Transnational influences on student activism. The West German SDS and its peace and third world activism against the Vietnam War

Term Paper, 2021

11 Pages, Grade: 8,5




1. The SDS enters the international sphere of leftist Vietnam activism

2. Translating theory into practice




The West German SDS was a leftist student movement that, although primarily based on their own, national issues and outdated structures and institutions, was deeply invested in the fate of Third world countries and the wars that disrupted them. They were only one part of a larger, nearly global movement that demanded freedom for former colonies, less interference from Western countries and the overturn of capitalist forces and structures. One case in which these circumstances appear especially potent, and which gave this movement much of its impetus, was the Vietnam war. How was the SDS influenced by international trends and transnational activism in their protests against the Vietnam war?

The student protests in West Germany 1968 have to be placed within the context of the wider, global protests that took place during this year. The study of these protests is varied and includes a wide array of detailed analysis, but they often focus only on the national situation that led to the protests and only very shortly allude to their transnational connections and sources of inspiration. Besides that, many focus primarily on American or French protests and ignore those in other countries. Due to its lacking results and German people's rejection of the SDS's movement as a “ruckus” and ineffectual radicals,1 international scholarship often glosses over this movement and only very rarely considers its transnational influences. However, it is crucial not to overlook these influences, which were much more important than the SDS is usually given credit for. It can especially help to explain the transnational structures of leftist activism during the Cold War while also connecting the FRG's history to more historical themes than just its borders to the GDR.

The Vietnam war was in many ways a watershed event that exacerbated existing criticisms about American influence on the world while bringing up new ones, serving as a unifier for global movements.2 Accordingly, the primary focus of this text is the peace activism of the SDS and their engagement against the Vietnam war. Although often considered a socio-economic concept, due to the matter at hand the concept of the “Third World”, which Vietnam was part of, has to be understood in a political, specifically anti-war way.3 Because of that, the SDS's activism in this area combined both Third World- and peace activism as one and was influenced by actors that operated in both of these spheres. Besides the Post-War context illustrating the local situation, the context of the Cold War is instrumental to understanding their international linkages and the place the protest movements came from. Through these contexts, opinions about the Vietnam war, the future of their own state and conceptual considerations of the identity of their movements were formed. All alliances that the SDS made and all the inspirations they drew from others have to considered within this larger international context.

Over the course of this paper, I will discuss West German student protests' Third World peace activism in Vietnam. First, I will briefly discuss why and how the SDS entered the international sphere around the Vietnam war and explore the way they positioned themselves within the international leftist field. Afterwards, I will discuss the specifics of their Vietnam activism and how international influences, connections and inspirations drawn from other leftist movements contributed to the way their actions were formed during the late 1960's.

1. The SDS enters the international sphere of leftist Vietnam activism

SDS actions really took off roughly in 1967, when the students began confronting their professors with sit-ins, teach-ins and other forms of protest. In these early days, its movement was primarily focussed around the remnants of the same structures and elites that had brought the Nazis to power and that were still visible within their universities.4 However, even then, they already began criticizing imperialist and war-driven actions in Iran and, most central for this paper, Vietnam.5 How did these ideas develop? And were they connected to other, transnational ideas of activism?

First, we should establish what the SDS's beliefs were. In order to do so, a 1967 televised interview with one of the most crucial student leaders, Rudi Dutschke, a Berlin sociology student, can provide us with a lot of information on the students' beliefs and hint at ways in which transnational networks influenced them.6 According to him, the SDS's main goal was to free those oppressed by existing structures7 by going to the streets and educating them,8 as well as by leaving the NATO, which Dutschke describes as one of the forces which further oppressed those in the Third World.9 The SDS was firmly against any form of oppression, even to the point that Dutschke goes as far as to say that in the case that the FRG would not leave NATO and thus join its oppression, his movement would take up arms against them.10 It strongly stood against oppression, and its protests against Western interference in Vietnam was a crucial part of that.

The SDS's Vietnam protests did not emerge out of the blue. On the contrary, both the specific local circumstances that came into play as well as the international situation that gave them a bigger cause to fight for can be traced far into the past. In some ways, the domestic structures the students lived in were crucial in inspiring their actions. As part of their discontent with the FRG's Western alignment under Konrad Adenauer, their criticism of its lenience towards former Nazi officials and its strict anti-communism,11 students protested the Vietnam war on the grounds that it was an imperialist war that undermined its democracy.12 As a socialist and anti-imperialist movement, the SDS openly judged the US, but due to its close knowledge of Soviet action in its protectorates thanks to Dutschke's insights as a former GDR citizen,13 it rejected the Soviet Union as well and thus had to position itself in the conflict in a way that neither compromised their views on capitalism and American interference nor leant too much into the direction of the Soviet Union. This meant that instead of taking inspiration from Lenin or Stalin, they often directly sided with the anti-colonial freedom fighters in the colony or suppressed region in question. In the case of Vietnam, that meant siding with Ho Chi Minh, the leader of the Communist north of Vietnam.14 In this way, the Cold War struggle and the role divided Germany took in it provided the unique domestic structure that set the students on a course that was international, and yet in its details specific to Germany.15 The students' rejection of NATO, as a crucial instrument of American power in the Cold War world, is also to be explained by this context.16

