The Student Movement: selected highlights – a personal recount

In this section I am putting together some memories of the student movement as I experienced it personally. In no way am I trying to give a complete or comprehensive account or objective analysis of the student movement. These are simply some selective personal stories in the tradition of oral history, describing events and processes that have had an effect on me and that have shaped me. For many of my comrades the unaddressed Nazi past of their parents played a big role, which was not so much the case with me since my parents left Germany before the war (in 1938) and did not return until more than 20 years later. The anti Vietnam demonstrations of course also played a big role in the German student movement, but I tended to be fearful and shy away from the violent confrontations with the police that these demonstrations often ended in.

The student movement in Germany was sparked off by the killing of a student by a police officer (who later turned out to have been an under cover agent for the East German Government) during an anti-Shah demonstration in 1967.

I was in my last year of high school at the time and shocked the school establishment by putting up a documentation of the event and the subsequent reactions using radical slogans on the outside walls of the school, calling for public discussions in the classrooms. This method of “Wandzeitungen”, (wall newspapers) was one of the many instruments used in the student movement to break through the very formal and restricted public culture of post-war Germany.

I was introduced to the instrument of “go ins” at the university of Tübingen, where I studied sociology for the first two semesters. A “go in” meant that we students challenged the position of the professors as having the monopoly of defining the subjects and contents of classes. We simply went up and stood next to the professors on their podiums, interrupted their lectures and faced them with challenging questions and points of view that we demanded them to respond to. Most professors were overwhelmed by this breaking of classroom rules and power structure and reacted authoritarian or fled the classroom, but some took up the challenge and entered into debate. With or without the professor, these go ins created a lot of controversy and debate, in which we could engage for hours.

For me it was an impressive experience of how institutional and personal authority do not necessarily go together, how people of authority, once stripped of their institutional power, indeed could turn out to be “paper tigers,” powerless and unimpressive as role models or teachers. Go ins were also clear demonstrations of how authority structures are created by both sides, the ones claiming as well as the ones buying into authority. Authority could dissolve like a mirage once the underlying rules and assumptions were challenged and consent was withheld. This experience had a deep effect and influenced the way I perceived and handled institutional power relations later in life.

In the student movement we challenged the traditional top down concepts of learning. I think my personal confidence and trust in peer learning, which I developed and applied later on in my work in many ways, with the GWIA, the Mother Centers, but also in professional networks, stems from these early experiences. The student movement definitely paved the way for many of later and even current concepts of participative teaching and learning. I firmly believe that the student movement has had an enormous and long term effect on public culture as well as on basic structures of contemporary German society. This is just one example.

I followed my first Marx courses in my first semesters in Tübingen and remember how much I enjoyed the fact that in texts by Marx, content was contained in every single sentence, unlike many of the more contemporary sociological textbooks where you needed to read pages and pages before coming to a new thought.

In the winter semester of 1968 I moved to Frankfurt to study with Adorno (I still caught a few semesters with him) and Habermas, the leading progressive sociologists of the times. I did, however, not see much of them, since in my first weeks there we occupied the sociological institute and created our own system of courses. This basically involved the younger students like me learning from the older ones. It was a period of intense, albeit unusual, studying. We stayed in the institute far into the night and the culture of debate was everywhere. My young and curious mind was thrilled. I could ask as many questions as I wanted, that was what was encouraged and defined the social code of behaviour.

I didn’t really get back into the classroom and a classical studying schedule even after the phase of “selbstbestimmtes Lernen” (self defined and managed learning) was over and the regular curriculum and routine had been reasserted at the university. We switched our protest focus onto other issues. We were always very busy with one thing or another. I learned a lot in these years, but not necessarily in the classroom. I can personally confirm the studies conducted later by the EU that 70% of what you use in life stems from informal learning settings. I did maintain the minimal formal requirements to stay registered as a student, and I did take the tests and write the papers required. This, however, was more “on the side” than my main focus, and I chose to study subjects and themes related to the political issues we were collectively debating and addressing.

The student movement got into local politics and we occupied beautiful living spaces, turn of the century houses that were being purposely left to decay by their owners in order to be torn down so the location could be used to build more profitable high-rise office spaces. We managed to stay in many of these occupied houses for several years, because the issue had quite a lot of political and also legal legitimacy and because we were also quite smart in our politics. I lived in one of the occupied houses where we tried to implement some basic qualities of collective living and sharing. Our Wohngemeinschaften (living communities) were quite moderate. We shared our cars, but not our beds, we cooked and took our meals together, but did not have sessions of collective analysis of each others psychic structures. I enjoyed the open house character of these houses. Meetings and spontaneous gatherings happened all the time, and there were many visitors from out of town or from other countries.

