Fifty years ago, Professor Emeritus of Philosophy Georg Kohler experienced the student protests at UZH first hand. In his essay, he reflects on the legacy of 1968.
Surely everything it’s possible to say about 1968 has already been said. So why read on? Because just maybe there’s more to explore than all the usual talk of the turmoil, the protagonists, the street protests in West Berlin and Paris – what lies in the shadows when all of that is stripped away?
Let’s be clear from the outset: “1968” signifies a primarily cultural, not political, upheaval, the effects of which were very quickly seen and heard in everyday life – and still are. The music of Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, the Doors, as well as Joan Baez, Leonard Cohen and their successors, was and continues to be heard all over the place.
One cannot talk about ‘68 and not mention the ambivalences, the naiveties and the craziness of this time – or the bloody terror that arose from the megalomaniacal furor of anti-capitalist zealots – but those who wish to discredit “1968” are only too happy to dwell on these aspects. However, this approach overlooks two things: Firstly, that the Rote Armee Fraktion, Brigate Rosse and Action directe were splinter groups whose influence on society was inversely proportional to their presence in the media; and secondly, that the transformation of the impulses of ‘68 into politically stable commitments took place in other areas – not anarchism, but in the form of the mass movements of environmentalism and pacifism.
Either way: If one accepts that the short period between the first outbreak of unrest at the Californian university Berkeley and the closure of the University of Zurich in 1970 – to give a local endpoint – brought about a far-reaching change in the collective and personal self-understanding, then “1968” is an epochal date of great psychological and social significance. Its impact on the second half of the 20th century is just as profound as the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.
Look good rather than stand out
When I began studying at the University of Zurich in the late fall of 1964, ties – which nowadays are seldom seen even on instructors – were a common accessory among the young male students. Some women wore jeans, but it was an unusual sight. At lunchtime in the bustling Lichthof, the sight of immaculately coiffured young ladies with glinting necklaces and Hermès scarves amid the various statues from the university’s sculpture collection and the palm trees in giant pots gave the impression of a large Parisian arcade as evoked by Walter Benjamin – who at that time hardly anyone had heard of. No-one really wanted to stand out, just to “look good”.
One exception, however, was Fritz Angst aka “Zorn”, who 10 years later, in the seventies, suffering from terminal cancer, wrote a book called Mars – a razor-sharp attack on “Zureich-Zürich” (too-rich Zurich) – which after his death became a hugely successful European bestseller. Angst/Zorn played the eccentric dandy, trying to pull off the look of a Spanish Hamlet, but resembling instead a governess dressed up as a gondolier.
I can still see him standing there, with indisputable elegance, at the foot of the sweeping staircase of the “rondel”, with a black fedora, red neckerchief and bulging umbrella cane, as I gazed at him unguardedly and longingly, he who had clearly long known how to assert himself in the competition for recognition and to get the best spots in the Vanity Fair of life.
Of course back then it was also all about prestige, having the right friends, and one’s place in the ranking of the attention competition. Admittedly the form this took was different – the style of the 50s was still in fashion, which itself harked back in many ways to the first modern mores of the 1920s, based not least on conventions in which family background and financial resources were conspicuously on display. The day-to-day existence of pre-68 students was heavily shaped by the expectations and demands of a very conservative milieu. If one didn’t quite live up to the standards, it was at least necessary to imitate them. And only a few did not.
The disappearance of dress codes has always been a symptom of change. For example, in the 1970s it was still frowned upon to come to lectures in shorts, barefoot, or wearing flip-flops: It simply wasn’t the done thing. I don’t claim that it was down to the cultural revolution of 1968 alone that dress codes and many other restraints were relaxed. But it is irrefutable, and easiest to recognize now after the long passage of half a century, that an enormous change in the expression of individual identity, difference, and fulfillment of roles began with 1968.
More than just riots
Anti-authoritarianism is often cited as the central motif of 1968. It fits, but it doesn’t take into account the normative core of the movement. It was about more than just riots and youthful rebellion. “1968”, for the generation of post-war children who believed in the future – to which the metropolitan classes of Central and Eastern Europe also belonged – was the promise of a truly better and fairer world. The hope of that never-quite-extinguished idea that there must be more, something brighter and more potent than the “live better, have more” motto of the 1950s which had satisfied their parents.
At the same time, the violent criticism – first of the Vietnam War, later of shallow consumerism – was an expression of the realization that even Western society, which one was lucky to have been born into, had and defended power structures that didn’t correspond at all with what one had learned in school as correct.
The discrepancy between the claims that were supposed to determine the identity of the “free world” and the social reality were brought to the attention of the ruling political elite in many flashpoints of tension: In the racial segregation in the southern states of the USA, which ran so counter to the human rights principles enshrined in the American constitution, or in the reports of an unjustifiable war in South-East Asia – and even in the relatively harmless resistance of the old university professors against overdue curriculum and organizational reforms.
That is all over – but hopefully not entirely. Because it may sound like so many lofty words, but it is still true: The high ideals that inspired the spirit of “68” not to accept a poor reality remain indispensable, today just as much as 50 years ago. Those ideals were individual self-determination, human solidarity, unhampered search for knowledge – the legacy of the enlightenment as rediscovered by the generation of 68; they were the meaning of the countless debates, meetings, performances, protests and provocations which shook the prevailing mindset.
Without remembering these values and their moral power it is impossible to grasp the significance of the seismic blow with which those few years of revolution struck the complacency of that time. And without the open view of the standard basic principles one cannot understand why it is not just sad, but above all wrong, to depict the primary effects of the “cultural revolution of 1968” solely as a change of dress codes and the enduring presence of grandad rockers.
The professor emeritus of political philosophy at the University of Zurich was editor of the student newspaper in 1968, completed military service as lieutenant in the Gebirgsfüsiliere, studied philosophy, threw himself into texts about the famous positivism dispute in German sociology, and began intensively reading Marcuse. He fell in love with a medical student who studied conscientiously for her exams and in her free time loved rock ‘n’ roll dancing.