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  • 75 years of politics and protest at Freie Universität

Under the cobblestones

75 years of politics and protest at Freie Universität

The Freie Universität of Berlin is marking three quarters of a century of public education and student protests.

Photo: IMAGO / Seeliger

Dahlem is a leafy, somnolent district in Berlin’s southeast. Look closer, though, and there are lots of interesting things going on down there – Nazi heirs protecting their loot, Russian oligarchs laundering money – but it’s all well-hidden behind iron gates and tall hedges.

Imagine the shock on the morning of May 27, 1968: on top of an imposing four-story research institute, a red flag fluttered in the wind. Had the Soviets come in the night? Hardly. Long-haired students had taken over the Seminar for German Literature. Rock music was blaring out of speakers placed in the windows. The doors were barricaded. The library was expropriated. A handwritten sign declared that “books are collective property” and that “stealing books is counter-revolutionary”. The students had renamed their department: Dahlem now had the Rosa Luxemburg Institute where the Germanisches Seminar once stood.

Without the protests of 20 years ago, students in Berlin would need to pay thousands of euros per semester.

The students were protesting the emergency laws that the Bundestag was about to pass, but the revolt spreading among West Berlin’s youth was about much more: the Vietnam War, patriarchy, capitalism, and continuities with the Nazi regime that were suddenly being questioned. A centre of the radicalisation was Dahlem.

An American University

In 1968, the Freie Universität of Berlin was just 20 years old. After the war, West Berlin opened its own university on December 4, 1948, since the Friedrich-Wilhelm-Universität had remained on the east side of the city and would soon be renamed for the Humboldt Brothers.

Why in Dahlem? The new university was built on top of the old Kaiser-Wilhelm-Society for the Advancement of Science. The best research facilities under the Emperor and then under the Nazis had been erected in Dahlem’s fields. These institutes had seen scientific triumphs, such as the first detection of nuclear fission in 1938, as well as inconceivable barbarism. In one building on Ihnestraße, eugenicists dissected body parts of Jews murdered in Auschwitz, sent by their colleague Josef Mengele.

While inhabiting many of the same buildings, the Freie Universität was intended to represent a clean break from this authoritarian and elitist past, where professors, draped in a black robes and known as an Ordinarius, ruled over their departments like philosopher-kings. A new, more democratic model was imported from the United States. They named their progressive new institution the Freie Universität.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, there were attempts to establish ‘Quarter Parity’, which would grant equal votes to four groups: professors, academic workers, non-academic workers, and students. This system was prohibited in 1973 by West Germany’s Constitutional Court, which declared that if professors could get outvoted, then the “freedom of research and teaching” would be threatened. Since then, professors have had an absolute majority of votes at all universities.

A Radical University

In late 1967, hundreds of FU students launched a “Critical University” programme, in which they organised autonomous seminars themselves. They were tired of calling for academic reforms that would allow more democratic participation for students – again, they were going to carry out the necessary changes themselves. The intellectual ferment at the FU made waves across Germany, and countless left-wing movements and sects were born in Dahlem. Wolfgang Wippermann, Berlin’s late left-wing historian, who died in 2021, had a joke about this dialectical history: “In 1948, Berlin students were protesting because they didn’t want to read so much Marx, which is why they founded the FU. Then, in 1968, they started protesting because they wanted to read more Marx.”

At the Institute for German Literature, Maoist-influenced students founded a communist group called ‘Rote Zelle Germanistik’ (“red cell German studies”), with the charming acronym ROTZEG. They soon proclaimed themselves to be the Communist Party of Germany or KPD/AO (Kommunistische Partei Deutschland/Aufbauorganisation) – but their opponents mocked them as the KPD/FU, as everyone knew where their red base was.

There were the pro-Soviet communists of the Action Group of Democrats and Socialists (ADS). Right-wing professors published blacklists with the names of 1,664 “ADSen”. There were the situationist performance artists of the Kommune I, who disdained formal organising and instead would strip down on the stage during student assemblies. Even the Red Army Faction, the most prominent terrorist group of the early 1970s, had roots in Dahlem: of the RAF’s founders, Gudrun Esslin was a student at the FU, while Ulrike Meinhof taught a journalism course there. The RAF’s first action took place around the corner from the university, when the new group freed their comrade Andreas Baader from prison during a visit to an archive.

The FU’s most famous leftist was Rudi Dutschke, an athlete from an East German village who had come to the West to study. He managed to unite the disparate 1968 movement because he was so contradictory. He was both a Christian and a Marxist, and he could lecture on Lukács’s philosophy but also drag a mounted police officer down off his horse. On April 11, 1968, Dutschke was shot on the sidewalk by a right-wing terrorist. He survived the shooting, and – with a plate in his head – received his PhD from the FU in the mid-1970s.

Over the years, not only the students but also the professors were won over to revolutionary ideas. The activist Peter Grottian and the Marxist Elmar Altvater were both named professors of political science. However, that generation died out in the 2010s, and no radicals have since taken their places.

A Liberated University

Even after the 1968 contingent began their “long march through the institutions” – a phrase coined by Dutschke – Dahlem didn’t calm down. Two decades later, in late 1988, students barricaded all the buildings with chairs and tables in response to overcrowding, as the FU was bursting at the seams with 60,000 students. The UniMut strike lasted for the entire winter semester, and once it was underway, occupiers also wanted critical teaching organised according to democratic principles.

In 1948, Berlin students were protesting because they didn’t want to read so much Marx… in 1968, they started protesting because they wanted to read more Marx.

In 2003, Berlin’s government tried to introduce tuition fees. At first, only “long-term students” would be asked to pay, but many Studierende feared that this would be a first step to privatisation and responded with another strike, including massive assemblies and an attempt to lay siege to the Berlin parliament. Eventually, one governing party, the PDS (a forerunner of Die Linke), caved in after their headquarters had been occupied, and tuition fees were never established.

2009 marked the last big wave of disruptions at Freie Universität. The biggest lecture hall, Hörsaal 1A, was occupied for four months, with students sleeping among the seats every night. This was part of the Bildungsstreik (“education strike”) that started in Vienna and spread from Austria to Germany. At its high point, more than a quarter of a million young people were on the street. They wanted an end to the rigid regulations of the Bachelor/Master system, and they demanded education for all. That movement, now more than a decade old, was the last for Dahlem.

What’s next?

If you’re not the kind of person who likes disrupting classes out of principle, you might wonder, who cares? What did 75 years of protests bring, except for huge gaps in the resumés of certain lefty students?

The obvious answer is: lots and lots of money. Without the protests of 20 years ago, students in Berlin would need to pay thousands of euros per semester. The strike of 1988, now 35 years ago, also led to the creation of a dozen student-run cafés that are still scattered across Dahlem. After the city was reunified, there was no guarantee that they would keep all its universities. As historian and FU alumnus Ralf Hoffrogge points out, protests saved the FU itself.

For the official celebrations of the 75th anniversary, we will hear all about academic excellence, but the people in Dahlem who had the greatest effect on history were the student rebels.