The Protest Chronicle

Part II: 1960–1969

No other decade was shaped by protest movements to the same extent as the 1960s. Protests ranged from the European Easter marches against the Cold War arms race, to the activities of the American civil rights movement, to student movements that spread from Berkeley to Tokyo, to the Prague Spring, to rebellions like the Paris uprising in May 1968. In the course of the decade, forms of protest, the dynamics of protest movements, the role of the mass media, and the self-understanding of those involved changed significantly. Some forms of mobilizing or expressing protest threw up political fundamental issues, in particular with respect to legitimacy and legality; protesters’ stance on democracy, the state and the rule of law; and last but not least, their position on violence.

In this project, a strictly micrological approach is employed to retrace in meticulous detail the complete spectrum of protest forms and their various social and cultural facets. The Protest Chronicle is oriented around singular events in which dissent was expressed and protesters deviated from the norms of given political order. Such events are identified, assessed, and reported on in condensed but accentuated form. Although the Chronicle very faithfully tracks empirical historical evidence, it is not a documentation of events. Chroniclers differ from documentarians in that the former seek to recognize the narrative that underlies a particular occurrence.

Protest is a positional term. Protests are directed against grievances; they expose, articulate accusations, and make things public. Protesting in isolation does not make sense. Protest does not arise in a vacuum but becomes significant in relation to someone or something, from a critical, oppositional, or confrontational stance with respect to a person or institution which wields power. When investigating protest, one expects to learn more about those to whom an appeal, a demand, or even a threat has been addressed. By identifying this other person, institution, or organization, a segment of the political system comes into focus in which those who act and those who appeal relate to one another in some way. In this constellation, the focal points are deficits, contradictions, trouble spots, and dangers. Protest is always an integral part of the system in which it emerges: in a negative sense, in that it targets deficits or flaws, and in a positive sense, in so far as it aims to eliminate, overcome, or change these conditions.

Thus protest is understood to be a form of public engagement for a specific goal defined by the desire to remedy social injustices or other ills, avert some danger, or more generally affect change. Protest is pursued by an association of individuals, groups, and/or organizations without formal membership or other formalized definitions of belonging and without normative rules for behavior. In principle, anyone interested can participate. Involvement in protest activities is generally a result of communication processes. Communication is the most important medium through which protest is constituted. Whatever form communication takes—inquiry, discussion, debate, controversy, or conflict—it contributes to shaping protest, linking preexisting structures with new ones, and spawning new arrangements. Protest is based on the permeability of its social structures; protest movements emphasize their openness and are supposed to integrate, mobilize, and grow.

Who the subjects of protest are, what coalitions are forged to be effective depends largely on who they address or oppose. This counterpart—whether a person, a group of persons, an authority or other entity—generally wields the power needed to make desired changes. The central goal of protest activities is to rectify an existing imbalance of power. The imaginative nature of many protests results largely from attempts to devise new ways to acquire the power to act and eliminate such an imbalance.

Selection of protest events to be included in the Chronicle is not determined by a particular political agenda. The Chronicle covers the activities of individuals and groups from the left and liberal spectrum as well as those perceives as politically right or conservative, and also the activities of those whose opinions that cannot readily be assigned to either of these two positions. The decisive criterion is whether they were either involved in protests as activists or were the addressees of protest. Precisely because axiomatic concepts of left and right are highly significant in processes of polarization and mobilization and in determining how conflicts are played out, the Chronicle attends to the full range of political positions.

The Chronicle also explores the decisions, responses, and changes of position formulated and/or implemented by state authorities, public administrations, the legal system, political parties, unions, the churches, and the media that are directly or indirectly related to protest.

Although the Protest Chronicle highlights events in both the Federal Republic of Germany and the German Democratic Republic, it also incorporates the most significant occurrences in other countries. Limiting the scope of the Chronicle to either West Germany or the two Germanys would not do justice to the subject. The protests of the 1960s cannot be understood without their international context. One might even argue that the transnational dimension of protest in that decade had the most pronounced and lasting effect on its protagonists.

(Last modified July 2010)