European protest cultures in 1960/70s

European protest cultures in 1960/70s

Interdisziplinäres Forschungskolloquium Protestbewegungen
From - Until
25.08.2006 - 27.08.2006
Anette Warring, Department of History and Social Theory, Roskilde University

Studies on the protest movements and their cultures around 1968 are typically carried out in a national context or, if comparative, leaving out large areas of Europe. Bringing together researches on the protest cultures in Western European democracies and dictatorships as well as on the communist Eastern European states at the conference "Between the 'Prague Spring' and the 'French May'" was therefore very fruitful. The conference was the 3rd one of the Interdisciplinary Forum Protest Movements (IFK). It took place at Heidelberg Centre for American Studies and was very well organized by Dr. Martin Klimke, University of Heidelberg, and Dr. Joachim Scharloth, University of Zürich.

Focusing on trans-national exchange and national re-contextualization the overall objective was to discuss if there was a specific European dimension of the networks of protest: How did ‘1968’ differ in East and West? Can Europe be considered a microcosm for global events due to its geo-strategic position during the Cold War? The outcome of the conference was especially significant concerning the differences and similarities between East and West and between the democracies and dictatorships while the ambitious question about a unique European dimension was difficult to stick to and even more so to answer.

Martin Klimke and Joachim Scharloth introduced the conference drawing our attention to three central themes as guidelines for the discussions during the two days.
1) The relation between the national, trans-national, international or global dimensions can be understood in two different ways: a) 1968 was the first global protest movement: Activists all over the world expressed opposition against imperialism and the exploitation of the Third World. They protested for a peaceful and just co-existence of races, genders and peoples, at the same time, aiming at a fundamental change of the international political system of the Cold War. And b) The internationality of 1968 was imagined. There were hardly any trans-national networks and the exchange of ideas was limited in scope and depth, as well as transformed by its re-contextualization in the host culture.
2) The relation between the political and the lifestyle dimension of the protest movement can also be considered in two opposite ways: a) The 1968 movements all over the world were influenced by the same ideas of Marx, Mao and Marcuse and developed similar political goals from these theoretical premises. And b) The 1968 movements did not share the same ideas and aims. What they all had in common was a set of symbolic forms and protest techniques. Thus, 1968 should be viewed as a lifestyle phenomenon rather than a political movement.
3) The relation between viewing 1968 as a generation in revolt or as a construction made primarily by the media can viewed in two ways: a) The 1968 movements was a generational revolt. Young people all over the world protested against consumerism, militarism and lack of sensitiveness of their parents and called for a change towards post-materialist values. And b) The fusion of the most diverse movements into one imagined umbrella “The New Left”, as well as the identification of the small group of activists with a whole generation, is not based on historical facts. Rather, it is the result of media discourses after 1968 - it is an invented tradition.

These very important and inspiring questions and possible positions showed to be quite difficult to follow consequently in the discussions, and very few papers unambiguously claimed one of the mentioned positions.

The papers presented echoed the national approach characterizing the field but the comparative potential was demonstrated by Konstantinos Kornetis’ (History Dept. European University, Florenze) paper about the protest diffusion in the semi-periphery countries Greece and Spain. The repressive regimes reinforced activism in both countries but the student movements were also widely determined by a strong international current of radical youth culture. Common trajectories are visible in the evolution of the movements in the two countries. The students had experienced repression and suffering from authoritarianism in the past, in both the public and private sphere, and distanced themselves from the most violent groupings, condemned the glorification of violence without rejecting its utilitarian value. Both youth movements were inspired by the parallel experiences of international incitement to protest and became a major source of pressure on the regimes.

Assessing the impact of “1968” in two different but related socio-political settings - the divided Germany - was another comparative paper. Using the term “big 1968” pointing at the broad trans-national youth movement and the “small” 1968 pointing at the specific political response in a particular country, Timothy S. Brown (History Dept., North-eastern University, Boston) pointed out, that the differences between the world youth revolt as expressed in East and West Germany were rather a matter of the space available to start with than of a fundamental difference in impulse, and that they were not as isolated from each other as they are often considered to be.

