The Untold Sixties: When Hope Was Born
An Insider's Sixties On An International Scale
NOTE: The material in this
section was written
during the early and mid-Seventies when it was still quite
fresh in the author's mind and is also based upon
his large collection of Sixties documents. For
further information, see the book outline by clicking here.
Germany's Kent State and
Berlin, June, 1967
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Since this book has now been published, many of its chapters have been abridged, though the summary and four chapters can still be found in their entirety.
My main problem on the afternoon of June 2, 1967 was how to get rid of Maurice Stegman. Maurice, as I have already mentioned, was the American cultural attache in Berlin and also the resident CIA spook. I had met him briefly at various cultural functions since our first luncheon, forced on me by the German cultural agency, and it was difficult to avoid him altogether in the compact cultural world of Berlin. As I have noted, Maurice was far from being a total pill, and he was genuinely interested in the new lifestyle being evolved by the young at home and abroad. I had suggested books and essays for him to read and records for him to listen toI had hinted to him that a whole new concept of life was coming into existence, which he would miss out on altogether if he didn't make a bit of effort. Maurice had undoubtedly also been reading the articles I had begun to write about Berlin for IT, and as good as my contacts with the student left were, he no doubt imagined they were even better. Whenever I ran into him, he would try to steer the conversation around to student politics, and I would unobtrusively begin to talk about something else.
I had however made the mistake of promising him, for the sake of his education, that I would take him on a tour of the dance joints, artist cafés, and bars of Berlin, a demi-monde I had lost no time in exploring soon after I arrived, and Maurice happily agreed. This seemed innocent enough and might even broaden Maurice's cultural horizons, but soon I began to have my doubts. I had made the appointment for this tour twice and then postponed it at the last moment. And so I decided that afternoon that I really couldn't put it off any longer. Besides, Ilene was in London, leaving me alone, and the evening might just turn out to be amusing. And so on the evening of June 2, 1967, I met Maurice Stegman, as I am calling him, at the Café Zuntz on the Kudamm to set out on our Berlin-By-Night Lowlife Tour. I repeat the date, as anyone familiar with Germany at this time will know that I am leading up to a story. Maurice and I were to have a very interesting evening indeed, though in ways neither of us could have predicted.
My antennae were quite well attuned to the Berlin frequency, but I had received no signal indicating that a full-scale alarm was about to be sounded. But if I was caught off-guard that night, so was all of Germany and the rest of the world. Only two people in all of Berlin could have had any inkling of what was about to happen: the mayor and the police chief, and they weren't talking. I had delivered some copies of American underground papers to the Republikanischer Klub earlier in the week and had asked around about upcoming events. My friends had told me something about a big demonstration at the Opera to protest the visit of the Shah of Iran to Berlin. I had wished them good luck with it and put the matter out of my mind.
It seemed to me that the energies of the German left, like those of the movements in other countries, were often being frittered away in causes of no immediate service to the society involved. Thus, I felt that the Germans would have done far better to direct their energy into problems closer to home, such as the incredibly elitist process of university admissions, where a class system had run rampant. Or the conditions of the so-called Gastarbeiter, (or "Guest Workers") in Germany, who were treated little better than indentured servants and denied most civil rights. Yet these Italians, Greeks, and other Mediterraneans were doing most of the necessary drudgery in Germany. I did not doubt that Iran had numerous problems, nor that its leader ruled as a tyrant, but I wondered if this should be the first concern of German leftists. Radicals everywhere seem to have a talent for focusing on grievances elsewhere on the planet as opposed to those closer at hand, which they might actually be able to do something about. No doubt I will be criticized by any remaining strict constructionist pro-Moscow liners [reminder: written in 1973] for this notion and for my failure to understand "the international nature of the socialist struggle," but I still hold to my position.
I am sure Maurice had even less of a clue that something unusual was in store for us when we met that evening on the Kudamm. His sources of information were far less reliable than mine, which was no doubt one of the reasons he wanted to meet with me. In any case, neither of us could ever have predicted the full repercussions that one act by a trigger-happy cop were about to have for Germany and the European left.
