BERLIN (Reuters) - Forty years after Dany Cohn-Bendit’s flaming red hair and infectious smile became a symbol of idealized rebellion across Europe in 1968, today’s students face a more fragmented fight.
Cohn-Bendit, now 62 and in the European parliament, says the difference between students then and now is simple.
“We had a much more positive feeling towards the future. This makes the social movement different from the ones you see today. Now there is more anxiety and fear.”
The 1968 generation wanted to revolutionize society, battle against authoritarianism and demolish what they saw as the old social order. In the United States, demonstrations against the Vietnam War triggered massive peace marches worldwide.
Forty years on, those involved in the protests of 1968 say modern activist campaigns lack the force and scope of the movement which helped give birth to them.
Campaigns today may back a cause, they say, but they do not aspire to change the world in the way the ‘68ers sought to. Then young people, seeing authority embodied by monolithic institutions, envisaged a radically different social order based — according to taste — on Marxism, anarchism, or free love, with slogans such as “Be realistic, demand the impossible.”
Where protesters in Paris 1968 lifted paving stones to build barricades and hurl at police, today market economics in its many forms reigns virtually unchallenged in a globalized world, and some from the 1968 generation argue that consumerism has dulled students’ rebellious spirit.
Students face much tougher competition for jobs and much greater pressure to conform: for some, even the tame rebellion of self-expression through social networking sites on the Internet is a peril, risking rejection from future employers.
“Although the student movement may talk about cultural change, it nevertheless has precise goals — to protest against job contract reforms or fight against university selection,” said Juliette Griffond, spokeswoman for the French national students’ union.
The jobless rate in Germany and France is above 8 percent. At the end of the 1960s, it was below 2 percent in France and West Germany.
Students have to focus on competing for jobs, Griffond said, because the French university population has grown — seven-fold since the 1960s according to government data.
In Germany, many students have had to give up on changing society, said Anna Menge, an Oxford University researcher on 1960s-70s Germany.
“In 1968, students knew they had quite a good future in terms of job security. Now young people are much more conformist because they have to be. They have to engage and assimilate in order to compete in the job market,” she said.
For German Green Party politician Hans-Christian Stroebele, who was a defense lawyer for left-wing militants in the 1960s and 70s, even the largest modern campaigns are more about individual issues than conviction.
“Back then there was the feeling that you had to completely revolutionize society,” he said. “With today’s movements you don’t see that. There are demonstrations, like against the Iraq war, but they are not about revolutionizing society.”
But the roots of this fragmentation lie partly in the successes of the ‘68ers. Oxford University professor Robert Gildea said the legacy of 1968 is visible in modern campaigns.
“There was the big bang of ‘68 and then the ‘68ers went off in different directions,” said Gildea, who has been researching the paths of former activists.
“You can trace some of the feminist movement back to it, you can trace a lot of ecology and environmentalism back to it and interest in regionalism and anti-centralization.”
For Stroebele, 68, one of the era’s most important legacies is that it allowed Germans to reassess the past.
“Many people in power had played a big role in the Nazi times and we wanted a radical break, something which had not taken place since the end of the war.
“Everything was being questioned: authority, the justice system, the university system, Germany’s relationship with the United States, imperialism.”
Cohn-Bendit, known in his wilder days as ‘Dany the Red’, said idealism lives on in old ‘68ers but today’s students face a much more complex set of problems.
“There is this optimism that you can make a better world. The problem is that the world you have to make better today is completely different,” said Cohn-Bendit, whose position as co-leader of the Green Party in the European parliament has earned him a new nickname, ‘Green Dany’.
The drama of 1968 played out against the backdrop of a Europe split between liberal democracies — which many ‘68ers scorned as an oppressive sham — and the communist bloc that, for all its tyranny, some saw as a testing ground for the future.
Some say anti-globalization protests, rather than student activism, show glimmers of the 1968 spirit, citing the thousands who protest at G8 meetings of world leaders.
Others note that some prominent ‘68ers, including French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner and former German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer, have worked their way through the corridors of power.
“We have this idea of it all being wonderful, free love, people throwing Molotov cocktails, but the people who became really involved paid a price,” said Gildea.
“A lot of them had nervous breakdowns, some of them lost their jobs, some went into exile.”
While nostalgic memories of 1968 may remain, some critics of the movement have blamed it for nurturing left-wing militants who went on to carry out kidnappings and political murders in Germany and Italy in the 1970s and 80s.
“It wasn’t just the summer of love, it was much more than that,” Gildea said.
Editing by Stephen Weeks and Sara Ledwith