Revolution in a Word
A Communicative History of Discussion in the German 1968 Protest Movement
Joachim Scharloth (Waseda University, Tokyo)
Scharloth, Joachim. “Revolution in a Word: A Communicative History of Discussion in the German 1968 Protest Movement.” A Revolution of Perception?: Consequences and Echoes of 1968, edited by Ingrid Gilcher-Holtey, 1st ed., Berghahn Books, 2014, pp. 162–83.
▤ Table of Contents
1968 and Language

Every revolution aims for more than just political changes. Instead, it cuts deep into the rituals of everyday life and seeks to alter everyday forms of interaction. Revolutions turn not only against the ruling class but also against its symbolic practices. The 1968 movement also sought radical change in the conditions of the German Federal Republic. It sympathized with the Cultural Revolution initiated in China by Mao and his Red Guards. Instead of taking violent action against those individuals with power and institutions, activists attacked those rituals in which societal power relations were, in their opinion, at once reflected and reproduced. This meant lectures and seminars in which knowledge was proclaimed and not treated discursively; matriculation celebrations in which the students did not have the right to speak; meetings of parliament in which activists were talked about but not talked to; apparently biased investigative committees that served to condemn those protesting, though not to figure out the societal causes behind their protests; church services in which freedom was preached while the grotesque Vietnam war went unmentioned; and court cases in which the accused were forced into the behavioural norms that reigned in courts.

In most of these rituals, speech played a central role and became the central object of criticism. In lectures, students began to pose questions and demand discussion of the political themes of higher education and politics in general. In parliamentary discussions, protesters broke in demanding, ‘We want to discuss.’ In investigative committees, activists began to respond to the queries of committee members with queries of their own. To protest against examination methods, [162|163] they came up with questions of legal instruction of such length that the hearing degenerated into farce. During church services, they ascended the pulpit to draw the congregation into discussion of the Vietnam War. During court cases, the accused would sit with their back to the court, begin discussions with the public or themselves in the middle of proceedings, or mock judge and public prosecutor. All this shows the particularly asymmetrical forms of communication, in which free speech and response were circumscribed by tradition or power and which became objects of criticism during the years of the 1968 movement.

What differentiates the 1968 movement from its antecedents is the fact that this criticism was not only theoretically formulated and articulated but above all effectively made a reality. The protest was put into action exactly where its intended targets felt most at home. To begin a discussion in a lecture was clearly not just to critique the asymmetrical structures of communication in an institution saturated by power. It was also at the same time an attempt to alter communication rituals in the here and now and to reshape them according to one’s own imaginings.

The years around 1968 were, then, less a revolution of language than a revolt in the medium of language and a new treatment of the forms of its use. The central communicative practice of the 1960s was discussion.1


Discussion: Between Buzzword and Symbolic Practice

Discussion was a practice of highly symbolic social value. For the activists of the 1968 movement, discussion meant the exercise of democracy. To discuss was to critique the opinions of others. The rationality of political negotiation was to be evidenced in criticism and counter-criticism. Erika Schneider, author of a pamphlet dated 15 June 1967 that intended to explain to the Berlin public why the students of the FU were demonstrating, shared this opinion:


‘... if democracy is to become reality as formulated in the substance of the constitution, controls need to be put in place; this means that the political expressions, actions and decisions of those representatives chosen by us in the federal government and House of Deputies are to be investigated and criticized as to their correctness, appropriateness and democratic content… democracy does not function through prohibitions but through argument and counter-argument – even when these impulses are occasioned by a minority.’2


This insistence on the power of the superior argument became the signature of a modern political style with which the 1968 movement defined itself. As the aforementioned pamphlet puts it, ‘we want discussion – we refuse the outdated authoritarian style – we seek the democratic style’. In addition to a commitment to the authority of the superior argument, openness was an essential condition of successful discussion in the eyes of the activists. As such, in June 1968 student representatives of the German Department of the Freie Universität Berlin came [163|164] to a general assembly with a pamphlet entitled ‘Die Diskussion geht weiter’ (‘The Discussion Continues’), which promoted the public character of discussion: ‘The professors and assistants of the seminars are invited. This time they will be prepared. Let’s use the opportunity to discuss with them! Discussion is not to take place in small groups. Openness is the condition of every effective criticism! Public criticism is the condition of every change in institutions of higher education!’3

This specific explanation of discussion as a democratizing and civilizing practice with which activists supported their demands for discussion was clearly not always consistent with the political discussions of the late 1960s. After the riots of Easter 1968 that followed the assassination attempt upon Rudi Dutschke, then-Minister for Inter-German Affairs Herbert Wehner reflected onthe bifurcation of communicative ideal and communicative practice with an eye to the 1968 movement: ‘Discussion needs to be learnt. One part of discussion is wanting to listen and being able to listen. It is also a part of discussion to want to be able to place oneself in the perspective of others, so that you can finally come to the heart of a matter. It’s this area that’s lacking the most.’4 Apparently it was difficult for many to discuss and then draw conclusions. Most, instead, were seen to enter into discussions with pre-conceived opinions and attempted to convince their interlocutors of their validity. Yet even after all this, the distortions applied to the principle of discussion are not yet adequately described. Wehner complained, ‘This is a time when shrill outcries find favour. The attempt is made to cry out at speakers. Claims count for more than arguments. Schadenfreude at the “trashing” of others occurs for all to see... Democracy is discussion. But discussion pre-supposes respect for others.’5