By way of outlining the ground rules for the evening, I told Maurice where I would be taking him in an effort to help him understand the cultural side of the youth scene. I could see his face sink when I failed to mention any of the hangouts of the student left.
"Well, Alex, I was sort of hoping you'd take me to the Republikanischer Klub," Maurice volunteered rather sheepishly. I explained that I didn't think that would be altogether appropriate for him, without saying precisely why. He countered that I had taken Peter Nestler and his mistress there one evening for a drink, and the implication was that I could take him as well. I patiently replied that Peter Nestler was a German, that his job directly dealt with students of all sorts, and that he was consequently more presentable at the club than Maurice would be. I didn't bother adding that Peter was both young and relatively hip in demeanor which Maurice was not.
"Come on, Alex that's no explanation," Maurice badgered. "Why won't you take me to the Republikanischer Klub?"
"It's simple, Maurice. Because you're a CIA agent."
My reply came out before I could help myself. Maurice's mouth gaped, and I quickly extricated myself by telling him he was the sort of person the students might think was a CIA man, even if this were not the case. And so I led a saddened but somewhat mollified spook out on our tour of the fleshpots of Berlin. Maurice was quite attentive to the music and dancing at the several cheap danceries off the Kudamm and to the figures of the scantily dressed German girls. After about an hour of loud beat music in the discos we returned to the Kudamm and started to walk.
It was a magnificent evening, everyone was wearing summery clothes, the thousands of lights on the Kudamm reflected and refracted brilliantly into each other providing a glittering impression of what was at that time undoubtedly one of the handsomest streets in the world, especially by night. We crossed the Kudamm at Fasanenstrasse and stood on the corner by a café as we debated where to go next.
Suddenly sirens began to screech. We heard loud rasping shoutsa band of about thirty demonstrators appeared almost out of nowhere and ran by at full speed, shouting slogans against the police. They went right by us, almost knocking us down. Then another group went running on the other side of the Kudamm and also passed by. There was an edge to their shouting that I had not heard before, and their motions were jagged and uncontrolled.
Maurice immediately turned to me, as though I ought to know what it was all about. One of the group had carried a battered poster reading Massenmord in Iran (Mass Murder in Iran), and I suddenly realized this must be the night my friends had planned to demonstrate against the Shah's visit. I had just communicated this to Maurice when we heard loud sirens again, and the first group of demonstrators ran back towards us. Apparently they were caught between two contingents of police. Just then a large police van came screeching to a halt right on our corner, just as the students reached it from the other direction.
What followed was some of the most uncontrolled mayhem I have ever had occasion to watch or participate in. The police went after the students with a ferocity I have never seen equaled, with truncheons, the stocks of weapons, their bare hands. We were caught right in the middle and immediately retreated to the sidewalk café, where we sat down. Two of the students did the same at an adjoining table. Cries of Schweinehünde rent the air, as these policemen performed the best imitation of Gestapo officers I hope I will ever see. The demonstrators resisted, but they did absolutely nothing to provoke the violence unleashed on them, at least nothing Maurice or I could see.
Everything happened with incredible speed. We had not so much ringside seats as seats inside the ring itself. Two or three students fell to the ground, but the beating and kicking continued. The fallen students were thrown roughly into the waiting van. Others ran off and escaped the police. All at once the head waiter from our café grabbed a truncheon he kept behind the door and attacked the students sitting next to us, forcing them from the table and calling them various names he had read in the Springer press. He then turned to us and was about to treat us the same way, when he took in Maurice's dour middle-aged mien and withdrew. The police sped off in pursuit of the students who got away.
Maurice and I looked at each other
"Well," I said, "I told you I'd show you a side of Berlin you hadn't seen before." Marice was almost speechless, genuinely shocked by what he had just observed. He finally gained control of his voice.
"I would say that someone in the police department has gotten out of control," he commented thoughtfully. We then had a long argument about police methods and brutality and the etiquette of demonstrating. Soon we got up and left to continue our tour of Berlin's dives and gin mills. We were both in a bad mood after what we had seen, and we started drinking more than we should at each place we visited. Sirens were to be heard constantly wherever we went, sometimes near, sometimes afar, more frequent and insistent than I had ever heard them.