However, the Cold War was only one source of influence on the students. Influences from transnational networks should be identified as well. In the aforementioned interview, some transnational tendencies can already be identified, as Dutschke specifically points towards the world's interconnectedness and makes it explicit that instead of working within national contexts like previous revolutionaries had done, the SDS specifically aimed at working within a “world-historical” or in our terms, transnational context.17 He points out that he considers that time's current events to be watersheds that would serve to further educate the masses.18 Within these current events and the transnational network Dutschke discusses, a few key movements can be identified. One of these is the wider anti-colonial Tricontinental movement and Che Guevara, whose call for a “second or third Vietnam”19 was directly copied by the students of the SDS.20 This influence is even directly mentioned by Dutschke when he says that “if I was in Latin America, I would fight with a weapon in my hands”.21 Although not directly responsible for the SDS's actions with regards to the Vietnam war, these influences were crucial in forming the SDS's beliefs on sovereignty and leftist action. Informed by these movements, the SDS took its place within a wider, near global movement towards resistance that enabled it to act on its beliefs in the context of the Vietnam war.

The German student movement SDS was a leftist movement that was deeply entrenched in its own domestic structure and it was in this sphere that much of its activism took place. However, it is undeniable that the SDS sought to find its place within other transnational advocacy networks, both with its general activism and its actions specifically relating to the Vietnam war. These existing trends were then further transformed into direct action.

2. Translating theory into practice

The SDS's protests against the Vietnam war often restricted themselves to demonstrations and anonymous letters to the press, such as in February 1966.22 In the same year, when a South Vietnamese ambassador spoke to West Berlin students and proclaimed that just like Germany, Vietnam needed American intervention to keep its freedom, SDS members shouted “long live the National Liberation Front”, demanded a more open debate, and Rudi Dutschke even took the ambassador's microphone to criticize the war.23 Once again, it is crucial to consider the international context of both Western and Tricontinental protests, which inspired students in the FRG to take action in a similar vein.

Although previously involved with and inspired by other movements, it was the spectre of the Vietnam war and its criticism of it that further positioned the SDS more deeply within transnational activist networks and turned its symbolic or theoretical position into action. Once again, established structures of non-Soviet leftist activism were crucial. The photo on the left, taken at one of the anti-Vietnam protests in 1968,24 shows a group of student protesters holding up flags and posters with faces depicting leftist or anti-colonial activists. Among them are Che Guevara, Ho Chi Minh, and Rosa Luxemburg, a Polish leftist activist who had co-founded the German communist party before she was murdered in 1919.25 This once again reinforces the positioning of the SDS within non-Soviet leftist activist networks, which previously mostly existed in the theoretical sphere and was only now translated into action.

Another SDS connection to other activists can be found in its ties to Black activism in America. After briefly moving to the US, Key SDS members like Michael Vester felt a strong sense of solidarity with black American activists and in 1967, openly endorsed the Black Power movement and the Black Panther Party.26 Black activists had a fundamental effect on the strategies of the SDS, who sometimes actively copied those exhibited by the Black Power movement.27 Previously inspired by and standing in solidarity with them in earlier phases, the SDS made use of their connections to them in its anti-Vietnam war activism as well. In February 1968, members of the SNCC, the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee, were invited to the SDS-organized Vietnam Congress, where it was said that the Vietnam war threatened “authoritarian world domination from Washington to Vladivostok”.28 As seen on the photo below,29 Rudi Dutschke and the SNCC speaker Dale Smith agreed that their aims, namely ending the Vietnam war and freedom for Black people, had to join together as both of them protested the same enemy: “global imperialism”.30 In this way, the ties between the West German SDS and the American Black Power movement were mutually beneficial. They brought the SDS more support and a more international stage in its Vietnam activism,31 strengthened its own positioning within the transnational network of leftist activism, and offered the SDS a crucial ally. After events like the assassination of Martin Luther King a few weeks after the Congress, instead of being discouraged, the students felt connected to his followers and believed they now had to finish what he started, radicalizing their actions.32 Once again, the SDS's connections to transnational advocacy networks intensified its convictions and brought on stronger action.33


1 G. Gaus‚ 'Günter Gaus im Gespräch mit Rudi Dutschke‘ in Zu Protokoll (televised interview) (3.12.1967) Accessed 22.4.2021, 00:02:07.