Yet this totalizing ‘discussion of discussion’ is imprecise in that the concept of discussion sharply expanded over the course of the 1960s. Forms of conversation such as the meeting or the clear-the-air talk were subsumed within the concept of ‘discussion’, as the following quote from the German newspaper Die Welt – critical of ‘discussion’ – testifies: ‘Everything which claims to speak in the name of progress at our institutes of higher education is intent on discussing. However, this kind of discussion no longer aims at a real discussion, but at forcing through one’s own viewpoint.’ Due to this misuse of the word, the author pleads that the word ‘discussion’ should no longer be used. ‘Please let’s not talk about discussions but about rational, mutual counsel between all branches of our universities, from holders of chairs to student representatives.’6

The high symbolic value of the prestige word ‘discuss’ is manifested in the language usage of the 1968 movement. Fundamentally, the verb ‘to discuss’ (German: ‘diskutieren’) has two values. To form a grammatically correct sentence utilizing the verb, at least two sentence components are required, a subject and an object. It is unimportant if this is an accusative object (to discuss something: ‘etwas diskutieren’) or a prepositional object (to talk about something: ‘diskutieren über’). In a passive form, a sentence without a subject is also possible (something is discussed: ‘etwas wird diskutiert’). Whereas the use of ‘discuss’ with a prepositional object denotes the prototypical face-to-face interaction, in which disputed objects [164|165] are put to discussion, the use of ‘discussion/diskutieren’ with an accusative object is semantically ambiguous. This can indicate a controversial debate or an unhurried exchange of views. On the other hand, the passive use of ‘discussion’ with an accusative object refers mostly to ‘debating over’ and frequently occurs in texts (e.g. ‘In Chapter 2 the question will be discussed’) or to a public debate (e.g. ‘In the 1970s, the theme of sexuality was intensively discussed’).

In addition to these syntactical contests, there exists a further manner of usage that goes unexplained in dictionaries, namely the absolute usage of the verb ‘discuss’ with only one object. In this, the subject position of the sentence is taken whereas in the accusative, the accusative object or prepositional object goes missing. In the pamphlet of the Berlin Red Guards, the following sentence can be found: ‘The student collectives that are springing out of the ground like mushrooms at the moment shoot, discuss, read and learn, but they keep the principle of Mao Zedong in mind at all times: Reading is learning, but practical activities are also learning and indeed a still more important form of it.’7 Just as reading and learning are activities that can be named without specifying what is being read or learnt, this usage places discussing as an activity that is justified in itself and does not need to be further described or justified. In absolute usage, ‘discussion’ names, without accusative or prepositional object, a face-to-face interaction in which the process, the formal execution, is at the fore. This is in contrast to its goals or results.

Analyses of corpora show that the absolute use of ‘diskutieren’ makes up a quarter of all usages in the pamphlets of the 1968 protest movement. It is as such five times more common as in a comparable contemporary corpus.8 This highly significant difference is an essential feature of the language usage of the 1968 movement. Strictly speaking, a change in the valency structure of the verb ‘diskutieren’ cannot be observed – nonetheless, the frequent appearance of the absolute use can be interpreted in cultural-historical terms. Its formal usage also shows that the word ‘diskutieren’ also names a practice that possessed strong symbolic associations. Discussion, in the sense of an argumentative and controversial debate, had become a practice whose symbolic value was at least as significant as its communicative function. Just the business of having a discussion already fulfilled a purpose. Clearly, this does not mean that the subjects discussed were chosen at random. Yet the fact that the theme of reaching argumentative goals was often not specified in usage indicates that ‘diskutieren’ had become in 1968 valuable in itself, a ritual by which a social movement defined itself. The absolute use of the word ‘diskutieren’ gave this symbolism its linguistic form.


The Radicalizing of the Movement: A History of Communicative Practice in Discussion Around 1968

Beyond doubt, ‘discussion fever’9 raged in the Federal Republic of Germany in the years around 1968. The activists of the 1968 movement were a fierce [165|166] embodiment of permanent discussion as a means of criticizing societal relations and as a means of self-criticism aimed at the optimization of their own political practice. However, it must be borne in mind that even in the presence of such desire to discuss, it was debated from the very beginning what, with whom, in what conditions and in which form discussion was to take place. Not everybody was recognized by all activists as worthy of being discussed with. The prevention and refusal of discussion was, to some activists, a legitimate political statement. The following reconstruction of the history of discussion in the 1968 movement formulates the hypothesis that two camps already existed in its early phase. To one of these camps, discussion with people of a different political persuasion appeared to be a democratic practice in which argument might convince those of conflicting opinions. To the other camp, discussion with political opponents appeared to be a practice of appeasement, one which would only mask the real power structures. For this reason, discussions were either to be conceived with the goal of revealing these power relations or destroying and disturbing them. In the following section, the attitudes of both camps will be reconstructed through two examples from the early period of the movement; before their subsequent development will be described and evaluated thereafter.

