The German student revolt
Forty years ago today, students demonstrated in Berlin following the attempted assassination of their revolutionary leader, Rudi Dutschke. After narrowly surviving the attack, he and his family later took refuge in Britain, only to be expelled by the Heath government as “undesirable aliens” in 1971.
He died eight years later, aged 39, from the after-effects of his injuries, but not before linking up with anti-Stalinist campaigners in Eastern Europe and anti-nuclear protesters in Germany. Dutschke had been born in former East Germany and fled to the West just one day before the infamous Berlin Wall was erected in August 1961. He became the most notable leader of the West German student movement, the Sozialistischer Deutscher Studentenbund (SDS) which organised mass demonstrations against the US war in Vietnam.
Josef Bachman, the man who shot him, had been provoked by the Bild tabloid newspaper which had urged readers to “eliminate the trouble makers”. The powerful Springer press, which owned Bild, was seen by many students as the main enemy, influenced as they were by Frankfurt School philosophers such as Marcuse, Horkheimer and Adorno and their theories of cultural criticism.
In an interview conducted a few months before he was shot, it is clear why Dutschke was seen as an enemy of the West German state. Dutschke believed that the 1968 movement was the heir of the 1918 revolution that had swept Germany 50 years earlier, when the Bolshevik seizure of power in Russia the year before inspired the creation of workers’ and soldiers’ councils. Dutschke also published articles making clear his support for the October Revolution in Russia and its leaders, including Trotsky, Bukharin and Radek. He condemned the governing parties for not bringing about unification with East Germany. In particular, he denounced the parliamentary system in West Germany for having disenfranchised the population.
He believed the SDS movement should not only be extra-parliamentary but against parliament, because there was in fact no dialogue between politicians and the electorate. His aim at this time was the creation of organisations which would be “different from the existing parties who manipulate people’s interests”. Politicians should be subject to recall. He believed that humans beings were not simply “blind objects of fate” but that they could make history, but that they had to make it consciously”. Dutschke saw Germany as part of an international system, in which “one part of the world exploited the other part”.
In 1967, Dutschke had begun to shift towards an urban guerrilla outlook, in which the SDS would become a “sabotage and civil disobedience group” to protect people against state terror. Others, though not Dutschke, founded the Red Army Faction, which went on to carry out political assassinations in West Germany. Inevitably, neither the “long road through the institutions” of the SDS nor the individual terror of the Red Army Faction could dislodge the German capitalist state.
Dutschke went down a different political path, joining others to help found the German Green Party which many years later would become part of the political establishment he opposed. Whatever Dutschke’s political weaknesses, he was a courageous opponent of the system and deserves to be remembered, not only in Germany but also in the UK. His political trajectory was an expression of the crisis in post-war Germany, as a new generation sought to come to terms with the history their parents had made. And, of course, he was completely right about the need to go outside and beyond the existing parliamentary bourgeois state.
15 April 2008