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The Restless Sixties

“People should not have been surprised”

München, 11/06/2017

In Germany the term “68ers” is popularly used as to refer to the left-wing student protesters who in the 1960s - at the height of the Cold War - demonstrated against the American interventions in Vietnam and Cuba, and against their parents’ generation. But the term is misleading, for political protest by the young generation, mainly students, began long before 1968 and wasn’t always inspired by leftist ideals. In the following interview, Professor Kurt Faltlhauser, who would later serve as CSU Finance Minister in the State Government of Bavaria, recalls his term of office as Chairman of the Students Union at LMU in 1964-65.

In his capacity as Chairman of the AStA, Kurt Faltlhauser speaks before a packed crowd in the Atrium of LMU’s Main Building on July 1st 1965.

Professor Faltlhauser, in the 1960s you were a student of Economics at the Free University of Berlin before transferring to LMU. Were students in Berlin more politicized than those in Munich?
Kurt Faltlhauser:
Certainly. The politicization of students at the FU set in long before any comparable process began at LMU. During the Winter Semester of 1963-64 there were ugly scenes there which, in my view, had nothing to do with the articulation of political convictions, and included physical attacks on lecturers and disruption of their classes. I have far more positive memories of the many FU students who were among the so-called tunnel-diggers, who helped people to escape from East Germany.

Why did you return to your home town in 1964?
Above all, my decision was motivated by the adverse impression created by the sorts of experience I have just mentioned, and I was determined to ensure that nothing like that should occur at LMU. To do so, I had to become actively involved in student politics. That is why I put my name on a list of conservative candidates to the Council of the Students Union (AStA) and was elected Chairman of the AStA with a comfortable majority, ahead of the President of the AStA Council, Michael Naumann. Naumann would subsequently become Germany’s first Federal Minister of Culture and at that time he represented the left-liberal wing among the various students’ groups. Many students at LMU became progressively more radical, although this development did not proceed in a uniform manner. In fact, the pace and degree of radicalization was strongly dependent on the subjects one was studying.

faltlhauser_260_webIn 1964 and 1965 you served for a year as Chairman of the Students Union, which was dominated by conservatives. What were your principal demands?
The leftist student organizations had from the very beginning taken an emphatically political stance, making wide-ranging demands for an immediate end to US involvement in Vietnam and applauding China and the Soviet Union. We, on the other hand, wanted to focus on the immediate interests of students themselves. Not only was the University underfinanced, the students had little say in its affairs, and its organizational structures needed to be reformed. One of the problems that conservative student representatives faced was that the leftists were far more committed to activism and confrontation, and more agile in their activities, although they were in a minority in terms of numbers. One of the organizations that played an important role in this respect was the LSD – the Liberal German Students Union, which was actually on the extreme left of the political spectrum rather than being liberal in the classical sense. Indeed its massively disruptive actions ultimately led to the virtual takeover of even the Christian Democratic Students Ring (RCDS) by leftist students. At a meeting in the Weisses Bräuhaus we were able to put an end to that. At that point, the leadership of the governing CSU in Bavaria was already thinking of setting up a new conservative student organization in place of the RCDS.

And how did you as Chairman of the AStA respond to the dominance of the Left?
We worked to bring Catholic, Protestant and liberal-minded students together under the umbrella of the Munich Students Union – the MSU, which was a great success. We also organized several effective protests to draw attention to students’ grievances. One of these was the boycott of the Mensa (the Students Dining Hall) in the Summer Semester of 1965. The food on offer in the Mensa at that time was woefully bad. As a protest against the poor quality, we set up tables laden with donated provisions in front of the Main Building – with bananas on one, bread rolls on the next, and so on. Students were then allowed to help themselves at each of the tables on payment of 50 pfennigs, and we called on them to join the Mensa boycott. The management of the Mensa “retaliated” by putting chicken on the menu – for the first time. Most of the students supported the boycott, and the campaign aroused great interest in the media. But it ultimately failed, as there was no real improvement in the food available in the Mensa – although that was in part the fault of the people who ran the student administration. The so-called Aktion 1. Juli 1965 was much more successful. This was a nationwide protest against the “crisis in education” (Bildungsnotstand), which highlighted the critical shortcomings in the system of third-level education. At that time, neither the political parties nor society as a whole paid much attention to the issue of education. Our 10 core demands included calls for an upgrade in the political status of education in relation to other cabinet responsibilities, a national plan to reform the structure and financing of the universities and a nationwide system of financial support for students. I presented these demands in a speech I gave in the Atrium of the Main Building on July 1st 1965. Needless to say, the 4000 students who were there were heartily in favor of these measures. I had invited the Bavarian Minister for Culture, Dr. Ludwig Huber (CSU), to speak at the meeting – but he refused, and he went on to reject our draft proposal for a new University Law. This was a serious mistake on his part. Had he accepted the draft as a basis for discussion, the subsequent process of radicalization among leftist student organizations could perhaps have been avoided.