Between Convincing and Wrecking: Discussion in the Anti-Authoritarian Phase of the 1968 Movement

On 26 November, Hans-Joachim Lieber, Rector of the Freie Universität Berlin, left Hall A (the theatre auditorium of the Henry Ford Building) through the stage exit, pale with fury. Around 600 students remained, along with many unanswered questions, before leaving – hesitantly – the lecture hall. During the sit-in on 22-23 June, the Rector had granted the students time to discuss the themes of student reform, limitations to terms of study, and the forced relegation of students. He had even allowed himself to be quoted as saying he was ready to discuss ‘in public, seven days a week, seven times a day’.10  In any case, this discussion only came about in November at the invitation of the General Student Committee (AStA). The Rector explained right at the beginning that he was participating as a private individual and that his opinions were not to be understood as those of the Rector.11 The students felt that this utterance called into question the very sense of the discussion. At the end of the day, the discussion, moderated by AStA chairman Knut Nevermann, was not to be without consequence. As the Süddeutsche Zeitung reported, the discussion proceeded calmly at first, and the majority of students expressed no displeasure at radical interjections.12 After around two hours, however, it came to a scandal. ‘After it had become clear’, as a pamphlet of the Humanistic Student Union (HSU) described it, that the divergent understanding of the significance had ‘reduced the discussion ad absurdum, certain students distributed a flyer with the title “We can expect nothing of this exchange”, took the microphone from the Rector and read the [166|167] text of the pamphlet out loud. During the tumult that followed, the Rector left the lecture hall.’13 Eike Hemmer had prepared the action, along with Rudi Dutschke, Bernd Rabehl, Hans-Joachim Hameister and Manfred Hammer, all members of a group within the Socialist Student Union (SDS) that discussed the founding of communes. He had been chosen to read the pamphlet due to his largely unknown status. Now he sat in the assembly and barely listened as the ‘professional idiots tried to play the students for dumb by answering all concrete questions about study reform in only the vaguest manner.’ When his friends from the Commune group began to distribute pamphlets, he had his signal:


‘The starting pistol that set a process in motion that had already been drawn up. I stood up, entered through the exploding tumult to the stage, took the microphone from under His Highness’ nose. (Later, it was claimed that it had been torn and stolen from him; at that time, the professors were too shaken by such acts of rebellion against their sacrosanct authority to be able to physically react.) I read out the text of the pamphlet in mechanical fashion. The microphone was cut off, I roared out the text. Someone shoved me, I read, roared, emphasized every word, read until the last sentence – like a pre-programmed automaton. In chaos, I left the hall....’14


The pamphlet that Hemmler read out offered harsh criticism of the conditions at the Freie Universität and about Hans-Joachim Lieber, who presented himself as a sympathetic individual but, in his role as Rector, made decisions of detriment to the student body.


‘For us students, the conditions at the Freie Universität are unbearable.

We are enveloped by poor working conditions, lamentable lectures, tedious seminars and absurd exam regulations. If we refuse to allow ourselves to be educated by over-specialized idiot professors into over-specialized idiots, we have to pay the price of ending our studies without a qualification.…

Five months ago, we had had enough of the narrow-minded arrogance with which the University administration and Senate disregarded our problems. Five months ago, it also seemed clear that the student body could now only expect a solution from itself...

After five months of collaboration, the AstA calls us to this discussion with the Rector, during which Lieber, the official, waits in the corner in shame.


Our situation will not change as long as those to whom it is directly relevant do not organize themselves....’15


After the reading of the pamphlet, Fritz Teufel offered a speech that apparently no one remaining was interested in hearing. Due to the tumult, Knut Nevermann declared the assembly to be ended.16

For this investigation, this act of disturbance is interesting because it is an early example showing that discussions with representatives of institutions pursuing goals other than those of the 1968 movement were considered to be useless [167|168] by certain activists and were, for this reason, sabotaged. In the case of the discussion with the Rector, the inconclusiveness of the discussion is anticipated in the pamphlet (‘We can expect nothing of this exchange’). Instead of dialogue with authority, revolutionary practice is recommended. This rejection of a consensus-orientated dialogue was the impetus behind the Berlin Commune Group from the very beginning.

This is also the case in the first series of pamphlets issued by Commune I in 1967, in which it took a position demanding the resignation of the AStA. On 5 May, a full assembly of all faculties had the opportunity to discuss the politics of the AStA. Instead of a discussion, the Commune recommended that students ‘turn the assembly on 5 April into an announcement of protest against the inequities of the administration.’ For ‘while the student body is discussing the AStA, the SDS was banned, its money cut off, its every right to democratic expression undermined in a final manner.’17 The discussion is characterized as a means of politically ‘chloroforming’ of the student body. The neutralization of their vital powers through discussion is present in a witticism of the second pamphlet, reading ‘Only rational discussion/prevents general copulation.’18

The Commune also insisted on the primacy of action over words in the dialogue with political opponents. The disturbance and prevention of discussion was an appropriate means of revealing the apparently repressive character of discussions and to translate discussion into action. As a consequence, the members of the Commune never actually featured as discussants. When they were present at discussions with representatives of the ‘establishment’, they featured more as ‘disrupters’.

Yet this attitude to discussion was by no means the attitude of the majority of those who participated in political events. At the beginning of the revolts, a clear majority of activists believed that they could effect change through discussion and negotiation with university and state authorities or enlighten the public through discussions. Through the actions of Commune I, they felt that their negotiating position was threatened and their room for manoeuvre in discourse limited. In the next section, their position will be reconstructed from their critique of the communicative style of the ‘disrupters’. Alongside this, the example of the events after the shooting of Benno Ohnesorg will show the extent to which they hoped to win influence in order to shape the political climate.