2 M. L. Clemons and C. E. Jones, ‘Global Solidarity, The Black Panther Party in the International Arena’ in New Political Science 21 (1999) p.194.

3 M. W. Solarz, '"Third World": The 60th Anniversary of a Concept That Changed History' in Third World Quarterly 33, no. 9 (2012) p.1563.

4 H. Häußermann, 'Was '1968' bedeutet' in Leviathan 26, no. 4 (1998) p.522.

5 Ibid.

6 Although it goes beyond the scope of this paper, it should be mentioned that the language used by the interviewer in this interview is very negative and makes it very clear that the SDS was just a small, much too radical minority with exaggerated expectations that they would never be able to fulfill. He also calls their protests "Lärm", or in English a "fuss", which makes his position in the conflict quite clear.

7 Gaus‚ 'Im Gespräch mit Rudi Dutschke‘ (televised interview) 00:11:03.

8 Ibid. 00:11:20-55.

9 Ibid. 00:22:25.

10 Ibid. 00:25:25; This threat never truly came to fruition as Dutschke was assassinated in the spring of 1969. Although he survived for a few more years, neither he nor his movement ever truly recovered.

11 B. Waldschmidt-Nelson, '"We Shall Overcome": The Impact of the African American Freedom Struggle on Race Relations and Social Protest in Germany after World War II' in G. Kosc, C. Junker, S. Monteith, B. Waldschmidt-Nelson ed., The Transatlantic Sixties (Bielefeld 2013) p.80.

12 Ibid.

13 T. S. Brown, ‘The Sixties in the City: Avant-gardes and Urban Rebels in New York, London, and West Berlin’ in Journal of Social History 46, no. 4 (2013) p.820; Gaus‚ 'Im Gespräch mit Rudi Dutschke‘ (televised interview) 00:24:30, 00:21:25; Here, Dutschke says that he does not want his movement to become like "The Bolsheviks".

14 B. Saß, 'Demonstration gegen den Vietnamkrieg, Kurfürstendamm in Berlin-Charlottenburg am 18. Februar 1968' in Landesarchiv Berlin (photo) (Berlin 1968), Accessed 22.4.2021; Unknown author, 'The Ho Chi Minh Trail' in Economic and Political Weekly 10, no. 14 (1975) p.564.

15 T. S. Brown, ''1968' East and West: Divided Germany as a Case Study in Transnational History' in The American Historical Review 114, no. 1 (2009) p.70; Brown, ‘The Sixties in the City' p.820.

16 Gaus‚ 'Im Gespräch mit Rudi Dutschke‘ (televised interview) 00:25:25.

17 Ibid. 00:12:40.

18 Ibid. 00:20:20.

19 M. Barcia, ‘Locking Horns with the Northern Empire. Anti-American Imperialism at the Tricontinental Conference of 1966 in Havana’ in Journal of Transatlantic Studies 7 (2009) p.212.

20 Gaus‚ 'Im Gespräch mit Rudi Dutschke‘ (televised interview) 00:22:55.

21 Ibid. 00:24:50; Excerpt translated by me.

22 P. Brückner, 'Springerpresse Und Volksverhetzung' in Kritische Justiz 2, no. 4 (1969) p.339

23 A. Von Der Goltz, ‘Other '68ers in West Berlin: Christian Democratic Students and the Cold War City’ in Central European History 50, no. 1 (2017) pp.87-88.

24 Saß, 'Demonstrationen gegen den Vietnamkrieg' (photo).

25 A. J. Nicholls, 'Rosa Luxemburg and Lenin' in History 51, no. 173 (1966) p.331; I would not recommend this source as an unbiased source on her life and chances for success, but it does provide the key events mentioned here.

26 Clemons and Jones, ‘Global Solidarity’ pp.197-198; Waldschmidt-Nelson, 'We Shall Overcome' p.79.

27 Ibid. p.78.

28 Ibid. p.81.

29 T. Hesterberg, 'Rudi Dutschke auf einer Demonstration in Berlin, Anfang 1968: Der Wortführer der Studentenbewegung Rudi Dutschke (rechts), auf einer Demonstration in Berlin im Gespräch mit dem Black-Power-Aktivisten Dale A. Smit​h von der SNCC' in SZ Foto (photo) (Berlin 1968).[]=0000097%7C%7CHesterberg%2C+Thomas&ENHANCED_FORMAT[]=landscape&EVENT=WEBSHOP_SEARCH Accessed 17.5.2021.

30 Waldschmidt-Nelson, 'We Shall Overcome' p.81.

31 Ibid.

32 Ibid.

33 Ibid.

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Transnational influences on student activism. The West German SDS and its peace and third world activism against the Vietnam War
VU University Amsterdam
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transnational, west, german, vietnam
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Cornelia Jürgens (Author), 2021, Transnational influences on student activism. The West German SDS and its peace and third world activism against the Vietnam War, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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