THE ERUPTION OF STUDENT PROTEST in the 1960s was a global phenomenon, the magnitude of which was acknowledged by contemporary observers, enthusiastic supporters, and fierce critics alike. A CIA report on “Restless Youth” from September 1968 stated, “Youthful dissidence, in volving students and nonstudents alike, is a world-wide phenomenon. . . . Because of the revolution in communications, the ease of travel, and the evolution of society everywhere, student behavior never again will resemble what it was when education was reserved for the elite. . . . Thanks to the riots in West Berlin, Paris, and New York and sit-ins in more than twenty other countries in recent months, student activism has caught the attention of the world.”
The extraordinary nature of the 1960s and the annus mirabilis 1968 are hardly disputable today. The long “sixties” are commonly remembered as an era of global change, producing a historical caesura, culturally as well as politically. In numerous countries, images of protest, generational revolt, countercultural indulgence, sexual liberation, and government repression circulate in the public memory of those years. Young people rebelled against what they saw as outdated traditional values and politics, expressing a widening gap between the generations. The outstanding historical characteristic of the sixties is that they transgressed the ideological fronts of the cold war. Not only the “First World” of Western capitalism but also the “Second World” of the Communist bloc and the “Third World” in Latin America, Africa, and Asia were shattered by largely unexpected internal ruptures. As historian Eric Hobsbawm argues, the miraculous year “1968” was already an indication that the “golden age” was coming to an end. It was the climax of various developments that had been set in motion due to the immense speed of the social and economic transformations after the Second World War: a dramatic increase in university enrollment, a globalized media landscape that allowed an almost instantaneous spread of news and images, as well as an economic prosperity that fed the rising purchasing power of youth.
Whether we describe sixties’ protest as a revolution in the world-system, a global revolutionary movement, or a conglomerate of national movements with local variants but common characteristics, its transnational dimension was one of its crucial motors. As the French student leader Daniel Cohn-Bendit conceded, “Paris, Berlin, Frankfurt, New York, Berkeley, Rome, Prague, Rio, Mexico City, Warsaw—those were the places of a revolt that stretched all around the globe und captured the hearts and dreams of a whole generation. The year 1968 was, in the true sense of the word, international.” His British counterpart, Tariq Ali, even likened the impact of this year to a storm, which swept across the world and hit numerous countries in Asia, Europe, and the Americas.