Contributions to the West German cultural revolution of 1967 / 8
A small town in Upper Bavaria in the year 1967. As school-children in the fifth form and lower sixth, having yawned ever more frequently through one of our mornings in school and then cycled back to where we lived, we couldn’t cope with being back home for very long. In the afternoon between four and five we were drawn back into town. Anyone who wasn’t at Tschibo on the market-place by this time, drinking a 20 pfennig cup of coffee, then standing around in front of Tschibo, or in good weather sitting opposite in front of the town-hall on the edge of the fountain, was missing out on life. Of course, life didn’t take place there, but it might have broken out at any time. We expected it any day. And whenever you weren’t standing there, clutching a cup of coffee, the yearning while at home with your homework would drive you crazy. Homework, as we already suspected, was not intended for life. Today of all days, right now, life might have happened and you wouldn’t have been there. Something was in the air.
Ground coffee, as it was often respectfully called, was a luxury until the beginning of the 1960s, the highlight of a Sunday afternoon or something for when you had guests. Now there were branches of Tschibo and Eduscho open everywhere. Our scene formed around them. Part of the attraction of Tschibo, which came over us every afternoon, was of course our fantasy that on this particular day one of those girls, Sabine for example, would stroll up and down between Eduscho in Poststrasse and Schmitz in Webergasse and then stop in front of Tschibo, perhaps just to wait for the bus, toss back her hair and smile briefly.
The differences between stand-up cafes like Tschibo or Eduscho and the plush Cafe Schmitz were subtle but significant. It had nothing to do with the taste of the coffee. These were markers for something which we didn’t even have signs for, never mind words. What was it?
You needed a very particular nose, often refined by puberty, to appreciate these nameless atmospheric mixes. Most people lose it later because they no longer want to be excited and confused by these elusive qualities. In us there stirred a sense of what might be possible. We were less interested in developing a feel for reality. The wonderful unfolding of our sense of the possible was confirmed when something very different happened between the people waiting at Tschibo than for those who had already arrived on the sofas at Cafe Schmitz.
For a while there were attempts at founding other tribes at Eduscho in Poststrasse. Let’s call them social liberals. But there was no chance of finding a middle ground between the dapper social-democrats and pop-consumers at Cafe Schmitz with their enthusiasm for dancing lessons, and those standing at Tschibo, mostly shut away in their own secret knowledge. Anyone who had any self-respect – whether a pupil at the posh grammar school specialising in classical languages where children of academics went, or at my grammar school which taught modern-languages and the sciences, or at St Catherine’s grammar school which then was all girls – stood at Tschibo and waited.
At Tschibo we saw the non-conformists from the performance workshop acting out life with limited props. Out of the corner of our eyes we watched 1960s small town bohemian life – artists, painters, theatrical people. For example Greif Felix Harden, a set-designer. Simply his name! And his bushy Günther Grass moustache. And the way he smoked Rot-Händle cigarettes. Greif Felix Harden was a complete poser. And the actress, Marie-Luise, in her long red hair and leather coat brought a scent of Paris to the coffee shop with her Gauloises. Later on she sang chansons, played in the first local psychodelic band, made a film and almost became famous.
Here we learned how to hold cigarettes that you could buy singly from “Tabak Panzer” near the bus-stop. Here we discovered the “Frankfurter Rundschau” and the “Spiegel”, the colourful Suhrkamp paperback series and the first pirated editions of “Dialectic of the Enlightenment”. Sometimes someone even brought along the latest “Pardon” or “Konkret”.
So there we stood with cigarettes and coffee, mostly wearing our olive green US parkas, if it wasn’t too hot at that moment, or at least wearing long thick scarves over our denim jackets. This gear, coffee and as a treat an occasional cigarette, these were three things that we needed to turn palid school-kids into real people. And Greif Felix Harden was master of these ritual devices. He raised his cigarette to his mouth like Sartre, with an intensity as if it were a joint (something that we only came to know and appreciate a year later). Like this, your breath became visible, and you could rant on incessantly at the same time. This, we felt, is how the real world functioned. That’s what it was all about at Tschibo. We could pick up expressions and collect gestures and signs. Cigarettes were a sign of subversion. Smoke was the flag of freedom.
