CHAPTER 1: SDS MEETS SDS
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Chapter 1 SDS MEETS SDS THE ORIGINS OF THE STUDENT MOVEMENTS IN WEST GERMANY AND THE UNITED STATES When the 21-year-old German student Michael Vester started his 1961– 62 exchange year at Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine, with the support of the Fulbright program, he had no idea that he was to become the earliest mediator of an emerging transnational New Left and, at the same time, take an active role in the creation of one of the most influential manifestos of the American student movement of the 1960s. Vester had been born in 1939 Berlin into a middle-class family and spent the first years of his life there before his family moved to Silesia. Committed to a leftist Christian communitarianism and pacifism, part of his mother’s family had become politically active in the Weimar Republic after their belief in German nationalism had been shattered by the human catastrophe of the First World War. As a result of their commitment, some family members were forced to emigrate after the National Socialists came to power in 1933. The Second World War and the Soviet advance eventually forced the family to relocate to Holzminden in rural-industrial Northern Germany in March 1945, where Vester’s father had been deployed as a soldier. As refugees, they built up their life anew in this provincial setting during the postwar years while keeping in touch with the other branches of their internationally dispersed family that had spread to Great Britain, the United States, and Latin America. These contacts enforced Vester’s orientation toward the Anglo-American branches of the family, who had left England around 1630 as politico-religious dissenters and had been known for their activity in the antislavery movement of the nineteenth century. Most prominent among these relatives was his grandfather’s cousin, Thurman Arnold, who, as assistant attorney general in the Roosevelt administration , was in charge of the Antitrust Division in the Department of Justice and was an intrepid liberal and partisan of civil rights. The German Protestant environment in which Vester grew up after the Second World War encouraged his decidedly antiwar position, which included opposition to the politics of West German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer and the Federal Republic’s rearmament in the 1950s. Members of SDS MEETS SDS 11 Vester’s family were inspired by the theologian Martin Niemoeller and, as part of a critical middle class, gradually turned to the Social Democratic Party and its representatives such as Willy Brandt. Vester’s own political coming of age, however, occurred with the unsuccessful 1953 workers’ uprising in East Germany and the 1956 revolt in Hungary, which symbolized the persistent harsh realities of Stalinism. His skepticism toward communism drove him to look for a third way between Western capitalist democracy and Eastern-style communism, a political philosophy based on humanist values. This search was fostered by the actions of the Western alliance during the Suez crisis in 1956, which for Vester signified the continuous interest of the old imperial powers in the Third World. At the age of 16, he was therefore deeply suspicious about any close alliance with either one of the two power blocs in the cold war. He channeled his protest into activism in high school student governments and advanced to the respective student representation on the state level. There he took on the task of political education, running information events on the crimes and legacy of National Socialism in Germany and Stalinism in the Soviet Union. Another politically formative outlet was his participation in Deutsche Freischar, one of the organizations of the Bündische Jugend, a youth movement going back to the 1920s and dedicated to outdoor group experiences. These groups began to rebel against the narrow conservative mood of cold-war society and moved to a neutralist stance against U.S. and Soviet cold-war politics. All of these activities finally brought him closer to the Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands (German Social Democratic Party; SPD), which he perceived as a gathering pool for intellectuals disenchanted with the status quo in the young Federal Republic. In 1959, Vester finished high school and started studying social sciences at the University of Hamburg. There he was immediately drawn to the SDS (Sozialistischer Deutscher Studentenbund, or German Socialist Student League), which was an ally of the SPD, and he was elected into its regional office. After moving to Frankfurt in 1960, Vester also organizationally drifted to the trade union movement where he met...


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