The trans-national exchange and transgression were studied more specifically in the papers of Jacco Pekkelder (Duitsland Institute, Amsterdam University) and of Rolf Werenskjold (Faculty of Media and Journalism, Volda University College, Norway). The RAF solidarity movement and the international reception of e.g. the RAF hunger strike in West Germany, France, Italy and especially the Netherlands was the topic of the paper of Pekkelder. Among the radical leftist in Europe RAF was understood as a crucial comment on the flaws of Western democracy and capitalist society. But different motives of the solidarity movement as e.g. anti-psychiatry, the memory of the wars and the Holocaust, fear of the German model, were also at stake. The RAF solidarity movement was an important part of the trans-national debate about the legitimacy and practical use of political violence. The impacts of the media in spreading the global youth revolt are normally emphasized but very few researches have been carried out. Werenskjold presented some of the preliminary results of a quantitative analysis of the global 1968 revolution in the Norwegian television news. The hypotheses is that there is a connection between volume of coverage from different countries and regions, and how the term “1968 revolution” was later used in the Norwegian public.

Research on the protest movements of Eastern Europe is usually neither well known, nor very well represented within the research field of social movements. Having the East-West comparison as one of its main aims, this conference offered no less than three papers on Eastern Europe. Boris Kanzleiter (Institute for Eastern European Studies, Free University, Berlin) showed how 1968 in Yugoslavia turned out to be the first open mass opposition movement after World War II. While the Yugoslavs defined themselves as part of a global generation of revolt, their protests were characterized by a set of particularities combining topics, symbols, and demands from student movements in both the socialist East, the capitalist West and from the post-colonial countries. Gyula Virag (University of Eötvös, Budapest) pointed out, that though the variety of nationalities was notable at the 9th Youth Festival in Sofia 1968, the decisive role of Komsomol, that actually gave the main mass basis of the WFDY, insured that the festival was embraced by ideology. The strategy was to demonstrate unity in the politically divided world and diversity in an ideologically unified world. While Kanzleiter and Virag focused on 1968 as an important year, Zdenek Nebrensky (Prague) emphasized the importance of tracing the starting points of the protest cultures back in time. By focusing on the use of a subversive protest language, Nebrensky showed that the student movement in Czechoslovakia in fact started in the early 1960’s, and that by 1968 this language had already crossed the threshold of the mass media.

The importance of understanding the historical heritage of protest movements was also pointed out by Maud Bracke (Dept. of History, Glasgow) in her paper on the French Communist Party, PCF. The party’s roots in the old left and the communist tradition made it very difficult for them to support the revolt of 1968. Thus, the détente of the Cold War did not, as was the case for the left as such, facilitate PCF with new revolutionary potential.

The literature on the protest movements of 1968 often distinguish between the student revolts as mainly political on the one side, and the hippie movements as mainly a life style protest on the other. This contrast also forms a basic principle for the most prevalent interpretation of the course of the rebellion: A broad youth culture movement with origins in the end of the 1950’s was replaced by a more pronounced counter culture in 1968, and going through a process of political radicalisation the movement was subsequently discarded of its lifestyle radical aspects. Considering the title of the conference it is not surprising that by far the most contributions focused on the student revolts, mostly approaching these as social and political movements. This analytical focus did however also leave space for studies focusing on the cultural upheaval of 1968, as for cultural analysis of the changes, both before and after 1968.

