1968 was a year of upheaval all over the globe. We’ve already seen what was going on in the Americas. This article is going to cover Western Europe. Most countries there have seen their own 1968 protests, but we’ll focus on two dramatic cases here: West Germany and France show the universal and the country-specific aspects of the upheavals well – and both of them are covered well in board games. Wir sind das Volk! (Richard Sivél/Peer Sylvester, Histogame) has all the German history of the Cold War and places a strong focus on social movements and unrest. Mai ’68 – Le jeu (François Nedelec/Duccio Vitale, La Folie Douce) deals specifically with the protests of May 1968 in Paris.
“More Democracy”: 1968 in West Germany
West Germany in the late sixties had not yet found a way to cope with the shadow of Nazism. The topic was ignored or swept under the rug whenever possible, both for the society as a whole and for individuals. As a result, many people who had held high-ranking posts in Nazi Germany still occupied positions of power afterward, be that in government, the judiciary, or business. On the other hand, democracy was still a young institution in West Germany and her citizens not quite used to it. Most Germans acted as subjects obedient to authority, not as active participants in the political sphere. The younger Germans born during or after the war resented the older generation for their psychological repression of the past as well as their sheepishness in the present.
Until the late sixties, the booming West German economy had provided ample material distractions from these political grievances. After the recession of the late 1960s, many young people chose politics over consumerism. But which politics? An embrace of Soviet-style socialism was out of the question. That system had delegitimized itself right under the eyes of the West Germans by the repression of their East German siblings. However, the American alternative rapidly lost its public standing due to the war in Vietnam. The German students searched for “Third Ways” – which they found in world views as diverse as anarcho-liberalism and Maoism. Theory-building and theory-debating remained an important part of the West German leftist student movement.
The movement was not all theory, however. The students took their cause also to the street. Especially West Berlin became a center of student activism and demonstrations which caused significant upheaval. Fittingly, the event cards concerned with the student movement in Wir sind das Volk! all create unrest in West Germany (sometimes specific to West Berlin). Together, these cards present a strong challenge to the West and make the 1960s the toughest decade for West Germany. Let’s tell our story along the lines of the three most important cards.
One of the first large demonstrations was held in West Berlin on June 2, 1967. The students protested the visit of the Iranian Shah, who had come to power after a CIA-backed coup and ruled as a dictator – a dictator, however, who was closely allied with the West. The peaceful protests against the visit were met with violence by a group of Shah supporters (consisting partially of members of the Iranian security forces) under the eyes of the West Berlin police. Later, the police joined the attack on the students, and in the evening, Benno Ohnesorg, one of the student protesters was fatally shot by a plainclothes policeman (who, as it turned out many years later, was an “unofficial collaborator” of the East German intelligence agency). However, the Berlin press (owned to large parts by the conservative Springer publishing house) declared the students had been the attackers and police and Iranians their victims.
Ohnesorg’s death acted as a catalyst for the protests, but it remained a singular event. As a larger political movement, the protests gained steam when they turned against the planned Emergency Acts. In 1968, West Germany was governed by a “Grand Coalition” of Christian Democrats and Social Democrats who represented more than 90% of the seats in parliament. This hypermajority allowed the coalition to pass wide-ranging legislation – like their plan to give the federal government more power in case of a war, uprising, or natural disaster. Leftists and liberals feared this might lead to excessive executive power and pave the way to a potential authoritarian rule. As the small parliamentary opposition of the Free Democrats was unable to stop the Acts, the protesters declared themselves the “Extra-Parliamentary Opposition”. Despite large-scale protests, the Acts passed in May 1968.
The Springer newspapers had denounced these protests as well and called for tough measures against the students, bordering on a call for vigilante justice. The polarization in West Berlin between supporters of the protests and supporters of law and order politics grew. Finally, on April 11, 1968, Rudi Dutschke, the most famous spokesman of the students, was shot and severely wounded by a right-wing extremist who had read one of the Springer newspapers before. As with Ohnesorg’s death a year before, the assassination attempt sparked counter-protests, and the student movement reached its maximum mobilization capacity.
The West German student movement slowly petered out after these events. They neither had somebody to lead them (as Dutschke kept a lower profile after the attack) nor something to fight against (the Emergency Acts had been passed and seemed unlikely to be reversed). The following year, reformist politics reconciled many of the moderate protesters with the state again: A new coalition of Social Democrats and Free Democrats, led by Willy Brandt, implemented wide-ranging measures for more civil rights and social programs under the label “Take a Chance on More Democracy”.
Only a minority of West Germans fully sympathized with the student protesters. Many more were either against them or indifferent. Therefore, in Wir sind das Volk! West Germany rarely collapses under the mass protests of the 1960s. The possibility alone. however, is a strong threat – especially coupled with the economic troubles West Germany often encounters in the 1970s in the game. And it’s this threat that forces West players to act less aggressively than they would like in the 1960s – and often gives East Germany the breathing room to consolidate and survive until the end.
”Under the Paving Stones, the Beach”: 1968 in France
While West Germany’s “1968” protests already begun with Ohnesorg’s death in 1967 and ended with the Brandt administration in 1969, France had all its most important events crammed into the space of a few weeks around May 1968. The month remains legendary within and outside of France. Surprisingly, these most famous of protests began with a rather trivial matter: The dorm rooms of the Paris universities were strictly divided by gender, and some male students demanded to be allowed to enter the female dorm buildings – a demand that was met with derision by the French authorities.