We were sitting in our last bar of the night, Die Dicke Wirtin in the Carmerstrasse, at one time supposedly frequented by artists and poets, when a student walked in and announced to everyone present "Die Bullen haben zwei Studenten getötet. Verprügelt." (The fuzz killed two students. Beat them.")
I immediately asked him for further details. He admitted it might be a rumor, but he heard they had been taken to a specific hospital, which I could call up if I wanted to know more.
I told Maurice that I thought we had had enough of an evening and that in any case, if this story proved true, then I had a job to do in covering it for IT. With that we parted company, and I headed home. And thus it happened that the CIA's Berlin chief and the underground's east-european agent spent their time shuffling from bar to bar together on the worst night in German history since the days of the Third Reich. A coincidence that might seem corny and unbelievable in fiction became a simple, everyday part of real life, which as usual delights in mocking writers, futurologists, and intelligence agents.
I had been drinking too much and dozed off for about an hour as soon as I got home. When I awoke, I was unable to get back to sleep. Suddenly, I remembered the name of the hospital. I called them up, told them I was working for the foreign press and asked if they could verify the report of two students being killed in the rioting. The girl at the other end sounded defensive. She could give out no information but suggested I call one of the local newspapers. I finally reached another defensive voice at the Berliner Tagesspiegel at 3:30 in the morning.
"It's a lie," she said, "They only got one." Once again I was told that the student had been beaten to death, in "self-defence," the voice explained.
There was little more I could do that night. I was extremely disturbed and already somewhat hung over. I didn't get to sleep until seven in the morning and then was awakened by Peter Nestler knocking at my door at eleven-thirty the same day. I had forgotten that I had invited him to lunch, as Ilene was still in London and his mistress was also out of town. I told him of my experiences last night, and he had pity on my woebegone appearance and invited me out to lunch with him, as I was in no condition to prepare anything. We drove to a restaurant near the further end of the Kudamm, and over Bier and Schnitzel my spirits began to revive.
Peter told me he had already heard about the student's death, and he hoped reports of it in the foreign press would not damage Germany's reputation too greatly. I was tempted to reply that no news of any further deaths from Germany could possibly darken the country's reputation any further than it already was, but I forbore. Peter said he had heard that the death had occurred as a matter of self-defense and was purely accidental. I asked him how you beat someone to death in self-defense, and he confessed he was not sure of all the details.
After lunch I left Peter and tried to buy a newspaper, but the stands were all sold out because of the previous night's disturbances. I walked down the Kudamm a block or two to a small advertising office of the Berliner Tagesspiegel, where they always kept the latest edition posted in full in the windows. I read the article on the killing several times, but a number of details simply did not make any sense. All I could determine for certain was that the student's name was Benno Ohnesorg, and that the incident had taken place on a side-street near the opera house, about a mile from where Maurice and I had seen the rioting on the Kudamm. I was now only a few blocks from the Republikanischer Klub, so I decided to drop by and see if anyone there could give me more information.
The elevator at the club wasn't working, so I started to walk up the four flights of stairs. When I was halfway up, someone passed me going down.
"Don't bother going up there." he said, "Everybody's leaving." This didn't make sense to me, and I kept climbing. Close to the top I ran into a theatre friend who, like myself, was deeply interested in student affairs. He was also headed downstairs.
"Alex!" he said, "You're just the right person. Come down with me to the University. I'm driving right now. We're all going."
"Ja, aber was ist gescheh'n mit dem Student, den die geprügelt hab'n?" I asked. (Yeah, but what happened to the student that they beat?")
"Erschossen!" he answered in a single word, correcting both me and the false account given by the authorities. Erschossen. Shot to death.
While driving down to Dahlem, we became aware that we were part of a mammoth cavalcade of cars converging on the university from all directions. A few were already flying from their antennae the black streamers of cloth that were to become such a common sight in the days ahead. When we arrived at the university, the campus was already jammed.
