John Wilkins
John Wilkins

Fellowship Title:

German Universities: The Pressure For Change

John Wilkins
January 3, 1968

Fellowship Year

Federal Republic Of Germany

December 24, 1967


Mr. Wilkins is an Alicia Patterson Fund award winner, on leave from The Tacoma News Tribune. Permission to publish this article may be sought from The Managing Editor, The Tacoma News Tribune, Tacoma, Washington.

Rudi Dutschke, 27-year-old sociology student at the Free University of Berlin, is the best-known personality of West Germany’s far-out left. His reputation steins mainly from the extremism of his student followers in Berlin, where he exploits that city’s special situation. Elsewhere in West Germany he leads merely a faction within a very small minority of radicals — but his influence extends to students who are a great deal more moderate than he is. Though the overwhelming majority of these students are uninvolved in non-university politics, there is a broadly based, responsible revolt against the traditional university system — a revolt whose growing momentum is much in debt to Dutschke’s radicalism.

“Our university system is basically the same as under the Kaiser,” a 23-year-old Heidelberg philosophy student told me. “But we are a democracy now and we want the university to be democratic too.”

That student condemned the “rudeness” of demonstrators during the previous day’s observances of the 581stanniversary of the university. He said student Marxists were “children.” But he said that radical students had jolted “the university establishment” to the degree that it was now respectable to be an active critic, provided the criticism was expressed in an orderly way. Grudgingly, he acknowledged Dutschke’s role as a spearhead.

Dutschke is intense, with shaggy black hair, glittering eyes, a hypnotic cadence to his voice, and an unshaven “proletarian” look. But he speaks not of the proletariat he finds that in this nation the workers are too well off for a class struggle, that they are, in fact, part of the bourgeoisie. He calls not for revolution against the ruling class (the “manipulators”) but for evolution based on education through direct, provocative action. In the affluent society, says Dutschke, large numbers of people have time to reflect; and as they become “educated” they will develop a knowingness that will keep the manipulators at bay and clear the way for a society free of restraint, authoritarianism and opinion-control. He sees the primary student role as re-shaping society rather than reforming the university.

**Rudi Dutschke Debating At Bonn

Most of the Dutschke headlines stem from provocative acts he and other leaders of the Socialist Student Organization (SDS) have championed to Berlin students. Among these incidents were the demonstration-turned-riot against the Shah of Iran last June and the recent march upon the courthouse when a student was brought to trial on a charge of rock throwing during the riot.

Such deliberate provocation is needed to expose the repressiveness and brutality of authorities and police who serve the manipulators, says Dutschke.

Thus would he “educate.”

In December Dutschke came to Bonn’s Rheinische Friedrich-Wilhelms-Universitätt, which is said by many to be among the two or three most conservative universities in the nation.

He was featured attraction of a “teach-in” which by merely taking place at all was evidence of change at the university.

It was interesting to hear Dutschke’s polemics, but because I would have heard just about the same thing at Berkeley it was far more interesting to feel the various responses of the changing audience and, in the ensuing week, to attend a political science seminar which bore on some of the teach-in topics and, again, to follow the seminar with bull sessions in student hang-outs.


About 400 of the university’s 16,000 students are members of political associations.

Of these, about 80 belong to the Christian Democratic Student group (RCDS), ranging from moderately “progressive”, to strongly conservative.

But the largest association is the Student Union, numbering about 300, a federation of four student associations along with students who do not belong to any of the federated groups.

The teach-in was arranged by the Student Union.

A substantial number of Student Union members appear to be reasonable, liberal advocates of university reform, but the leadership is radical. There are straight-line apologists for the regimes of The Soviet Union arid East Germany; there are Red-Book Maoists; and there are the 15 or so members of the SDS who, in the manner of Dutschke, are melders of Marx, Mao and Marcuse, tending to be as critical of The Soviet Union as of the West. But the far left sees eye to eye on two matters: desire to cause trouble at the university; preoccupation with objectives that extend far beyond the university.

The stage for the December teach-in was set last June.

At that time, Student Union members held about a third of the seats in the Student Parliament, a body which is sanctioned by the university but has no vote in university policy or decisions. When appeals of the Parliament for a larger role (as exists in Berlin and has recently been won in Tűbingen) were turned down, the Student Union members walked out of the Parliament and formed an “extra-parliamentary parliament.”

This unsanctioned parliament played host to Dutschke in the December teach-in but also permitted rebuttal of his views by other students — an opportunity which was seized with effectiveness by two star debaters of the Christian Democratic Student group.

**Student Union “Rector” Convokes Teach-In.

The teach-in was scheduled for 2 p.m. in a quadrangle of the university. Knots of students had gathered by then. Levity was the dominant note at this stage, and as the crowd increased it was obvious that the majority would be comprised of the curious but unpolitical, out for a laugh.

By 2:30 the quadrangle was packed with at least 2,000 students. Derisive voices took up the chant: “WE WANT DUTSCHKE! It but they would have to wait for Dutschke. Meanwhile they heckled local Student Union orators who were berating the university administration.

One Student Union complaint concerned “Dies,” periodic days of freedom when no regular seminars or lectures are held and students may take the day off or attend special lectures that do not bear directly on their study programs. Dies lectures are designed for general intellectual enrichment or for topical interest.

According to the complaint at the teach-in (or Anti-Dies), specific suggestions for Dies topics had been made to university authorities but had been rejected as coming too late.

Student Union orators claimed the suggestions had been made in plenty of time, that the authorities were treating the students like children, and that Dies lecture topics — such as “A Look at the Manifold Research Activities of the Faculty” — didn’t meet student needs. (Scheduled topic of the Anti-Dies teach-in was “University, Society and Politics.”)

