Nacional or National Liberation Movement), was an urban guerrilla organization in Uruguay in the 1960s and 1970s.

[23] Rudi Dutschke, p. 30

[24] Ibid, p. 50. During 2005 there was an extended discussion of the essay in the left liberal daily Die Tageszeitung. Most of the authors defended Dutschke.
[25] The Telegraph, “Sarkozy attacks ‘immoral’ heritage of 1968,” 01/05/2007.

[26] See von Lucke; Peter Schneider, Rebellion und Wahn. Mein ’68: Mein ’68. Eine autobiographische Erzählung (Kiepenheuer & Witsch Verlag, Hamburg, 2008); Hajo Funke, Das Otto-Suhr-Institut und der Schatten der Geschichte (Verlag Hans Schiler,Berlin: 2008).

[27] Axel Schildt, “Wüten gegen die eigene Generation, Die Zeit, Feb. 21, 2008, No. 09.

[28] “In welcher K-Gruppe waren Sie denn?” Interview with Götz Aly and Katharina Rutschky in Die Tageszeitung, December 21, 2007.

[29] “Gehen wir abschlaffen,“ June 2, 2008.

[30] Norbert Frei, 1968: Jugendrevolte und globaler Protest (DTV:Munich, 2008).

[31] „Blöde Lämmer, schwarze Schafe,“ Jungle World, 10/21/2008.

[32]  Rudolph Walther, “Flucht aus der Empire,” Freitag, March 7, 2008.

[33] Elmar Altvater, “Das 68er faszinsum,” Freitag, February 15, 2008; Clemens Heni, Blaetter fuer deutsche und internationale Politik, 4/2008, pp. 48-49.



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2024: Vol. 23, No. 1

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2024: Vol. 23, No. 1