Thus, Niek Pas’ (Institute for Media Studies, Amsterdam University) paper on the Dutch Provos explored how the Provos were not only rejected by society; they constantly played a game with their own image in the media and public opinion. With their original happenings starting in 1966 they both inspired and provoked other counter cultures in Europe and in the USA. Where the Provos can be seen as absurd comments on what they saw as an absurd world, the so called “Stadtindianer” was another way of protesting against the given social order. In his paper Sebastian Haumann (History Dept., University of Düsseldorf) discussed how the phenomenon of the Stadtindianers in the late 1970’s in Germany could be interpreted as a shift of paradigm from revolution as an end of protest to autonomy as objective.

An aesthetic approach was, although in very different ways, central in the papers of Beate Kutsche (Institute for New Music, University of Arts, Berlin) and Susanne Rinner (Dept. of German, Georgetown University, Washington). Having a musicological perspective on the cultural upheaval of 1968, Beate Kutsche pointed out how students, inspired by Adorno’s music aesthetic thoughts, but in contrast with his pladoyer for New Music, were targeting New Music events as a result of their interpretation, that New Music had been institutionalized and established and thus, in Adorno’s terms, invited to be considered as a conspirator of the “Kulturindustrie”. Susanne Rinner, on the other hand, presented a literary approach on the study of 1968. Re-reading the canonical East-German literary novel Irmtraud Morgner’s Leben und Abenteuer der Trobadora Beatriz nach Zeugnisse ihrer Spielfrau Laura (1974), she proposed to read East-German literature as a seismograph of East-German dissent and of ruptures in West-Germany and Europe, arguing to rethink literary expressions in both East and West as political statements by analyzing their narratives.

Thomas Ekmann Jørgensen and Andreas Rothenhöfer introduced how key words and concepts provide an important entrance to study and discuss the late sixties. Coming from Marxian ideology the concept of alienation is connected to the idea of a mythical golden age. Empirically Jørgensen followed the difficulties of the New Left intellectuals trying to engage (factory) workers in the critique of alienation. With reference to grand historical lines, Jørgensen found the background of the feeling of alienation in the individual liberation of man and the rationalization of modern society. Jørgensen suggested that the intellectuals of the left felt a lack of coherence between individual action and what was going on in the society. More over they where inspired by the critique of mass consumption and the cultural industry in Adorno’s thinking.

In Andreas Rothenhöfer’s presentation he introduced a distinction between different levels of discourse analysis: the epistemic, the semantic and the group/ individual perception. A central question in the presentation was how we as human beings get to our generalization, from the individual perception to the abstract discourse. Engaging the audience in the process of interpretation he also presented ten quotations from texts of the late sixties (Marcuse, Habermas, Dutschke a.m.). As a methological solution to the problem of historical ethnocentrism Rothenhöfer suggested a bottom up approach, focused on the creation of meaning at the level of individuals and groups.

IFK has existed since 2003, and its primary aim is to provide a forum for young scholars to discuss their ideas and research results, and to generate new approaches concerning the historicization and scientific treatment of protest movements and social dissent since World War II. Thus, it was both sympathetic and very interesting that the conference in Heidelberg first and foremost had invited young scholars. The variety of approaches was refreshing. As an interesting contrast to the young scholars, an eye witness and activist of the 1960’s and 1970’s, K. D. Wolff were invited to discuss the case of Régis Debrays, whose fascinating story was the focus of the keynote address of the conference, given by Ingrid Gilcher-Holthey (Bielefeld University).

The authors of this conference report have just started a historical research project on the political and cultural upheaval of the 1960’s and 1970’s in Denmark ( Hence, the trans-national and comparative focus of the conference was very inspiring, leaving no doubt that the international exchange of knowledge and ongoing discussions between scholars are highly fruitful ways of exploring the phenomenon of protest cultures and movements. It will be interesting to follow the further work and activities of the IFK, which hereby is highly recommended. For further information, please visit

Karen Steller Bjerregaard, Laura Peréz Skardhamar, Anne Stadager and Anette Warring (Dept. of Culture and Identity, History Studies, Roskilde University, Denmark).

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Anette Warring (Dept. of Culture and Identity, History Studies, Roskilde University, Denmark)

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