compulsory reading, German Politics

Why ’68 was so important for Germany.

Not a lot of you will have read Tierry Jonquet’s novel “Rouge. C’est la vie”. It wasn’t a bestseller. It’s a generational novel about love and life of two teenagers in Paris during the infamous 1968 revolts on Boulevard St. Germain, which is exactly where I read it in the Summer of 1998. 30 years later, in a different world. No doubt, Paris saw the most violent expressions of social unrest in ’68. But I contend that in most respects, ’68 was far more important for Germany than for France or any other Western country.

These days, most people over here tend to concentrate on the incentive distorting economic policies implemented in this country during the last 30 years when they talk about the consequences of ’68. And it’s fair enough to say that ’68 was followed by a general shift to the (economic) left in the German party system that led, in combination with the experience of rapid economic growth during the 1950s and ’60s and macroeconomic mismanagement during the oil crises of the 1970s, to a pervasive, somewhat problematic incentive structure in this country. But that’s not the entire story about ’68. And it is plainly unfair not to mention the rest of it – because the rest is much more important than the economic mess which my generation will have to clean up now.

I was born in 1975, so I don’t have any personal memories of what this country was like before 1968. But it must have been a different county. Sometimes people say that 1945 made the difference. And yes, it clearly was 1945 that made the difference – but it did not make that difference in 1945. It happened in 1968. One generation later.

To those who only know contemporary Germany, the image painted by Martha Gellhorn’s brilliant article Is There A New Germany(from the February 1964 issue of the Atlantic), will probably seem slightly bizarre. Sometimes I find it hard to believe how much things have changed since then. There might not have been a new Germany in 1964. But it was clearly about to hatch out. And it did.

In 1968. Let’s not forget about that.