Confronting Germany’s Nazi Past as the Main Motive of the Student Rebellion of 1968

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The wave of rebellion that swept across West Germany in 1968 is commonly documented to be an attempt to confront the Nazi past. This was exhibited through the mass of student protests by the so-called ‘68ers’, dragging the issues they were passionate about into the public sphere so they could no longer be ignored. As a result, the reasons conjuring this tempestuous movement should be explored. Firstly, the statement in question suggests that confronting Germany’s Nazi past was the main motive of the student activists, as supported by historians such as Dirk Moses and Uta Poigner. This is true, given the frustration felt as a result of the collective amnesia from the older generation about the Third Reich and Hitler’s genocidal regime. However, there were undoubtedly additional motives contributing towards the rise of this cultural crusade which should also be considered, as recognized by historians such as Timothy Scott Brown. For example, the poor quality of university education caused an uproar amongst students. Furthermore, the changes within the political system, such as the formation of the Grand Coalition in 1966, provoked fear of a return to Nazi totalitarianism. Additionally, the growing discontent from the Vietnam War concerned a war-weary West Germany. Arguably, these struggles were also significant in arousing anguish amongst the students in 1968. Yet the wider picture must be taken into account. Each cause is symbolic within its reasoning, but all must be recognized with their link to the Nazi past. Thus, I will conclude that confronting the Nazi past was the main motive to these 1968 student protests, and were the undercurrent to other causes too.

Whilst unmasking Germany’s Nazi past is often viewed as the main cause of student rebellions in 1968, other contributing motives must be considered. The great increase in university students, combined with a decline in the quality of education which they received, resulted in a mass of unsatisfied and angry students. There were many factors contributing to this surplus in students. Greatly, the affluence and wealth following the prosperity of the 1950s, an era which became coined as ‘Wirtschaftswunder’, meant more families could afford higher education for their children. This increase was illustrated in the number of students entering universities rising from 195,000 to 281,000 between 1960 and 1966. Schmidtke adds further reasoning to this growth in students, suggesting the influx also came as a result of immigration from Communist East Germany before the erection of the Berlin Wall in 1961. This contributed 3.5 million people to the Western side. This mass influx of students created a heavier strain and demand on the university system, resulting in overcrowded facilities and a lack of contact between students and professors. Consequently, this led to sentiments of hostility and discontent towards the West German education system. These feelings became exhibited during the 1968 movements, with half of Germany’s students having participated in strikes and demonstrations by the summer of that turbulent year. Therefore, it is reasonable to believe that the poor organization within the education system was a plausible factor to influence their rebellion in 1968.

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While these explanations for the troubles within the universities are persuasive, the cemented legacy of Nazism within the system also needs to be considered. An example of this is accounted for by the German educator Georg Picht, in his book ‘Die Deutsche Bildungskatastrophe’ (The German Educational Catastrophe). Within which, Picht urged for reform in the university system, away from the traditional German academia which was run by ‘the older generation’ who had been ‘ideologically poisoned’ as a result of Weimar Germany. This is true, given many lecturers and professors had been Nazi members and retained their high-profile position after the party’s demise. This is evidence of how Nazism remained rife in the university system, within its archaic curriculum and by those who taught it. Thus, supporting the idea that confronting the Nazi past was also found in other motives, which supports my thesis. The 68ers expressed this concern in their activism, coining the slogan ‘Don’t trust anyone over 30’, which referred to their teachers and even their parents, as they would have been infused in life under Nazi occupation. This idea is reinforced by Brown, who argued that young West Germans demanded nothing less than a “democratic renewal of society from the ground up”. Consequently, although the troubles mounting within universities had great importance to spark discontent amongst the students, the issues were also a consequence of Germany’s Nazi past, which sparked the greatest demands for change.

The actions of the government fueled the student movement by provoking their existing fears. Schmidtke would agree, stating that the main cause of student activism was to change the political system of West Germany. The behavior of the government in the 1960s instigated worry that history would repeat itself as it had done with the rise of the Nazi’s. This is explained through the creation of the Grand Coalition in 1966, and further, the introduction of the emergency laws in 1968. This aroused concern amongst students, given it was similar emergency laws that allowed Hitler to assume dictatorial power in 1933. These movements appeared like a return to authoritarian values, whilst the students themselves headed in the opposite political direction, developing socialist and the New Left ideologies. These condemnations of the government and the development of new beliefs are accounted for in the Socialist German Student Association, which discussed the hope for the New Left to radicalize and reform the existing focus of the left. Therefore, this fear that the government was returning to a fascist-style system, whilst the students were developing radical ideas for greater democracy, was a concocting mix contributing to the student movement.

