H-Diplo Review Essay 181 on “Die Revolte der Jungen:” Die Berichterstattung der Schweizer Diplomatie über die globale Protestbewegung um 1968

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H-Diplo Essay No. 181
An H-Diplo Review Essay
5 November 2019

Review Editor:  Diane Labrosse
Production Editor:  George Fujii

Thomas Bürgisser und Sacha Zala (Hg.).  “Die Revolte der Jungen:”  Die Berichterstattung der Schweizer Diplomatie über die globale Protestbewegung um 1968.  Bern:  Diplomatische Dokumente der Schweiz (Dodis), 2018.

URL: https://hdiplo.org/to/E181

Reviewed by Alexander Vazansky, University of Nebraska-Lincoln

The global dimensions of student protests in 1968 have long fascinated observers However, early histories of 1968 tended to focus on specific protests in their national context while possibly acknowledging the degree to which students in one country were inspired by events elsewhere. Since 1998 historians have increasingly focused on the transnational implications of the events and movements they are studying. By the 40th anniversary of the protests in 2008, the transnational character of the student protest movements had been widely established. Subsequently, in the decade between the 40th and the 50th anniversary, terms like “global 68” or the “global sixties” have gained wide currency within the historiography. Yet, while the global character of 1968 is beyond dispute, capturing it remains challenging. The easiest path is still to focus on one national context and then trace how student activists drew connections between their grievances and events occurring elsewhere in the world. Among the common tropes are the American civil rights and black power movements, “Third World” revolutions, Marxist revolutionary Che Guevarra, Chairman Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution, and the Vietnam War. Offering a narrative that attempts to give equal weight to multiple or all youth or student protest movements around the globe remains challenging. The primary-source edition “Die Revolte der Jungen:” Die Berichterstattung der schweizer Diplomatie über die globale Protestbewegung is a noteworthy attempt in capturing that global dimension of 1968.

The book is part of a series initiated by the Swiss research group Diplomatische Dokumente der Schweiz (Dodis). The Quadrenis di Dodis is a series of eBooks dedicated to publishing research and resources on contemporary history and Swiss foreign relations. The editions are available in print as well. What separates the Quadrenis from the regular Dodis editions is that they are focused on topics that are not centered around Swiss foreign policy. For Die Revolte der Jungen editors Thomas Bürgisser and Sacha Zala collected a series of reports from 22 countries on student unrest in 1968. The reports were generally written by ambassadors or senior members of the respective Swiss missions. In addition, the editors included an analysis of youth and student unrest written by 13 young diplomats, Stagiaires, who had freshly graduated university and entered the diplomatic service in 1968. Clearly Bürgisser and Zala consider the Stagiaires’ Report their most significant find since the title of the edition is taken from that report.

The editors provide an introduction in which they both place their collection in the historiography of 1968 and explore common themes emerging in the various reports. To Bürgisser and Zala the collection represents a panopticon that demonstrates “the contemporary perception of 1968 as a global phenomenon” (14). In other words, the Swiss diplomats reporting in 1968 already saw the youth unrest as a globally connected phenomenon. Common themes that the Swiss diplomats identify are calls for reforming often outmoded university systems, the affinity of at least the more radical parts of the movements for Mao’s cultural revolution and the Cuban revolution, the critique of governments’ support for, or at least tacit approval of, oppressive regimes, and finally the U.S. engagement in Vietnam, at least in the West. In the Communist and authoritarian regimes around the world these demands were supplemented or replaced by demands for more western style freedom, opportunity, and consumption.

The reports are organized chronologically, starting with a report from West Germany from November 1967 and ending with a report from Japan in December 1968. The Stagiaires’ Report serves as the concluding chapter and is significantly longer than the standard embassy report. The reports are written in German or French depending on the preferences of the authors. The Stagiaires’ Report is in German. Most of the reports feature brief analysis of student unrest, often focusing on one particular incident. The report on the United States stands out in that it features a somewhat longer and more comprehensive analysis of the youth protest movement.

Aside from the introduction, Bürgisser and Zala include two editorial notes, one on the Swiss response to the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia and another on the Stagiaires’ Report. The note on the Soviet invasion precedes a series of photographs likely taken by the Swiss ambassador to Prague during the invasion. The editors never really explain why they included the images and the note. Reading between the lines the pictures represent an unusual form of reporting by the ambassador and as such they fit the spirit of the collection. The end of the Prague Spring certainly marks one of the key events of 1968 and as such the images and editorial explanation fit the chronology nicely. The ambassador was quite appalled by the brutality and ruthlessness of the Soviet invasion. Publicly he merely protested the shots that were fired on the embassy during the invasion. Generally, the Swiss official response and critique was muted. The public response, however, was quite sympathetic towards the Czech people.

Given the centrality that the editors place on the young diplomats’ study for framing the collection, providing additional background information on the Stagiaires makes sense. The 13 freshly minted diplomatique service candidates entered the service on 1 May 1968 as the Paris student protests were in full swing. The study was meant to provide additional information for an upcoming ambassador conference devoted to the global youth unrest. While the conference was cancelled, the study was widely distributed within the diplomatic service. However, much to the editors’ frustration, there is little concrete evidence on how it was received. Despite the study’s unknown effect, Bürgisser and Zala rightly point to its significance in documenting how clearly contemporaries saw at least the transnational character of the student unrest. The Stagiaires also took note of the fact that some contemporaries preferred to interpret these movements in their locally specific context. They, however, saw the local issues, such as the antiquated structures within their universities as a pretext for a broader critique of “our civilization.” To them the student unrest signified a “cultural revolution of the West” (127).

