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The BBC's William Horsley
"It is a tale of passion and bloodshed"
 real 56k

Friday, 30 March, 2001, 15:22 GMT 16:22 UK
Full circle for German revolutionaries
Student protesters from 1960s
The way we were: Protesters say they changed Germany
The BBC's William Horsley joins Germany's 1968 protest generation as they return to their roots

Their own verdict on their youthful rebellion: "We changed our country for the better".

With the ageing German "revolutionaries" of the 1968 protest movement thrust back into the spotlight, after revelations about the militant past of the Green Party Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer, I joined them for a tour of battlegrounds and shrines of their heyday.

Joschka Fischer (arm raised) in Frankfurt, 1973
This picture of Fischer beating a policeman put '68ers back in dock
In 1968 and the years that followed, at the height of the Cold War, Berlin and other German cities saw pitched battles against police in protest against the Vietnam War and "Nazi" influences in postwar West Germany.

Thirty years on, photos have been published showing Fischer in 1973, in a motorbike helmet, punching a policeman during a Frankfurt street protest. The political row rocked Germany's centre-left government.

Berlin squat
Thousands of radical students lived in squats - so did Joschka Fischer
Conservatives demanded his resignation, and questioned the extent of his links with members of the Baader-Meinhof Gang, the left-wing militants who kept Germany in terror for years through their campaign of kidnapping and murder.

Mr Fischer is still popular, and still in office. But now some of his former revolutionary comrades feel he has betrayed the ideals of the '68 movement, by joining the establishment and sending German warplanes to bomb Yugoslavia in the conflict over Kosovo.

The new debate about this turbulent phase of modern German history led the manager of the Henrietta Hotel in former East Berlin to invite student radicals from the '68 protest movement to a weekend reunion.

Rebellion against "new fascism"

Sixty of them turned up - mostly greying professionals in their 50s - to re-live their glory days and reflect on how, they claim, they helped turn Germany into a more liberal, tolerant state.

Guenter Zint says he lived in a commune in Berlin with other radical journalists, including Ulrike Meinhof.

Guenter Zint
Guenter Zint: Lived in commune with Ulrike Meinhof
They produced a newspaper called "APO Press" - APO standing for Extra-Parliamentary Opposition - to spread the '68ers revolutionary message: against war, against US "imperialism" and against the alleged "fascist" tendencies of West German politics, especially the police.

"People know that the Sixties changed Germany for the good," Guenter says.

But he admits that the '68 movement made a fatal mistake, when Ulrike Meinhof and Andreas Baader co-founded the Baader-Meinhof Gang, and sought to justify the use of terrorist methods to try to bring down the West German state.

"The resort to terrorism killed the protest movement", says Guenter.

Sentimental journey

On a snowy February day, the '68ers toured the sites of their now legendary protests. Near the Deutsche Opera House in central Berlin they visited the memorial to the movement's first martyr. Benno Ohnesorg, a student, was shot dead by police during a 1967 demonstration against a visit by the Shah of Iran.

Wolfgang Schoenenberg, a musician, says the Shah and his repressive regime were a symbol to young West Germans of "the evils of capitalism and of American power".

Wolfgang Schoenenberg with memorial to Beno Ohnesorg
Wolfgang Schoenenberg: Privileged to be among protesters
"We came here as students to protest because we felt helpless and frustrated," he says.

There were subdued jeers as the '68ers drove past the Berlin offices of the Axel Springer publishing empire, one of the main targets of their anger in those heady days.

Klaus Rohbeck, a graphic designer, recalls taking part in a blockade of the building at Easter 1968, to stop distribution of the "Bild" newspaper.

"It was a privilege to be part of those protests," he says. "The Springer Press was trying to manipulate public opinion with a campaign of hate against the students and minorities."

Joschka Fischer as a young radical
Some believe the radical Fischer has sold out to the establishment
In fact the protests lost much public sympathy after 1972, when 17 Springer workers were injured in a bomb attack by the Baader-Meinhof Gang - alias the Red Army Faction.

But the 1968 Springer demonstrations were the first mass protests ever in the young Federal Republic of Germany.

Senior figures from the wartime Nazi regime were back in positions of high authority in West German public life, and the police were steeped in old authoritarian attitudes.

The '68ers are convinced that their protests showed the vital importance of free speech and free expression, and so laid the foundations of the first true German democracy.

Joschka Fischer faces media questions
Fischer has admitted his mistakes in succumbing to the lure of violence
Last stop on the '68ers tour: the grave of former Berlin student leader Rudi Dutschke. Dutschke's behaviour was typical of many of the would-be revolutionaries of 1968. He was secretive, autocratic, and proclaimed the right to break the law because the "fascist" West German state was itself illegitimate.

Dutschke died in 1979 of wounds received much earlier, when he was shot by a fanatical right-wing opponent.

The ageing '68ers filed past his grave in silence.

In the revolutionary late '60s and early 70's, many German universities were in effect taken over by radical students. They held stormy political debates, drew up manifestos against "western imperialism", and planned regular mass demonstrations.

Fischer: A self-justification

Joschka Fischer attended lectures on Marxism at Frankfurt University, though he was not officially enrolled. The self-taught Marxist became a leading figure in a group called "Revolutionary Struggle", getting a job in a car factory to stir up revolutionary ideas among the workers.

He has frankly acknowledged his mistake as a young man in succumbing then to the lure of revolutionary violence. But he firmly maintains that the '68 movement was essential to German democracy.

People know that the Sixties changed Germany for the good

Guenter Zint
In a speech in London in January, Fischer said the protest movement had given birth to his party, the Greens.

And that, he said, had brought about "the integration of radical left-wing groups - Leninist, Trotskykist, anarchist, feminist or whatever - into the democratic process."

"It is very important," he added, "to rethink the process of the '80s." That was the decade when Fischer abandoned direct action and entered politics, and the Greens built up their suport in preparation for their current role in government. His conclusion: "So it can be very productive."

Award-winning journalist William Horsley was BBC correspondent in Germany from 1991-97.

A radio feature on the 68-ers will be broadcast on the BBC World Service's Analysis programme on 5 April at 1545, and on 6 April at 0245 and 0645 GMT.

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