When Christian Democratic Youth Read Herbert Marcuse

In this conversation conducted by Vilius Kubekas, Anna von der Goltz discusses her recent book The Other ‘68ers: Student Protest and Christian Democracy in West Germany (Oxford University Press, 2021). The conversation touches on how 1968 was experienced by center-right student activists in West Germany; their intellectual influences; how they dealt with the Nazi past; the conservative brand of feminism that they embraced; and the legacies that the combativeness of student protest left on German Christian Democracy.

Anna von der Goltz teaches German and European History in Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service and Department of History. Her research focuses on German cultural and political history in the twentieth century and on protest around 1968 in Germany and beyond.

Vilius Kubekas: Let’s start from the relationship between Christian Democracy and the center-right students’ activism in the 1960s. Since the establishment of the Federal Republic in 1949, Christian Democrats have been a predominant political force. Center-right students nonetheless took part in student protests. You start your book by pointing out that center-right activists participated in the famous debate between Ralf Dahrendorf and Rudi Dutschke in January 1968. With Christian Democrats in power, why did students coming from conservative backgrounds decide to take part in the student protest movements? How did they view Christian Democracy?

Anna von der Goltz: That famous debate between Dutschke and Dahrendorf in January 1968 in Freiburg is indeed the starting point of my first chapter. I think it’s important to point out that center-right students didn’t just participate but they were instrumental in making it all happen in the first place. They even owned the car on which the debate took place and were later cropped from photographs that originally showed them. My book in some ways is an attempt to write them back into the story and to restore them to the central place I think they had, at least in some of the key events.

But the question of why young Christian Democrats, who are traditionally known more for their political moderation and their conservative deference, participated in this anti-authoritarian moment when their own mother party was still in government is a great question. In some ways their willingness to question the status quo highlights that student activists were a seismograph of developments that were slowly becoming visible elsewhere.

The Christian Democrats at this point had been forced to enter into a grand coalition with the Social Democrats in 1966 . Social Democracy was in some ways clearly ascendent. There was a sense that Christian Democrats had run out of intellectual steam, certainly since the late Adenauer era; especially in the post-Adenauer era, there was a sense that they were no longer addressing the pressing questions of the day.

After those decades, they entered a period of internal crisis and reorientation and eventually did lose their political majority in 1972. I think student activists anticipated this shift in some ways with their critique of the role of Christian Democracy in the West German system overall.

The other answer is that it was reactive. At this point, a left-wing revolt was getting underway in the universities: a critique of the hierarchical structures of higher education, of the political system overall, a revolt against the authoritarian residues in German society at large, against the war in Vietnam, in which the Federal Republic supported the US, and so forth. All of this was getting a lot of media attention and really driving the conversation on campus, and I think Christian Democratic students had no choice but to position themselves and. They did that first by participating in some of the events and taking part in debates and so forth, but always championing reform of the system rather than a revolutionary overthrow, of course, and then over time they increasingly resisted the left, so there was a bit of a shift.

Just a few decades earlier, in the 1930s, it was quite common for Catholic activists  to read Papal encyclicals, Leo XIII and Pius XI, and to have some knowledge of theology and of the major Catholic thinkers of their day. However, it seems that this was not the case in the 1960s. In your book, there seem to be hardly any references to that. Would you care to reflect on this difference and tell a bit about which thinkers and texts served for center-right youth as an inspiration for their student activism?

I think it was indeed a major difference to the earlier period. I myself was quite struck by the absence of explicitly theological references in most of their writings, which is of course not to say religion didn’t play any role. Most of the activists I looked at were socialized in confessional schools and had been part of confessional youth groups and so forth. Christian Democracy was a sort of natural political home for them as a result.

But the 1960s was an era of growing secularism in West Germany. Church ties really loosened en masse among West German citizens and especially amongst the youth. Traditional confessional milieus had really eroded since the 1950s, and in this context young Christian Democrats felt that appeals to the Christian foundations of Christian Democracy were no longer enough to reinvigorate the party and the intellectual movement as a whole. So, they didn’t look back to the writings of earlier Catholic thinkers quite so much, or even to conservative intellectuals, for inspiration.

