Student Resistance: Germany in the 1960s

By Mackenzie Murphy

Student Revolution of 1968 IOn Monday morning, after having coffee at Heidi’s apartment and catching up after a fun weekend, we went to meet our tour guide Nadav Gablinger. On the first stop of the tour, Naday lead us through the doors of a German university and out into a courtyard. We all sat down and listened as he explained to us that we were sitting at the location that was home to the Student Movement of 1968. This was a movement that was headed by the Baby Boomer generation. Nadav explained that in 1960, the media began to cover the trials accusing Nazis of war crimes in relation to their involvement at Auschwitz. This was the first time that many of the students attending the university had heard of the types of atrocities that occurred under the Nazi rule during WWII. They responded with outrage—why was this history, which was so recent, never taught to them? The students began to push back against the school system, demanding that the entire history of Germany be taught. Students also began to push against the ideology of the school, which at this point seemed less like a place that encouraged learning and more like a well-oiled machine meant to get students in and out of the system as quickly as possible, as to generate the most profit. Many members of the school’s administration were former Nazis themselves, so this just furthered the wary nature of the students. As a result, the students were stripped of their ability to communicate with professors and those in charge. It became increasingly apparent to the students that they were functioning under an authoritarian rule, with only the illusion of democratic freedom.

Student Revolution of 1968 IVAs Michael A. Schmidtke points out in “Cultural Revolution or Cultural Shock? Student Radicalism and 1968 in Germany,” a larger picture began to form revealing that “a gap existed between [Germany’s] democratic ideals and the undemocratic culture” (79). Hence, there was a growing tension between the students and the authorities. Students became more at-risk living in West Berlin during this time of conflict, and could be arrested for things as simple as wearing ripped jeans and having long hair. Eventually, this growing tension lead to the formation of the Sozialistische Deutsche Studentenbund (SDS), an opposition group outside of the German Parliament. According to Schmidtke, the SDS was “one of the most important groups in the protest movement” (80), as their goal was to not resist the authoritarian institution but go “through it and change it.”

Student Revolution of 1968 IIWe continued the tour by walking to spots where the students had performed sit-ins and other forms of protest. We eventually found ourselves standing in front of Deutsche Oper, West Berlin’s opera house. This was the point when the movement came to its height. A demonstration was held in protest of the visit of the Shah of Iran, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. Benno Ohnesorg, a German student, was present at the demonstration with his pregnant wife. When the protest turned violent, Benno and his wife fled the scene to seek protection. They ran down the block as a police officer followed them. They cut a corner and continued down an ally way and into a courtyard where Benno was then shot in the back of the head by the police officer. Bennos’ death sparked debate within the student community and across the world. Today, there is a statue (Relief Der Tod des Demonstranten [The Death of the Demonstrator] by Alfred Hrdlicka) outside of the Opera house commemorating the police brutality that was occurring during the time of the movement and the death of Ohnesorg.

Student Revolution of 1968 VIThe students in Berlin also decided to attack the Bild newspaper headquarters in response to the police brutality. Bild, a very large publishing company, had been printing papers throughout the Student Movement portraying the members of SDS and the movement leaders as terrorists. Bild’s mass media influence had large effects on the way the public constructed a narrative of the movement. As Jin Haritaworn points out in “Queer Injuries: The Racial Politics of ‘Homophobic Hate Crime’ in Germany,” the misrepresentation of the group as terrorists “converted police into the main patron” in the public’s eyes (73). This allowed for Ohnesorg’s perpetrator, Karl-Heinz Kurras, to escape any type of punishment.  Instead of appearing in the media as oppressors of people fighting for freedom, police were seen as heroes protecting Germany from the student terrorists.

Student Revolution of 1968 VThe next and last stop on our journey was to Rudi-Dutschke-Straße, named after one of the most prominent leaders of the movement. This is also the street where Bild publishing headquarters is located and the sight of the movement’s response to Ohnesorg’s death. This is where the members of the student movement burned down the headquarters of Bild and held daily riots in the following days. The Student Movement opened doors for resistance groups around the globe, and it allowed for groups whose history had previously been silenced to have a space to begin to tell their stories. For example, Erik N. Jensen notes the “shared memory of the Nazi persecution of homosexuals (which) emerged in the 1970s” in “The Pink Triangle and Political Consciousness: Gays, Lesbians, and the Memory of Nazi Persecution” (321). If it were not for the actions of the members and leaders of the Student Movement, this community’s stories may have been left hidden in Germany’s past forever.

Below, the FemGeniuses are reacting to Peace be With You by Peter Lenk (above) on the side wall of the Tageszeitung (Taz) building on Rudi Dutschke Straße…click the pic for more info!


Mackenzie Murphy

Mackenzie Murphy grew up in New Jersey, and although she loves living in Colorado, the east coast still has a strong hold on her heart. She has been fortunate enough to have traveled within the United States, as well as to some parts of Europe and most recently to Costa Rica. This is her first time in Germany, and she’s most excited about the opportunity to travel and learn about this wonderful place with her peers. She will be a senior this coming fall, and she studies Film & New Media Studies. She also holds strong interests in Philosophy and Feminist & Gender Studies. She is currently watching the TV series The Sopranos, and her favorite philosopher is Friedrich Nietzsche.

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