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.

A Generation Responsible for National Socialism

The movement was fuelled in part by the cultural criticism of the Frankfurt School of philosophers including Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno and tracts printed by the Suhrkamp Verlag. Local theaters staged productions by Sartre and Brecht and a new kind of thinking started to take shape -- one that rejected previous notions about the formation of identity and focused on individualism.

In Germany, a unique historical factor made it different from the student movements taking shape around the world to protest the Vietnam War: The country was still coming to terms with its recent fascist history and the genocide it had perpetrated against Europe's Jews during World War II.

Dissenting voices from conservative circles who considered nation, religion and tradition more important than modern individualism, died down as a series of trials publicly aired the scope of the elite's participation in the vast crimes committed by Adolf Hitler's Third Reich. And as the Frankfurt "Auschwitz Trials" began in 1963, many young people developed a deep skepticism toward their parents' generation. They saw the generation which preceded them as responsible for National Socialism, and, even worse, responsible for suppressing that terrible history during the first decades after the war -- a time characterized by the country's reconstruction and the ensuing "economic miracle."

Enrollment at universities increased and fears grew among students that they had become politically powerless in the face of the Cold War. They began protesting rearmament and nuclear testing in the East and West. International crises were targeted as well, particularly those where political oppression might have been at play -- the intervention in Congo by England and France, the segregation policies in South Africa, and the dictatorship of the Iranian Shah, who had the powerful backing of the United States.

When US troops invaded Vietnam, the protests grew confrontational. But the activism was also aimed at preventing legislation known as the German Emergency Acts. The Allies had insisted that the German government pass emergency laws so that steps could be taken to protect occupying troops in the event of civil unrest. But many in Germany opposed the emergency decree, which allowed the cabinet to pass laws in times of emergency without parliamentary approval. Opponents noted that a similar law had ultimately enabled Hitler to come to power in the 1930s. When the grand coalition was elected in 1966, fears grew that, with the country's two biggest political parties consolidating their power, a new dictatorship could result should the Emergency Acts be passed.

Tensions increase dramatically in 1967. On June 2, a police officer shot and killed a student protester named Benno Ohnesorg during a demonstration during an official state visit by the Iranian Shah to West Berlin. Prior to the incident, protests tended to draw only several hundred protesters. But the police overreaction that led to Ohnesorg's killing caused the number of demonstrators to soar at later marches. Bild blamed the students themselves for Ohnesorg's death -- for creating the tense atmosphere surrounding the protests. It was an accusation that further agitated Germany's students.

The German Emergency Acts ultimately came into effect in May 1968, but the feared totalitarian state never came to pass. And the student movement, after its failure to stop the emergency legislation, began quickly unraveling in 1969.

But not before it spawned the radical violence of the Red Army Faction. The RAF was part of an ideological splintering of the 1968 movement that saw Rudi Dutschke famously part ways with more radical elements. Most of the movement would later merge into former Chancellor Willy Brandt's reform-era SPD, but it also sparked a far-reaching cultural revolution. As happened elsewhere in the world, most of the 1968ers ultimately joined the mainstream, with a number of 1960s activists -- including Rudi Dutschke -- later paving the way to found the Green Party. Dutschke himself was to be a key figure in the party, but he died shortly before its official creation in 1980. Some of them, most famously Joschka Fischer, became ministers in the German government led by Chancellor Gerhard Schröder.

Another prominent Green Party member was out on Friday to honor Rudi Dutschke at the demonstration on Kurfürstendamm. Hans-Christian Ströbele, who has been a member of Germany's parliament for a total of a dozen years and who is deputy head of the Greens, honored Dutschke with the words: "Rudi, the fight goes on -- on the streets and in the parliament."

Behind him, bicycles covered the street. On the spot where Rudi Dutschke's bike had been left behind 40 years before.

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