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Dr Mererid Puw Davies introduces her new book, ‘Writing and the West German Protest Movements: The Textual Revolution’, which explores the unique prestige that reading and writing had for the protest movements of the late 1960s.
Right now, it seems to be a commonplace to say that we live in extraordinary times. The nature and workings of political institutions, social divisions, national and international identities, business, globalisation, the media and many other actors are all in the spotlight, and being challenged from all directions. So it might seem strange at first sight to suggest looking back now at events and ideas which are almost 50 years old – the protest movements of ‘1968’. But in fact, those events and ideas seem to be appearing in a startling new light today.
In the 1960s in West Germany, democracy itself seemed to many people to be in danger. This sense was motivated, among other things, by the 1966 formation of a Grand Coalition government between the two major political parties, meaning that parliamentary opposition was vestigial, and the police shooting in June 1967 of a peaceful protester in West Berlin. Some feared that the democratic experiment of the Federal Republic was at risk of sliding (back) into totalitarianism, aided by authoritarian social institutions and vested interests of all kinds.
Worldwide affairs, above all the horrors of the Vietnam War, seemed to confirm such ideas, and fostered distrust of the allegedly partisan media and its new technologies for reporting war. Finally, protesters suggested that psychology and politics were inseparable –preoccupations which were, of course, deeply rooted in the Nazi and wartime past.
It seemed that an entirely new kind of opposition was needed to change the world. This opposition should be free of all established, compromised institutions, and take in the symbolic and subjective dimensions of politics. Therefore, ‘1968’ in West Germany generated not only political events, but a complex culture of revolt, and this culture is the subject of my book Writing and the West German Protest Movements: The Textual Revolution.
This title reflects the unique prestige that reading and writing had for protesters who produced an extraordinary, extensive and very diverse body of work, from graffiti to lengthy political tomes, as well as actions which involved text in important ways, but were also akin to contemporary performance art, like street demonstrations or disruptions in court. Most of this work is forgotten today, so the project was to bring some of this submerged work to light, and to explore how protesters used writing in many forms.
I discovered that this culture was by turns polemical, witty, provocative, reflective and offensive. Parts of it had a major political impact, and led for example, indirectly, to outfits like the Baader-Meinhof Group. Other strands, despite their disreputable origins, flow into more recent mainstream politics, and even canonical literature. Yet other aspects were almost subterranean in their workings, arguably changing the subjects involved with them from within, in what they would have considered the most radical kind of politics. But in all cases, I found that this textuality exists in complex, problematic tension with the shadows of the recent past.
This culture of protest is, therefore, shot through with contradiction and complication. It does not necessarily propose genuinely new, groundbreaking or liberating ideas or forms, and it cannot read as a straightforward blueprint for world-changing actions in the present. But this snapshot of fifty years ago does, I think, offer something else: a different vantage point for the present day; and questions about the relationships between writing, culture, lived reality and change which remain as urgent as ever.
Dr Mererid Puw Davies is senior lecturer in German at University College London. She is the author of The Tale of Bluebeard in German Literature from the Eighteenth Century to the Present and co-editor of Autobiography by Women in German. She has published widely on modern German literature, film and cultural studies.