It was quite a year, 1968: assassinations, student uprisings, turmoil everywhere, the air itself pregnant with portents. Whatever was going to happen, surely nothing would ever be the same again. What, then, became of the young of '68? Why did the fury and mire of their demands--which, it seemed, might topple society's very foundations--recede like a wave of the sea, vanishing as if it had never been?
For his intriguing "1968" (sub-sub-titled "An International Oral History"), Ronald Fraser and eight other writers whom he enlisted (Daniel Bertaux, Bret Eynon, Ronald Grele, Beatrix Le Wita, Daniele Linhart, Luisa Passerini, Jochen Staadt and Annemarie Troger) interviewed 175 of those who played parts in the student dramas of 20 years ago in the United States, West Germany, France, Italy, Britain and Northern Ireland.
The book is not organized into a necklace of interminable interviews, as might be feared, but rather as a story with a beginning, a middle and an end. The story begins with the Cold War of the 1950s and ends with the breakup of the student movements in the early 1970s. Into this story the authors have tucked extensive quotations from their interviews, giving us a kind of split screen on which we are able to view parallel developments in different countries simultaneously.
They have done a beautiful job of capturing the sound of the era. Here, for instance, is Daniel Cohn-Bendit, the saintly student leader of Nanterre University, on the night of the Paris barricades, May 10/11, 1968. "It's a moment I shall never forget," he writes. "Suddenly, spontaneously, barricades were being thrown up in the streets. People were building up the cobblestones because they wanted--many of them for the first time--to throw themselves into a collective , spontaneous activity. People were releasing all their repressed feelings, expressing them in a festive spirit. Thousands felt the need to communicate with each other, to love one another. That night has forever made me optimistic about history. Having lived through it, I can't ever say, 'It will never happen. . . .' "
The Paris barricades are very nearly the center, the still point, of the whole story. Almost immediately, the unity began to dissolve into opposite poles. At one pole were clustered the self-dramatizing dropouts: "We weren't interested in taking over administration buildings. We were interested in blowing people's minds, basically"; or, more gently, "Fight imperialism! Eat organic food!" At the other pole were the self-dramatizing, more-or-less violent revolutionaries: "Smash monogamy!" and (a sign at a Weatherman gun display) "P-I-E-C-E NOW!"
Thus commitment and community yielded to the theater of self-absorption, which yielded to vacations ("What kind of a revolution is this," asked Hans Maier, a literary historian and friend of the German Students for a Democratic Society, "which stops short in the summer vacations?"), which yielded at last to graduation and growing up.
One is even tempted, in more cynical moments, to side with the character in Elmore Leonard's new novel, "Freaky Deaky," who says: "Sweetheart, that whole show back then was a put-on. You gonna tell me we were trying to change the world? We were . . . having fun. All that screaming about Vietnam and burning draft cards? That was a little bitty part of it. Getting stoned and laid was the trip. Where's everybody now? We've come clear around to the other side, joined the establishment."
The authors eschew not only such cynicism but virtually all analysis. Of the many movements that they touch on in the course of their 400 pages, only these remain: the civil rights movements of the United States and Northern Ireland and the human rights movements of the Eastern bloc (which merit but one mention in the text). Why do these remain? Because, I submit, they were not chiefly student movements at all but grew out of enculturated community traditions that were deeply felt and intergenerational. If you are black or Chicano or Ulster Catholic or a Polish shipyard worker, you cannot take the summer off from your struggle--and you know perfectly well that hating your parents has nothing to do with anything. But by limiting themselves to students, the authors have no way of explaining why the movements under study proved so ephemeral. They may also be blinkered by a Marxist bias, which I thought I caught some whiffs of, and which, in its ideological purity, is a sure prescription for misunderstanding just about everything.