1968, a turbulent year of worldwide student protests. In German metropolises, demonstrations are almost on the daily agenda. Pharmaceutics student Klaus Scholz is on his way from Karlsruhe to Berlin, making use of his short Easter holiday for an obligatory family visit. But this is not the sole purpose of his trip. He has come to raise his voice.
The trees lining the West-Berliner Ku’damm sway in the evening breeze. However, the wind does not carry the familiar fresh scent of spring, instead, a burnt stench is in the air. Thousands of tromping footsteps and monotonously aggressive chanting “Gestern Dutschke, morgen wir!” drowns out all other noise and rings in Klaus’ ears.
West-Berlin 1968: loud, bold and rebellious. The age of subordination and courteousness lies in the past. The gap between youth and the elderly is widening. Daringly short skirts, extravagant outfits, and deafening rock music on one side, incomprehension and conservative ideologies on the other. Young West-Berliners don’t want to fit in. They want to provoke.
Provocation for Change
German students sparked an anti-authoritarian movement all over the country, condemning any type of control, whether of familial, educational or political nature. Protests began as a response to war, grievances and injustices around the world. Students fought for a free society and a reform of the archaic system.
“The protests were meant for provocation”. New forms of demonstrating were established, “Go-ins” or “Sit-ins” included the siege of public spaces. Hand-drawn banners often declared entertaining statements instead of political slogans.
“Part of the Movement”
Klaus’ first contact with the movement occurred in the sleepy town of Karlsruhe. One day, students gathered in front of his institute. They argued and chanted phrases: “Unter den Talaren – Muff von 1000 Jahren”, referring to the still deeply enrooted fascism in institutions and the previous generation’s way of life.
“We were demanding a self-purification”, Klaus says with a sparkle in his eyes. “Things that had been kept secret for years finally came up”. The students believed that the country ought to be cleansed of former national socialist partisans and mentality. “We were there to tidy up!”
“It felt so good to be part of something, to be part of the movement”, Klaus remembers. At each side of the city’s main road Kaiserstraße, the virtuous citizens of Karlsruhe gasped at the procession of hundreds of marching students. Some linking arms, others holding painted banners, where crooked letters formed phrases like “THE OLD NAZIS HAVE TO GO!”.
The “Revolution’s” Crash-Landing
However, protests were not peaceful everywhere. “It escalated more and more”, Klaus’ voice darkens. What started off with enthusiasm and optimism, ended in a civil-war-like situation.
Only a few days before Klaus’ trip to Berlin, the attempted assassination of Rudi Dutschke by a Hitler-sympathizer appalled Germany’s student population. Dutschke was a leading figure of the Socialist German Student Union (SDS) and stood for the student movement.
Following the assassination of peacefully protesting student Benno Ohnesorg in 1967 by a West-Berliner policeman, the attack on yet another student fueled an uncontrollable rage and desire for revenge amongst the protestors. Instead of de-escalation, police forces fought rage with violence.
Klaus gasped at the scene in front of him. The West-Berliner Ku’damm resembled a battlefield. On one side troops of policemen wearing ankle-length dark coats, their grimacing faces half covered by helmets, fists clenched around their truncheons, desperately attempting to stop the raging students. Opposing them, burning torches, raised fists and blind hatred.
The water cannons behind the police defence line spurt water that hits the front lines of protesters with the force of bricks.
Klaus had set out to Berlin with faith and pride but left with disappointment and bewilderment. “You always ran after the mass as a student”. However, witnessing the violence on both sides of the conflict in the streets of Berlin, Klaus distanced himself: “It had gone too far, I never wanted this.”
The Wake-Up Call
Despite condemning the violence, Klaus is confident that the 1968 student movement has positively affected Germany politically, socially and culturally.
Although the riots did not bring a grand revolution, they were a “wake-up call”. They caused a break with the authoritarian past and allowed the society to move forward with increasingly more personal and sexual freedom.
“When I was young, I always focused on the easygoing sides of life: sports and nice girls”, Klaus smirked. The events of 1968 woke him up too and perhaps marked his first step from the “blindly naive young man” to the reflecting adult of today.
“You have to go out there and do something” in order for change to occur. Today as a pensioner and author, Klaus has found literature to be his voice of revolution. In his novels he holds a mirror up to society, seeking to facilitate progress. Just like 50 years ago.
Feature image shows Klaus Scholz (left) and fellow students in midst of an animated discussion