Interestingly, they turned to liberal philosophers, notably Ralf Dahrendorf, whose works were very much part of the wider public conversation in the 1960s. 

They called for the democratization of German society from below through educational institutions and socializing institutions (schools, universities, and so forth).

Later, they increasingly turned to one of Dahrendorf’s former teachers from the London School of Economics, Karl Popper, whose ideas of the open society and critical rationality became central to their thinking, especially in the 1970s. This was a time when it was much more about resisting the Left, and I think this critique of ideological fixation that Popper advances was quite important for them. 

One of Popper’s quotations, “the attempt to create heaven on earth invariably produces hell,” was sort of the motto of Christian Democratic students in the 1970s.

But they also expended a significant amount of time on engaging with the philosophy of their opponents, so they read quite a few New Left works. They read Herbert Marcuse for instance, and in some ways shared elements of his critique of the affluent society and the ways in which it had stifled human creativity.

Overall, they were critical of the methods the New Left advocated to change this, but I think this engagement was important in helping them to work out what they were against as well. It’s kind of a two-fold story.

It was interesting to read about how people from the Center-Right and the Left were studying in the same universities, were participating in the same seminars and reading the same authors, but when it came to politics, their views clearly diverged.

One aspect of the intergenerational conflict, as you point out in your book, concerned the views on the recent German past. We know quite well that the post-war Christian Democrats avoided addressing the Nazi past, not to mention the fact that Christian Democracy provided the way for former fascists to rebrand themselves as a respectable Right. This was the case not only in Germany, but also in places like Italy or Austria.

What were the views of members of this new generation of the Center-Right in Germany on the demise of the Weimar democracy and the Nazi past? How did they link this recent history of Germany with their own experiences, having grown up essentially amidst the ruins in post-war Germany?

That’s another important question. The issue of the Nazi past is of course central to much of the literature on the West German 1960s. Especially works that concern the Left show in detail that socialist students really saw their struggle against the West German system as almost a form of delayed anti-fascist resistance, as a form of restitution, almost, making up for the fact that older Germans had failed to resist and been complicit in genocide.

I think that resisting the fascist threat in the present, and dealing with the Nazi past, meant something quite different to center-right activists. It meant preventing the collapse of liberal democracy, another Weimar – a reference to the collapse of Weimar democracy in the early 1930s. It meant preventing this collapse by bolstering the Federal Republic’s character as a militant democracy.

A militant democracy was one that was vigilant against its internal enemies on the Left and Right. It was coined by a German emigre legal scholar, Karl Loewenstein, who ended up in the United States. This was quite an influential concept in the early Cold War, and central to how center-right activists viewed what they were doing. It meant that they increasingly saw their own struggle against left-wing students on campus as connected to the threat against democracy in the early 1930s, a replay of the rise of the Nazis.

The anti-totalitarian logic of the Cold War also played a key role in framing what they were doing. Totalitarian theory of course held that communism and fascism were twin evils, that each of them was intent on achieving total domination over their subjects. It was a really powerful intellectual framework in the Federal Republic. Left-wing students very much rejected it, but for center-right students it was at the core of how they viewed the wider world. This also shaped how they related their own stories and their family histories to their campus activism in the 1960s.

In the oral history interviews I did for the book and in their various autobiographical accounts, former student activists usually invoked events from their childhood and youth that symbolized communist repression. They talked about the June uprising in East Germany in 1953. They mentioned the Hungarian uprising in 1956. They talked about the construction of the Berlin Wall in 1961. About family members imprisoned by the Soviets as prisoners of war, and so forth. These are very much life stories that highlight the theme of a struggle against communism and communist repression.

The Nazi past was often subsumed under this umbrella of anti-totalitarianism. That is not to say it was not present, but it was present in a very different form from the one we know from autobiographical writings of left-wing activists: it was very much about combating the socialist and communist threat in the present as a form of making up for the Nazi past.

I have been curious about the changing gender roles in German society, a question that has struck me from the moment I started reading your book. In the acknowledgments you note the difference between your mother, who was center-left in her political leanings, and your uncle, who was conservative. It seemed to me that there was certain gender dynamics involved in their differences. Later on, you note that in the 1960s in Catholic schools girls were still taught that politics were “unfeminine.” And yet, young women were present among center-right activists. Could you discuss female students’ experiences as student activists? Why did they turn to student politics in the first place? How did they help to fashion perceptions on gender roles and female sexuality among the Center-Right?

