“We suddenly had the courage to question authority”
For the head of AStA and, later, the State Secretary for Science and Research in Berlin, Knut Nevermann, the German student movement began in 1966.
Jul 21, 2017
In the 1960s, Freie Universität Berlin was the center of the student movement in West Germany. On board was Knut Nevermann, who, at 22 years old, was voted to become the head of the General Students’ Committee (AStA) at Freie Universität Berlin and, in this role, organized events such as discussions and protests. After graduation and years of working in academia, he held different high-ranking positions as a public servant, among others, in the German Federal Chancellery and as the State Secretary for Science and Research in the Berlin Senate Administration. In an interview, he thinks back on an eventful time.
Mr. Nevermann, you were in your early 20s when the student movement began. If you had to explain it to a young person today, what characterized the core of the student movement?
That we suddenly had the courage to question authority – to challenge it, as we said back then. That we even dared to argue with authority, with professors, with the university administration, and with the policies – that impressed many.
Which event, in your opinion, marked the beginning of the student movement in Germany?
In Berlin, specifically it was the sit-in on June 22nd, 1966, in the Henry Ford Building of Freie Universität. That was the first sit-in and teach-in at a Germany university – we knew about this type of protest from American universities. As the head of AStA back then, I helped organize the sit-in – in doing so, we violated the rules in a way that had never been done before. The students filled the entire lobby of the Henry Ford Building; President Hans-Joachim Lieber was summoned and later appeared. Speeches were held until one in the morning, and there were never-ending discussions about student interests and university policies.
Why did the students start to rebel to begin with?
A major issue was the expulsion of students, as we called it. Completely unexpectedly for us, the university administration decided that student admission should be limited in time – for a standard period of study plus two semesters, as we would describe it today. We were extremely angry about that. What also drove us to rebel was the geopolitical event, the Vietnam War. In February of 1966, thousands demonstrated in Berlin against the war. Eggs were thrown at the Amerika-Haus on Hardenbergstrasse, which was a huge provocation in what was then West Berlin. After all, we were all sincerely grateful to the Americans for allowing us to live in freedom. The demonstration brought a tremendous response from the media. And that showed us that we were part of a worldwide protest movement.
In the Federal Republic of Germany there was also unrest in other university cities, but, in West Berlin, the situation became especially tense. What was the reason for that?
It was very clearly the city’s insular location, behind the Iron Curtain, and being a separate entity from both German states. Red flags on Ku’damm, the most famous avenue in West Berlin, and demonstrations against America in West Berlin had a completely different meaning than they did in Munich or Hamburg. You can’t forget the simple fact that students drove to the mountains in Munich at the weekend to go hiking or skiing. Even in Hamburg and Frankfurt, the students were often not there at the weekend. In West Berlin back then, it wasn’t that easy to just leave the city for the day or the weekend. That led to a critical mass of people in the city. And they gladly participated in demonstrations; you could participate actively and also learn a lot.
At first you knew about new forms of protest from the USA. How did you start exchanging information between European cities?
We received an inquiry from the student council of the Paris Sorbonne University in 1966; in Berlin, there was so much going on that others heard about it and wanted to know just how we did things. We then invited a French delegation to a seminar in the summer of 1967. The so-called Berlin model, which only existed as a “community of teachers and learners,” was something special in Germany.
Fifty years ago, in June of 1967, Benno Ohnesorg was shot and killed by a police officer in civilian clothes, Karl-Heinz Kurras, in front of the German Opera at a demonstration against the Persian Shah. How did you experience the death of a student?
We never thought it was possible that a person could die at a demonstration. It was completely unthinkable, indeed, incomprehensible. I was not in front of the German Opera; I drove to AStA around 10 p.m. Then some demonstrators came by to tell us about what happened. What they reported blew us away. On the radio, right around this time, we heard an announcement through a megaphone that a police officer has been stabbed to death by demonstrators. Later that night around one in the morning, the Governing Mayor of Berlin, Heinrich Albertz, said, “The city’s patience has reached its end.” I was thunderstruck by that. We never thought that police officers would enter the demonstration with firearms – we were completely unarmed. Back then, if anything, eggs and bags of flour were thrown.
In April of 1968, there was an attempt on the life of a student from Freie Universität, Rudi Dutschke. That drove thousands to the streets of West Berlin.
That terrible act brought everyone back together again. The following protests on Easter Monday were a high point in the student movement and, at the same time, the beginning of its end. In November, there was a fight on Tegeler Weg with many people injured, many more on the side of the police than on the side of the demonstrators – even though there had not been any provocations by the police. After the wild fights, there was a meeting at the Technical University, where many of those present thought we were in a revolutionary situation – what a delusion! That divided the student body. Many withdrew from the political protests and completed their studies.
When you look back on the time 50 years ago, which positive developments came from it all? What were some mistakes?
If you think back to how hundreds of thousands of people participated in the Easter Peace Marches of the late 1950s, there were comparatively fewer in the student movement. However, it was a generational experience. Political, anti-authoritarian dedication was “in.” And that remained effective in the reinvigorated women’s movement, in the later citizens’ initiatives, in the anti-nuclear movement, in the protests against building up military power, in the new environmental party, the Greens: The lasting politicization and anti-authoritarianism are effects or “results” of the student movement and certainly contributed to the long-lasting liberalization and pluralization of the Federal Republic of Germany. On the other hand, we made some mistakes by alienating people we could have worked with. Liberals were more strongly opposed by the left than conservatives. What we definitely recognized too late was the danger in militancy and violence. I personally underestimated all the discussions about violence against people versus violence against objects. We used to say, “What’s the harm in a few eggs thrown at the Amerika-Haus in comparison with napalm bombs being thrown at children in Vietnam?” That was our line of argumentation, but it was wrong. This type of argument lowers the threshold to violence.
As an alumnus, how do you see Freie Universität today?
There were, to a certain degree, chaotic circumstances in several academic departments all the way into the 1970s, partly as a result of the student movement. Overcoming them was a huge task at Freie Universität. After the reunification of the city, there were dramatic cutbacks in both the former eastern and western districts all throughout the entire public sector, which was affiliated with great pain and anxiety. In the 1990s, the universities faced immense cuts.
Freie Universität worked very hard to avoid being closed down completely and to make the best out of its strengths and resources. Following the big rounds of cutbacks, at the beginning of the new millennium, the leaders of Freie Universität made a very wise decision, ultimately saying: We do not define ourselves based on size, but rather on our strengths. We want to become excellent in our teaching and research. The university succeeded in doing this: Despite the overwhelming obligations of the recent past, Freie Universität has become an outstanding university of excellence, not only among German universities, but also in comparison with international academic institutions.
More historical pictures on the student movement in Berlin can be found in the original German version of the interview. You can also listen to an audio file with Knut Nevermann’s eulogy after the death of Benno Ohnesorg (in German).