The Attack on Rudi Dutschke A Revolutionary Who Shaped a Generation

Rudi Dutschke was the best known and most charismatic of Germany's 1968 student leaders. Forty years ago, a right-wing house painter shot him three times -- and he became the symbol of a generation.

It was a small group of people that gathered on Kochstrasse in the center of Berlin on Friday. A dozen people unfurled a small banner in front of the offices of the Axel Springer-owned tabloid newspaper Bild. It read: "Still Pertinent -- Dispossess Springer."

Later in the afternoon, a group of several hundred collected a few kilometers away in the western part of the city. A couple of Green Party politicians were there -- including party head Claudia Roth -- as were a number of bicycles, all laid on their sides at the intersection of Kurfürstendamm and Joachim-Friedrich-Strasse. The mini-demonstration had a name: "Rudi's Bicycle."

As disparate as the two rallies may seem, they were intimately connected. Forty years ago on April 11, 1968, Rudi Dutschke, the face of Germany's active and influential student movement, was gunned down by a house painter named Josef Bachmann -- shot in the head and shoulder on the way to the pharmacy to get cold medicine for his son. His bicycle left lying on the street, Dutschke was rushed to the hospital and survived the attack initially before succumbing to complications related to his injuries on Christmas Eve, 1979.

But in the evening after the appalling attack on Dutschke, some 2,000 activists made their way from the Technical University through West Berlin to the offices of the Springer Publishing house. In the days and weeks prior, the publisher had made little secret of the disdain it held for the 1968 student movement in Germany. Articles urging readers to "stop the terror of the young reds now!" and "eliminate the trouble makers" had appeared in various Springer publications. Bild -- a paper the leftist students blamed for being partially responsible for the Dutschke attack -- led the charge.

The mob on that late evening in April had hoped to storm the building. Ulrike Meinhof, later to found the terrorist group Red Army Faction which, in the decades to come, was to carry out 31 political murders in Germany, was there. As were numerous Molotov cocktails and rocks.

Ultimately, aside from a few burned-out cars belonging to Bild journalists, little came of the demonstration. But Germany's famed 1968 Generation had its martyr: Rudi Dutschke.

The son of a postal worker, Dutschke was born in the former East Germany, where he received a Christian upbringing. As a young man, he opposed the militarization of the country and refused to be conscripted into the army -- and convinced many of his fellow students to reject military service as well. The East German regime punished him by blocking his path to a university education -- which led Dutschke to flee to West Berlin just before the Berlin Wall was built in 1961.

Once there, he began a course of study in sociology, and before long, he became a prominent leader in the Sozialistischer Deutscher Studentenbund (Socialist German Student Organization -- SDS), the main German student movement group of the day.

In the years since his death, Dutschke has taken his place in the pantheon of leftist heroes in Germany. He has been described as a "peace-loving, messiah-like person," by the author Walter Jens and had a Berlin street named after him -- ironically the same street which runs in front of the Springer offices -- last year. His image can often be seen gracing the pages of magazines and newspapers in Germany and his son Marek, who was born shortly after his father died and who now lives in Berlin, makes not infrequent appearances on television documentaries and in newspaper articles about his father's life and death.

But the story of Rudi Dutschke is more complicated than today's image would have one believe. He certainly had no love for the East German communists, but in articles published in the radical leftist publication Anschlag he made clear his sympathies with the October Revolution in Russia and many of the "best sons of the revolution," including Leon Trotsky, Nikolai Bukharin and Karl Radek.

A paper presented at an SDS conference in Frankfurt in 1967 gave an indication of the future Dutschke had in mind for the group. In the paper, he and his co-author Hans-Jürgen Krahl wrote that the SDS should transform itself into a "sabotage and civil disobedience group" to protect the population against the power and security apparatus of the state. Urban guerrillas, Dutschke thought, were ideal to "destroy the system of repressive institutions."

Just how far Dutschke went down the path toward violence can be seen in the by-now well known incident which saw him helping to transport dynamite to a secret location by hiding it under his eldest son Hosea-Che as he lay in a baby stroller. He never used it.

Still, Dutschke's intellectual path was reflective of the student movement which he helped lead. And it came out of a deep disillusionment with the politics of the day. Students at campuses across the country demonstrated against the ruling "grand coalition" -- like today, a pairing of the conservative Christian Democrats and center-left Social Democrats. They rejected fascism and war. And they were deeply wary of the United States' war on Vietnam.


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