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1968 lives on

Louisa SchaeferApril 11, 2008

After the assassination attempt on the leader of the 1968 student movement, Rudi Dutschke, Germany is looking back at a time when young people demanded societal change - and went on the streets to get it.

Robert Lebeck Ausstellung
Image: Archiv Robert Lebeck

Rebellion rolled through the streets of Germany in 1968 as students and other protestors set out to turn German society upside down through a strategy of "continual revolt." They were enraged that former Nazis held powerful positions in society, incensed over legal reforms they deemed undemocratic and angry they didn't have more of a say in running their universities.

"It was a revolutionary period that aimed to create a better world," Wolfgang Bittner, a former lawyer and now writer in Cologne, told DW-WORLD.DE. The 66-year-old said he was "politicized" during that time as a university student.

"We students felt the leaden weight of antiquated, bourgeois German society -- the complacency of it," he said.

A sticker pasted over a Berlin street sign, proposing to call it "Rudi Dutschke Street"
Rudi's legend lives onImage: dpa - Bildfunk

One of the spearheads of the student movement that formed as a reaction to that sentiment was Rudi Dutschke -- an eloquent and charismatic leader and head of the Socialist Students Union. For thousands, Dutschke became a beacon for change.

He was shot in West Berlin on April 11, 1968, by Josef Bachmann, a laborer and sometimes burglar with alleged right-wing sympathies. Dutschke barely survived the bullets to his brain, and suffered health problems for the rest of his life, eventually dying as a result of his injuries 11 years later.

Students at the time blamed conservative media for stoking hatred against Dutschke. They resented the Bild tabloid's smear campaign against him and the 68ers, as those of the movement were called, believing it played a role in convincing Bachmann to attempt murder.

Brought in the new

Günter Wallraff, 65, a journalist and filmmaker known nationwide for his crusades against corporate injustice, said the 1968 movement brought about changes that many people now take for granted.

"The double standards for men and women in society were exposed then, greater rights and freedom for women and children were created, more power to students for democratic representation, sexual liberalization -- the 1968 generation prompted all of that," he said.

Singer Joan Baez being arrested during a sit-in in 1967, protesting the Vietnam War draft
US singer Joan Baez during a 1967 Vietnam War protestImage: AP

"New life was breathed into society at the time," he said, pointing to dramatic shifts in literature, music and design as well.

But many students wanted more and had set their sights beyond Germany's borders. Besides being anti-authoritarian, they were also largely anti-American. They opposed the US war in Vietnam and chanted the name of Vietnamese Communist leader Ho Chi Minh as they battled baton-wielding police during protests on Berlin streets.

Revolt against Nazi past

The year 1968 saw university campuses in several countries transformed into battlegrounds for social change. In Paris, students were joined by labor unions; people in Poland and Czechoslovakia demonstrated against repressive governments.

A demonstrator throwing rocks at police during a protest in Paris in May, 1968
Demonstrations also rocked Paris in May 1968Image: AP

Germans, however, had their own particular demons to battle.

The students, and other left-wing protestors, opposed an older generation that accepted Kurt Georg Kiesinger, a former member of the Nazi Party, as chancellor.

They rejected the notion of a state led by President Heinrich Luebke, who held the office from 1959 to 1969. He had worked with architect Albert Speer during the Nazi regime and was suspected of having designed concentration camps during World War II.

"A generation of criminals was ruling society after the war and no one talked about what they had done. Discussing their crimes was not even a part of our school lessons," said Wallraff.

Bittner agreed: "We saw that something dramatic had to happen."

An earlier death

Former Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer says he was the one beaten here on April 15, 1968
Joschka Fischer, later German foreign minister, beaten on the street in April 1968Image: dpa

The student uprisings at the universities had begun even before the assassination attempt on Dutschke.

Nine months earlier, in June 1967, student Benno Ohnesorg was shot in the back of the head and killed by a plainclothes policeman during demonstrations in Berlin protesting a visit by the Shah of Iran.

That shooting outraged tens of thousands of students and hardened opposition against the grand coalition government of conservative Christian Democrat-led parties and center-left Social Democrats.

The protestors were deeply disappointed by what they saw as the Social Democrats' betrayal of socialism. They also rejected the state of emergency law reforms of 1968, which granted the cabinet the power to get laws passed, despite rejection by parliament, during a national crisis -- a move the students considered non-democratic.

Disapproval by German public

A woman working in a Volkswagen factory in the 1950s
Women also took up jobs in factories in the 1950sImage: picture-alliance/dpa

The larger German society did not see the student rebels -- including Dutschke -- and other protestors as romantic revolutionaries fighting for the greater good. They were first considered a nuisance by many and, later, a danger.

During the 1950s, Germany had experienced the Wirtschaftswunder, an economic boom that allowed it to bounce back from World War II. Many Germans were happy to simply have a job, a car and enough money for a European vacation.

The tense atmosphere and violence that erupted following the assassination of Ohnesorg and the attempted one on Dutschke also gave rise to the political terrorism of the Red Army Fraction (RAF) in the late 1960s and early '70s, which prompted panic and distrust throughout Germany.

Though most members of the 1968 movement rejected terrorism, the distinction between the splinter group RAF and the original 68ers was unclear to many.

A new 68 generation?

A Frankfurt department store in April, 1968, after a bombing
A 1968 bombing in a Frankfurt department store -- the extreme side of protestsImage: AP

The 1968 movement prompted shifts in many parts of society, and 40 years later, Wallraff said a new movement could be on the horizon.

"All the signs are there," said Wallraff. "So many societal standards are being done away with, workers have to hide the fact they are in unions … changes will have to happen -- just look at the growth of right-extremism in eastern Germany."

The growing gap between rich and poor in Germany, soaring inflation rates and decreasing health and pension benefits may likewise be contributing to a general feeling that the average citizen has been left behind despite strong economic growth.

The emergence of the new Left party and its growing popularity is yet another indication that the country may be poised on the brink of change.

"A new social movement in Germany -- one that has learned from the mistakes of the past and is non-dogmatic and non-partisan -- is long overdue," Wallraff said.