There were no feelings of isolation, you belonged to a large and international community of “comrades”. It was easy to get information or support on any issue inside these networks and many everyday life matters were made very easy, because they were organised collectively. I often reflected later on, when I was earning good money and living a much more expensive life style, how easy it was to get by with very little money in those days. We did not pay rent in the houses we occupied. You did not need to own a car, you could borrow one anytime you needed one. You never needed a hotel when travelling, there was always a “Wohngemeinschaft” in town, where you could stay. You did not need to eat out, the schedule for taking turns cooking dinner always proved reliable (even if the one for cleaning the toilet was not) and there was always enough food in the house, since buying in big bulks was usually cheaper. I got by on a lot less money in those days, but the quality of life was no less than in later years.

When the student movement developed into different factions and parties I joined the “Sponti’s”, which was short for “spontaneous”, non-dogmatic. The Frankfurt Sponti’s formed the group “Revolutionärer Kampf” (revolutionary combat), of which Daniel Cohn Bendit and Joska Fischer became the most famous members.

Inspired by big workers strikes happening in France and Italy we took our go at “revolutionising the working class” and spent several years studying and analysing the conditions of the workers at the big automobile factory Opel in Rüsselsheim near Frankfurt and developing strategies for change. We divided the group into “inside cadres” and “outside cadres”. Inside cadres were those of us who actually went to work inside the factory. Each inside cadre was assigned two outside cadres who gave back up support. When the inside cadres got home from work, they were waiting to take minutes of what we had to report. They also handled the bulk of the logistical work involved in printing and handing out our flyers and newspapers.

Every week we brought out a flyer that we printed in huge quantities on rudimentary printing machines the group had acquired. These flyers were handed out in front of the gates of the Opel factory. They were formulated in endless collective debates, in which both the inside and the outside cadres participated. These debates were basically the attempt to apply Marxist theory to the concrete conditions we were examining in the factory. Even in hindsight I find these weekly flyers we produced quite interesting and sound. We kept this up for a couple of years. We were no lazy movement. The point of the flyers was to raise the awareness of the working class and to inspire them to take action. We never did manage to initiate a general strike at Opel, but years later we found out that a group of young trade unionists had regularly met to discuss our flyers and that they had influenced later trade union policy.

I was an “inside cadre” and worked for a year in rotating shifts on an assembly line at Opel. One week the shift went from 6.00 am to 14.30 pm, the following week from 14.30 pm till 23.00 pm. My task was to adjust a particular screw of the carburettors. But my real task of course was to keep my eyes and ears open, and to engage my colleagues into as many political discussions as possible. I spent many toilet breaks taking notes on flimsy bits of note paper that I hid in my pockets. I later wrote my thesis for my sociological degree as an analysis of my experiences during this year at the factory.

The highlight of my time at Opel was the day I held a speech at the workers general assembly. This was a huge factory gathering of several thousand workers, organised by the workers’ council and a great occasion to present our messages. We timed it so that those of us who were near the end of their one year term would speak at the regular general assemblies. I had to go against the group’s decision when I spoke, as for some reason they had decided that the women in the group should not be speakers at the general assembly. But I was not to be deprived of this once in a life time opportunity. Indeed it turned out to be an incredible experience to speak before thousands of workers, who were thrilled to have a young woman (I was in my early twenties, but looked sixteen) hold a flaming speech to them like Jeanne d’Arc, if only for the entertainment and break of routine this provided. It was like being carried on a huge wave of support. The crowd instinctively knew when I got stuck in my thoughts and would start to applaud exactly then. They would also accurately notice when I had found my train of thought back again and would stop right in time to let me go on with my speech. It was like they were breathing with me, an intricate bond and connection woven right then and there. I have never experienced anything like this again in the many speeches and lectures I was still to deliver in my life.

Other speakers from our group followed and though the meeting did not end in the declaration of a general strike, as we had intended, we did evoke quite some enthusiasm and something of a “revolutionary spirit” for those hours. All of us who spoke were fired the next day and required to leave the factory premises immediately, but we had reckoned with that. There still were many “inside cadres” left, who had not outed themselves. Rumour has it that the migrant workers at Opel were talking about Santa Monica and Santa Barbara (a second woman of our group who had dared to speak) for over a week. I had definitely been confirmed in and learned the lesson that going along with group decisions is not always the right course of action.