Distant Strawberries

The day Robert Kennedy was assassinated, I graduated from high school. The war in Vietnam was escalating (and was the main topic of the valedictorian speech at school, much to the chagrin of many teachers). The Parisian May made ripples through Europe. News from faraway places like Berkeley and Columbia, and from closer places such as Berlin and Frankfurt, reverberated among Western European youth. The Prague Spring was yet to meet its fatal end. And in the middle of all this, even Vienna was changing.

I was coming back to a city that my family and I had left seven years earlier and that in the meantime I had seen only occasionally. I remembered grey houses and grey people. A complacent, obedient petty bourgeoisie had been busy building the Austrian Wirtschaftswunder and plastering over the past – the end of the Third Reich was after all just two decades away. The Viennese believed in God (though only in a somewhat sloppy, casual Austrian way) and in the immutable truth that their city was the cultural center of the universe. They were shocked when they discovered that not everybody shared that belief, not even within their own borders. The sixties were knocking on the city’s gates.

What struck me, what struck many people, was the fact that in Vienna, the year 1968 exploded not so much in the form of endless political discussions – that was more characteristic of German universities; nor was there much direct political action going on, as Paris witnessed it; and the student tactics of sit-ins, go-ins and passive resistance were yet to be imported from the States.

No, the most talked-about event was actually an art performance. It was indeed not of the traditional sort, and involved cutting up meat and defecating while proclaiming the 10 Commandments and singing the national anthem. But it was immediately picked up by the media (“Shit-in!”) and turned into a major scandal. As satirist Karl Kraus had put it decades earlier: “The scandal begins when the police puts an end to it.”

The overblown reaction of law and order had an unanticipated consequence. It galvanized a movement – actually many movements – that for the first time seriously questioned the status quo in the university system, in Austrian politics, in the self-congratulatory social partnership system. We, the students, were a small minority. We may have fooled ourselves about the influence we thought we had on the course of affairs. But we added color to at least parts of Vienna, literally and figuratively speaking. Something resembling a subculture was blossoming beyond the hermetic compounds of the art scene. In some neighborhoods you were not called a dirty Beatle when your hair was longer than military cut. There was a politicized youth scene that was not right-wing.

This was not much. But it helped bring the city, and the country, into the present. It also spawned more strictly political movements – there were Maoist groups, in-fighting Trotskyites and one student leader who kept a list of all the class enemies that would be “liquidated after the revolution”. We had our share of careerists disguised as radicals, and of others who really led a radical life before they, too, were sucked up into careers. (Some now occupy high-ranking posts in ministries and banks; surviving a Leninist organization may have taught them all the corporate survival skills they needed).

We had dreamers – actually, most of us probably were dreamers. But I wouldn’t have missed any of those dreams. We hoped that we could turn the petrified educational structures into something more alive, rewarding, relevant, “emancipatory” was the word. In a way, we may have succeeded, though the change was overdue anyway. And little did we know that our efforts would result in a streamlined university system that churns out diligent, well-adjusted employees.

The larger picture was that the city and the country, too, underwent a process of modernization, and it is hard to say in retrospect whose fault or merit this was. Austria was at the beginning of more than a decade of a relatively liberal social democratic government. Structural reforms were necessary. The first tender signs sprang up/were visible of a civil society that believed not only in the existing parties, but in independent and creative thought.

And yes, there was a second wave of protest and radical challenge of the status quo: In the mid-seventies, the occupation of an abandoned slaughterhouse in t he district of Simmering led to the “Arena movement,” the beginning of the Green party and assorted other signs that Vienna was becoming a more complex urban space.

All this happened decades before the Internet and an instantly connected public sphere. Likewise, it had taken some time until the unrest at American universities became more than media notes from distant continents. About a year after the occupation of Columbia University in New York and the subsequent war-like conflicts between students and the police, a book came out: “The Strawberry Statement,” a passionate account by James Kunen, a Columbia student who had witnessed those events on campus. Another year went by until I was able to read it, in German.

“Das Erdbeeren-Manifest” gave me the strong feeling that that was where I wanted to go next. The years in Vienna may have added to this. It was good to leave, for a while.

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