As similarly found within the universities, the ex-Nazi’s who remained central figures in the political system heightened the fears of the government. For example, the federal chancellor of the coalition, Kurt George Kiesinger, was a former member of the Nazi party and worked within the propaganda department. The fact the government still had infiltrations of ex-Nazi members reinforces Brown’s argument that West Germany was “still darkened by the shadow of Nazism” in the 1960s. Therefore, the behavior of the government appearing to return to a fascist regime conjured great worry amongst students, which is a possible reason accounting for their activism within the turbulent year of 1968. Yet, like with the deeper issues within universities, Nazism and its scars were also a cause within the discontent towards the government. It is therefore salient to conclude that the students were provoking the state to question its existing fascist nature, and thus confronting the Nazi era.

The Vietnam War boiled tempestuous feelings in West Germany due to the parallel between U.S. actions in Vietnam and those of the Nazi’s. Following the government’s unconditional support for U.S. foreign policy, student resentment had been building against the war in Vietnam since 1966. However, it grew into a pivotal movement in West Germany in 1968. This congress is representative evidence of the severity of this situation and the extent of anti-war sentiment, given the mass amount of young people. Largely, this was a result of the major burden of guilt felt by the younger generations from their parent’s generation and their actions within World War II. Particularly, the prosperity of the 1950s is linked to the Vietnam War as a motive for the student rebellions of 1968. These post-war baby boomers were the first generation to experience growing up with a television within their homes, thus were exposed to the news from around the world as a result of their improved standard of living. This discourse is one overshadowed by historians, yet is worth recognition given the significance of young people being influenced by the media. This explanation exhibits a difference between influence in generations, their elders arguably by Nazi influence and the students by the media. Thus, their exposure to the media influenced the anxieties and heightened the guilt surrounding the Vietnam War, which was an example of confronting Germany’s Nazi past.

So far, the discussion has focused upon individual motives for the student rebellion of 1968, whilst suggesting all causes had an undercurrent link to Germany’s history of Nazism. Yet the overarching and most penetrative reason conjuring this student rebellion was to revolt against the older generations, Nazi past and their complicity towards this era. Strong senses of resistance arose against the silence of their parents and those within the prime of the Nazi generation. This is arguably the most common discourse followed by historians, such as Brown, that in challenging the older generations about their ‘complicity in the crimes of the Nazi era’, helped the students to spur a dialogue of democratization across Western Germany. However, Brown is one of the few reflective historians who speak of the connections between Nazism and other motives catalyzing this movement. For example, he suggests that there was still a persistence in Nazi-like attitudes within society and the educational system, thus supporting my thesis that confronting the Nazi era was also a cause of many other issues. This conclusion is problematic in the eyes of Helmut Smith, who debates that confrontations against the Nazi period had been happening since the 1940s, and therefore was less significant than other issues in 1968. Although plausible evidence, it is undeniable that this feeling of rebellion was exemplified in the year of 1968. Ultimately, confronting Germany’s Nazi past, a concept known as ‘Vergangenheitsbewältigung’, through these institutions such as the education system and the government, is representative of this being the main cause of protest.

However, historians overlook the idea that these students had a certain degree of social and psychological freedom to participate and lead such large-scale movements, which I believe is a statement worth consideration. If Nazism and its authoritarian glory was still so deeply infiltrated in society, it begs the question of, how were students able to lead such wide-sweeping movements? Regardless of the success, or lack of, the student movements, the ability for these rebellions to occur suggests some leniency in West German society.

Overall, it is evident that there was a myriad of reasons contributing to the motives of the student activists in 1968. Although there were individual motives for the student rebellions, such as the poor quality of education and the Vietnam War frustrations, the principal and initial motive was to confront Germany’s Nazi past. In doing so, this was attempted by challenging existing institutions where Nazism remained penetrated, such as the education system and the government. Most significantly, it marked the first serious challenge in confronting the silence surrounding the Nazi past. In protest against the traditionalism of Germany’s history, the student’s shock the country to its core with their activism and attempted to warn others when they saw it heading back to a fascist regime. Their protesting involved campaigning for democracy and a cultural refresh, whilst objecting against the falseness of the government and the silence of their elders. Yet ultimately, all of these causes were intrinsically linked to confronting the Nazi past, through its cemented ideals, individuals and practices. They were a generation that desired peace and freedom, free from the guilty of Germany’s Nazi past.

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Confronting Germany’s Nazi Past as the Main Motive of the Student Rebellion of 1968. (2023, January 31). Edubirdie. Retrieved July 23, 2024, from
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