Revisiting East Europe's class of '68
Budapest — WHATEVER happened to the college radicals of the 1960s? On a recent evening in the Hungarian capital, many of Eastern Europe's graduates of that tumultuous decade assembled in an apartment to watch ``Revolution Revisited,'' a video film interviewing their former student idols. Danny (the Red) Cohn-Bendit, the film's director and leader of the 1968 Paris student demonstration, explains how student fervor in the West has waned. On the screen, Yippie-turned-yuppie Jerry Rubin flashes his American Express card.
The audience sits stunned.
``How could he?'' stammers an angry Jan Kavan, an exiled Czech dissident who now runs the London-based Palach Press publishing house. ``We East Europeans are the only true radicals left. We're the only ones who didn't sell out.''
In Eastern Europe, as in the United States and Western Europe, the '60s were a period of campus upheaval. But while Western protesters have been integrated into society, their Eastern European counterparts have moved further and further away from their countries' communist establishments.
Today, their numbers read like a Who's Who of the opposition, Miklos Haraszti, Janos Kis, and Laszlo Raijk in Hungary, Adam Michnik and Jacek Kuron in Poland, and Petr Uhl and Jan Kavan in Czechoslovakia. These men came from communist families - Western student radicals often came from middle-class families.
``We were all children of the system, good loyal communists,'' says Miklos Haraszti, the Hungarian dissident. ``Communism was our culture, our lives.''
When Hungarians revolted in 1956, Haraszti was 11 years old, old enough to recall his parents' ``embarrassment and fright'' but too young to lose his communist faith. As with other dissidents, the break only came after he went to university and became inspired by his student colleagues in the West.
``We called a general assembly to demand student power like in France, Germany, and America,'' Haraszti recalls. ``The police crushed us and I was put under police surveillance.''
The youthful communists were shocked.
``In the West, we saw that students were allowed to protest and not here,'' he says. ``That turned our heads upside down.''
A similar revelation took place in Poland. Until 1968, Michnik and Kuron considered themselves critical communists. In that year, they led a group of students to lay a wreath at the monument to Adam Mickiewicz, Poland's national poet. The authorities correctly viewed the gesture as a protest against censorship.
By Western standards, the student action was a mild protest. In Poland, it was a first. Michnik and his friends were beaten by police goons, arrested, and sentenced to several months in prison. After their release, they were not allowed to return to university.
A critical event now intervened - the ``Prague spring.'' Unlike Western students, the Eastern Europeans did not find inspiration in opposing American involvement in Vietnam. They say it seemed too far away, too abstract. But when Soviet soldiers, with help from Hungarian, Polish, and East German contingents, invaded Czechoslovakia in 1968, the East European students discovered their own Vietnam right next door.
``The system that proclaimed freedom attacked defenseless students with inspired goons and vigilantes; the system that proclaimed liberty sent tanks into Czechoslovakia,'' Michnik told a New York Times interviewer. ``This is the point where I said to myself, halt, stop, I do not want anything to do with the system. I am no longer the heretic. I cut my umbilical cord to communism. What they are for, I am against.''
In Czechoslovakia, the presence of Soviet tanks created a different situation. Czechoslovak student leaders like Kavan felt obligated to flee their homeland. In exile, they continue to provide an invaluable service by publishing dissident documents.
Student leaders such as Michnik and Haraszti played a preeminent role in organizing the opposition in their countries. In Czechoslovakia, the students who remained at home played an eminent, but certainly not preeminent, role in founding the human rights group, Charter 77. Charter embraced a wide range of personalities, from older, former high-ranking communist officials like Foreign Minister Jiri Hayek to conservative writers such as Vaclav Havel.
Czechoslovakia's class of '68 is notable for another reason. While the Hungarians and Polish graduates are totally cynical about communism, Kavan and his friends remain socialists, albeit democratic socialists violently critical of Czechoslovakia's present totalitarian regime.
``I still consider myself a Marxist, like the students of 1968,'' smiles Petr Uhl, a Charter founder. ``In June 1968 I was in Paris, seeing what had happened the month before. I was friends with the whole band.''
Over the years, the purity of these friendships has been diluted. Like other East European dissidents, Uhl has not been permitted to travel abroad. Some of his French friends like Trotskyist leader Alain Krivine continue to visit him in Prague. Most don't bother. Cohn-Bendit, for example, didn't include any East Europeans in his film.
``Western Europe seems so far away,'' Uhl admits. ``Their student movement had a chance to be heard. Ours didn't.''
In the West, it was possible for Cohn-Bendit and Rubin to renounce some of their original positions, find a niche for their ideas and their talents, even change the status quo. Cohn-Bendit joined the West German Greens party and now publishes a counterculture magazine. Rubin traveled much further down the bourgeois road, giving up his T-shirts for three-piece suits. He now makes a living by throwing Perrier parties for young business people.
In the East, such integration was impossible. Once an Eastern European student took part in a protest at university, he or she never could go back. Uhl lost any chance to continue his studies and teach; he now works as a stoker. Michnik worked for a while as a welder in the Rosa Luxemburg electric light-bulb factory. Even in Hungary, perhaps the most liberal East European state, Haraszti's sociological writings were banned.
``The Western system was able to absorb people with so many different interests,'' says Hungarian dissident Janos Kis, ``while our system made it impossible to have an official career unless you followed the official line and thought the same as everybody else.''
These differences between East and West are captured in a new Hungarian film entitled ``The Great Generation.'' It explores the path of two Hungarian student friends. One leaves for the United States in 1968, the other remains in Budapest.
Two decades later, the American returns and all he can talk about is his business, his cocaine habit, his lost wife, his child. The Hungarian doesn't understand. He is not a dissident, but he remains youthful, working as a disc jockey and driving a brightly colored jalopy.
``In the West, the class of '68 got older and preoccupied with family and success,'' explains Andras Ferenc, director for the film, himself a '60s graduate. ``In the East, we still hold up our roses and dream.''