It’s important to acknowledge that center-right student groups were very much male dominated, so most of the leading activists were men and it was quite an emphatically masculine world. If you look at their imaginations of themselves as sort of warriors against the Left, and later on when they talked about themselves as veterans in this campus struggle, there was a very clear masculine coding of a lot of this activism, but there were indeed some women. I was really struck by the extent to which they actually were interested in the ideas of second-wave feminism and took some of these constructivist readings of gender roles on in their own writings.

To give an example, in 1969 there was an article – that I also cite in the book – which talked about the overcoming of authoritarian patriarchal structures. It said that emancipation did not equal revolution, shouldn’t be left to extremists on the Left, and so forth. There was a lot of language in such articles that directly drew on thinkers like Simone de Beauvoir. I was struck by the fact that this entered their political lexicon fairly early, already in the late 1960s.

By the 1970s, some of these pieces were critiquing the sexualization of women in advertising, critiquing their male peers for talking about women’s physical attributes, and so forth. And they were also writing about subjective experiences of young conservative women and the trouble they were having with conservative men who were uneasy with this new confidence.

I think there was a legacy of this through the 1980s when the Christian Democrats were back in power and made women’s equality a central plank of their effort to project more social liberalism, as it were. There was, by conservative standards, a famously progressive Minister of Women and Family Affairs, Rita Süssmuth, at the time. She often quoted de Beauvoir, said she was her greatest role model, and so forth.

This really puzzled observers in the 1980s, especially observers on the Left who saw it as a cynical attempt to co-opt the feminist cause for conservative politics. But I think there actually is an interesting line of continuity from the late 1960s that explains some of this stuff, and in some ways helps us to grapple with the later success of Christian Democratic women, famously Angela Merkel, but also a figure like Ursula von der Leyen. There’s a sort of conservative feminism here that I think hasn’t really received the attention it deserves.

Even though this isn’t the main subject of my book, it comes into it, and I think it’s something that is really worth exploring further.

The rise of the student movements coincided with, and was partly a reaction to, international developments: the US-led Vietnam War or the decolonization movements around the globe. You note in the book that “the West German center-right had its own mental map of the world.” Would you mind explaining how this map looked like? How did the center-right students differ, if they differed at all, in their views on international politics from an older generation of Christian Democrats who had been in power for so long?

Let me start by saying that I think in recent years, scholars working on the 1960s really emphasized the Europeanism of the 1960s. There has been a lot of work on the European 1960s, and some have really portrayed the ‘68ers of the Left as vanguards of European integration, as a generation that anticipated the coming together of the previously divided continent after 1989. But I think the Left’s imagination in the 1960s itself was actually far more global than continental. Europe wasn’t really a central category.

That was quite different for the center-right. 

I think their mental maps actually were more continental than those on the Left – transatlantic too, but definitely also more continental –in that Europe was a more salient theme in their writing, and they also thought much more about overcoming European divisions. 

Their habitual anti-communism, and a belief in evolutionary change, made them regard, for instance, East European dissidents more favorably in some ways than those on the Left who were always a bit suspicious of what they perceived as Easterners’ political timidity.

This means that the mental maps were shaped by this desire to overcome Europe’s division, also maintaining close ties to the United States, whom they supported in the war in Vietnam. I think they differed from older Christian Democrats in their more relaxed, or one might say more pragmatic, attitudes towards state socialist regimes. Their anti-communism was not as sharp and aggressive as it might have been in the 1950s. They were quite on board, for instance, with Willy Brandt’s Ostpolitik. Not every aspect of it, but in general they favored a more pragmatic attitude towards state socialist regime.

Looking at this more closely, their version of internationalism and their mental maps are important because it is this version of internationalism that wins out in the longer run. If we strip this assessment of some of the political baggage that a lot of debates on the 1960s carry, it is hard to dispute because state socialism obviously collapsed in 1989. There was a reformer in the Kremlin who played a big role, and Europe’s division was overcome, and capitalist liberal democracy won. This was a version of the world that the center-right was very comfortable with. For a lot of people, certainly on the West German Left, this was far more difficult to accept and more of a political disappointment.

