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1968: A year that changed society

Protest against everything - 1968 was a turning point in the history of the Federal Republic. The revolutionary spirit is still active today.

1968: Student protests in Frankfurt am Main
1968: Student protests in Frankfurt am Main © dpa

The cipher “1968” stands for a protest movement that was in essence a student movement. It lasted in Germany from 1967 to 1969. On the whole, it was a parallel phenomenon to the first grand coalition between the Union parties and the SPD. Because parts of the younger, academically educated generation were convinced that the Bundestag lacked an effective intra-parliamentary counterforce, the actors in the movement called for an extra-parliamentary opposition, what was called the APO. In particular, they wanted to prevent the passage of the emergency laws because they feared that these laws would constitute the return to an authoritarian state.

Rudi Dutschke: the face of the 1968ers

The driving and most important force within this movement was the Socialist German Student Union, SDS for short. This university association, banned from the SPD in 1961, formulated the ideas and developed the concepts of the revolt and personified it, especially in its charismatic speaker Rudi Dutschke, as did no other grouping.

Probably the most far-reaching political challenge in the history of the Federal Republic
The political scientist Wolfgang Kraushaar

The root of the protest movement

1968 was a great social experiment conducted by a small minority. Almost everything in politics and society was called into question: parliaments and parties, justice and police, churches and unions, banks and corporations, press and media, central social institutions such as family, school and university - there was hardly an area that was spared criticism. And almost always it was about the rejection of authority. The reason was a crisis of confidence that was rooted in the National Socialist past, which had never been come to terms with.

1968 was a strong, perhaps even the most far-reaching political challenge that has ever occurred in the history of the Federal Republic. The forces of social change, though they failed politically almost all along the line, eventually gained hegemony in many areas of political culture. The ideological patterns handed down by the two major parties CDU/CSU and SPD – a Christian conservatism and a social democratism originating in the working class milieu – were not only questioned, but also often broken with and their insufficient legitimacy exposed.

This is how we benefit today from 1968

Although the 1968 movement with its RAF terrorism, the K-groups and various psycho-sects produced a whole series of aberrations, the change in mentalities, lifestyles and life projects, the formation of civil society norms and the liberalization of the new middle classes, would be hardly conceivable without the driving forces then released. Society is indebted to the 68ers for current matter-of-course mainstays of democracy such as individual liberties and sexual self-determination - not only, but also.

It is one of the many peculiarities of the sequel of 1968 that an awareness of the importance of this movement is often much more developed in right-wing populist and right-wing conservative circles than among many of those who have benefited from it.

Wolfgang Kraushaar
Wolfgang Kraushaar © dpa

Wolfgang Kraushaar is a political scientist at the Hamburg Institute for Social Research. He is known as a chronicler of the ‘68 movement.

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