The outbreak of a generational rebellion, which culminated in the symbolic year of 1968, stemmed from a rising tide of dissatisfaction among young people. One impulse came from the artistic avant garde, which resented the reimposition of bourgeois respectability after the Second World War. Another intellectual impetus was the formation of a “New Left,” which sought to provide a critique of advanced industrial society beyond classical Marxism. Some of the inspiration in regard to non-violent protest derived from the American civil rights movement). The proposal for and eventual passage of emergency legislation to ensure the functioning of the federal government in the event of war or catastrophe generated intense opposition against the Grand Coalition of the CDU/CSU and the SPD and aroused fears of curtailed democratic freedoms (Chapter 2). At the same time, left-wing opinion was outraged by television images of American atrocities in the Vietnam War and denounced what seemed to be a classic attempt by an imperialist power to subdue a national liberation struggle. Finally, a traditionalist university structure that vested control in full professors provoked ample criticism, especially among students in overcrowded institutions.
These diffuse protests escalated into a massive confrontation due to a combination of challenges from the rebels and repressive responses from the authorities. The antiauthoritarian wing of the movement was especially inventive in provoking “the system” so as to unmask its repressiveness, thereby attracting a large following among the children of affluent and liberal parents. When the police killed an innocent bystander named Benno Ohnesorg during a demonstration against a visit by the Shah of Iran, many sympathetic youths and progressive adults were outraged. The charismatic student leader Rudi Dutschke blamed conservative politicians and the rightist media for Ohnesorg’s death and called for an expropriation of the press empire of Axel Springer. But the continued agitation of the tabloid BILD-Zeitung soon claimed Dutschke himself as victim when he was shot in the head by a deranged worker in April 1968, provoking another wave of solidarity declarations and increasingly violent protests. Soon thereafter, the talented leftist journalist Ulrike Meinhof began to justify the use of violence – first against things and then against people, crossing the line from protest to terrorism.
The two contrasting systems handled the rising challenge to their authority in fundamentally different ways. The East German leadership looked with suspicion upon the Czech experiment of “Socialism with a Human Face,” since the hope for a reform of Communism from within was attractive to its own intellectuals. To prevent the emergence of independent criticism of its own dictatorship, the SED joined the call for military repression of the Prague experiment and ruthlessly suppressed its own dissidents. The leaders and public of the Federal Republic were similarly frightened by the formation of a “Red Army Faction” that promised to carry the tactics of guerilla war, effective in the Third World, into West Germany. In order to reinforce “internal security,” the social-liberal coalition passed an infamous decree against radicals, which forbade their employment in public service and instituted invasive personnel screening procedures. But the suicides of Meinhof and Andreas Baader, the murder of prominent West German business and political leaders, and the dramatic liberation of a hijacked airplane in Mogadishu by the Federal Border Police [Bundesgrenzschutz] finally had a sobering effect on the radical left. In the “German Fall” of 1977, the erstwhile supporters of radical action gradually began to reconsider the use of force and returned to advocating legal means of resistance. While the GDR suppressed dissent, the FRG, after much trial and error, managed to contain it by directing it into a transformation of values and lifestyles.