May 1968 and the social movements of 1967-1968 in Germany
Remnants of barricades on boulevard Saint-Michel in Paris, after the student riots of May 1968, by Günter Zint(C) BPK, Berlin, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / image BPK (C) Droits réservés
50 years ago, France entered a period of student protests and general strikes on an unprecedented scale, giving rise to one of the biggest social movements in 20th century history.
A rejection of political, cultural, social and sexual conformism, May 68 has become a national symbol.
CRS (riot police) charge, boulevard Saint-Michel, 23 May 1968 photographed by Gilles Caron. Photo (C) Centre Pompidou, MNAM-CCI, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Philippe Migeat.
(C) Gilles Caron / Fondation Gilles Caron
Alain Krivine (1941-) photographed by Angelika Platen. Photo (C) BPK, Berlin, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / image BPK
Gare du Luxembourg, Paris, photograph by Janine Niépce. Photo (C) Centre Pompidou, MNAM-CCI, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Audrey Laurans. (C) Janine Niepce / Roger-Viollet
Although the events of May 1968 are well known in France, their complex roots and European parallels are perhaps less so.
The key role played by the German student protest from the mid-1960s attests to a specific form of rebellion in a country still profoundly affected by its recent Nazi past. In the FRG, the growing ideological gap between the different generations created increasing antagonism and give rise to a precocious and virulent form of protest. Drawing its ideological references from Marxism and Leninism, the movement organised around the old student union of the SPD, the SDS (Sozialistischer Deutscher Studentenbund). The SDS was radicalised over the 1960s, leading to the emergence of the New West German Left.
Gradually, the movement spawned new forms of social organisation.
Libertarian intentional communities, including Kommune 1, the most famous, were built as a counter-model to the traditional concept of the family unit. Its members advocated sexual revolution, favouring the personal development of the individual. They stood out through their acts of provocation, including the “pudding attack” on the American vice-president Hubert Humphrey as he visited Berlin.
Daily life in the libertarian community Kommune 1, photograph by Bernard Larsonn. Photo (C) BPK, Berlin, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / image BPK
Members of the libertarian community Kommune 1 in Grunewald forest. Photo (C) BPK, Berlin, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / image BPK
New forms of action emerged.
During the visit of the Shah of Iran to the FRG in 1967, students organised street protests and sit-ins at the Freie Universität in Berlin, using caricature to denounce the imperialism and violence of the Iranian monarchy. On 2 June 1967, at a demonstration against the Shah, student Benno Ohnesorg (1940-1967) was killed by a police officer. The event sparked a wave of indignation and would be considered one of the triggering events of the 1968 riots.
Demonstration against the visit of the Shah of Iran to West Berlin, in the evening of 2 June 1967, photograph by Bernard Larsonn. Photo (C) BPK, Berlin, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / image BPK
The student Benno Ohnesorg, fatally wounded by a police officer, Krumme Strasse, photograph by Bernard Larsonn. Photo (C) BPK, Berlin, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / image BPK
One of the catalysts of SDS ideology lay in the protest of imperialist wars waged against third world populations, particularly the Vietnam War. The year 1968 began with the Vietnam Congress (against the Vietnam War and imperialism), held on 17 and 18 February in Berlin. The East German student Rudi Dutschke (1940-1979) was one of its emblematic figures. The assassination attempt on him on 11 April 1968 triggered a wave of clashes between students and police. In the days that followed, riots broke out in Berlin and Munich against the Axel Springer publishing group, which was accused of stoking the people’s hatred of students. The newsroom of the Bild Zeitung paper was vandalised.
Meeting of the International Tribunal against war crimes committed in Vietnam, organised by the Socialist German Student Union (SDS), photograph by Klaus Mehner. Photo (C) BPK, Berlin, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / image BPK. (C) Droits réservés
Demonstration in Berlin after the attack on Rudi Dutschke, photograph by Klaus Mehner. Photo (C) BPK, Berlin, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / image BPK. (C) Droits réservés
From 1966, the SDS represented an extra-parliamentary opposition force.
In May 1968 protests were held against the Bundestag’s adoption of the Emergency Acts, providing for an extension of executive power and a restriction of fundamental liberties in the FRG.
Protest in Frankfurt against the Emergency Acts bill, photograph by Abisage Tüllmann. Photo (C) BPK, Berlin, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / image BPK. (C) Droits réservés
Rioting continued in West Berlin, and strikes spread throughout the major universities in the FRG.
Daniel Cohn-Bendit, member of the SDS, during a speech, photograph by Abisage Tüllmann. Photo (C) BPK, Berlin, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / image BPK. (C) Droits réservés
In October 1968, at the Frankfurt Book Fair, Daniel Cohn-Bendit led a demonstration against Léopold Sédar Senghor, laureat of the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade, and Eugen Diederichs Verlages, his publisher.
Among the grievances against the Senegalese president was his repression of the May 68 student movement in Dakar. Following the blockade of the Book Fair, Cohn-Bendit was arrested and given a suspended prison sentence.
Demonstration of the Socialist German Student Union (SDS) at the Frankfurt Book Fair, photograph by Abisage Tüllmann. Photo (C) BPK, Berlin, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / image BPK. (C) Droits réservés
After the events of 1968, the student movement splintered into several groups. A minority became radicalised to violent activism, such as the Red Army Faction terrorist organisation, also known as the Baader-Meinhof Group. Small extreme-left groups, or K-Gruppen, also emerged, before gradually disappearing in the 1980s. Other students campaigned in defence of the environment, progressively giving rise to the birth of the Green party.