I think understanding these continuities and these ways of thinking about the world is crucial. These are also developments that Christian Democrats really shaped. A lot of these former activists by the late 1980s were in positions of political power. One figure in my book, Horst Teltschik, who was a student activist in West Berlin in the 1960s, was Helmut Kohl’s Chief Foreign Policy Advisor, and really shaped Kohl’s European politics and his approach to unification. This is in some ways a story of sixties student activists leaving their mark on the world in ways I think we haven’t sufficiently understood.

At a certain point you note that center-right student leaders and radical socialist activists were quite fond of each other. Yet, in some of your chapters you discuss the “combative politics” of student movements and the adversities between different ideological camps during the 1970s. What were the main differences between Center-Right and the Left in their views on democracy and the Federal Republic, and what did center-right activists actually learn from their encounters with the students on the Left? 

Yes, this is a development I chart in the book. In the mid- to late 1960s there was really a diffused feeling of generational solidarity – there was a bit of a sense that this was a moment where students were on the move and on different sides of the political spectrum, but in some ways debating similar issues. The people I interviewed who were active in the mid- to late 1960s often told me that their relationships with activists on the Left were actually quite personal, fairly close. In some ways, it was a playful competition.

This changed very much after 1969, when the key group in West German student politics on the Left, the SDS, dissolved, and at the national level Christian Democrats were now out of office – it was the first time in the post-war period that the Social Democrats were in the chancellery and led the country. And this resulted in a massive trauma, a sense that the world had turned upside-down; it was a major crisis of hegemony for Christian Democrats. I think this, in conjunction with the transformation of student politics and the emergence of more radical left-wing splinter groups on campus, created a completely different climate and sharpened the dividing lines between the Center-Right and the student Left.

By the 1970s, campus politics looked very different, which is why there’s a chapter in the book called “Combative Politics.” By this point, it was more of an existential struggle and sometimes physical confrontation, and a lot of that playfulness of the earlier period had subsided.

In terms of the basic difference in how they viewed democracy: one could put it plainly and say center-right students wanted reform while they thought that overall, the system was the right one. It needed some improvements, there ought to be greater democratic participation, more intellectual debate, more contact with citizens and so forth, but it was the right system. The Left, at this point, really wanted a more radical transformation and perhaps a revolutionary overthrow, so it was a pretty stark contrast in terms of how they viewed the status quo.

In terms of what they learned: I think it’s quite clear that the media savviness of the Left was something the activists I study admired and envied from the beginning. They also made efforts to take on effective communication in general. There was an explicitly theoretical turn in some of these student groups too, and an ambition to provide a conceptual grounding for their politics. A lot of these former activists ended up in roles that were about party strategy, political communication, and programmatic work.

As a final question, let me ask what do you see as the legacy of the “other ‘68ers” in Germany? Are they even remembered nowadays?

I certainly hope they will be remembered now, if they aren’t already, because of the book.

I think their involvement had real consequences. On a basic level, what I show is that they participated in ‘68 and shaped the debate in ‘68 in important ways, and also shaped the environment in which the Left operated. 

If we believe that ‘68 was a crucial moment in post-war German history, then they left an imprint just by having participated in this moment and having shaped events as they unfolded.

In a biographical way many of them followed quite illustrious careers in Christian Democratic politics. By the 1980s, the policy planning units and second tier of the Christian Democrat party was in some ways dominated by these figures. They shaped the character of the Kohl government which, in some sense, was rather confusing. It was really not the conservative restoration that a lot of critics of the Kohl government feared at the time. 

A few years after Kohl took power in 1982, there was a lot of debate about the contradictory character of his rule, and why the spiritual-moral change that he proclaimed when assuming power had not come to pass. I think the presence of the people that I examined goes some way towards explaining this, because they were more socially liberal, and they were also better at debating with their opponents.

I think if we want to understand the somewhat contradictory character of the Kohl years, these persons are important to understand and to study. The biggest legacy is probably to be found in the 1980s, and it is in the early years of Kohl’s chancellorship where we see this most clearly.

In collaboration with Hannah Vos and Ferenc Laczó.

Contact Us