1968, das waren in Frankreich 10 Millionen im Generalstreik, das waren die Besetzungen, die großen Aussprachen, atemberaubende Mitteilungen auf hektographierten Blättern, bemalte Wände und immer neue Orte, an denen Unerhörtes geschah.
Lutz Schulenburg (1998)

The way the author and publisher Lutz Schulenburg 30 years later described his perception of the events of 1968 is metaphoric: It includes some characteristic features of the experience of a contemporary witness. First, the acceleration of events and the invention of new political forms; second, the broad relevance of different forms of direct action (e.g. wildcat strikes and occupations); and third, but not least, the international diffusion of the protests. The student movement in the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG) and West Berlin was in the center of many of those developments, with close links to transnational social movements, especially in Southern and Western Europe, but also, in the experience of many activists, to the student movement in the US and Mexico. It was at the same time more than just a protest movement at universities, but also a struggle against old fascists and for the democratization of society. And it started long before 1968, with specific roots in the German past.


Par Peter Birke

A democratic movement

In Germany, the new political activism of young people was not solely a reaction against the refusal of a significant portion of the elder generation to confront the Nazi past. For, in addition, the state apparatus of the Federal Republic had absorbed hundreds of former Nazi officials and specialists. For some of the activists, ever since the important moment of the Auschwitz trials (Frankfurt am Main, 1963-65), it had become clear that the confrontation with the mostly silent generation of their parents was necessary and urgent. However, the need to confront the recent German past gained even more importance with the growing awareness that leading politicians, like the Chancellor of the Federal Republic until the end of 1969, Kurt Georg Kiesinger, had been Nazi activists. And in many cases they had actually played more significant roles in the Nazi era, as for instance the prime minister of Baden-Württemberg, Hans Filbinger, who was a former judge at the Volksgerichtshof, and as such responsible for many death sentences against resistance fighters.

At the same time, the inauguration of a Grand Coalition in 1966 between the two mass parties in West Germany, Social Democracy and Christian Democracy, reduced the parliamentary opposition to a small minority and created the need for the construction of social movements outside of  parliament – the so-called “Außerparlamentarische Opposition” (Extra-Parliamentary Opposition). One of the main aims of the grand coalition was to reestablish West Germany on the map of international politics. In the view of many contemporaries, this urge to establish a firm place for the Federal Republic as a rising power on the international scene resulted in anti-democratic measures like the introduction of  the Emergency Laws (Notstandsgesetze). In May 1968, a wave of protests occurred against the Notstandsgesetze in the context of the debates over the relevant legislation in parliament. When the May 1968 general strike shook France, 60.000 university and high school students but also workers marched against the Emergency Laws in the capital city of Bonn, accompanied by a wide range of local protest actions including some (but merely short-term and symbolic) strikes. Although the protest was organized not only by the student or youth movement in a narrow sense, but in a broad coalition with civil rights organizations and trade unions, it was not crowned by success: The Emergency Laws finally passed. However, seen in a wider context, the movement against the Notstandsgesetze strengthened claims for a strengthening of democratic procedures within German society. The election of a social-liberal government under Willy Brandt in September 1969 must be seen in this context. Although the results of Willy Brandt’s center-left government  did not really match most aspirations, democratization of West German society was at the top of its agenda, and the former member of a left-wing anti-Nazi group between 1933-1945, Willy Brandt, campaigned with the slogan “Mehr Demokratie wagen” (Daring to Extend Democracy).

An international movement

The student movement in Germany was both international and internationalist. In Germany, demonstrations focused against other anti-democratic regimes as well, not just the Federal Republic The important left-wing organization, Sozialistischer Deutscher Studentenbund (SDS), already in 1964 declared its solidarity with protest movements against post-colonial mass repression in the formerly Belgian Congo. In the summer of 1967, students in Berlin and elsewhere protested against the official state visit by the Shah of Iran, a well-known dictator. That protest escalated, and on June 2 a police officer killed one of the protesters in Berlin. The killing was followed by further demonstrations and clashes with the police in the aftermath. As happened in many other countries, criticism against police brutality at home merged with an international/transnational agenda.

