Sunday, October 12, 2008

Norbert Frei on "1968"

One of the numerous books appearing on the 40th anniversary of the eventful year 1968 is German historian Norbert Frei's 1968: Jugendrevolte und globaler Protest. "1968" tends to be used in German much as "the Sixties" in the US to refer to a wide range of events. The May-June revolt of students and workers in Paris that year and the short-lived Prague Spring experiment in Communist Czechoslovakia made 1968 a particularly notable year in Europe, as it was in the Americas, as well.

The bulk of Frei's book is devoted to "the 68ers" in Germany. But he also gives accounts of events that convey an idea of how widespread various forms of militant activism and youth revolt were. He discusses the movements in France, the US, Japan, Italy, the Netherlands, Britain, Czechoslovakia, Poland and the DDR (East Germany), with briefer comments on events in other countries like Mexico and Greece.

Frei argues that there were common features in many countries that encouraged such revolts. One was the demographics of the postwar birthrates, which meant in the 1960s in a number of coutnries that universities were overcrowded and underfunded, conditions which gave rise to particular student protests that often widened to larger movements.

He emphasizes two features related to the US that had worldwide effects on the student and youth movements. One was the example of the civil-rights and student movements in America. Ironically for protest movements that often were highly critical of American policies, the example and inpsiration of militant democratic movements in America were particular influential.

(That was 40 years and more ago, long before Dick Cheney's "Unitary Executive" and the shameless criminality of the Cheney-Bush Presidency. I can only wonder how long it will be before a popular democratic movement in the US could have such effects again.)

In the 1960s, the leaders and participant of student movements of various coutnries had personal contacts and in some cases had direct personal influence on movements in other countries, e.g., Tom Hayden from the US, Rudi Dutschke from Germany, and Danniel Cohn-Bendit of France and Germany.

The other broad American influence was the Vietnam War, which became a theme of student protest all over the world. Obviously, participants int he protest movements had a boroad range of involvement and commitment. As Jackson Browne put it in his song, "Before the Deluge":

Some of them were dreamers
And some them were fools
And for some of them
It was only the moment that mattered

But Frei arguest that it would be wrong to dismiss the moral impulse many protesters felt. For many, the protracted Vietnam War threatened to reveive the kind of wars that European nations hoped to avoid permanently after the Second World War.

He also argues that across the Western world, which for this purpose would include Japan and Eastern Europe, the youth revolt was both a product of and a promoter of widespread social changes that were building around attitudes to authority, family life and sex, and the demand for wider democratic particpation. The fact that such attitudes found active expression in the Soviet bloc as well as in Western capitalist countries, in dictatorships like Greece (beginning in 1967 with a military coup) as well as demcoracies like Britain, is an idications that broad trends were involved.

And despite the general waning of the protests movements after 1968-9 in most places, the effects of "the Sixties" have shown up ever since, affecting the women's movement and minority rights, The relationships of political parties to their voter bases, tolerance for what it now seems a bit quaint to call "alternative lifestyles", in attitudes toward sex and marriage, in child-rearing practices, in the operation of churches, and in the behavior of government bureaucracies and police departments.

Not all of the effects were postive, as our "culture warriors" never let up forget. Drug problems and STDs were made worse problems in some ways as a result of "the Sixties". In some cases like the Rote Armee Faktion ("Baader-Meinhof gang") in Germany or the far less destructive an non-murderous Weather Underground in the US, the movements of the Sixties produced groups of frustrated terrorists, hoping to lead an armed struggle that was not in the cards.

Frei also discusses at some length how in Germany the demand by young protesters for a more honest puzblic accounting for the Thrid Reich played a particular role in the rise of the protest movement. This was not just a matter of kids bickering with the parents at the kitchen table over the parents' gereral inadequecy, though much of that certainly occurred. It was a matter of current politics because many prominent figures in the German government and especially in the courts, as well as in business leadership, had been committed Nayis to various degrees back in the day. The issue acquired special currency when Kirt Georg Kiesinger, a former NSDAP (Nazi Party) member became the Wester German Chancellor. His replacement by former anti-Nazi resistance activists Willy Brandt led to a much wider discussion and re-evaluation of the Third Reich and the Holocause.

One point I found particularly striking is that the student protests in Germany took as one of their targets press baron Axel Springer, publisher of the popular talboid Bild-Zeitung. They were particularly angered by what they saw as his paper's incidtement of violence against demonstrators. I can't help but wonder if the press in the US had been a target of protest in the 1960s to something like the extent the Springer press was in Germany, if American liberals over the past 15-20 years might have been more willing to call our own Establishment press on some their outrageous misconduct. Instaed, we have a badly broken press corps and many liberals who are reluctant to describe it for what it is. If only...

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