Three shots that sparked off a revolution

 

As most of Berlin hid indoors from a relentless torrent of rain on Saturday, about 100 people gathered at a corner of the Kurfurstendamm

to remember three shots that sparked a revolution. A few wept as they lay flowers at the spot where Rudi Dutschke, the charismatic leader of the 1968 student protests, was shot 30 years ago.

The shooting provoked four days of the worst rioting post-war Germany had ever seen, as thousands of angry students fought running battles with police, setting cars ablaze and hurling rocks and petrol bombs through shop windows.

The radicals in West Berlin's Sozialistischen Deutschen Studentenbund (SDS) - or German Socialist Students' Federation - were suspicious of any hint of a personality cult. Yet Dutschke's personal qualities were such that he became the undisputed public face of the organisation at the height of its protest campaign against the Vietnam War.

Dark, lean and athletic with a penetrating stare and a dramatic, staccato speaking style, Dutschke eschewed the esoteric rhetoric of the intellectual left as he motivated thousands of young Germans to take to the streets. He was a thoroughly anti-authoritarian socialist - not least because he had grown up under communism in East Germany.

A former decathlon champion, Dutschke originally wanted to become a sports reporter but he was not allowed to go to university in the east because he had refused to perform military service. He stayed in West Berlin after the Berlin Wall was built in 1961 and studied sociology, dazzling and sometimes unnerving his professors with the sharpness of his intellect.

Although Vietnam was the focus of the student protests, the SDS was committed to nothing less than world revolution and the overthrow of the capitalist order. Dutschke was adamant that the students should not allow themselves to be used by the Soviet Union in its propaganda war against the US and, a few weeks before he was shot, he went to Prague to express solidarity with the reform movement there.

Dutschke soon became a hate figure for conservative Germany as the right-wing press demonised him as a communist rabble rouser. Foremost in the campaign against him was Axel Springer's publishing empire which owned the mass circulation Bild newspaper.

A fervent anti-communist, Springer reacted to the construction of the Berlin Wall by building a high-rise headquarters overlooking it, partly to ensure that his journalists should be reminded every day of the brutal division of Germany.

When Dutschke was shot, the SDS blamed Springer for inciting such hatred against the young radical. The actual culprit was Josef Bachmann (23), a builder's labourer who had fled East Germany to join the Foreign Legion and had a fanatical hatred of communism.

Bachmann waited for Dutschke outside the SDS headquarters and, when the student leader left to collect a prescription for his young son Hosea Che, he approached him. Shouting "you dirty, communist pig", Bachmann shot Dutschke three times. Dutschke survived but the attack robbed him of his memory and speech and he died 11 years later in Denmark, at the age of 39. During the intervening years, he slowly learned to speak again. He spent some of his convalescence in Howth as a guest of Dr Conor Cruise O'Brien.

As they laid wreaths on the pavement on Saturday, the 1968 generation could reflect on the success of the revolution Dutschke set in train. Although some radicals turned to the terrorism of the Red Army Faction, most worked peacefully to reform German society.

One of those who arrived on the scene when Dutschke was shot was Antje Vollmer, then a young theology student and now vice-president of the Bundestag and a leading figure in the Greens. Both the Greens and the Social Democrats are now led by the generation shaped by Dutshcke's thinking and by the generational conflict that gripped Germany in 1968.

If, as the opinion polls predict, a coalition of these two parties ousts Dr Helmut Kohl's centreright government in September's federal election, some old radicals are hoping that the new leaders will not forget the legacy of Rudi Dutschke or the dream that drove him.