Criticism of the behaviour of the radical opponents of discussion often came from the more moderate student groups. They wished to work constructively on university reform. For example, the Social Democratic Student Union (SHB) expressly disapproved of the disrupting action of the commune group during the discussion with Rector Lieber. ‘Through these authoritarian disruptive measures, the course of a discussion led in an exceptionally critical manner was disturbed and, finally, destroyed.’ Through this action, the well-founded protests of those studying against forced matriculation and the shortening of study time were apparently ‘almost completely robbed off their effectiveness.’ At the same time, the SHB defended the politics of constructive dialogue led by the AStA and its [168|169] chairman (who was incidentally also a member of the SHB). The SHB found the reproach ‘absurd that open discussion that the ASta [sic] engaged in and will continue to engage in with partners of the University [could be labelled] as conspiracy.’ In the future too, ‘further open discussions must be guaranteed to ensure that the problems of student reform at the Freie Universität remain problems of the entire student body.’19 In all its critical distance from the University management, the SHB trusted in constructive dialogue between students and University administrators as a method to shape study and university reform in student interest.

In the context of the subsequent strike ballot on the politics of the AStA, the many advocates of reform-orientated politics expressed their opposition to more radical forms of protest. Thus Wolfgang Kummer, a student affiliated to no political organization, made the following appeal in a pamphlet:


‘Forceful, objective discussions do not need to be realized by insulting the other side.… Take care that the FU does not become an apolitical University – but also not an academic wasteland. Create the foundation for a new, relevant and democratic collaboration within the frame of the Berlin model!’20


The attitude that discussion with those of a different political opinion was a relevant means of triggering political change was widespread in the early phase of the 1968 movement. The majority of the student body was of the opinion that a change of attitude could be effected through discussions. After 2 June, as the student body saw itself threatened by the apparatus of the state, limited in its fundamental democratic rights and endangered by the one-dimensional nature of reporting in the press, they took up discussion as a means to combat these ills. In this, on 5 June, members of the Board and the Convention directed a joint resolution at the University:


‘ - … For at least one week, regular teaching activity will be replaced by teachers and students through discussions.

 - Over the next week, members of the University will discuss with the public, in all areas of the city, the events of last Friday along with their origins and consequences.

For these discussions, the students are making pamphlets. For its part, the AstA has pamphlets at the ready.

- The experiences that have been gathered in these street discussions and also in those of the previous weekend will be brought into the politicization process within the University.’21


Through discussions within the University, a process of ‘self-enlightenment and the development of a political practice’ was to be initiated that ‘presented theoretical as well as practical answers. They represented a declaration of war by the Freie Universität on all political trends that threatened to destroy the second German democracy (after the Weimar Republic of 1918 to 1932).’22 From discussions (in which not only students but also teaching staff were to take part), recognizable progress and consensus about future political strategies were [169|170] anticipated. In addition, the students were hoping for an exchange of opinion with the public and attempted to enlighten the it with the help of public debate.

With the promise of the seriousness of interest and the will for objective debate, those studying addressed the public directly. An example of this is a flyer that was distributed during the build-up to a ‘Spaziergangsdemonstration’ (‘Walking Demonstration’).


‘We are thankful to you for not just relying on newspaper reports during these days but also taking the time to listen to our arguments and speak to us. We are not avoiding your criticism. How do we conduct ourselves? You will have more time [to see] on Saturday. We will print and distribute more pamphlets for you. More people will speak with you. We will not cross the road from you: we will stand and talk with you on the pavement. That is not against the law. Last week, the police let us talk with each other peacefully.’23


According to this, discussion with the public was to serve the purpose of correcting a picture of reality conjured up by newspapers. In this, however, the students showed themselves to be absolutely open to criticism on the part of the Berliners and saw value in presenting themselves as law-abiding – certainly not the ‘scourge of society’ the Berlin press had been presenting them as. In June 1967, the majority of students still trusted the political effectiveness of discussion with its (self-) enlightening effect and ability to create consensus. At the same time, 2 June also represented a turning point not only in the history of the 1968 protest movement but also in the history of discussion within the movement. From this point the end of the anti-authoritarian phase was in sight.


Professionalization of Discussion: From Discussion to Agitation

As demonstrations were banned in the Berlin inner city after the shooting of Benno Ohnesorg and activists attempted to come to terms with it by means of discussion, groups were formed within the student body that proposed professionalizing the pursuit of discussion. The moderate student organizations also made demands for university funding for communication with the public . For example, the Social Democratic Student Union made the following demand in a pamphlet: ‘Parallel to continuing discussion, a programme has to be developed that develops new long-term methods for communicating with the Berlin public.’ The SHB counted new methods of discussion among this. Their development has to be supported by an ‘extensive and wide-ranging empirical investigation of the structure of the Berlin public’. A committee of research fellows, assistants and students was to receive ‘reports about the ongoing discussion.’24

The SHB itself also offered some hints as to how the students should appear during the ‘discussion campaign’: ‘Discussions and demonstrations have to proceed in a strictly rational and non-violent manner. It is important that political insights are furthered in the public; it is damaging if students only serve to [170|171] confirm their isolation in person.’25 The naming of discussion with the public as a campaign, its targeted organization and the attempt to organize its form is a hint that, from the second half of 1967, the external communication of the 1968 movement became more professional. In Berlin, the Arbeitskreis für studentische Öffentlichkeitsarbeit (Working Group for Student Public Relations) had co-ordinated this. The group presented a proposal to make communication with the public effective in a brochure entitled ‘What is to be Done? An Analysis and Model for Action for Student Public Relations Work’.26

