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.
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."
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.
"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.
"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."
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.
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!"
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."
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.
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