More students and student-types and professors, more friends and well-wishers were arriving every moment. A major meeting was scheduled in the Audi Max, but it was so crowded that no one could get in, so we all just stood around and listened to the proceedings on loudspeakers. I walked around the campus during part of these proceedings, and everywhere I went, outdoors on the grass and indoors in the hallways of class buildings, I found more and more students standing and listening.
At first a number of speakers succeeded one another with brief statements abhorring the tragedy or reading messages of condolence and solidarity from other universities and student groups. Knut Nevermann, the head of the student council, then made a speech which became the master plan of everything that was done in the next few days. Nevermann pointed out the seriousness of this murder in the light of German history during the Nazi period, and his view were soon seconded by the rector of the university. Together they saw the incident as a crucial one to establish democracy in Germany.
Already the Mayor of Berlin had made remarks defending his police force, and later that day he was to make a televised speech blaming the students instead of the police. And this mayor was a social democrat, supposedly to the left of the Christian Democrats who had ruled Germany for so long. The press was also playing the role of supporting the police and the government and so far had been a prime supporter of the cover-up. The police were quite simply lying about the cause of death, and only an examination by doctors sent by the university had determined the truth. A clumsy attempt had been made to sew up the gunshot wound. Neither Nevermann nor the rector were radicals in any sense of the wordrather, they both subscribed to the moderate doctrines of Willi Brandt's nominally socialist party. But the actions of the police, the mayor, and the press had the effect of pushing the entire student body to the left, of "radicalizing" them, as the phrase went.
I have in some ways made light of the high seriousness of these German students in their approach to life and in their almost mystical faith in democracy. But on that day it may have been those very traits which held the students together and kept Berlin from falling apart. Emotion, be it mourning, frustration, or a lust for revenge, was visible and almost tangible on all sides of me, just as the anger of the ordinary Germans who read and believed their Springer newspapers also became quite evident to me. But what was proposed that day not only served to channel most of this emotion into a constructive direction but might have served as a model for America in our own treatment of Kent State three years later. But our own national tragedy, when it came, was to be handled quite differently.
A week's recess from all classes was declared. All students were asked to don black armbands, to put black streamers on their car antennae, and to descend in groups to the Kudamm and other central points of the citythere, carrying poles flying black streamers, they were to engage the citizenry of Berlin in a prolonged public discussion of what had happened. They were to discuss the matter with whoever came along and wanted to talk, and they were to keep discussingyes, diskutieren, the very verb I have mocked elsewhere in this bookuntil no one was left to discuss with any longer. They were to avoid being provoked by their fellow citizens and they were to restrain themselves from any further radical action until the results of this plan could be gauged.
Chapter 16: The German Mind Explodes
Berlin, June, 1967
To say that the next two or three weeks in Berlin were one of the most exciting periods I have lived through is necessarily an understatement. A variety of political dangers was unleashed by the events of June 2, and it was impossible not to feel that the Pandora's box of past German politics had been opened as well. The forces of the extreme left and the extreme right were both very much in evidence. The entire German nation was forced to take a close look at the demons of its past, which were all too visibly still alive in the present. I believe the vast majority of Germans were repelled by what they saw during those weeks and took a first, haltingalmost lurchingstep away from the past and towards a slightly more liberal future.
This is of course precisely the opposite of what happened when America was to encounter its own demons at Kent State three years later. Until June 2, I somehow had, the feeling that what I was watching in Germany could only be a pale carbon copy of what was going on in America. But after that date, I was to gain increasingly the uncanny sensation that what I was watching in Berlin just might be the original, while what was to happen in America, France, England, and elsewhere took on the feeling of rough carbon copies. Herman Kahn and others have observed that student, protest movements abroad were largely an imitation of our Viet Nam demonstrations. I believe this view is fundamentally mistakenthe Europeans had their own grievances and their own profound historical and psychological grounds for demonstrating, even in those few cases when the subject was Viet Nam.
[This chapter has been abridged pending publication...]
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