While sexual urges certainly can be powerful (and possibly never more than in the 1960s sexual revolution), it took a very special individual to turn such a matter into a nationwide uprising. This unlikely leader was a student called Daniel Cohn-Bendit, born in France as the son of German Jewish parents who had fled from the Nazis. Despite this family history, Cohn-Bendit had accepted German citizenship to avoid conscription in France. Unlike many of the student activists, Cohn-Bendit was no socialist, but rather influenced by libertarian and anarchist thought. His unconventional world view allowed him to bring all kinds of leftists and liberals together – and even make the movement so universal that it attracted support from both the students intent on more individual liberties and self-expression and the workers who were primarily concerned with wage increases and better labor conditions.
When the students temporarily occupied university buildings in May 1968, the reaction of the authorities was of the same unsubtle kind as that of other countries: Police forces cleared the streets with their batons. The ham-fisted reaction, however, only drew more supporters to the protests, especially from the working class. Around May 10 and May 13, heavy street-fighting ensued in Paris. The protesters erected barricades, and a whiff of the French revolutionary tradition was in the air.
This is the starting point of Mai ’68 – Le jeu. The game depicts one day and one night of street fighting between the students and the authorities. The board is made up of a jigsaw puzzle of street tiles. Flipping these tiles is the central mechanism of the game: The flipped tiles (whose backsides are inscribed with iconic slogans of the student movement, for example “Il est interdit d’interdire” – “It is forbidden to forbid”) are turned into barricades. At the same time, removing them from their original position reveals (piece by piece) a beach scene set in Paris, referencing the most famous of these slogans: “Sous les pavés, la plage” – “Under the paving stones, the beach”. Originally, this slogan comes from the removal of stones from the pavement to be used as missiles in the street fights – which then revealed the sand under the stones. The game thereby adopts the student perspective that violent struggle (barricades and throwing stones) and utopia (slogans and the beach scene) are two sides of the same coin – and all of that meaning is captured by a single mechanism. Talk about elegant and thematically rich design.
As the students and the workers joined forces, 10 million French went on strike. The country – and especially Paris – came to an economic standstill. This took the old forces on the left and right by surprise: The labor unions were not involved in the strikes and had advocated for their traditional policy of slow but steady progress. The French Communist Party was shocked by the alliance between the workers and the students (who usually came from more affluent families) and resorted to rely on anti-German (and anti-Semitic!) sentiments regarding Cohn-Bendit to get their working-class supporters in line again. On the right, President de Gaulle fled to the military forces stationed in Baden-Baden (Germany) and discussed contingency plans with the generals as he was convinced a coup against him was imminent.
Prime Minister Georges Pompidou took charge in Paris. He offered a deal to the workers that included a sweeping 35% increase of the minimum wage, other wage increases and even a partial reimbursement for pay lost due to strikes. While the workers rejected the offer at first, more and more came around to accept it when the strikes continued and life became more difficult. The worker-student alliance broke apart. Workers and students were united, however, in their dissatisfaction with the leftist parties. De Gaulle took advantage of this and dissolved the National Assembly to enforce a political decision. His camp won a landslide victory in the parliamentary elections of June 1968 and took more than 80% of the seats in the National Assembly.
Yet after the events of May 1968, a return to the status quo was not possible anymore. De Gaulle resigned from the presidency less than a year later when his proposal for constitutional reform had been repudiated in a referendum. More significantly in the long run, the French Left split. The heirs of the students are concerned with personal freedoms and civil rights and have an internationalist outlook (“New Left). The heirs of the workers think more about the material well-being of the people within the nation-state (“Old Left”). This split also took place in many other countries and is a major factor until today. The core constituency of the “Old Left”, however, has often shifted its political identification: The prime trait is no longer class (identifying as workers), but rather nationality (identifying as French, British, American…). This identity shift has helped conservative or right-wing politicians to win the votes of (white) workers by appealing to their identity as members of their nation: Margaret Thatcher in Britain and Ronald Reagan in the US paved the way in the 1980s. Today, Donald Trump and Marine Le Pen (of the French Rassemblement National, until May 2018: Front National) do well with the (white) working class. The Left remains divided between focusing on matters of civil liberties and economics.
The Mixed Legacy of 1968 in Western Europe
As in the Americas, 1968 was no victory for the Western European Left, but the results were more mixed. France showed both the potential power of a united Left and the limitations of such a movement in practice. In Germany, on the other hand, the much more limited protests helped to elect a new government and bring about a more open, liberal, and democratic society. In the next (and final) post of this 1968 mini-series, we’ll have a look at the 1968 upheavals in Communist countries.
Mark Kurlansky gives a collage of the events, focused on how much they were globally inspiring each other in 1968: The Year that Rocked the World, Random House, New York City, NY 2005.
Jeremi Suri’s account of the upheavals focuses on the governments implementing policy against their own constituents: Suri, Jeremi: Power and Protest. Global Revolution and the Rise of Détente, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA/London 2003.
The verdict that Germans in the 1960s still had a subject-style rather than a citizen-style civic culture is from Almond, Gabriel A./Verba, Sidney: The Civic Culture. Political Attitudes and Democracy in Five Nations, Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ 1963.
1. The grand revolution of 1789, the July Revolution of 1830, the March Revolution of 1848, the Paris Commune of 1871 – pick your favorite.