1968 in Germany (Part 1): Behind the protest movement – the search for a new society

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As we showed in other articles of our press, towards the mid-1960s there developed an international movement of protest against the Vietnam War and against the first signs of a worsening economic situation. In many countries it carried the germs for putting into question the existing order. The movement in Germany started quite early, and it was going to have a major international impact.

Opposition outside of bourgeois parliament

While more and more demonstrations were organised from the mid-1960s on, above all against the war in Vietnam, the protests took on a new dimension when on December 1st 1966 a grand coalition government made up of CDU/CSU and SPD was formed in Bonn, and barely one week later on December 10th Rudi Dutschke called for the formation of an "Extra-Parliamentary Opposition" (APO). As the biggest ‘left' party joined the government, this resulted in a lot of disappointment and a turn away from the SPD. While the SPD was busily campaigning for participation in elections, protests were more and more taking to the streets. At the beginning of this movement there were considerable illusions about bourgeois democracy in general and about Social Democracy in particular. The idea was that since the SPD had joined the government there was no longer a major force of opposition in parliament, so this opposition would have to be organised from the streets. With the increasingly obvious role of Social Democracy as a force which supported the system from within the Grand Coalition, the "extra-parliamentary opposition" was more directed against recuperation through bourgeois democracy, against participation in parliamentary elections and in favour of direct action.  This orientation was an important element in the slow process of the ending of social peace.

A new generation resists

The ruling class saw itself compelled to put the SPD into government as a reaction to the reappearance of the economic crisis after the boom that followed World War Two. After the long-lasting economic miracle, economic growth suddenly fell sharply in 1965. Even if the drop in growth still began from a high level, and the growth rates at the time would be seen as dream figures today, something of historical importance had happened. The economic miracle of the post-WW2 period was over. There was a first wave of job cuts and perks such as payment above the negotiated wages were cancelled. Even though all these measures appear extremely ‘soft' in comparison to today's austerity cuts, they were a real shock for the working class. The nightmare of the crisis had reappeared. But even though the crisis had reappeared all of a sudden, the working class did not yet react with a big wave of strikes. However, between 1965 and 67 some 300,000 workers participated in different struggles. A wave of protests in the whole of the country began with a wildcat strike in December 1966 in the Faber and Schleicher plant at Offenbach, which made printing machines. The workers demanded the dismissal of a foreman who was reproached for using "bullying" methods.  In addition conflicts over working time erupted at the ILO works in Pinneberg close to Hamburg in September 1967. Almost all of these struggles turned into wildcat strikes. They contributed significantly to the change of mood, in particular amongst young workers, especially amongst trainees (at the time there was no big youth unemployment; most young people gained some working experience). While previously for years the ideology of ‘social partnership' and the image of a benevolent paternalist state had been widespread, now the first cracks in the ‘social peace' appeared. With hindsight these small strikes were only heralds of a bigger rupture which was to occur in Germany in 1969.

Yet with these hesitant, not very spectacular actions the working class in Germany had sent an important message, which also gave an impulse to the protest movement of the students. Even though the workers in Germany did not take a leading position internationally through their defensive struggles, they became part of the movement at an early stage.

But it was not so much the immediate severity of the first austerity cuts which sparked off the movement. The stirrings of a new generation could also be felt. After the deprivations of the economic crisis in the 1930s and the years of hunger during and after the war, after the brutal exhaustion of the workforce during the post-war reconstruction period with its long working hours and very low wages, a higher level of consumption had begun to develop, but at the same time these new sweat shop conditions had a horrifying effect, in particular on younger workers. A general, still unclear feeling cropped up: "we can't believe that this was it. We need something else than just consumer goods. We do not want to become as exhausted, worn-down, and burnt-out as our parents". Very slowly, a new, undefeated generation of workers appeared which had not lived through the war and which was not willing to accept the capitalist treadmill without any resistance. The search for an alternative, which was still undefined and unclear, had begun.

Behind the protest movement - the search for a new society

The formation of an ‘extra-parliamentary opposition' at the end of 1966 was only one step in a bigger stirring amongst the young generation, in particular the students. From 1965 on, even before the economic crisis broke out, more and more general assemblies were held in universities, where heated debates were held over ways and means of protest.

Following the example of the USA, in many universities discussion groups were set up as a counter pole to the ‘established' bourgeois universities; a ‘critical university' was formed. In these forums there were not only members of the SDS (Socialist Students League of Germany), who decided on all kinds of spectacular anti-authoritarian forms of protests. During that first phase of the movement an old tradition of debate, of discussion in public general assemblies partially revived. Even though many felt attracted by the urge for spectacular actions, the interest in theory, in the history of revolutionary movements re-surfaced, and with it the courage to think about overcoming capitalism. Many people expressed the hope for another society. Rudi Dutschke summarised this in June 1967 in the following manner: "the development of the productive forces has reached such a point of evolution that the abolition of hunger, war and domination has become a material possibility. Everything depends on the conscious will of the people to make history, which they have always made, but now this must become a matter of conscious control". A number of political texts of the workers' movement, in particular of council communism, were reprinted. The interest in workers' councils grew enormously. On an international scale the protest movement in Germany was considered to be one of the most active in matters of theory, the most keen on discussions, the most political.

