• Email
  • Single Page
  • Print

The Young in Berlin

The Free University was founded in 1948 as West Berlin’s answer to the Humboldt University in East Berlin. The word “free” had two connotations, educational and political. Educationally it meant that the new University would be a forum of discussion between teachers and students, a Gemeinschaft der Lehrenden und Lernenden. It was the Berliner Modell which would be an example to other institutions of a better relationship between students and faculty than had existed in the old German universities. These had not been reformed, they had been “restored” after the war. The Berlin Model was to do away with the feudal university of lordly professors, attentive assistants, and underling students wondering whether after three years at the University they might have an interview with the professor who would decide their whole future.

The political connotation of the word “free” was meant to contrast Western freedom with the lack of freedom of the students in East Berlin. This worked well so long as there was Stalin and after him the walled-in East to be dramatically free of. During the Stalinist period freedom meant anti-communism, and helping refugees from the East. In the early days of the Wall it meant digging tunnels, helping people to escape. However, more recently, the students began to become aware of freedoms to defend both abroad and nearer home. There is a rather formidable list of things which Der Konvent (the student parliament) and its executive committee (ASTA) found they cared about. There was Vietnam, German rearmament, the relations of West Germany with the Eastern Zone, the joining by the German socialist party (the SPD, to which the SDS had once been close) of the Grand Coalition of the West German government. Beyond all this was the vast array of forces which produced the Economic Miracle, the most blatant show put on by the Consumer Society.

Meanwhile the Berlin Model of the teaching and learning community (which I observed when it was still being practiced in halls and cinemas, before the University was installed on its present campus) disappeared under the enormous anonymous overcrowding of the University. As a consequence of this expansion the founders had to abandon their original aim of only selecting professors who shared the ideals of democratic interchange, and take professors from older universities who were far from sympathetic to an academic community with a student parliament members of whose executive committee were dedicated to defending the right of students to interpret the word “frei” as meaning that Der Konvent could make pronouncements about state and international politics, just as if it were a real parliament. This exercise became extremely unpopular when in 1962 the students started collecting money for Algerian students who were resisting the French. The authorities were obviously embarrassed when the students started interpreting political freedom in ways that embarrassed the Western occupying powers. The students, on their side, remembered how no one had protested when they raised funds for refugee students from the Eastern Zone. Assistance for the Algerians was forbidden by the Rector of the University.

After this there was a series of incidents of that kind that rebelling students everywhere collect, file, annotate, publish and distribute to other students, like Coriolanus displaying his wounds. Thus in 1965 the Rector banned the well-known journalist Erich Kuby from speaking on the campus on the occasion of the tenth anniversary of the defeat of Nazi Germany. Seven years previously Kuby had said that the University had been given the name “free” only as a point in the polemics against the “unfreedom” of the Humboldt University. The ban resulted in widespread protests by students. There followed the many protests against the war in Vietnam. These were followed in turn by the Academic Senate forbidding political demonstrations in the University. At that the ASTA committee resigned. Next, the ban was withdrawn. There were further political protests, etc., etc., etc.

THE PROTESTS culminated in some passionate and tragic, almost Dostoyevskian events. The first of these was occasioned by the visit of the Shah of Iran to Berlin, on June 2, 1967, as part of his West German tour as a State visitor. It seems that he was accompanied—rather operatically perhaps—by about forty Iranians resident in West Germany who formed a bodyguard for him. The night before his visit to Berlin, students of the Free University conducted a teach-in to receive information from various speakers on the “reactionary” Iranian regime. They passed a resolution protesting against the Shah’s visit, and the next evening some of them demonstrated outside the Opera House when the Shah arrived to attend a performance of The Magic Flute (a curious choice perhaps, since the character of Monostatos seems to correspond so closely to the students’ idea of the Shah). The police and the Shah’s self-selected Iranian bodyguard attacked the students with much violence and one of them, Beno Ohnesorg, was killed.

On June 8, more than half the students of the University marched through the streets accompanying Ohnesorg’s funeral procession to the city boundaries. He was buried in Hannover where with the permission of the East German authorities the students held a Congress on the “Organization of Opposition” in his memory. The remarkable document recording the discussion is published under the title Bedingungen und Organisation des Wider standes (Voltaire Flugschrift).

Nearly a year later, Easter 1968, there followed the attempted assassination of Rudi Dutschke, one of the most thoughtfully analytic of the student revolutionaries, but not the least provocative, who was shot by a young painter belonging to no political party. This was one of those acts of violence that spring out of an atmosphere by now electric with fear and hatred. The students attributed this evil climate to their powerful opponents of the Springer press, whose newspapers have a near monopoly of the press in Berlin, and a great empire of publications throughout the rest of West Germany. Reacting violently, they started a whole series of attacks on office buildings of the Springer organization in many towns of Germany. Buildings were occupied, stones were thrown, cars were thrown over on their sides and burned. The police responded with violence that probably exceeded that of the students.