Writing for the group, Karl-Peter Arens criticized the lack of choice in selection of discussion partners and ignorance of the results of communications research regarding the significance of selective mechanisms of perception for influencing the formation of opinion. According to this, the goal of the study was to explain why the public often had a negative reaction to the students ‘and how these barriers can be dealt with in the process of communication with a new propaganda technique.’ The students should at last bring themselves to the ‘heavy business of empirically supported propaganda’ instead of allowing themselves to be forced into the role of the ‘revolutionaries’. The unfettered usage of the word ‘Propaganda’ makes clear that discussions were no longer concerned, as at the beginning of the 1968 movement, with fostering a shared perspective on the matter in question through discussion. Rather, the matter at hand was convincing the populace or, to be more precise, communicating a message that had already been determined in advance. A discussion was no longer a process of shared understanding but rather – if carried out correctly – a strategy aimed at indoctrination. It became an attempt at targeted ideological influence with a view to the creation of a particular opinion or attitude.

Instead of speaking to passers-by at random, the students were to specifically target the ‘opinion shaper’ of the community and not just those who were politically close to them in any case. As the basic attitude of most Berliners was considered to be conservative, it was assumed that even the remaining ‘opinion shapers’ would tend not be congenial to student demands. As such, conservative disseminators of opinion were to be personally addresssed ‘so that they – from the point of view of student expectations – are no longer effective as negative disseminators of opinion.’27

From these considerations, Arens proposed the following strategy for action: first of all, the target groups for action should be selected in a precise fashion by means of an empirical survey. In addition, in contrast to what had until then been the practice, the ‘opinion shaper’ should be called on at home rather than addressed on the street. In addition, the action should not remain isolated but be continued over a long time, namely during multiple conversations. Only when the opinion shaper had been targeted over a long period of time were students to turn again to a wider public. With the help of the support of the opinion shaper, campaigns of mass communication would then be more successful than the current pamphlet and discussion campaigns on the Kurfürstendamm, West Berlin’s main boulevard.28 [171|172]

Even if this broadly laid out programme for making public relations work effective was clearly not put into practice in this form, these considerations influenced the students’ pursuit of discussion. For example, participants were issued with ‘Recommendations for Discussions with the Public’ that, in addition to references to the choice of interlocutors and about the form of discussion, also included a list of typical utterances which those discussing could expect.29 At the top of the list of recommendations was, here too, the choice of discussion partners that could count as disseminators of public opinion: ‘Do not speak to passers-by at random, but to people of whom you could expect that they carry opinions further and have influence on other people.’ In addition to the targeted address of suspected ‘opinion shapers’, the paper offered further hints as to the typology of interlocutors. Discussions with those reacting emotionally were apparently of particular difficulty. With them, students were to ‘discuss quietly, without reacting ironically or polemically to insults.’ Listeners who were reluctant to get involved in the conversation were to be ‘included via targeted questions.’ The most pleasant group would be those ‘ready to discuss’, the primary target for discussion.

In addition, certain strategies were recommended that would help break down barriers in communication. For example, the writer of the ‘Recommendations’ warned of the dangers of appearing to be a know-it-all. ‘Do not immediately shock your partner by indicating that you know better. The person who denigrates their partner due to inadequate knowledge cannot expect a further sympathetic ear.’ In fact, it was much better to locate ‘commonalities (even if banal) first of all’ and to pose questions ‘to which assenting answers would necessarily follow.’ In this manner, the negative prejudices against the students could be easily evaded. Furthermore, a potentially very successful method was to bring forward arguments ‘where possible in the form of confirmations... so that your interlocutor believes that he himself had come up with them (for example you read the newspaper like I did. For this reason we can talk about it…).’ Yet the danger existed that large groups could form in which students were no longer discussing but functioning ‘as public speakers’. ‘Groups of excessive size or discussions that had become stuck’ should, for this reason, be abandoned promptly.

The documents quoted offer evidence that the caesura marked by the shooting of Benno Ohnesorg represented in Berlin and West Germany alike also gave rise to a discernible new professionalizing of discussion. Student groups such as the Working Group for Student Public Relations or the Committee for Public Relations of the FU (Ausschuß für Öffentlichkeitsarbeit der FU) were trying to develop guidelines for discussion with people of other political opinions on the basis of academic analysis. What is significant about this document is that discussion is described less as an exchange of political standpoints with the aim of enlightening those participating but rather a means of political action. The goal of student communication with the public had become rather to convince and indoctrinate, conceived as communication of an opinion or indeed of a [172|173] worldview that was in place before the discussion. This change in function also had consequences for the form of discussion to be looked at next.


From Discussion as Revelation to Discussion as Happening

If one examines the premises of anti-authoritarian discussion on which the ‘teach-in’ or the collective work of a student seminar are modelled, it quickly becomes clear that these rules were not for use in discussions with political opponents. The norms of anti-authoritarian discussion were formulated in pointed fashion by the ‘Phrase Book for the Revolution’:


‘An anti-authoritarian discussion seeks to follow these rules: 1. Every participant has equal rights. 2. The assembly has at all times the right to decide the theme and form of the discussion. 3. The leader of the discussion can be deselected. 4. Speech should be followed by counter-speech in the most direct manner possible. 5. The assembly decides the length of the discussion.’30


These five norms allow for high flexibility with regard to the distribution of roles, the choice of themes, the sequencing, the attribution of the right to speak and the length of the discussion. Over repeated attempts, discussions with representatives of the ‘establishment’ had not affected this. This is because discussions within institutions with complex structural differentiation are of a highly schematic nature in order not to endanger proceedings within the institutions. In addition, those participating in no way enjoyed equal rights. While the anti-authoritarian discussion was based on the premise that the result of discussions was binding for all those participating, students had, during consultations in university committees about study reform for example, the right of consultation but not that of decision.