With martyred airs the orators claimed the university had locked out the students by riot granting inside space for the Anti-Dies teach-in.

Whenever they called for “fairness” and “free speech” there would be a sarcastic bellow from the crowd and shouted reminders of the times radical Berlin students had nearly broken up meetings riot only of the right-wing National Democrats but of Social Democrats. (Later in the teach-in, Dutschke was to refer to the Social Democrats as “social fascists”; for a moment I was overcome by nostalgia for my own student days.) However, whenever the heckling went on very long, and especially when some tomatoes flew, a strong counter-wave of shouts was raised by students who wanted the speakers to have a chance. No one was shouted down.

For someone “trying to understand Germany” it was enlightening to be part of the crowd. The behavior was very similar to what one -would encounter on numerous American campuses, yet to observe the differences was fascinating.

The average student is two or three years older than in The States. Partly for that reason and partly because of the stiff university-entrance requirements, the average German student seems brighter and more sophisticated than his American counterpart — but he feels insecure; he envies the “democracy” of American universities and believes the American student to be treated as a more mature individual, despite the much more highly organized programs in The States. In West Germany, fewer than 7 per cent of university-age youths are at university, far fewer than in The States. In West Germany it is not yet assumed that a university program of some kind should be available for practically everyone — but part of the drive for “university reform” is toward a shortening and structuring, an “Americanization” of some programs. For instance, method courses in teacher training are being planned.

The majority of the teach-in audience were more formally dressed than American students. They were a bit quieter. They were not impressed by the speakers and they enjoyed the best of the hecklers’ commentaries. In fact, they seemed to be partaking of a ritual — a disdainful savoring of the fulminations of the riffraff. Yet they wanted fair play, and I felt that, typical of their generation of Germans, they were luxuriating in the sound of free speech, that they were consciously being democratic, that by listening they were helping make up for the silence of the universities in the Nazi period.

Other thoughts of the Nazi period were evoked in me by a minority. Strong conservatives were present in block from their fraternities. Their heckling took the form of chanting and of song — satirical and often very funny lyrics to old student tunes. By no means do I suggest that any of these students were neo-Nazi; I simply point out that certain memories are wakened when disciplined Germans do things together. In imagination the song can grow louder and louder, joined by the sound of marching feet as more and more onlookers lock arms and join the ranks.

As rain and darkness fell, more than half of the 2,000 teach-in spectators melted away. The remainder jammed themselves along hallways and stairs and balconies of a university building.

Dutschke at last appeared and gave his pitch. Hoarse, intense, almost demonic, he called on his audience to join the radical student movement and unmask “the ruling class, which propagandizes its own countrymen at home and thrives on imperialism abroad.” he referred to himself as “the fig leaf of German democracy,” tolerated by authorities because they need a free-speech exhibit.

About a dozen Bonn students spoke. Some supported him completely. Some disputed him only on particulars. Some lambasted him. A leader of the Christian Democratic Students attacked on every point — calling for solidarity with progressive members of the faculty, rather than indiscriminate “confrontation”; urging pressure on the university within established forms, rather than from teach-ins and provocation; denouncing “the attempt to turn the university into a one-sided political school”; warning of “fascism of the left”; saying, “Our tolerance has a self-preserving limit when it comes to the threat of intolerance.”

To put the teach-in in perspective I later attended a political science seminar that focused on a recent sensation:

A lecturer named Jablonowsky, while lecturing on the Russian Revolution, had been questioned by a student. He refused to respond, on the grounds that university rules allowed a lecturer to set his own rules. Another student interrupted and was ignored; soon there was a roar of interruptions and Jablonowsky walked out. Since then he had continued to lecture but only to approved students. The seminar I attended was discussing the question whether a lecturer should be compelled to allow questions, and when.

A Student Union member told me after the seminar that the Jablonowsky affair was an example of how the Dutschke “provocative action” technique could produce healthy results for students whose objectives aren’t nearly so extreme as Dutschke’s.

“The faculty and rector rule the students and they won’t change unless forced to,” he said. “Theoretically they are autonomous, but they are sensitive to pressure from above. If we students create disturbances such as the Jablonowsky affair, the state officials will apply pressure from above to keep things quiet. Certainly, a lecture shouldn’t be interrupted every two minutes — but as a result of this incident I’m sure we will get a rule that makes every lecturer face questions within a day or so.”

Some other student remarks at Bonn:

  • “The Student Union members should not have walked out of the parliament. They lost a chance to build creatively.”
  • “It’s a joke to hear the Christian Democrats here talk so progressively. They were black reactionaries a year ago.”
  • “The generation gap (the missing faces of those killed in the war) is a key problem. Almost every professor is over 50, most of them much older. Someone born in 1900 keeps his old ideas. I don’t say they are Nazis, but they didn’t like the Weimar Republic and they aren’t at home in a democracy now. They are really obnoxiously paternalistic. There’s no partnership with students as in America.”
  • “One reason we want student participation in university government is that we would then have a say in hiring new professors. We could get liberals instead of seeing the conservatives perpetuate their own kind.”
  • “Society makes us feel like children. People tell us that we go to university on taxes and that therefore we should keep quiet and learn from our elders before we start having our own ideas.”
  • “The Berlin student situation is different because the city is different. West Berliners have been told that they are the front line of democracy against Communism. This makes them super-sensitive to anything that looks like Communism. At the same time, Berliners are liberal; they really want to be democratic and allow free speech, which makes them confused when protests get out of hand.”


  • “Students should have more guidance. Sometimes an entire university year is consumed simply in discovering which lectures should be attended and where to get certain books and information. We have too much freedom.”

Received in New York January 3, 1968.