Two dimensions are important when we describe the movement of “1968” as international. First, of course, the movement was perceived as being internationally organized, or rather seen as one movement, reaching from Mexico City to Prague. Second, many of the actions, and especially in Germany, were directed against imperialism and the inequalities of the capitalist world order, and they expressed support for the anticolonial and antiimperialist upsurge and movements since the 1950s. A central motive in this context was, as was the case in other countries, the fight against the war in Vietnam. While the government of the FRG fully supported the American side, even at a time when the brutality of the attacks became more and more obvious, left-wing student groups and others organized several big conferences and hundreds of demonstrations against the presence of the US military in South Vietnam.

In February 1968, thousands of mainly young people, but also well-known intellectuals, attended the famous International Vietnam Conference in West Berlin. While the conference had been preceded by similar events in other cities, the setting was a provocation especially to conservatives. Many of them perceived West Berlin as an outpost against the eastern bloc countries, and protesting any kind of western politics here was considered tantamount to treason.

A few weeks later, a member of an extreme right wing organization shot down one of the most prominent figures of the SDS, Rudi Dutschke, in the center of West Berlin. The youth movement blamed not only the right wing parties and politicians for this, but also the right wing media, and especially the leading tabloid Bild-Zeitung. In the days following the attempted murder, mass protests were directed against the publishing house Springer, followed by a long-term campaign against newspapers like “Bild”.

A youth movement

All of this does not mean that the importance of protests against the conditions at schools and universities did not play an important role as well. On the contrary, events in the spring of 1968 made a new youth movement visible that had come into existence in the  course of the rapid expansion of universities since the early 1960s. 1967-68 saw an accelerated polarization of this movement, in a notable contrast to past student movements in Germany that tended to be right wing and even reactionary. The basis for this development was thus not only politicization as such, but also a reconfiguration of the social composition of the students. The total number of students increased from approximately 250.000 in 1965 to almost 850.000 in 1975, and more and more of those came from lower middle class and working class backgrounds.

Like in France, the expansion of universities emerged out of the need to modernize higher education, the need for the training of vastly expanded numbers of technical specialists in the context of the unprecedented economic boom since the mid-1950s. Especially the government of the Grand Coalition launched not only new universities and encouraged the enrollment of vast numbers of new students, but they also streamlined the course of studies as such. As part of this strategy, students were confronted with the threat of withdrawal from the university register (ex-matriculation) if they did not conform to the demands of the new regulations concerning the speed at which degrees were now to be obtained. The first student protests as such, amongst others at the Freie Universität Berlin, were directed against this policy, which was perceived as a technocratic adjustment to the needs of the booming economy. After 1965, more and more student activists began to identify with criticism against “instrumental” knowledge in the context of what Max Horkheimer and other social theorists of the “Frankfurter Schule” had called “instrumental reason”.

The first sit-in in one of the German universities took place on 22 June 1966, inspired by the anti-racist movement and the radical politics of the American Students for a Democratic Society. When university administrations decided to introduce a maximum time limit to obtain a degree, around 3.000 students blocked the entrance to the Henry Ford Building at the Free University of Berlin for several hours, accompanied by speeches, discussions and street theatre. Both form and content of the Berlin event were quickly copied in a wide range of other universities, and such actions played a major role in the years to come. Student movements were central elements of the gradually evolving protest culture in West Germany.

At the same time, it should be highlighted that social movements of 1968 were not limited  to universities alone. Yet, in Germany (and this is different from what happened in some other European countries), it was only during and after the events of 1967/68 that a working class youth movement became more visible as well. One of the main grievances this movement tackled the exploitation of apprentices. The so called “Lehrlingsbewegung” (apprentices’ movement) fought for better conditions and more regulation at workplaces and at professional schools.

Until 1972, this emerging movement amongst young blue collar workers was able to mobilize hundreds of thousands of young men and women protesting against authoritarian structures in factories, against employers who still used violence as a form of punishment, and for a better quality of apprenticeship training.

The youth movement, both at universities and in workplaces, soon merged into a new urban social movement. In Germany, as elsewhere, squatting became a popular form of resistance against the restructuring of city centers and rent increases: The 1972 protests against the gentrification of the Westend neighborhood in Frankfurt am Main gave this movement a kick-start, involving many left-wing groups, but also migrant organizations.