How did the leadership of the University react to these activities and demands? Did its members typify the “age-old staleness of academia” invoked by many students at the time?
During my time as Chairman of the AStA, our relationship with the University’s leadership was very good. The Rector, Julius Speer, was sympathetic and receptive to our demands. He later became President of the German Research Association (DFG) and in this capacity he was on the podium with me in the Atrium on July 1st 1965. I was also able to attend meetings of the University Senate, though I did not have voting rights. And Speer’s successor as Rector was also a good listener.

That sounds as if, at that point, all faculty members were on the side of the students?
The faculty at this time could basically be divided into four groups. The first consisted of the pragmatists, the people who were responsible for keeping things running. Rector Speer, for example, got students involved in the organization of the annual commemoration of the White Rose movement, and there were many other individuals of this sort. The second group was made up those who made common cause with the students, often to an embarrassing degree – as in the case of the Academy of Visual Arts. In doing so, these professors essentially isolated the Academy from the rest of the University. But there were also faculty members who aggressively opposed all student agitation. They regarded the university as a space reserved for education and research, in which political protest had no place. And finally there were those who simply tried to keep their heads down, an attitude which I viewed as problematic. Anyone who was unwilling to take sides at that time was either completely apolitical or irresponsible.

What impact did this period have on you? What lasting impressions did it leave behind?
What I experienced at LMU in the 1960s motivated me to enter politics. My committee work and my term of office as Chairman of the Students Union intensified my political awareness. I had the opportunity to nurture my skills as a speaker, debater and committee member. As Chairman I was the leader of a cabinet whose members were responsible for the various policy portfolios. We worked hard and creatively, and we were able to make progress and to get things done. Many of my contemporaries in the various student organizations later went into politics – Eberhard Diepgen, who was Chairman of the AStA during my time at the FU in Berlin, Wolfgang Roth and Michael Naumann, to name only a few.

Looking back, how do you view the student revolts of the 1960s and 1970s, as a disaster or a blessing?
The impact of the so-called 68ers – which is itself an oversimplification and therefore an imprecise and misleading term – on the development of West German society was not wholly negative. In the end, they contributed to the liberalization of the country. German society after the war was undeniably characterized by an air of immobility and a strong tendency toward the restoration of outdated attitudes and structures. So it was inevitable that the general approach to education, and the interactions between professors and their students, would provoke opposition. And the 68ers certainly played a part in breaking up these inflexible structures. As a conservative, I would not have summarized their contribution in these terms at the time but, as society was then constituted, people should not have been surprised by the developments that took place in the 1960s. Another positive result of the student protests – not just those of the radical Left – was that they succeeded in focusing the attention of the politicians and the public as a whole on the significance of the universities, the humanities and the sciences in education. This eventually led to a marked increase in the level of state support for universities – although in my view this came 5 years too late. It was in effect a response to the continuing political unrest at universities.

The disturbances and demonstrations also had an influence on how politics was practiced. The Federal election campaign of 1972 was the first in which representatives of the contending parties gave their stump speeches on the streets. I remember doing so myself on Kaufinger Strasse. The years around 1968 had a very significant effect, in both a positive and a negative sense, on those who experienced them at first hand. The ideological extremism cultivated in those years ultimately led to the terrorist actions of the Rote Armee Fraktion (RAF). One of my successors as Chairman of the AStA at LMU was Rolf Pohle, who was later involved in acquiring weapons for the RAF.

And what are your thoughts on the attitudes of today’s students and their contemporaries to politics?
As an Honorary Professor, I gave many lectures and held many seminars on Economics at LMU over a very long period. During all that time I was never once asked by students about my career in politics or the policies I followed as Bavarian Finance Minister. I can’t tell whether this lack of interest is typical for the majority of students, but I find it not only surprising but disturbing. Anyone who was at university in the 1960s can only view this degree of reserve in relation to politics as being far too tame and complacent.