From Seminarians to Radical Student Activists


‘Jesus has risen; joy and thankfulness are our companions for this day; the revolution, the decisive revolution of world history has occurred, the revolution of the world by means of all-conquering love. If human beings would only fully accept this manifest love as their guiding light, the reality of the here and now, the logic of insanity, could not survive much longer.’[1] This diary entry was written on Easter Sunday, 14 April 1963, by one of the world’s best-known student leaders of the generation of 1968. In all likelihood, most students mobilizing behind this charismatic figure in West Germany had no clue that Rudi Dutschke was a committed lifelong Christian. And that he was—not only on Easter morning 1963. Dutschke joined the Situationist-inspired group, Subversive Aktion, in early 1964. In early 1965 he joined the West Berlin chapter of the Socialist German Student League (SDS), and he subsequently turned this organization upside down. It was between early 1965 and 11 April 1968, the date of Josef Bachmann’s assault on Dutschke’s life, that Dutschke was propelled to the forefront of Germany’s sensationalist media to become the most revered and most reviled spokesperson of Germany’s student-based New Left. Though Dutschke’s Christianity was usually politely overlooked by his more secular comrades, it remained a central element of the mental universe of Dutschke, the revolutionary Marxist.[2] As late as 22 November 1967, for instance, on the occasion of the Prayer and Repentance Holiday, Dutschke participated in a panel debate in an overcrowded church on ‘Politics v. Christian Utopia’. A Protestant minister present at the debate told Dutschke on the spot: ‘The best Dutschke I have ever seen.’ Dutschke’s role models defended at the debate were, surely to no one’s surprise, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Paul Tillich, and Camillo Torres.[3]

Rudi Dutschke was a Protestant, and his case may thus stand as a useful and important reminder that the world of Protestant Christianity was just as much affected by the turbulence of the 1960s and 1970s as was the Catholic community. My second example of a leading student radical whose religiosity is often overlooked refers to the cradle of the United States American student movement, the campus of the University of California in Berkeley which, in the autumn of 1964, saw the spontaneous outbreak of what quickly became called the Free Speech Movement (FSM). The role of spokesperson for the FSM was taken up in spontaneous fashion by Mario Savio, who became to Berkeley what Dutschke later on became for West Berlin. I cannot go into any details with regard to Savio or the FSM. All I want to do is cite two passages from an autobiographical text Savio presented in November 1995:

I grew up as a Catholic. I was an altar boy. I was going to be a priest. Now, obviously, the eldest son in an Italian Catholic family was a person who would become a priest if anyone was going to be [that]—and I was going to be that person. My two aunts are nuns. I came into it from liberation theology. I read things that probably most people in this room have not read. I read Jacques Maritain, I read Emmanuel Mounier, I read things put out by Catholic Worker people; I was very much immersed in that sort of thing.[4]

I was not a careerist. I was someone who took good and evil exceptionally seriously. [... ] And, suddenly, there’s the Civil Rights Movement. And since I’m breaking away from the Church, I see the Civil Rights Movement in religious terms. In the Civil Rights Movement there were all those ministers; it was just absolutely rife with ministers, bristling with ministers. And so, to me, this was an example of God working in the world.[5]

Savio had joined civil rights campaigns in California before enrolling as a volunteer for the trail-blazing Freedom Summer 1964 campaign in Mississippi. Having literally just returned from the Deep South at the moment when the University of California administration decided to infringe University of California students’ right to free speech, Savio and other veterans of Mississippi Freedom Summer then threw all their energies into a campaign which they saw as closely related and to which they gave an unsurprisingly similar name: Free Speech Movement. Mario Savio’s speech to the assembled crowd from the top of a police car on the Berkeley campus in September 1964 made him into an icon of the student movement around the world.[6]

  • [1] Rudi Dutschke, ‘14. April 1963’, in Rudi Dutschke, Jeder hat sein Leben ganz zu leben. DieTagebucher 1963-1979 (Cologne: Kiepenheuer & Witsch, 2003), p. 17.
  • [2] On Dutschke’s strong Christian beliefs up to April 1968, see Michaela Karl, Rudi Dutschke.Revolutionar ohne Revolution (Frankfurt: Neue Kritik, 2003), pp. 173-81.
  • [3] Dutschke, ‘22. November 1967’, Die Tagebticher, p. 64.
  • [4] Mario Savio, ‘Thirty Years Later’, in Robert Cohen and Reginald E. Zelnik (eds.), The FreeSpeech Movement. Reflections on Berkeley in the 1960s (Berkeley: University of California Press,2002), p. 59.
  • [5] Savio, ‘Thirty Years Later’, p. 61.
  • [6] See Gerd-Rainer Horn, The Spirit of ’68. Rebellion in Western Europe and North America,1956-1976 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), pp. 60-5.
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