views updated



The year 1968 constitutes a milestone in European history. It would be more precise to speak of "the years of 1968" because the events of that year have been expressed in so many different ways and given rise to so many interpretations. In terms of ruptures in the social, cultural, and political fields (the emergence of new players and sociopolitical hopes, new relations to knowledge, and so on) 1968 was diverse. But it was also unified and more than its premature diagnosis as a "cultural crisis"; it was a movement supported by an intellectual discourse and carried out by young people who had become historical actors on a global level. The continued resonance of 1968 in the collective imagination highlights the exceptional character of that year.


Attempts to explain the origins of 1968 have ranged from those that argue that the protests of 1968 were the genuine and inevitable result of the international transformations of the 1960s to others that treat the events as an unexpected thunderclap in a clear European sky. What did the diverse protest movements have in common? What were the national specifics of each?

The origins of 1968 also could be traced back to a university system ill equipped to handle the arrival of the baby-boom generation, along with the democratization of education and improvements in living standards (in France, there were 128,000 students in 1950 and 500,000 in 1968). Moreover, the social status of the students had changed: the majority of students no longer came from the upper classes but from the middle classes, and their parents could not afford to support them if they failed. European society, especially in the west, finally had to take into account changes that had taken place over two decades—such as an unprecedented prosperity that was now founded upon consumerism and the development of the service sector—and the kind of knowledge offered at the universities became a key to personal and social success. In fact, students, especially those who specialized in certain new, rapidly developing fields of study (such as the human sciences) without being assured of jobs, felt threatened by societal decline. Another factor was the war in Vietnam (1954–1975), the first conflict of which images were widely disseminated. During the Cold War, to defend the Vietnamese people or to support Fidel Castro in Cuba, Mao's Chinese Cultural Revolution, or Che Guevara's guerrilla activities was to reject American "imperialism." Awareness of the contrast between wealthy societies and the exploited third world became the motivation that allowed a university uprising to be transformed into a protest against capitalist society.

The protests in each European nation were also unique to that nation's history. In the Federal Republic of Germany at the end of the 1960s, tensions between young and old were exacerbated by the presence of American troops and the postwar generation's questioning of their parents' generation of wartime "perpetrators" (Täter). The trigger for unrest was the adoption of a plan, proposed in 1966 and hatched by the Grand Coalition between the Social Democrats (SDP) and the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), for special legislation allowing civil rights to be limited in a state of emergency. This legislation was required by the Western Allies in order to guarantee the safety of their troops stationed in Germany. The extraparliamentary opposition met in the German Socialist Student Union (SDS), a youth movement of dissidents from the SDP. The earliest protests took place in Frankfurt and at the Freie Universität in Berlin, which became the focal point for protests in 1967. Having a head start on movements in neighboring countries, West German protests culminated on 11 May 1968 with a giant demonstration in Bonn.

In France, the increasing politicization of students after the Algerian War (1954–1962), the influential role of their unions (the National Union of French Students), and the excessive personalization of government by an aging Charles de Gaulle (1890–1970) led to protests that expanded in concentric circles. First France faced a university crisis with massive student protests (the events of May 1968), then a social crisis with eight million on strike, and finally a political crisis that irrevocably shook the foundations of "your father's France."

The protests in Italy had similar causes, but they differed in the duration of the student uprisings, which began in Trento in 1966 and spread widely through several university centers (Pisa, Milan, Turin, Rome), continuing throughout 1968 and after ("the creeping May").

In some cases, the national context overshadowed international influences. Such was the case in Spain where continuing student opposition to Francisco Franco's government merged with the workers' movement. But this was also the case with the Czech and Polish movements, where the watchword at every social level was the democratization of the countries' communist regimes. The demands of the Czech students were aligned with the hope for a "socialism with a human face"—the aim of the Communist Party under Alexander Dubček. Thus the students did not resort to violence because those in power seemed to them to be allies, at least during the three phases of the "Prague Spring," which lasted from the resignation of the all-powerful Antonin Novotny from the post of first secretary of the party in January 1968 to the invasion of the Soviets on 20–21 August.