Diffusion – and new social movements

In Germany, the story of “1968” is often told as the tale of a “student” movement. But the upsurge of those years, as we have seen, both represented and urged social and political differentiation and diversity. One of the most important features of this development was the emergence of a new feminist movement. A starting point of this movement was the protest against male dominance in the student organizations themselves. Often, the famous “tomato attack” against male dominance at the 23rd Conference of the SDS in September 1968 is seen as the starting point. This militant and symbolic action was  only one of the steps in building up a “second” feminist movement (thus named to differentiate it from the ‘first’ wave of feminism in the early 20th century which had focused on women’s right to vote) which thematized sexual discrimination and harassment in all areas throughout German society. Second wave feminism constructed self-organized collective facilities (like anti-authoritarian child care centers), but also fought for equal wages and living conditions for women and men.

Ironically, even the dissolution of the West German SDS in 1970 was a result of such differentiation. More and more themes and topics were targeted in the lively discussions of the organization. Being originally part of the socialist movement, founded as the student organization of social democracy in 1949 but then excluded in the wake of the growing prominence of anti-socialist tendencies within the party, SDS thus returned to its roots in the course of the 1960s. Notably, by the late 1960s, renewed attention to the concerns and issues of the worker’s movement soon became visible as a result of the new diversity of topics and trends openly discussed within SDS. In the wake of the official dissolution of SDS in 1970,  a significant proportion of student activists interpreted the perceived centrality of the working class in modern German society as necessitating a “return” towards the construction of new radical left-wing communist party groupings (“K-Gruppen”).

Attention  to the working classes was intensified not only by the reception of the mass strikes in France (1968) and Italy (1969-1972), but also by an unprecedented wave of  wildcat strikes and other “non-normative” forms of industrial conflict. In September 1969, a wave of wildcat strikes in mining and steel industries throughout Germany shook the country, and many student and youth activists saw this as an inspiration to shift their field of interest from universities to factories. Both in research and in activism, the “other working class” (Karl Heinz Roth) became a prominent concern, and very soon this orientation became intimately connected to migrant and anti-racist movements, as was the case during the strike at the Ford automobile factory in Cologne or the women workers’ strike at Pierburg Neuss, both capturing public attention throughout West Germany in the course of 1973.

Historiographical discussion

Still today, the results of the upsurge of 1968 are contested within the public discourse on ‘1968’ in Germany.  Especially in the context of the ongoing fiftieth anniversary commemoration, three divergent interpretations can be discerned:

  1. Conservative and right-wing authors currently see the upsurge of 1968 as a symbol of decline – of authorities, and moral values. Even more so, many observers proclaim the “1968 generation”  to be the culprit for a wide range of problems society currently is facing. In addition, authors like Götz Aly or Wolfgang Kraushaar constantly evoke a quasi-organic link between the social movements of 1968 and the genesis of  terrorist networks in subsequent years.
  2. In contrast to this position, the upsurge of social movements in the years surrounding 1968 is seen by other authors as the beginning of a liberalization and democratization of society. In this view, “1968” may have produced headlines about “revolution”, but the concrete results were in fact, in the perspective of authors like Norbert Frei or Detlef Siegfried, reforms rather than revolutions – higher levels of equality, better living conditions improving the life chances of  many members of society, and last but not least more freedom of choice as well as new forms of families and child rearing.
  3. From the perspective of social movement theory, 1968 is the starting point of a diffusion of social movements and the creation of  what were later called the “new social movements”, especially visible in the works of Ingrid Gilcher-Holtey or of feminist authors like Gisela Notz. From this perspective, the main characteristic of “what was reached” in and after 1968 is not to be measured in concrete results, but in the emergence and widespread acceptance of new forms of politics. Some authors even see the “prospect of liberalization” of 1968 as “unfulfilled” and still open. In this interpretation, many questions were asked at the end of the 1960s, but not all of them have yet been answered.

The author

Peter Birke is member of the Institut für Soziologie at Göttingen University.

More details.

Références bibliographiques

NOTZ, Gisela. Warum flog die Tomate?: Die autonomen Frauenbewegungen der Siebzigerjahre. - 2. komplett überarbeitete und aktualisierte Neuauflage, revidierte Ausgabe. Neu-Ulm : Verein zur Förderung der sozialpolitischen Arbeit, 2018, 90 p.
Notice détaillée : <http://catalogue.sciencespo.fr/ark:/46513/sc0001314025>
BIRKE, Peter. HÜTTNER, Bernd. OY, Gottfried. Alte Linke - Neue Linke?: Die sozialen Kämpfe der 1968er Jahre in der Diskussion. Berlin : Dietz, 2009,
Disponible sur : <http://edoc.vifapol.de/opus/volltexte/2010/2165/> (Consulté le 09-04-2018).