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A Participant Looks Back at the Unrest in East Germany in 1968 (Retrospective Account, 2003)

Florian Havemann, the son of the prominent East German dissident Robert Havemann, looks back at the year 1968 and his one-time hopes for the democratization of socialism. These hopes were brutally dashed by the repression of the Prague Spring, after which dissidents engaged in the wholesale rejection of the GDR.

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1968er from the East

[ . . . ]

There was not only a 1968 in the West. The year 1968 was also of great significance in the East, because of developments in Czechoslovakia, because of what is known as the Prague Spring, after which followed the horrific 21st of August, which saw the suppression of the Prague Spring by the invasion of the Warsaw Pact countries. There will be things to say about that, and also about the 1968 movement in the East, the fate of which was very closely linked to that of the Prague Spring.

In my own way, I myself am a 68er; in any case, I have always considered myself one. I belong to the tiny group of people who could be called 68ers from the East. There were maybe 200 of us in all, not more. You didn’t know absolutely everyone, but you knew most of them – at least you had heard of or recognized them, or knew their nicknames.

Due to the conditions in the GDR – which, in comparison with the West, was not free – these (at most) 200 people, who could have easily and would have gladly gathered together in a medium-sized cultural venue, were never able to assemble and discuss their cause, their goals, and their problems, much less achieve agreement and strength in all these areas. The medium of these eastern 68ers, the medium of their exchange, remained conversation – often of a very intense nature – in small groups, which could only be called informal discussion circles. The forum for larger gatherings was parties. This small group tried to be everything and do everything – everything that was also part of 1968 elsewhere. It attempted to experiment with a different kind of art and culture, to try a different approach to living and child-rearing; it experimented with sexual liberation, different types of relationships between the sexes; it also experimented with new sorts of highs and with conceptualizing and practicing a new form of politics. Of course that was a bit much for such a small group, one that, on top of everything else, was hindered by conditions, by political circumstances. Especially since here [in East Berlin], in the spirit of 1968, there was no specification or assignment of individual roles among us, as was usually the case in the provinces. But they still aspired to participate in the great game of the great big world in their little way and with their modest resources. In his book Sad Tropics, Claude Levi-Strauss offered a wonderful description of this same phenomenon in Rio de Janeiro in the 1930s. In 1968, it was about the whole person, so every one of us had to be everything at once.

With all of these efforts to get down to the very basics, it is no wonder that little came of the group at first – but only at first, since, over the course of the following years, much did in fact come of it. This small group, which was so intensely preoccupied with itself and its intellectual and moral concerns, proved a rare breeding ground for talents. Even people I regarded as pale marginal figures went on to write books for which they were celebrated and awarded prizes. This group included: Thomas Brasch, Katharina Thalbach, Nina Hagen, Barbara Honigmann, Toni Krahl, Reinhardt Stangl, Hans Scheib; it also included a very young man named Thomas Heise, and a few more who later became successful scholars, dramaturges, and editors, as well as some artists, who did not become as well-known. This group also had a great attraction for people who were not directly part of it – here, I am referring to Einar Schleef, Heiner Müller, B.K. Tragelehn, Thomas Langhoff, and also Wolf Biermann. For a while, this group attracted all of the discontented people, all of the artistic and intellectual potential of East Berlin.

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