However much these movements may have been determined by their particular national logics, they were nonetheless in resonance with one another. Demonstrations ranged from those supporting the African American fight for civil rights in the United States to those against the assassination attempt on the German student leader Rudi Dutschke. Thus Daniel Cohn-Bendit was able to declare retrospectively that the generation of baby boomers was "the first to live globally, across a tide of sounds and images, both physically and every day" (Cohn-Bendit, p. 10; translated from the French).

In spite of the clearly intellectual origins and orientation of these movements, intellectuals participated less on the scene than as points of reference. It could even be said that in 1968 intellectuals ceased to take on the role of "spiritual advisors." Of course, the student movement was inspired by Karl Marx and Sigmund Freud, Jürgen Habermas and the Frankfurt School, but often only in order to critique them and even to reject them. Country by country, there were different engagements: Jean-Paul Sartre was with the students; AndréMalraux and Raymond Aron were advisors or spokespersons for the government. Perhaps only Herbert Marcuse remained continuously "present" with his critique of alienation in capitalist society and in the Soviet regime. Intellectuals also exerted a mobilizing influence in Eastern Europe, but the figures there—such as Ludvik Vaculik, Milan Kundera, or Radovan Richta in Czechoslovakia—were more national.

In each country, the attitude of the workers' movements had a great influence on the way in which the protests developed for the students and intellectuals. The radicalization of their struggles since the mid-1960s and the influence of "leftist" movements gave the workers' demands a particular character: they were now situated outside the framework of the traditional union system, and they mixed old demands (for cost-of-living raises, for good working conditions) with new ones (against the underemployment of licensed professionals, for a less hierarchical model of management including self-management). The strikes mobilized new categories of workers who were younger, better trained, and not necessarily under the control of the unions. However, true engagements between students and workers never really came off, except in France and Italy. In France, student and worker movements came together in May 1968. But the attitude of the French Communist Party and the workers' union, mistrustful of the "gauchiste adventure" and anxious to maintain their monopoly on protest, was an obstacle to any real merger between students and workers. In Italy, however, the Communist Party and the union, less oriented toward the workers and more active in social causes, as well as a leftist faction outside of the traditional trade unions all favored the formation of a more durable alliance. In Czechoslovakia, it was the intervention of the Warsaw Pact forces that transformed the movement for democratization into a shared symbol of national independence. In 1968 the absence of a transformation of this apparent convergence into a true unification of the different protest movements revealed the new role of the working classes in wealthy societies: by refusing the "children of consumer culture" the right to threaten their dearly bought social integration, the working class ceased to be a historical agent for revolution and became instead a conservative social force. In this way, in the words of Habermas, "for the first time in the history of West Germany, students played a political role that had to be taken seriously."


Alongside the traditional critique of systems of power and references to the revolutionary tradition of the workers movement, three new characteristics defined the movements of 1968.

First was the "emergence of a new political repertoire." This essentially involved the radical critique of industrial democratic societies; the questioning of the traditional wielders of authority (fathers, teachers, and bosses); an extension of a Marxist-Leninist reading to the struggle between the classes on a global scale, transforming it into a struggle between the "proletarian" third world and the "imperialist" nations; and the rejection of the repressive bureaucratic regimes of the Eastern bloc. The values that were extolled were self-management, direct democracy, and the spontaneous dimension of collective action, all of which recalled the keywords of the Situationist International of the years 1957–1972. For that movement, society was the locus of individual alienation, where reified individuals are reduced to the role of puppets in their respective social groups. This new repertoire was put into action in public statements, violent confrontations (occupations, riots approaching guerrilla warfare, barricades), but also in the liberation of transgressive speech ("Don't say, 'Professor, may I?'; say 'pig,' 'bitch"'; "under the pavement lies the beach"). Henceforth, the city and urban life became the primary scene for protests, with increasingly larger gatherings and the involvement of suburban areas.

Second was a "mistrust of the delegation of power" that was founded upon the rejection of status of a designated leader and upon the students' simple differentiation between leadership groups and the "base." Paradoxically, the fact that suppression and the media were more powerful than the tactics of collective action (publication of pamphlets, the ability to speak in public, familiarity with ideological discourses) led to the emergence of spokespersons: Rudi Dutschke for the SDS, and his subsequent radicalization of the movement ("Rudi the Red"), and the French-German student Daniel Cohn-Bendit, "Dany."

