Generation Conflict and the West German Student Movement of the 1960s
Dougherty, Carter S.
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The thesis of generation conflict offers the best explanation for the outbreak of a student protest movement in the late 1960s. To be sure, it belongs in a hierarchy of causes, but in a very high position. Students of the 1950s displayed the traditional characteristics of students that make them so protest-prone: concentration in a small area, plenty of free time, independence. But there was no protest movement comparable to that of the 1960s. The West German case also offers lessons for generational theory. The first is that the generation becomes a relevant and useful category of analysis in times of rapid social change. Germany is Exhibit A in this respect. Change which takes place over several generations - industrialization, for instance – does not expose the generation as a historically important category, because generations with different values do not coexist, and therefore do not conflict. Human beings live only so long. Second, the generation as a category is a fleeting and nebulous entity. Unlike, say, a Nineteenth-Century British working class, a generation unit and its demands are not at all concrete. Workers demand better wages and working conditions. Generation units demand moral acceptability and democratic accountability. Additionally, not every member of a historical generation (e.g. the "Post-Materialist Generation") is the same age. But historians cannot ignore the generation simply because it does not have crystal-clear boundaries. Finally, the historical generation is an aggregate-level phenomenon. The historian generally deals with the conflict of generations as wholes. As a rule, he/she is not interested in the dispute between Herr Schmidt and his son over the use of the family car. On the other hand, protests of young students against old politicians have historical relevance.