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The 68' student movement

Regina Mennig, JPDecember 5, 2012

Spurred by rejecting their parents' complicity in Germany's Nazi past, the 1968 generation trod a fine line between intellectual fervor and extremist violence. Their spokesperson was Rudi Dutschke. His widow looks back.

German student leader and head of SDS (German Socialist Student Union) Rudi Dutschke speaks into a megaphone during a demonstration on April 10, 1968 at an unknown location. (ddp images/AP Photo) --- Rudi Dutschke, der Fuehrer der SDS (Sozialistischer Deutscher Studentenbund), spricht auf einer Demonstration am 10. April 1968 in ein Megaphon. Ohne Ortsangabe. (ddp images/AP Photo) /// Eingestellt von wa
Image: dapd

When the young American student Gretchen Klotz visited Germany for the first time in 1964, the scars of the Second World War were still evident. The cities were full of ruined buildings and in the universities, students were protesting angrily against professors and politicians with murky pasts and the conspiracy of silence surrounding them.

"The perpetual challenging of the previous generation's Nazi past was what made the '68 movement in Germany different," says Gretchen Dutschke-Klotz, who is now 70 years old. "In the US, the key issue at this time was the civil rights question."

Social upheaval

In Germany, the '68 movement is associated first and foremost with one man, Rudi Dutschke. As the spokesman of the Socialist Student Union (SDS), he initiated demonstrations and soon emerged as the main student leader. American Gretchen Dutschke-Klotz fell in love with him while studying theology in Germany and when they married, she was swept into the maelstrom of the era's social upheaval.

Student leader Rudi Dutschke and his wife Gretchen at a protest march.
At the forefront of the student movement: Gretchen Dutschke-Klotz (left) next to Rudi DutschkeImage: picture-alliance/dpa

"To begin with, the mood was euphoric," she recalls. "More and more people joined the movement and that gave us the feeling that we really could change things." What they wanted to change was nothing less than the very pillars of society: they saw post-war Germany's political system as authoritarian; they opposed the Vietnam War and raged against the perceived oppression of the developing world. The more radical factions of the movement even regarded the nuclear family as an oppressive system. In the late '60s, the general public followed the antics of the student movement with bated breath, shocked by social experiments such as the commune "Kommune 1" in Berlin, where free spirits shared everything from household duties to girlfriends. To begin with, the protests were almost a game. Arrests were part of the fun.

Scene from the Uschi-Obermayer-Biopics "Das Wilde Leben", Deutschland 2007, Foto: Warner Bros.
The "Kommune 1" events created a lot of media attentionImage: Warner Bros.

"I remember one time we mingled with the crowd and handed out leaflets," says Gretchen Dutschke-Klotz with a smile. "We'd actually taken along some snacks because we knew we'd end up spending the night behind bars."

But her smile soon fades. "But over time I became afraid and even Rudi knew that the situation had become dangerous. There were hostile slogans painted on our house front and the conservative newspapers began calling Rudi an enemy of the state. Lots of people believed everything they read in the papers."

From euphoria to extremism

In fact, the ‘68 movement was largely ignored by large swathes of the population.

"It passed by the working class and the unions more or less unnoticed," explains Gerd Langguth, a professor of political sciences at the University of Bonn. "It was very different to France."

ARCHIV -Der Politikwissenschaftler Gerd Langguth sitzt am 16.04.2009 in Berlin bei einer Pressekonferenz in Berlin zu seinem Buch "Kohl, Schröder, Merkel - Machtmenschen". Der Politikwissenschaftler Gerd Langguth hält die Aufregung um einen Privatkredit für Bundespräsident Wulff für übertrieben. «Das ist ein Sturm im präsidialen Wasserglas, der bald abklingen wird», sagte Langguth am Mittwoch (14.12.2011) der Nachrichtenagentur dpa. Foto: Soeren Stache dpa pixel
In the 70s Gerd Langguth opposed left wing protestsImage: picture-alliance/dpa

In West Berlin, just a stone's throw from communist East Germany, the student movement encountered a staunchly anti-communist general public and a sizable counter-movement. Perhaps unsurprisingly, most of the student protests took place in West Berlin and it was here, amid an increasingly tense atmosphere, that the first lives were claimed.

In 1967, student Benno Ohnesorg was shot and killed by a policeman during a demonstration protesting against the visit to Berlin of the Shah of Iran. One year later, an assassination attempt left Rudi Dutschke fighting for his life.

(AP Photo/Herr, Archiv) ** NUR S/W ** --- FILE - In this June 3, 1967 file photo student Benno Ohnesorg is carried away by police and paramedics after he was shot during a demonstration against the visit of the then Imperial couple of Persia to Berlin on June 2, 1967. (AP Photo/Herr, File) ** B/W ONLY **
After Benno Ohnesorg was killed the protests became more radicalImage: AP

Thousands of students subsequently clashed with police on the streets and the climate at Germany's universities remained antagonistic for many years to come.

"There was an extreme polarization," says Gerd Langguth, who went to university in the 1970s. "Either you were with the 68ers or you were against them." For his part, he was the chairman of the conservative Circle of Christian Democratic Students and was therefore on the opposite side of the fence to the left-wing students.

"When I spoke at events, there would often be violence directed against me," he remembers. "There was no civilized debate." He points out that Rudi Dutschke also "frequently crossed the line of violence, at least verbally."

Indeed, in 1974, Rudi Dutschke famously stood at the grave of Holger Meins, a member of the Red Army Faction "Baader-Meinhof group" who died in jail after a hunger strike, and said "Holger, the struggle continues!"

Lessons learnt

The Baader-Meinhof gang was a militant group of self-proclaimed urban guerrillas which evolved out of the '68 movement and plunged West Germany into fear and terror for several years, carrying out murders and kidnapping and killing leading figures from the worlds of politics and business.

But Dutschke later concluded that violence was an obstacle to a fairer society. "Rudi believed that education rather than terrorism was the best tool," says Gretchen Dutschke-Klotz. "He realised that the red Army Faction attacks would destroy the achievements the '68 movement had fought for."

(AP Photo) --- ** FILE ** Rudi Dutschke, right, and his wife are shown outside Thanet house, London, at the end of the Tribunal this afternoon on Dec. 22, 1970. The five-man panel hearing Rudi's appeal to stay in Britain retired to consider their decision. Both Rudi and the Home Office are to be told of the decision in writing. (AP Photo)
Gretchen Dutschke-Klotz with her husband Rudi in London in 1970Image: AP

In 1979, her husband died of health problems related to the attempt on his life. Even today, opinion among the protagonists of the era is sharply divided on the legacy of the student movement and the question as to whether it changed anything in Germany. Gretchen Dutschke-Klotz believes that the country did indeed learn a lesson from 1968 - namely that democracy serves all the people, not just the powerful.

And in 2009, when she flew from the US to Germany for a second time in her life, she found a very different country from the one she'd first visited in 1964.

"German society has become a lot more relaxed," she says.