Since these events, the students have become much preoccupied with the question of violence. In May, when there was an international meeting of students at the London School of Economics, Dr. Krippendoff, one of the German representatives, declared that the question of violence (like the question “How much is permitted to be consumed in the nonconsumer society?”) was one which the students should not be drawn into answering, since $$$ would depend on the violence $$$ so that no rules could be laid down about what means might or might not be permitted. However, the anxiety shown by many of the students about violence shows that many of them would regard this answer as evasive. Neal Ascherson, the brilliant Berlin correspondent of The Observer, described to me an interview with students in which, pressed by journalists, they attempted to formulate conditions in which it would be justified to throw stones, or apples, depending on the hardness of the apple. He said that the death of two of their number had come as a much greater shock to the German students than to the French, who took the consequences of violence in their stride. However, if one reads the SDS publications one sees that they have frequently recommended provocations of the police as a strategy whereby the students might air their grievances. What is one to conclude from remarks like this by Wolfgang Lefèvre, one of the SDS leaders: “We have learned from experience that the more effectively we can break through the police lines, the less blood is spilled. This, however, requires that we can form groups which will not panic when the police attack.”

THE TROUBLE with violence is that it leads to double-talk in which the provocateur is playing at one and the same time the role of assailant and victim. It is hardly surprising that the German students are now debating among themselves, with much concern, the question of violence.

With the German students of the SDS, one begins to understand the meaning of the word “alienation.” In a city many of whose inhabitants are paid not to leave it, many of the students are brought in from the outside. To them once they have set themselves in opposition, the German establishment must seem a gigantic conspiracy to let sleeping dogs lie while those who have benefited from the economic miracle and the American support of West Germany, hang on to their gains. To the general public (including the workers), which does not want to be disturbed, the students must seem yapping puppies. The two sides of the Berlin Wall, the Communist and the Western, are equally impervious to the students’ appeals.

Some of the leaders, like Dutschke and Krippendoff, have come from the Eastern Zone. Such men are in the position of being twice disillusioned, by the East and by the West, by the communists and by the anti-communists. Inevitably they pursue some third ideology, from Mao’s China or Castro’s Cuba. They pursue it with energy, like Pirandello’s six characters in search of an author.

The remarkable essays of Rudi Dutschke and Wolfgang Lefèvre in the volume Rebellion der Studenten (Rowohlt) follow a pattern which might be termed that of the politics of extreme isolation. The first part of the essay is a search to rearrange the order of ancestors; the second part, to realign the forces of the contemporary world. In the first part, the problem is to by-pass Stalin and nearly all the governments of Eastern Europe, and get back to the pure doctrine of Marx and Lenin (by way of Marcuse); the untainted practice of communist martyrs like Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg. In the second part, the forces opposing one another in the modern world have to be rearranged in a purer ideological and moral order. Marx’s thesis of class struggle has to be converted into a vision of struggle between the forces of neo-capitalism—the consumer society—and an alliance of Maoists, Castroites, the impoverished Third World of the underdeveloped countries, and students. In this interpretation of the past and present situation, the consumer society of “neo-capitalism” is characterized by the phrase “manipulation”: it is no longer, like early capitalism, simply oppressive. It satisfies the needs of the workers up to the point which makes them become one of the forces competing in the society, it lulls them into thinking that they are enjoying real freedom. The task of the students as an element in the forces allied against the consumer society is characterized as “awakening of consciousness.” It is for them to persuade the workers that they are not really free, and to make them see that neo-capitalism is still a society of war, hunger, and exploitation of the third world.

These positions are ideological in the most revolutionary—or neo-revolutionary—sense of the word. They are theoretical to that point where theory seems sometimes to merge into a persecution complex (but then all revolutionary theories have an element of persecution complex about them). What is both moving and disquieting is the sense they give one of the isolation of intelligent and vital minds (forget for the moment that they are called students) in Germany, the center of Europe.

When the German students talk about “consciousness” they also mean, I think, “conscience.” Germany is still, beyond everything else, the country of bad conscience for its recent past. The special character of the great German success is that it has so much the look of bad conscience bought off in spite of circumstances. The students are isolated, and resented with a ferocity peculiar to Germany because despite all their arrogance, their provocativeness, their hysteria, they represent an awakened conscience. Their theories seem to make them seem intractable in their opposition to the universities and the society of which they are a part. But a grasp of theory is, after all, what the students most need. At the present time, after the spring of violence, the students are going through a summer of reflection. Perhaps the German student theoreticians will provide a basis for developing this international movement beyond the point of violence.

POSTSCRIPT FROM PROVENCE: After correcting these proofs, I took a candle up to my room (General de Gaulle has not yet got around to providing this area with electricity) and opened Boswell for bedside reading. By one of those acts of instant communication with the dead the book fell open at these lines, with a message which, being a liberal, I have, for better or worse, not to censor, but to transmit:

I talked of the recent expulsion of six students from the University of Oxford, who were methodists and would not desist from publickly praying and exhorting. JOHNSON: “Sir, that expulsion was extremely just and proper. What have they to do at an University who are not willing to be taught, but will presume to teach? Where is religion to be learnt but at an University? Sir, they were examined, and found to be mighty ignorant fellows.” BOSWELL: “But, was it not hard, Sir, to expel them, for I am told they were good beings?” JOHNSON: “I believe they might be good beings; but they were not fit to be in the University of Oxford. A cow is a very good animal in the field; but we turn her out of a garden.”

How unfair that these lines should make me think of pretty Miss Fronius sitting in the ASTA building on the campus of the Neue Universität.

  • Email
  • Single Page
  • Print