Third was the predominance of the extreme Left. Within the various student movements, there were anarchists (the black flag appeared at demonstrations, and there was an exaltation of spontaneity, and a call for the formation of communes); the Trotskyites, who were firmly entrenched in the student movements and repeatedly took up a discussion of the "bureaucratic degeneracy of the communist parties" and of Stalinism; the influence of Maoism and its anti-imperialist discourse, which greatly profited from positive perceptions of the cultural revolution as an alternative to the Soviet model that could be imported into the industrialist nations of Europe.

In the midst of all these frequently contradictory forces, there developed a new, strongly libertarian political sensibility. It was reflected in academia (the rejection of lecture courses and stuffy professors), in the liberalization of morals (critique of "sexual normality," the widespread consumption of drugs), in social relations (devaluing of the "bourgeois couple," the formation of communes), and in the status of women (equality in the workplace, and the feminist movement).

The year 1968 was also a time of tremendous cultural renewal, even if the connections between the protest movements and new forms of artistic expression were not always obvious. The counter-culture, imported from the United States, nevertheless forged connections between marginality and protest, and between cultural and political protest, by which it combated the official culture, which was imposed by the dominant class through various means (political, sexual, spiritual, or fashionable) in order to reinforce the social order for its own profit. Thus starting in 1967, the Anti-University in London and the Critical University in Berlin proposed teaching of a political nature on such subjects as Cuba or the revolution and on other "underground" subjects (such as the organization of alternative structures and improvisation). The United Kingdom, the Netherlands with their "Provos" (a nonviolent anarchist movement that dissolved in 1967 after two years, but whose influence was felt in France and Germany, notably through their proposals for alternative social and ecological projects), and Germany, with the experiments of the Kommune I and Kommune II, were the principal sites of the counterculture.

In France, Italy, and Spain, however, the students encountered only the fringes of the counterculture and then only as an effect, rather than a cause, of the events of 1968. Yet this does not mean that a cultural dimension to those events was totally lacking in these countries: the France of 1968 saw the occupation of the Odeon Theatre in Paris and the creation of revolutionary committees for cultural agitation and for new forms of art for the purpose of "transmitting culture to the people." Thus there coexisted mechanisms for alternative cultural productions (such as "happenings") and the phenomena of standardization through the diffusion of an "underground" culture, primarily musical (pop music, Bob Dylan's protest songs, or those of the less controversial Beatles).

In the Eastern bloc countries that were mobilized, the window of opportunity for freedom was too quickly closed and that prevented the emergence of an enduring artistic movement outside of the pockets of resistance. Even so, they did experience an unprecedented intellectual ferment, especially in Czechoslovakia, which saw the resumption of the literary magazine Literani Listy. In June 1968, this magazine published "Two thousand words addressed to workers, farmers, scientists, artists, and to everyone," a manifesto calling for liberalization, written by the playwright Václav Havel and designed by the artist Jaroslav Vozniak.

This cultural emergence was accompanied by a general critique of the media, both official (for example, television, the symbol of consumer society) and traditional (the press). Confronted with media that were largely hostile to them and that organized disinformation campaigns (inspiring the slogan, "The police speak to you every night at 8:00" in reference to French television), the protesters of 1968 attempted to set up their own information networks including meetings and general assemblies, publication of journals (such as The Student, published in Czechoslovakia starting in 1966), massive distribution of pamphlets and posters such as those from the Beaux-Arts workshop that incorporated graffiti and invited public debate. In contrast, the events of May benefited from sympathetic coverage from private radio stations that broadcast information directly.


The year 1968 affected countries differently according to the reaction of the authorities in place and the degrees of acculturation between the demands of the protesters and the aspirations of their societies as a whole.

The immediate effects

In France, the victories were important. The universities were reformed according to principles of self-administration, inter-disciplinarity, and participation (the Faure law). Workers' salaries were adjusted in accordance with the Grenelle accords. There was also an expansion of the rights of trade unions. Despite the overwhelming victory of the Gaullists in the legislative elections of June 1968, the force of May 1968 dealt a mortal blow to the authority of the president of the republic, who resigned after the failure of a referendum in 1969. Without a doubt, given the attitude of the French Communist Party, these events led to a recalibration of influence within the Left to the advantage of the Socialist Party, which was able to harness hopes for social change with the candidacy of François Mitterrand and the joint platform in 1974.