This vocabulary suggests two important limitations of the report, which are noted by the editors themselves. The analysis is primarily focused on events in Western Europe and the United States and the Stagiaires viewed themselves and Switzerland as part of that context. Accordingly, the causes, guiding principles, and goals that the report identifies fit more into the western context, specifically the liberal democracies of the West rather than the authoritarian dictatorships of the right, like Spain and Portugal or the Communist East. As such the Stagiaires made a convincing argument of the transnational nature of the unrest, but they also reveal some of the myopia among activists and observers in the West. The catalogue of causes, guiding principles, and goals will be familiar to anyone studying 1968 in Germany, France, Italy, or the United States: the generation gap, grass-roots participation, alienation,the writings of Herbert Marcuse, Georg Lukács, Karl Marx, and Mao Zedong. While some of these tropes fit the movements in Eastern Europe, North Africa, or South America as well, the Stagiaires appear somewhat oblivious to the movements in those countries. They shared this myopia with many of the western activists they were analyzing whose gestures of solidarity with protest movements in the “Third World” did not always prevent them from mirroring their parents prejudiced and patronizing attitudes.

The actual reports from non-western countries, on the other hand, do offer some insight into those differences. The report from the ambassador to Czechoslovakia notes a Czech student’s consternation with his western counterparts’ fascination with Communism. That same report as well as those from Spain and Algeria note how much student protesters embraced western style consumerism which western students saw as one of the main tools of oppression. Like the Stagiaires, the ambassadors often displayed their own pro-western biases. Unlike the younger diplomats, these senior service members showed limited sympathy for youth unrest outside the Eastern bloc, even in authoritarian regimes such as Spain or Portugal. Particularly noteworthy in that regard is the ambassador to Mexico who appeared to have fully embraced the Mexican government’s interpretation of student protests in Mexico City. He did not believe that these protests had anything to do with the structural problems in academic institutions, but were generally fostered by outside agitators, American students who had participated in the Paris unrest in particular. He admiringly writes of the “skill and firmness” with which the president Diaz Ordas invokes the determination of the government to “use all means at its disposal so that the Olympic Games can proceed calmly” (107). The ambassador firmly lays the blame for the subsequent violence between Mexican security forces and the young protesters at the feet of the protesters, tying their tactic of “lightning demonstrations” to Cuba (108).

Regardless of hemisphere or continent, many ambassadors pointed to the connections between what they deemed the most extreme elements within the student movements and Mao’s cultural revolution. The ambassador to Sweden speculates that the most extreme leftist students were inspired by “China communism” (73). The report on Italy notes that the most radical students are referred to as the “Chinese” (44). To the ambassadors these purported connections to Maoism read as a threat. The Stagiaires believed that references to Mao were less based on a deep understanding of theory and mainly sprang from the fascination with the concept of cultural revolution that could break through the dominant capitalist consumerism. They did not believe that China had an active role in fomenting the protests, but that “Chinese influence” was a result “of inspiration rather than conspiracy” (134).

Most of the reports offer fascinating glimpses at youth protests in various parts of the world. Some of them are likely less familiar to students of 68 in Europe, such as the report from South Africa. Not every report provides insights into the global connections and shared ideas. Given how important the German protest movement likely was to the Stagiaires’ Report the actual report from Germany is a little disappointing. Dating from November 20, 1967, it is primarily focused on the protesters’ grievances regarding the German university system. There is no mention of the death of university student Benno Ohnesorg, which is generally considered an important trigger for the growth and radicalization of the movement in West Germany. There are no references to inspiration taken from “Third World” movements or the importance of the Vietnam War. However, this one example should not detract from the great value of the collection overall. For the most part these documents offer valuable insights into the shared experiences of young activists in 1968. Given that the online version of this book can be accessed for free,[1] Die Revolte der Jungen is a great resource for both experts of the global sixties and their students as long as they read German or French.

 

Alexander Vazansky is an assistant professor of history at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln. He received his Ph.D. from the University of Heidelberg in 2009. His research interests include postwar German-American relations, GIs in Germany, and the 1960s in a transatlantic perspective. He co-edited “What Was Politics in ‘1968’?” Special issue of The Sixties: A Journal of History, Politics and Culture 7:2 (December 2014) with Marco Abel. His most recent essay is entitled “Army in Anguish: The United States Army, Europe, in the Early 1970s,” in GIs in Germany: The Social, Economic, Military, and Political History of the American Military Presence, edited by Detlef Junker and Thomas Maulucci (Cambridge University Press, August 2013). His book An Army in Crisis: Social Conflict and the U. S. Army in Germany, 1968-1975 is scheduled for publication with University of Nebraska Press in Fall 2019. For his next research project Alexander will look at militarism and anti-militarism in West Germany during the 1970s and 1980s.

© 2019 The Authors.

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Note

[1] Thomas Bürgisser und Sacha Zala (Hg.), „Die Revolte der Jungen:“ Die Berichterstattung der Schweizer Diplomatie über die globale Protestbewegung um 1968 (Bern: Diplomatische Dokumente der Schweiz (Dodis), 2018), https://www.dodis.ch/q9.