This structural asymmetry led as a rule to disappointment amongst activists. This finally led to a turning away from discussion as a form of attainment of democratic consent. Many pamphlets expressed frustration with the lack of consequences of university internal discussions and political debates. For example, during the ‘Active Strike’ at the end of 1968, Frankfurt students offered the following comments about a professors’ preparedness for discussion about study reform:


‘It’s certain: The Professors constantly offer us discussions. For years? - But unfortunately: Just discussions! There have been no discussions up until now with real practical implications – neither in relation to the new exams regulations nor a fundamental restructuring of teaching and research activity in accordance with our needs: Namely in accordance with the experiences as we live these out in our society and attempt to turn these into an adequately compensated working practice.’31


Until now, the discussions had been articulated only theoretically and had shown practical consequences only in cosmetic corrections of the customary [173|174] teaching system. It was now time they became practice once and for all. The strike was an expression not only of the growing discomfort with individual seminars and lectures ‘but of the fundamental set-up and repressive total structure’. In order to demonstrate distance from customary practice, it was important to ensure ‘the binding [nature] of the results that had now been won’  by the working groups.32 Frankfurt sociology students interpreted their professors’ offers of dialogue as a form of repressive tolerance: ‘If department leaders offer to speak with us only to cripple us, it is only for the sake of turning our power of resistance back into those forms of protests that are necessary as a “lively contribution” for the continued existence of their system.’33

The same frustration came be heard in the pamphlet of the Strike Council of the Philosophy Department of the FU Berlin (Streikrat des Philosophischen Seminars der FU), distributed during a strike opposing the enactment of emergency laws in May 1968. ‘Two years of discussion in the Philosophy Department have not brought study reform into being. More than two years of arguments have not prevented the emergency laws. WHAT IS TO BE DONE?’34 The notable connection here of local institutional politics and federal politics showed how much experience had occasioned a general conclusion of not being able to realize changes through discussions. The quote from Lenin’s ‘What is to be done? Burning questions of our movement’ (1902) at the end of the pamphlet indicates a re-orientation from a tactic of discussion to a non-specific practice.

SDS explicitly propounded this change, with Karl Dietrich Wolff calling for a general strike upon enactment of the emergency laws:


‘For more than eight years, appeals, petitions, discussions and parliamentary hearings have been the deciding forms of opposition against the emergency powers. Eight years of laborious, objective discussion...  The power cartel of the large coalition has decided to force through, whatever the price, dictatorial laws.... For this reason, we appeal to meet the challenge of the planned 2nd reading of the emergency powers on the 15 May with a general strike on all universities and schools.’35


The insight that no influence could be won through the process of political decision-making did not just mean a transition to other tactics of political protest, such as the lecture strike or the occupation of institutes. It also had an effect on the practice of discussion itself, one shown in the reports of those that represented opinions in assemblies that did not reflect the opinions of the majority. For example, representatives of the National Democratic Further Education Union (NHB) – closely allied to the NPD, Germany’s post-war party of the far right (not known for its democratic tendencies) – complained that dissenting opinions could not be articulated in a general assembly of the medical faculty on the occasion of the enacment of emergency laws:


‘And what do the medicine students expect in place of the lecture? FACTUAL DISCUSSION ABOUT emergency laws? NO! They are urged to take part in a general assembly beneath the Red Flag, during the course of which acts of violence and “go ins” [174|175] are planned. Students that took the liberty of having another opinion did not speak and were booed.’36


From 1968, debates within the university had long ceased to hesitate about the ideals of anti-authoritarian discussion quoted at the beginning of this essay. They seemed rather more to serve the dramatization and confirmation of the majority opinion.

The Circle of Christian Democratic Students (RCDS) concerned itself intensively with the discussion methods of the radical left. The Heidelberg RCDS published pamphlets following the patterns of personality tests, in which the discussion behaviour of SDS activists was placed in a satirical light. Then the RCDS Federal Board issued a brochure by Cornelius Schnaber with the title How do I Discuss with Ideological Leftists? 18 Opinions and 15 Ground Rules’.37 The political publicist Andreas von Weiss, close in spirit to the CDU, devoted a chapter of his book Key Words of the New Left to the methods of discussion and argument of the 1968 movement and their political legacy.38

The fact that satire was possible and capable of offering a kind of ‘advisory literature’ is already evidence per se that communicative practice had become more severe in terms of form and content. The increased severity of the discussions affected the arguments exchanged, the rhetorical means and also those ruptures of the civility within the exchanges. The radical left was accused by the conservatives of manipulating the communicative category of discussion. A satirical quiz about political consciousness by the RCDS posed the question ‘What is a discussion?’ with the following answers as options.


‘A conversation that employs objective arguments to clarify what is unclear. 0 points.

A conversation that employs subjective arguments to “clear” up something in a fashion that has been determined by one or many participants in advance. 10 points.

A monologue with split roles that, in order to convince oneself, persuades another through continual repetition of simplified, subjective arguments. 20 points.’39


The fact that no points were offered for the first answer, which offered a then-current definition of the word ‘diskutieren/discuss’, shows that from the point of view of the RCDS, the linguistic reality did not conform to the ideals of discussion. The two remaining answers emphasize the one-sidedness, predictability and lack of objectivity of argumentative discussion.