At the same time a large part of the protesters, such as Rudi Dutschke, initially criticised Stalinism on a theoretical or at least on an emotional level. Dutschke saw Stalinism as a doctrinaire deformation of genuine Marxism which had turned into a new ‘bureaucratic' ideology of domination. He demanded a thorough-going revolution and a struggle for the renewal of socialism in the eastern bloc.

State repression creates indignation

In order to protest against the visit of the Shah of Persia in West Berlin thousands of demonstrators gathered on the streets on June 2nd 1967. The German bourgeois democratic government, which unconditionally supported the bloody dictatorial regime of the Shah, was fiercely determined to keep the demonstrations under control by police violence (using truncheons and squads to snatch demonstrators). During the violent demonstrations the student Benno Ohnesorg was murdered by a shot in the back by a plainclothes policeman (afterwards he was acquitted). This murder of a student provoked a tremendous indignation amongst the politicised youth and gave the protest movement additional dynamic. Following this state repression, discussions at a congress, which was held one week after Benno's death on June 9th 1967 on the topic "University and Democracy", revealed a growing gap between state and society. At the same time another component of the protest moved more and more into the foreground.

The movement against the war

Following the same dynamic as in the USA, demonstrations and congresses against the Vietnam war had started in 1965 and 1966. On 17/18th February 1968 an International Congress against the War in Vietnam was held in West Berlin, followed by a demonstration with some 12,000 participants. The escalation of war in the Middle East around the Six Day War in June 1967 and above all the Vietnam war brought the images of war back home. Barely 20 years after the end of WW2 the new generation, most of whom often had not experienced WW2, or only as small children, were then being confronted with a war, which unmasked the whole barbarism of the system (permanent bombardment above all of the civilian population, use of chemical weapons such as Agent Orange, massacre at My Lai: more bombs were dropped on Vietnam than during the entire second world war). The new generation was no longer willing to sacrifice its life in a new world war - therefore all over the world, above all in the USA and in Germany, more and more people demonstrated against the war in Vietnam.

However, the contradictory and confused character of the movement can be seen through a very wide spread basic idea of the time which was voiced by Dutschke in a clear manner. He and many others in the SDS believed that the US war in Vietnam, the emergency laws in Germany and Stalinists bureaucrats in the Eastern Bloc, despite of all the differences, had one thing in common - they were all elements in a world wide chain of authoritarian rule over powerless citizens. The conditions for overcoming capitalism in the rich industrial countries and the 3rd world, according to them, were different. The revolution would not be made by the working class in Europe and the USA but by the impoverished and oppressed people of the ‘periphery' of the world market. This is why so many politicised people felt attracted by the ‘anti-imperialist' theories, which praised national liberation struggles as a new revolutionary force, although in reality they were nothing but imperialist conflicts - often in the form of proxy wars in which the peasants were sacrificed on the altar of imperialism.

Even though many young people were fascinated by the so-called national liberation struggles in the 3rd world and supported the Vietcong, Russia or China in demonstrations against the war, which means they did not defend a fundamentally internationalist position, it became nevertheless tangible that the basic unease about war was increasing and that above all the new generation could not be mobilised for a new confrontation between the two blocs. The fact that the ruling class in the front line state of Germany was facing increasing difficulties to mobilise young people for a global imperialist slaughter was particularly significant.

The spiral of violence sets in

Already from 1965 there were many demonstrations against the planned emergency laws which gave the state many rights to step up militarisation and repression. The SPD, which had joined the coalition with the CDU in 1966, remained faithful to the policies it first practised in 1918/1919[1] . After the assassination of Benno Ohnesorg in June 1967 smear campaigns against the protesters, in particular against their leaders were intensified. The German mass tabloid Bild-Zeitung demanded: "Stop the terror of the young Reds now". At a pro-America demonstration organised by the Berlin Senate on February 21st 1968, participants carried slogans saying "Enemy n° 1 of the people: Rudi Dutschke". During that demonstration a person watching the demo was mistakenly taken for Rudi Dutschke; participants of the demonstration threatened to beat him up and kill him. One week after the assassination of Martin Luther King in the USA the smear campaign in Germany finally reached a peak with the assassination attempt against Rudi Dutschke on April 11th, the Thursday before Easter.  Between April 11-18th, there were riots mainly directed against the printing czar Springer (the demonstrators shouted "Bild-Zeitung participated in the assassination"). Two people got killed, hundreds were injured. A spiral of violence set in. In Berlin the first Molotov-cocktails were thrown: a police agent put them at the disposal of demonstrators who were ready to commit violence. In Frankfurt the first big department store was set on fire.

Despite a march on Bonn on May 11th 1968 with more than 60,000 participants, the coalition government of the CDU-SPD hastened to adopt the emergency laws.  

Whereas in France in May 68 the student demos were pushed into the background by the workers' strikes and the working class returned to the stage of history, the protests in Germany were already at a crossroads in May 68.

A wave of workers' strikes only erupted over a year later in September 1969 - not least because most of the proletarian protesters in 1968 lacked a point of reference.

While some of the protesters turned towards violent actions and others, above all student activists, flung themselves into the construction of leftist organisations with the goal of ‘better reaching the workers in the factories', many proletarian protesters rejected these options and started to withdraw.

We shall continue the 2nd part of this article with the events after 1968. Weltrevolution, May 2008.


[1] How successfully the German bourgeoisie in 1918-1919 already used smear campaigns in the media and provocations in in order to present the radicals as violent terrorists and isolate them can be seen in the book by Uwe Soukup,  How Benno Ohnesorg Died.


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