My May 1968

Three protagonists look back at the unrest in Berlin 50 years ago.

Image for My May 1968
Photo by Ludwig Binder/Stiftung Haus der Geschichte
Three protagonists look back at the unrest in Berlin 50 years ago. It all started in the suburbs of Paris and rolled through Germany’s unis, and hit Berlin hard as the gunshot that met student leader Rudi Dutschke’s head in April 1968. Here too, students craved a new societal order – and fought on campus and in the streets to get it. We asked three historical witnesses to shed their own light on the events that changed Germany.
From FU 1968 to FU 2018: Winfried Fluck In 1968 the Freie Universität Berlin (FU) was a hotbed for the anti-authoritarian youth movement. Winfried Fluck, now Professor and Chair of American Studies at FU’s John F. Kennedy Institute for North American Studies, bore witness as a student representative whose loyalty was divided between his role as an assistant professor and SPD activist. “I started my studies at Universität Berlin in 1963 when I was 18. Because of the draft exclusion in West Berlin, it was a very attractive place for critical young intellectuals who didn’t want anything to do with the military. I was active in the Social Democratic Party. I was from a working-class family and I knew university was a privilege. I wasn’t an unfettered radical though. As a member of the SPD, you were considered to be on the right in that climate. From 1965 on we lived in a permanent state of political activism. Constant demonstrations against the university administration, against the Berlin Senate, especially after the murder of [FU student] Benno Ohnesorg. We created a counter-university, the Kritische Universität, where FU students held their own seminars. I have very strong memories of all the lectures in the Henry Ford Building. A high point was when Herbert Marcuse came to speak there! The movement was against the mandarins that ruled over the university. For my post war generation, they were the embodiment of the type of authoritarian character that we loathed. One example was Ernst Fraenkel, the founder of the John F. Kennedy Institute. He was a German Jew who’d fled to the US in the 1930s, and now taught politicl science and constitutional law at FU. When students started criticising his seminar in the university newspaper, this person who deserved our respect and admiration just exploded. Confronted with our democratic ideals, he just couldn’t cope and refused to continue his seminar. He retired soon after and died five months later. So in a way he was one of the victims of the whole movement. At one point my Doktormutter [doctoral supervisor] refused to speak to me for three months because I had voted along student lines and not with professors as a representative in the university governing body. Although I was her assistant! [Laughs] 
We created the ‘Critical University’ where FU students held their own seminars.”
In May 1968 my wife and I were still in Berlin taking part in numerous demonstrations. However, that is the point when the Extra-parliamentary Opposition (APO) and the radicalisation began, which we thought was wrong. So we were happy to be able to get away to the States in August 1968. When I returned in 1970, everything had become very politicised. There were various factions competing against each other, fighting each other: the Albanian Maoists, the Trotskyists, the Chinese Maoists. In my view, it became more and more irrational. I increasingly distanced myself. It was endless fights among sectarian groups over leadership. In 1970, my professor told me she would offer me an assistantship. Then I got a telephone call: ‘This is Genosse [Comrade] Paul. We hear you are up for an assistantship. Would you be willing to present yourself to the student body?’ He invited me to a meeting on a Sunday night in a huge downtown Berlin apartment. It was arranged like a tribunal. There were four ‘comrades’ sitting in the front of the room. They interviewed the candidates for the research positions two at a time. The only question they were asked was, ‘In case of controversy between students and professors, who would you vote with?’ Of course both of them knew what they had to say. The first one said, ‘Of course with the students.’ But then he had second thoughts, and added something like, ‘Well, it would depend on the topic.’ That was the end of him. The other guy got the job. When I refused to take part in this tribunal, comrade Paul said ‘Then you’re not getting the job.’ [Luckily for Fluck it turned out his employment offer was connected to a special grant and was therefore exempt from the student veto over academic appointments. He could take up the job.] Looking back and despite the radical turn it later took, I believe that the student movement helped make the German university become a democratic place. Today’s students are still active in their own way: their political engagement has mostly shifted from class conflict to diversity issues. More importantly, the 1968 movement played a huge role in democratising Germany. When I grew up, Germany was still an authoritarian country in many ways. The next generation threw this overboard. I’d grown up as a German ashamed of Germany. When abroad and asked where I was from, I’d just say I was “European”. When I see the path of development Germany has since taken, I am mainly proud.” — EJ
Image for My May 1968
Photo by Ludwig Binder/Stiftung Haus der Geschichte