In Italy, even though the links between the two phenomena were not direct, the events of 1968 degenerated into acts of extreme right-wing terrorism in 1969. The extreme Left responded with terrorist violence that they justified as a struggle against fascism. Thus the 1970s were marked by the kidnappings of several business and political leaders, by the emergence of the Red Brigades, and by their attacks on Rome and Milan. But the Italians also gained, after a referendum in 1974, the right to divorce and subsequently the right to have abortions. In addition, more familiar forms of speech in public—deriving from the protesters' feelings of comradeship—reflected a more general liberalization of Italian society.

The same evolution occurred in Germany. The immediate aftermath of 1968 witnessed the emergence of far-left terrorism but, again, with no clear relation to the protest movements. The Red Army Faction (the Baader-Meinhof Gang) committed a series of attacks against banking establishments and American bases. But these troubled years also saw the emergence of alternative groups, such as the Greens, as well as open discussion of Germany's Nazi past. This time period also paved the way for the Social Democratic Party to come to power. Gustav Heinemann was elected president of West Germany in March of 1969, and a coalition government was led for the first time by a member of the SPD, Willy Brandt.

In nondemocratic countries, the positive effects of 1968 are more difficult to assess, as they did not attain expression as clearly within repressive societies. In fact, attempts to disrupt these regimes had only reinforced their control over society. After Russian tanks rolled into Czechoslovakia, followed by 250,000 troops, the government of Dubček was forced to accept the Moscow Protocols. This signified the "normalization" before the purges of 1969 forcibly smothered even the smallest hope for reform. In Spain, Franco declared a state of emergency in 1969 and arrested many of the protesters.

The legacy of 1968

The crucial year of 1968 is perceived differently in different countries. But for Europe as a whole, it is now viewed less as a founding event than as a revelation of the discrepancy between systems of authority inherited from the nineteenth century and the growth of a modern Europe. It seems to have acted as a catalyst for the emergence of new behaviors and a heightening of consciousness and as an accelerator for developments whose legacy and "spirit" are still felt today.

Despite its spectacular and explosive aspects, 1968 was not a revolution and perhaps not even a social uprising. But it is difficult not to see it at least as a social restructuring that historians must account for. As evidence, there is the emergence and even the acceptance of "youth" as a specific, though somewhat elastic, category, but also the plainly visible dynamics of the generations. For there was not just one but several generations of 1968: those born between 1940 and 1945 provided a number of the leaders of the protest movements; the rock-and-roll generation were the ones who marched in the streets; and the subsequent generation came to political consciousness in a world shaped by the events of 1968. Such a lineage would explain in part an ongoing nostalgia for 1968 that endures to this day (as symbolized by the election of Václav Havel as president of the Czech Republic in 1989).

At the level of restructuring, 1968 can be understood, a bit paradoxically, as an important step both in the process of modernization and in the march toward an exaggerated individualism—unless one sees in it, as some do, the last spasm of a twentieth century in complete disarray searching for solutions in the utopian visions of the nineteenth.

See alsoMay 1968; Prague Spring; Situationism; Student Movements.


Primary Sources

Cohn-Bendit, Daniel. Nous l'avons tant aimée, la révolution. Paris, 1986.

Dubcek, Alexander, with Andras Sugar. Dubcek Speaks. London and New York, 1990.

Marcuse, Herbert. Eros and Civilization: A Philosophical Inquiry into Freud. Boston, 1955.

——. One Dimensional Man: Studies in the Ideology of Advanced Industrial Society. Boston, 1964.

Morin, Edgar, Claude Lefort, and Jean-Marc Coudray. Mai 68: la brèche. Paris, 1968.

Secondary Sources

Caute, David. The Year of the Barricades: A Journey through 1968. New York: Harper and Row, 1988.

Fink, Carole, Philipp Gassert, and Detlef Junker. 1968: The World Transformed. Cambridge, U.K., and New York, 1998.

Fraser, Ronald. 1968: A Student Generation in Revolt. London, 1988.

Katsiaficas, George N. The Imagination of the New Left: A Global Analysis of 1968. Boston, 1987.

Kurlansky, Mark. 1968: The Year that Rocked the World. New York, 2005.

Fabien ThÉofilakis

About this article


Updated About encyclopedia.com content Print Article