If it is true that there is never a completely uneventful year, it is also true that some years are pivotal in the course of world history. 1968 belongs to this category. It cannot be brushed off as a series of nightly scuffles between students and police in Paris’ Latin Quarter, while “the rest of France yawned of boredom” (to revisit the phrase coined by Le Monde journalist Pierre Viansson-Pontet). 1968 was witness to numerous events that, with painful cries, introduced us to the world we know now.
From “the Sixties” to 1968
1968 in fact started with “the Sixties”. The decade was ripe with change. The Cuban missile crisis gave the world chills in 1962, John Fitzgerald Kennedy was assassinated in 1963, and the Watts riots shocked a largely puritan United States in 1965. Times were changing on a global scale: the USA was stuck in Vietnam and the Six Day War rocked the Middle East in June 1967.
Rock and roll and the hippie counter culture were born. New times called for new ways, and young Englishmen traded tea time for LSD. In 1967, the city of San Francisco experienced the strange “Summer of Love” when more than 100,000 students and beatnik artists descend upon the Haight-Ashbury neighbourhood (“Invasion of the Flower Children”, the front page of the San Francisco Chronicle declared) in multi-colour clothes and ingesting a wide variety of psychotropic drugs
All of the unruly energy of the Sixties culminated in the spring of 1968. Two directions, two movements pulled at the world’s balance: The West entered a period of rapid social and political change, while the East entered a phase marked by poisonous constriction – signalling the beginning of the slow decomposition of the Communist block in Europe.
Georges Mink, research director at the Sciences-Po university in Paris, commented in the newspaper Le Monde: “In the end, for the West, May ‘68 ended with vacations, but also with a progress in traditions and academic institutions in step with the spirit of the event, while in the East the year 1968 led to a long and costly period of wandering in the desert.”
The East tightens its grip
From East to West, student uprisings sparked larger events. In Poland, the regime had begun a program of censorship, but in early 1968, the banning of a play considered to go against Soviet doctrine provoked student anger.
The government decided to employ a forceful response. The purge turned into a settling of scores, taking on an anti-Semitic tone, and paved the way for rise of General Wojciech Jaruzelski, the last leader of Communist Poland.
In Czechoslovakia, the restraint (or “socialism with a human face”) introduced at the start of 1968 by Alexander Dubcek ended in a bloodbath on Aug. 21. The Prague Spring was silenced by the Warsaw Pact and Soviet troops. The USSR did not tolerate liberalization in politics, such as freedom of the press, of speech and of movement.
The West opens up
While the Eastern governments cracked down on the movements in their countries, a world away there was a different reaction. At the start of 1968, the Federal Republic of Germany — West Germany — students were rebelling against social customs on university campuses. “Down with academic authoritarianism” and “power to the students”, they shouted.
The days when Chancellor Ludwig Erhard could appease students with the line, “prosperity is for everyone,” were over. The protesters raised numerous demands, including an end to their father’s silence about the Second World War and Nazism, and for the modernization of society. An attempt on the life of student leader Rudi Dutschke on April 11 was the catalyst. Five thousand people marched on the Springer Press Group’s building in Berlin, and the editor of Bild was accused of spreading false information about the student movements.
No Western country was spared violent events. In the United States, Martin Luther King, a Baptist minister and civil rights leader, was assassinated at a Memphis motel on April 4, 1968. It was a tremendous shock to Americans. Student movements became very agitated, and the state of California burned with anger during the summer. Clashes broke out between police and students at the University of California in Berkeley. Ronald Reagan, then the state’s governor, even declared a state of emergency. Curfew was set for everyone.
In France, this wave of popular reaction was no different. France’s May ‘68 is famous for its revolts, barricades, general strikes and factory occupations.
We know much less, however, about the riots that also shook Japan. Japanese students protested against the Vietnam War and US foreign policy. They also called for social change at home by occupying universities and taking over the streets.
Across the Pacific Ocean, Mexico was to host the Olympic Games. President Diaz Ordaz refused to let his authority be questioned, especially when Latin America was about to host its first Olympics. But students would not relent and demanded greater liberty. Battles with police multiplied and intensified. On October 2, 1968, the governor fired on a crowd of more than 10,000 students in Mexico City’s Plaza de las Tres Culturas in the Tlatelolco neighborhood. Hundreds were killed. The following day, renowned Italian journalist Oriana Fallaci wrote, “It is the first time in my career that I see soldiers shoot at a defenceless and unarmed crowd.”