From Marxist to feminist: Frigga Haug  Born in 1937, Haug had already been an active Marxist militant for years when the 1968 student movement broke in Berlin. Converted to feminism after she experienced the ‘trap’ of motherhood in a small town near Cologne, she ran back to Berlin and would soon dedicate her energy to the socialist women’s movement. At 80, Haug is one of Germany’s foremost feminist intellectuals and regularly speaks at conferences.  “I was in the SDS [Socialist German Student League] and co-founded the Marxist magazine Das Argument in 1959 [she’s still an editor for the publication to this day]. We covered all the topics of the time, which also became the questions of the 1968 movement: sexuality, author-ity and family, education, Poland, the war in Algeria, fascism, antisemitism, etc. At first, we thought the 1968ers’ demeanour wasn’t genuine politics – it was more like a disruption. We were working on analyses of capitalist society, but more and more people started going to big assemblies where everyone yelled over each other and whoever had charisma could take over. We were completely overwhelmed by the movement, but were also part of it. Das Argument became the mouthpiece of the 1968 movement. The print run jumped from 700 to 18,000. I was a Marxist before I was a feminist. But it was women from the SDS who were at the frontlines of the women’s revolt. Media made it look like women in the SDS were limited to typing flyers and making coffee. That’s a total myth – I was in the SDS from the beginning and I never typed a flyer or made coffee. That said, women and women’s issues were never recognised as such in the movement and there was a grand total of seven women in SDS at the time. That’s when I joined the Action Committee for the Liberation of Women, which was just forming, in January or February 1968. Women take action We questioned all the morals of the petty bourgeois: prudery, pettiness and taboos. We talked about the power of mass media. Axel Springer, the king of the Bild newspaper, was our enemy number one. We studied how the press creates submissive citizens. We believed that the situation of women was primarily a result of deficiencies in education, and we wanted to counter that with a a “political literacy” campaign. Our slogan from the socialist Frauenbund (women’s league) was: “Everyone should know everything!” I would say that men in the 1968 movement tolerated us but didn’t actively support the women’s organisation. The women’s movement was often called “petty bourgeois” or “marginal” and not taken seriously.
The men in the ‘68 movement tolerated us… but the women’s movement was often called ‘petty bourgeois’ and ‘marginal’.”
In Das Argument we had been studying Marx’s Grundrisse and Das Kapital, and I took that with me into the Action Committee. One wing of the movement wanted to organise a kindergarten teachers’ strike. They believed that from an early age children were raised to be authoritarian personalities, so they needed an alternative perspective and way of life. But I had just escaped from a year trapped at home with a baby – I didn’t just want to talk about mothers and children. I wanted to study the big picture: How do women end up in a situation where, as soon as they have kids, they end up isolated in the home – no matter what they did until that point. We had to do something against that. Public behaviour back in the Adenauer era was defined by cold prudery. Women didn’t even go to cafés by themselves and they were under strict moral control. All of this was swept away by a wave of liberality. The 1968ers started moving into WGs (shared flats), which would have been inconceivable before 1968. The women in the movement weren’t all students. Many were from around the university, like secretaries and booksellers. We organised educational groups of 12 women each. The idea was for them to study for a year and become politicised until they knew enough to intervene in society. These groups were to found more new groups, until the whole city would be full of women’s education groups and form a full movement. The meetings of the women’s movement were cultural events. We spent many hours reading, discussing, doing theatre, but also cooking or skiing together. We began a completely different way of life than that of an isolated housewife. One of my groups focused on helping girls from the Hauptschule get their diplomas, instead of just becoming hairdressers or marrying. This education group, the S9, still meets up almost 60 years later. We didn’t just go to May 1 (International Worker’s Day). We also demonstrated on March 8 (International Women’s Day) with slogans like: “Nursery, home and stove – that’s not worth a whole life!” and “My belly belongs to me!” We were fighting against a law that made abortion a crime. That was the beginning of the women’s movement in Germany. It’s hard to imagine the desperation girls experienced when they got pregnant out of wedlock back then – tragedies that we now only know from literature. The Berlin unrest  West Berlin became a centre of massive demonstrations, and young people from many countries joined in. The thing that had really politicised all of us, both genders, and led to a break with the normality of bourgeois life, was the murder of Benno Ohnesorg [on June 2, 1967]. It was a time of intense student protests against the American war in Vietnam. This shocked the people of Berlin, who until then had seen the Americans as their defenders against communism. Berlin was a fenced-in city, and the West Berlin middle class used to hate long haired students. “Go over to the other side!” they would yell. Ohnesorg was at the anti-Shah protest – it was his first – and he was shot by the police. He was from the protestant student group and he didn’t have long hair. He didn’t conform to the cliché of a dangerous rebel. And the shock woke a lot of people up. That was an incisive experience for many people: the state just shot a student. In November 1967, we founded the “Critical University”. Thousands of FU students went on strike because we didn’t want to study under former fascists, and we organised our studies ourselves. On Easter Sunday, 1968, we marched to the Springer skyscraper, the home of newspaper king Axel Cäsar Springer, to protest against the lying and manipulative reporting. Newspapers were burned and the situation became more radical and violent. The highpoint was the battle at Tegeler Weg, a street fight with the police in November 1968. So what did 1968 leave behind? It got rid of the suits and the formal collars and all the old manners and conventions. Now you can go to university in the clothes you want. After 1968, women could take a microphone and speak in a public square. Until then we never thought a news presenter could be a woman – because news is “objective” and therefore the domain of men.  So many rules of bourgeois life were toppled by this enormous protest. Possibilities and freedoms for women expanded enormously. Recently on the train I heard some women my age talking about their relief that we have so many more freedoms now. “That was a gift of the 1968ers”, they said, which surprised me, because I am used to 1968ers being hated and feared.” — WF
