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The German student movement (also called 68er-Bewegung, movement of 1968, or soixante-huitaires) was a protest movement that took place during the late 1960s in Germany. It was largely a reaction against the perceived authoritarianism and hypocrisy of the German government and other Western governments, and the poor living conditions of students. A wave of protests—some violent—swept Germany, fueled by over-reaction by the police and encouraged by contemporary protest movements across the world. Following more than a century of conservatism among German students, the German student movement also marked a significant major shift to the left and radicalisation of student politics.


Historical background

Following the failure in the mid 19th century of the civil revolution in Germany (1848/49), German students largely abandoned radical politics and heavy political involvements. Having failed to turn Germany into a republic in a rebellion involving much of the working class, German students reversed course and began to follow instead the Prussian ideal of a "good citizen". During this period, the students effectively ceased all political activity against existing political institutions and began to become more conservative.

By the time that the First World War broke out in 1914, students were so steadfastly conservative and nationalistic that many of them went to war voluntarily. When the war ended in humiliation for Germany in 1919, students, like many in Germany, placed the blame for Germany's defeat and subsequent economic collapses on the newly-formed Weimar Republic, its founders and the Treaty of Versailles. Resulting from this, and because German students were so used to being governed by a single figurehead, it was not hard for the German National Socialist German Workers' Party (NSDAP) headed by Adolf Hitler to convince most students to join its student organization (the NSDStB — National Socialist German Students' League) and to abandon democracy. When Hitler gained full control of Germany in 1933, the universities were generally pliant towards Nazi policies. This explains in large part why so many students and professors worked together with the Nazi regime.

Following the end of the Second World War in 1945, students returning from the European battlefields and their professors wanted to resume normal academic activity as quickly as possible. The Allied forces agreed that everyday life should be restored quickly, and so removed only a few professors from the posts they had already held during the Nazi regime. German students were hence allowed to return to work very quickly, but the university system was not fully denazified. As a result, students kept their nationalist and conservative traditions in student fraternities while leftist student organizations like the SDS (German Socialist Student Union) remained insignificant, and this situation continued until the 1960s.

Consequently, by the advent of the 1960s the university system was still deeply conservative in its political leanings, with these attitudes being reflected in the lack of a say for students in the governance of their universities. Similarly, in central government, many politicians and administrators from the Nazi era had survived, leading to a tendency towards authoritarian government and successive conservative administrations.

Early stages of the movement

In 1966, for the first time in fifteen years, the German economy went into recession and the FDP finally withdrew from Ludwig Erhard's CDU/CSU/FDP coalition government. With the forming of the CDU/CSU/SPD coalition government under Kurt Georg Kiesinger the voice of the opposition within the Bundestag was seriously weakened. This led some students to conclude that this encouraged authoritarian and anti-democratic attitudes in government and therefore justified and indeed necessitated the transfer of opposition from parliament to bodies outside it. At the same time, the shock of realising that the Wirtschaftswunder could not last forever led many in the student body, influenced by Marxist economic theory, to believe that the economic wealth of the nation, instead of improving the standard of living of the working class, would destroy it and lead to an ever-growing gap between the rich and the poor.

Through their critical work on many different topics and the reactions of the public and the government itself, these main goals formed in the minds of the students:

The first goal was the source of all the others and thus the most important in their minds.

To summarise, the students rejected traditional, parliamentary decision making-processes, social injustice and the inequalities of wealth. They felt the need to overcome and change these things.

The past

To the students, the German chapter of Fascism was not yet closed. Many former Nazis were still working for the government or at the universities (in fact, then-Chancellor Kurt Georg Kiesinger had formerly been a member of the NSDAP) and the newly-formed right-wing National Democratic Party of Germany (NPD) was attracting more and more voters. In addition to that the students had to deal with the fact that they were identified as Germans and blamed for the crimes committed by their parents’ generation.

The students did not want to be held responsible for their parents’ deeds. But their parents acted as if it were no concern of theirs; when the students tried to show the public that the anti-fascist idea of the constitution was not yet established in German society, the government and the press felt extremely offended, feeling they had formed a democratic society and did not want it to be attacked.

Reforming the universities

To support its new economic policies the government wanted to change the universities, producing graduates faster by introducing a time limit on courses and limiting the number of students. The students, however, did not want to adjust to the needs of the economy and the government. In fact, they wanted to adjust the universities to their own wishes. They wanted more rights in the running of universities, better-equipped workplaces and the expulsion of the professors who had been active during the Nazi period. The university boards did not react to the students' protest and introduced the time limit for studying.

When this time limit was introduced at the Free University of Berlin during the summer holidays of 1966 the students were not there, and so were unable to protest against it; instead, the first big sit-in of the German student movement happened when they returned after the holidays, with about 4,000 participants. The events at the Free University of Berlin can be seen as representative of the events at all universities in Germany because the same events were repeated elsewhere a short time later.

The war in Vietnam and political suppression

Through their increasing interest in politics the students quickly engaged in discussions concerning the war in Vietnam. They formed the opinion that the United States had no right to fight in Vietnam, not only because of the victims but mainly because of what they saw as an imperialistic foreign policy.