In the opinion of the authors of the guide to discussion, the main goal (in addition to persuasion and manipulation of listeners) was to reveal and disqualify the political goals of those thinking differently as immoral. For this reason, it seems appropriate to choose the term ‘Entlarvungsdiskussion’ (‘De-masking Discussion’) for this type of discussion.40 The guide to discussion offers a list of argumentative strategies by which the radical left sought to attain its goals:

This inception of practices of personal insult and mockery marks the transition from ‘Entlarvungsdiskussion’ to ‘Discussion Happening’.50 The ‘Discussion Happening’ became the dominant practice in discussions between the 1968 protest movement and representatives of the ‘establishment’. The ‘Discussion Happening’ began in the form of a plenary discussion. Yet the exchange of arguments was impeded through rhythmic clapping, ostentatious coughing, loud laughing and choruses in reaction to unpleasant utterances of political opponents. Police whistles, firecrackers and tomatoes functioned as objects of disturbance that finally served to fully block communication. The ‘Discussion Happening’ normally ended with the dissolution of the assembly and the labelling of political opponents as unworthy of being discussed with.

This was illustrated in the example of a lecture and discussion of the Mayor of Berlin, Klaus Schütz, with students of Berlin Colleges of Higher Education on 19 December 1967. Around 2,500 students had found their way to the Auditorium Maximum. When the Mayor stepped up to the lectern, he was greeted with whistles and hisses, but also demonstrative applause.51 Schütz discussed the government’s foreign policy. When he claimed that peace in the Middle East was endangered by threats to Israel, the reactions of the public were once again divided; some whistled, others applauded.52 As Schütz spoke in favour of an end to the bombing in North Vietnam, he received applause that washed into calls of ‘Ho-Ho-Ho-Chi-Minh’ accompanied by rhythmic clapping.53 Parts of the auditorium booed this.54 If the boos and whistles had until then been interpreted as a rejection of Schultz’s political opinions, they turned later into attacks of a personal nature. Also, Schultz’s tendency to repeat half and whole sentences led to the audience heckling him as a ‘blabber’ and an ‘idiot’.55 In addition to the calls of ‘blabber’, soap bubbles were blown into the hall as a symbol that what Schütz said consisted of empty phrases in the view of the [176|177] public.56 From the floor, his critics accused him of violating the conversational maxim of relevance essential to the communicative genre of the lecture and discussion. Other listeners named Schütz a ‘weakling’ and a ‘fascist’57, calling ‘get lost already!’ and even threatening ‘don’t think you’re getting out of here intact!’58

As soon as Schütz had finished, a student sprang up with a two-part placard that he held above Schütz’s head reading ‘These idiots govern us’ and ‘Club-thrashing phrases in our necks, that’s Berlin’s sniper [German: Schützen] politics’. The situation escalated. Günter Struve, Schütz’s assistant, attempted to tear the placard away from the student. This was greeted by deafening whistles and boos from the floor.59 As debate about Struve’s behaviour erupted, Wolfgang Lefèvre petitioned for his expulsion. Just as the Mayor was about to be draped with a Father Christmas outfit, a new scuffle broke out. Schütz threatened to put an end to the discussion if his assistant were forced to leave. After all this, Struve remained in the chamber and the discussion about foreign policy continued, interrupted time and again by cries of ‘Ho-Ho-Ho Chi Minh’ and rhythmic clapping. Fritz Teufel, just released from detention for avoiding trial, turned up fashionable late to the lecture and discussion and was greeted with applause. With his appearance, the discussion took a further turn. It became a signal for the continuation of the disturbing actions of Commune I. Teufel proposed choosing Schütz to be Father Christmas. Teufel had brought the beard with him and Schütz was pelted from all sides with tinsel and scraps of beard.60 During this, members of the Commune shouted out slogans such as: ‘Knusper Knusper Knäuschen, / der Schütz ist aus dem Häuschen’ (‘Nibble nibble, gnaw / Schütz has broken through the door’) or ‘Oh du lieber Weihnachtsmann, / schau uns nicht so böse an, / wir wollen auch immer artig sein, / stecke deinen Knüppel ein.’ (‘Oh you dear Santa Claus / don’t look at us like we’ve lost a screw / we always want to behave well / shove your truncheon out of view.’)61 The repeated references to Schütz’s truncheon, as already found on the placard, recalled the brutal manner of the Berlin police when dealing with student demonstrators. The audience held the Mayor responsible for this. However, the truncheon metaphor was also cruelly used by the Commune members to denote the Mayor’s stiff arm: ‘Oh seht den armen Krüppel, / sein Arm ist nur ein Knüppel’ (‘Oh look at the poor cripple/his arm is just a truncheon’).62 These simple lines contain an outing: with them, the members of the Commune I publicly emphasized that Klaus Schütz, due to a wartime shoulder injury, had only limited use of his right arm. The Berlin press was apparently in tacit agreement not to report on the lame arm. In the chanting of these rhymes, the legal usage of state violence against radical demonstrators was rewritten into the consolation of a personal shortcoming. In addition, members of Commune I had learnt that Schütz’s wife had been married before and that it was unclear whether Schütz or her first husband was the biological father of her children. Insinuating that he was not the biological father, the Commune members chanted ‘Impotent Father Christmas / turns empty phrases if he can’.63 Schütz was thus mocked as a Father Christmas figure who ‘blabbered’ [177|178] when left without recourse to his ‘truncheon’.  His authority – one based on intimidation – is seen to disappear as soon as he is forced to enter into discussion. What is interesting here is that the criticism of the ruling style of the Mayor is correlated with criticism of his communicative behaviour. The presentation of the government as illegitimate was presented as evidenced by its inability to discuss while at the same time giving off the appearance of wanting to discuss. Through the action of the Commune, Klaus Schütz and the office of the Mayor that he embodied received their final devaluation. Through countless performative actions, the discussion was presented as unworthy: through boos and hisses, soap bubbles, and cries of ‘chatterer.’ The last speaker said ‘His good will was only a feigned phrase’, adding the explicit accusation that he was ‘not capable of rigorous discussion.’64