From revolution to insurance: Michael Prütz Born 1952, Prütz has been selling insurance from his office in Graefestraße in Kreuzberg for more than 30 years. He’s also a life-long revolutionary. He was an organiser of the Revolutionary May Day demonstration in Kreuzberg for four years running (2013-16), and collected funds for Kurdish militia YPG. For Prütz it all started in February 1968 when he went to his first demonstration at age 15. “At my protestant school in Zehlendorf, boys were expelled for having long hair. That’s what West Berlin used to be like, but the protests started around 1966. A few of the older boys at my high school had contact to progressive students. We gathered all our courage and went to watch them hand out flyers on Ku’damm. The West Berliners didn’t like them. “You should be gassed!” was a common saying. But I was impressed by the students’ courage and decided I wanted to join. Although my parents forbade it, I went to the demonstration against the Vietnam War after the “Vietnam Congress” in February 1968. I was present at the “Easter Riots” after the assassination attempt on Rudi Dutschke. And I was particularly excited about May 1. That was the first independent leftist demonstration in West Berlin since the construction of the Wall [in 1961]. We didn’t know what to expect as we headed to Karl-Marx-Platz in Neukölln. It was absolutely packed with people – even the bourgeois press talked about 30,000 or 40,000 people. I even saw my grandfather, who had been a communist in the 1930s. He had a twinkle in his eye when he waved at me. There hadn’t been a demonstration like that in Neukölln for decades. 
“Remaining radical for all these years is not easy. But I’m not alone, there are more Genossen out there.”
After 1968 we had so much optimism. We were totally convinced that we would topple capitalism. Around 1970, we of the Fourth International wrote a document about European perspectives for the next five years. We were absolutely certain that socialist revolution would be achieved by 1975.  So what happened? Most of the 1968ers have moved into the left-bourgeois camp. They joined the Social Democrats or the Greens and did their “long march” through the political establishment. Like my old friend Harald Wolf (Berlin’s economics minister from 2002 to 2011, Die Linke). We’ve known each other since 1977 and lived together in a revolutionary WG in Gneisenaustraße – it used to be a real salon for socialists from all over! I had convinced Harald to join the PDS [now: Die Linke], and I guess I didn’t notice how he turned into a neoliberal moderniser. I really could never have imagined that. I guess it’s pretty symbolic of a whole generation of people who have made a career working in state positions. Now the left is so cowardly, always trying to ride the coattails of some bureaucrats. But I’m not interested in capitulating and parroting neoliberal bullshit. I’m too old to benefit from that. I was in the Green Party briefly, 1986-87, but I soon got the feeling that there was no room there for class politics. I joined the PDS in 1990. I left again in 2001 when they formed the “red-red” Berlin government together with the SPD and implemented the biggest cuts in the history of the city: privatising public housing, cutting wages in the public sector, etc. They completely ruined the city – that was done by Die Linke, not the CDU. I prefer selling insurance. From the beginning our customers were autonomists, so we never wore suits and ties.  As an organiser of the Revolutionary May Day demonstration from 2013 to 2016, I had to go to the planning meetings with the police – that means three or four meetings, two hours each, with 15 high-level Berlin police, but they were okay, decent people. That’s the closest I got to stepping over to the other side of the frontline! Remaining radical for all these years is not easy. But I’m not alone, there are more Genossen out there.  The weird thing is that there are more reasons to rebel today than back in 1968. Back then, there was a functioning social welfare system, and there was almost no unemployment. I used to work the night shift as an unskilled labourer at a Springer printing plant, making the equivalent of €40 an hour. Now, under neoliberalism, young people suffer from constant precariousness. Back in 1968, when you met someone on the street, the very first thing you would ask is: “What are you doing politically? Where are you organised?” It seems like young people aren’t as interested in organising long term. They do show a lot of solidarity though.” —WF
The 1968ers: An exhibition of photography by Ludwig Binder und Jim Rakete  From the June 1967 mass protest against the Iranian Shah to the Rudi Dutschke assassination attempt the following year, from student meetings on the FU campus to the Tegeler Weg street battle, this exhibition at the Kulturbraurei chronicles the 1968 student unrest in West Berlin as captured through the lenses of Ludwig Binder and Jim Rakete. The 60 black-and-white photographs that have the great poignancy of showing ‘revolution’ in action, aka strange, brave, bygone times when the fight for a better future, for equality, or against war, wasn’t fought in the anonymity of social media, but on the streets and in auditoriums and in the face of ruthless societal and police repression. Museum in der Kulturbrauerei, Prenzlauer Berg, through October 7