Forty years ago this spring, when rebellious students ran wild across western Europe, stopping France dead in its tracks, their mini-revolution had a bogus feeling. The high-spirited rhetoric seemed to me fuelled more by hatred of parents and teachers than by plans for the future.
American students, outraged by the Vietnam War and dedicated to unseating president Lyndon Johnson, inspired the Europeans. While ostensibly hating America, young European socialists imitated Americans, beginning in Berlin in February with a Vietnam Congress at which students lined up to denounce the U.S. government.
When the revolt spread to Britain, I saw a version of it up close. Students seized control of the Hornsey College of Art in London, denouncing bourgeois education. Arriving to make a CBC documentary, I discovered them having the time of their lives. They were playing faculty, boasting that they had liberated the faculty washrooms. I remember best a spokesman who said this was great preparation for the career he planned in public relations. (Authorities reclaimed the campus when students went home for summer break.)
Still, some Europeans recall 1968 as their shining hour, their generation's emblematic year. One who doesn't is Gotz Aly, a German historian and journalist, who summarized his views in a book, Our Struggle: 1968 -- A Look Back in Vexation. In 1968 he carried a Mao placard on a march in Berlin. "We were all Maoists," he says now. Today he thinks the anti-Americanism expressed by young German rebels was an elaborate evasion: "They avoided confronting the Nazi crimes of their parents and searched instead for mass murderers in Washington."
Truly terrible events occurred in 1968. Assassins killed Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy. The Soviets extinguished a tentative democracy in Czechoslovakia with 5,000 tanks. Mao Zedong, pursing the hideous Cultural Revolution, announced that educated people in cities would be shipped to farm camps for re-education. Police and rioters fought bitterly in the Chicago streets as the Democrats chose their presidential nominee, Hubert Humphrey, who then lost the election to Richard Nixon.
In Canada Pierre Trudeau, favourite of the young, became prime minister at a groovy, swinging Liberal convention.
The focus everywhere was on the young because they were so loud, so insolent, so numerous. Newspaper columnists laboured to explain "what the kids are saying." Students manipulated television news whenever they seized public buildings or campuses.
All protests were against institutions in the West, none against Mao or the Soviets. It seemed that an entire generation had turned political. No one guessed that they would lose their ideology as quickly as they had acquired it.
While it lasted, the rebellion sometimes felt like a movie, and in France it was appropriately triggered partly by film lovers. The May riots, by far the largest of European demonstrations, started after a one-time revolutionary, André Malraux, France's culture minister, fired Henri Langlois from his job running the Cinémathèque Française, citing administrative incompetence. Admirers of Langlois, including Francois Truffaut, the most popular of young filmmakers, were joined by thousands of students in public protests. Eventually Malraux backed down but only after demonstrations became city-wide and then nation-wide. Fresh grievances were added as unions joined up, and eventually everyone agreed the villain was president Charles de Gaulle.
Some 800,000 workers and students marched across Paris chanting "De Gaulle assassin." Some, perhaps recalling movies about 1789, actually ripped up cobblestones to throw at police. A national strike disrupted rail and air travel.
In Canada we prepared a warm welcome for American draft dodgers. The House of Anansi Press published a Manual for Draft-Age Immigrants to Canada, edited by Mark Satin, a 21-year-old dodger from Wichita Falls, Tex. Six editions sold 65,000 copies. It informed possible immigrants: "You do not leave civilization behind when you cross the border ... Canada is a nice place to be."
When 1968 ended and things calmed down, much of what had happened seemed silly, a mass exercise in self-congratulation. Last week Tom Stoppard, the Czech-born playwright, said he didn't like 1968 much at the time (he was 31) and finds it embarrassing and repulsive in retrospect. "I loved the music and the dressing up but I couldn't take to the dialogue: a reductive argot of comrade-jargon and bogus wisdom derived from misunderstood eastern religions," words close to those he gives a character in his play, Rock 'n' Roll, which begins in 1968. His recent article in The Sunday Times of London carried the headline, "The year of the posturing rebel." Sounds about right to me.