These deformations of a democratically intended practice were the spark that ignited the criticism of liberal and conservative student organizations. They were a factor that meant the radical left could be criticized and their method refused as activities of terror. This was the spirit in which the Heidelberger RCDS asked, in a satirical test of knowledge, ‘What are tomatoes?’ and identified the answer as ‘means of building political consciousness’, mocking the position of the radical left. In response to the question ‘What is tolerance?’, the author Heinz Christmann offered the following answers:


‘- An indispensable fundamental attitude for human co-existence?

- A capitalistic relic that will be removed by the forces of socialism.’65


Summary: Discussion as Indicator and Motor of the Radicalizing of the 1968 Protest Movement

The enquiries of the previous sections have shown that the communicative practice of discussion developed rapidly over the course of the 1968 protest movement. This development received an essential impulse from the fundamental opposition of the Berlin Commune group to discussion with those of different political opinions. From the beginning, they were of the opinion that discussions with representatives of university or political administration would not bring any substantial progress as long as they served only to appease activists. For this reason, they propagated other forms of action such as effective disturbance and provocation that was also carried over into events of university discussion. In the early period of the 1968 movement, this group was a contrast to the majority of students who were interested in politics and hoped to exercise influence over decision-makers by participating in committees and public discussions. In the early period of the 1968 movement, ‘diskutieren’/‘to discuss’ meant to lead a discussion in the hope of finding a binding consensus.

From 2 June 1967 at the latest, this began to alter. After this date an extensive discussion campaign aimed at the enlightenment of the public began. In order [178|179] to offset press reporting that was considered to be disinformation with explanation to the public about the true goals of the 1968 movement, the activists carried out a professionalizing of discussion. Working groups were also formed that used the academically formed models of future student public relations and at the same time supplied ‘discussion soldiers’ with concrete instructions for negotiation. These writings no longer show concern for an open discussion through which the interlocutors form their opinions through the exchange of arguments. Rather, words such as ‘agitation’ or ‘propaganda’ were used in order to name the goals of communicative practice.

Within this professionalizing, the origin for the hardening of discussions with political opponents is to be found in the movement into fixed argumentative patterns that also occasioned a professionalizing of the exchange with the radical left. In guides to rhetoric and argument, typical forms of radical left discussion manner were analysed and counter-strategies recommended.

With the ‘Osterunruhen’ (‘Easter Disturbances’) of 1968 and the emergency strike, a disappointed turning away from discussion as a means of exerting influence can be observed. This was not just true for Berlin but for many university towns in the Federal Republic. In pamphlets and circulars, complaints mounted that discussions were being held but remained non-binding and as such without consequence. Frustration and professionalization combined for the 1968 movement to make discussion primarily a means of making political opponents appear ridiculous and gaining the status of a majority opinion for the protesters’ opinions. For all these reasons, calls for alternative political strategies resonated, finding expression in the occupation of institutions, blockades and increased disruptions of lectures. At the same time, the tendency can be observed that discussions with representatives of the ‘establishment’, which had previously served to de-mask the immoral implications in the attitudes and behaviour of political opponents, were turned into ‘Discussion Happenings’. In them, the content of debate was sacrificed for the sake of the performative devaluation of the person and office of political opponents. The portrayal of failure in discussion had become a sign that agreement was neither possible nor desirable, a sign of radical opposition that had broken with the norms of a majority community. It had became a sign of large-scale refusal.66

Reconstructed in this fashion, the history of ‘diskutieren’ about 1968 can read as that of a gradual approach by the majority of the 1968 movement’s activists to the position of the Berlin Commune group. The Commune had relied on disturbances and refusals of discussion from the beginning. Accordingly, the story of discussion is the story of the canonization of the 1968 movement. The development of discussion from consensus-orientated discussion to ‘Discussion Happening’ was clearly not just an indicator of this radicalization. Rather, the development was itself one of its factors. The ritual disturbances of the 1968 movement always had a polarizing and mobilizing effect. [179|180]



9 See Verheyen, ‘Diskussionsfieber’.

20 Wolfgang Kummer,: Wählen Sie den dritten Weg, 6 May 1967, APO Archive, folder: Berlin, Hochschule FU - Serie 2 – 1967.

29 Empfehlungen zur Diskussion mit der Bevölkerung, June 1967, APO Archive, folder: Berlin, FU Allgemein 10. - 20. June. The following quotes are taken from the first page.

32 Ibid.

34 Pamphlet by the Streikrat am Philosophischen Seminar der FU Berlin: Ist Philosophie Resignation?, 24 May 1967, APO Archive, folder: Berlin FU Allgemein E0702 FU Flugblätter, Mai 1968 (Notstandsgesetze, Institutsbesetzg.)