Soon, an even clearer sign was the badge with the runic symbol of the opponents of nuclear weapons. It held the greatest fascination for us. Anyone who pinned on this badge was on the right side at that moment. They had made up their mind. They were in there, aware and saving the world, everyone could see it. This sign linked us schoolkids from the Upper Bavarian provinces with the Provos in Amsterdam and the students in Berkeley. We didn’t know much about either group, and yet we knew everything. People there were keen on getting publicity. They were trying out a sort of art of living, of which we had heard nothing up until then, but to which we had long since felt ourselves drawn as kindred spirits. An art of living which which was no longer to be limited to the private sphere. This art of living now got its name: politics.
The word had a ring to it. Nobody could have defined it, but we didn’t ask for a definition. We sensed it. We rubbed our eyes, and images which until now had been out of focus became clearer every day. Yes, we would have to do something like the Provos or something similar. In Amsterdam, for example, they handed out leaflets on which Queen Juliane announced under her letter-heading that she had become an anarchist and wanted to negotiate the transfer of power. From this the Amsterdam rebels gained a mandate in the local elections. In their first proposal to the city council, the White Travel Plan, they demanded that white bicycles be made available for use free of charge.
Then the pictures from Berkeley, the great Californian university, enhanced our attitude to life. There students were organising large assemblies, the teach-ins, in which they denounced the Vietnam war. “Teach-in” was soon understood as a magic word: having a voice. Or happenings which turned the whole town into a play-space, like the narrowly avoided pudding-attack on US Vice-President Humphrey, planned in Berlin by Kommune 1 and the subsequent courtroom farce with communard Fritz Teufel. These were actions which suited our taste for anarchy and revolt. They were simply awesome, another new word at that time. Such news made us wide awake.
With the sign of the opponents to nuclear weapons on our parkas, we had joined arms in an invisible chain of people. Everyone could see that now. With this sign we had begun our self-initiation. The new music was also part of this: the Beatles, the Stones, the Who and, of course, Jimi Hendrix. You seldom heard them on the radio. On a quest for these sounds, I had to search for ages on the radio and then frequently found them only on medium wave in the oscillating sound from the pirate radio station, Radio Caroline, which broadcast from a ship in the English Channel. In Bavaria you could only pick it up a bit in damp weather. I had to listen carefully to my “Philips-Philetta”. We had to pull our radio aerials out a long way.
In 1966, the book of photographs “Beat in Liverpool” by Juergen Suess and Gerold Dommermuth was published. I wanted it for Christmas and didn’t get it, but Klaus, the senior consultant’s son did. The photos of the Cavern Club where the Beatles played their first gigs hinted secretly at places where life surely tasted completely different, and was no comparison with what we knew from school or home. Precisely because these clues were so infrequent and constantly elusive, like “My Generation” in the evening on medium wave, they were so precious. And then “Beat-Klub” from Bremen. A constant battle to be allowed to switch on on Saturday afternoon. The atmosphere became more and more charged. Something had to happen. We were determined not to be bystanders. Surely, everything that came from the wider world had to be a possibility in the Bavarian provinces too. We were just 16 or 17 years old and hunting for a key signature into which to transcribe our own sound. We began to find a soundtrack all of our own, the soundtrack of revolt.
The events of 1968 cast a shadow ahead of themselves. We were called shady characters, layabouts, revolutionaries, communists, who should rather head straight over to the GDR. We still called it the “Ostzone” or “so-called GDR”. Of course we had nothing in common with them. But the moment we spoke of capitalism we were lumped together in this unwelcome association in which some would later become ensnared. We schoolchildren, who some time later, at the beginning of 1968, would go on to found the left-wing anti-authoritarian school students group, weren’t at first eyeing up school as the object of our desire for change. We were trying to escape it. For us an age of experimentation was dawning. We called ourselves the “antiauthoritarian movement”. We tried it out in school. We dyed our cord trousers, which had just come into fashion, red. And when the reactionary anti-communist and hard-liner, Barry Goldwater, was campaigning for the US presidency, we stuck a sticker for the campaign for disarmament on our classroom door. It said: “May God preserve us from Barry Goldwater and Franz Josef Strauß¨. And at night we painted in bright red lettering “Factory for Underlings” next to the main entrance. This was a test for the teachers. And the reaction along the lines of “fools daubing buildings and walls”, “communists”, “remote-controlled” … etc confirmed our opinions. At last the fronts were clearly drawn. The war generation of the teachers and fathers had an enemy again!