The government, however, had to back the USA since they were still watching over Germany after World War Two. For this reason, university boards put a ban on political activities by students (e.g. discussions) at the universities. They explained this act by saying that science should always be neutral. This was the same explanation the professors had used to justify their behaviour during the Third Reich. The students wanted to be able to act politically, not only because of the war in Vietnam, but to protest against the horrible conditions in the Third World as students and not only as individuals.

Emergency Acts

The students were strongly opposed to the German Emergency Acts which were due to be passed, which would allow the government to limit civil rights in the case of an emergency. Among other things, they would allow the government to restrict freedom of movement and to limit privacy and confidentiality of telecommunications correspondence.

Action and reaction

By the year 1966 the number of students which were interested in the conflict between the students and the authorities had increased. Many of those who had not been interested before became at least passively interested by now. This newly-formed public took part in the demonstrations, sit-ins and other protest actions arranged by the students and their organizations (e.g. the Sozialistischer Deutscher Studentenbund).

The government tried to fight the situation by decreasing the funds for universities and student organizations and by turning public opinion against the students with the help of the press. The view that students should study and not demonstrate grew stronger. The students were also repressed in the streets by the police. Yet, the more pressure the government put on the students, the more the students would stick together.

On June 2, 1967 the conflict would finally escalate. Students had organized demonstrations against the official visit by the Shah of Iran. In their opinion, the German government was demonstrating a positive attitude towards a dictatorial government that was suppressing and torturing its own people.

During the first demonstration in front of the Opera House, which the Shah was visiting, the police of Berlin and the Iranian service attacked the protestors. In the turmoil, the unarmed student Benno Ohnesorg was shot in the head from behind by Polizeiobermeister (Police Sergeant) Karl-Heinz Kurras and killed.

The following days saw many demonstrations throughout the whole republic against police brutality. The students in Berlin, however, were anxious and in a desperate situation. The police were preventing them from gathering in public, the universities had submitted their authority to the government and the press wrote that the students were the brutal and aggressive component of the demonstrations and that they had provoked the death of Benno Ohnesorg. Even though there were some students groups supporting the idea of a violent revolution the protesting students were mostly peaceful.

For the following days the students took over control of the Free University of Berlin. Finally being able to meet again, they used the time to discuss and reflect on the events of the past days.

The revolt continues

The spirit of the students in Berlin spread across the whole country. In autumn 1967 there were organized protest groups at nearly all universities in Germany. In the following months some of the largest and most brutal demonstrations in the history of the German republic happened. The press, especially the tabloid Bild-Zeitung newspaper was telling the public what to think about those protestors. Its publisher, Axel Springer, did not publish any positive articles about the students. Springer supported the government and was spreading the government's views among its readers.

At Easter 1968, there was an attempted assassination of one of the most important members of the SDS, Rudi Dutschke. The students were outraged because the “Springer” press and the government had named Rudi Dutschke their “public enemy”. Overnight students all over Germany organized actions to block the delivery of the Bild-Zeitung by building blockades and protesting in front of “Springer” buildings. During these actions about 400 students were injured and two died. Rudi Dutschke died in 1979 of the late after-effects of his injury.

The climax and the decline

The revolt against the government reached its climax in May 1968. Students, schoolchildren and members of workers' unions formed a group of 80,000 people who demonstrated in the capital Bonn against the emergency legislature. Even though the students mobilized as many people as possible to support their actions they could not stop the Bundestag from passing the new law.

This failure marks the beginning of the end for the student movement. The former union of many small student groups representing different theories on the same topics was falling apart because they were blaming other groups' theories and thinking for the failure of the whole movement. This meant that the students were not working together anymore but against each other. By the end of the year even the SDS, the strongest of all student organizations, was falling into pieces.

The effect

Although the students failed to overthrow the status quo, the effects of the student movement are still visible today because the movement did change things in Germany.

Another side-effect of the student movement was the so-called emancipation of women in Germany. Through their political work the women came to be indoctrinated into the belief that they were being suppressed by male society and that they thus had to change this condition. In addition to that the student movement brought up many theories on education and the raising of children which have influenced the modern forms of these processes. These changes and the huge influence on culture and art were probably the most important effects of the student movement.

An indirect effect was the "radical decree" which was passed in the year 1972. It allowed the government to prevent the employment of people in the public services if there were grounds to believe that they did not support the free and democratic principles (freiheitliche demokratische Grundordnung) outlined in the constitution (Grundgesetz). Under the decree, which gradually fell into desuetude after 1976, around 3.5 million individuals were investigated and 10,000 refused employment (fewer than 0.3%); 130 were dismissed.[1]

The student movement, although it failed to achieve its main goals, brought many new and important elements to German society and culture which influence the country even today. A number of ministers in the Gerhard Schröder government were student activists back in the 1960s and early 1970s.

It is widely believed that the conservatism of Pope Benedict XVI stems from his reaction to student protests at the University of Tübingen in 1968, when he served as a professor of theology.

See also


  1. ^ Source of figures:


  • Martin Klimke, Joachim Scharloth (eds.). 2007. 1968. Ein Handbuch zur Kultur- und Mediengeschichte der Studentenbewegung. Stuttgart: Metzler. ISBN 3476020665
  • Tony Judt. 2005. Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945. New York: Penguin Group ISBN 1-59420-065-3

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