1968/2018: Cities on the Edge

Investing in Insurrection: The Arts & Education Infrastructure of West Berlin’s Red Decade

Shane Boyle
School of English and Drama, Queen Mary University of London
November 6, 2018
Tuesday
11:00 am – 12:15 pm
School of Architecture – South Gallery
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From campus occupations to urban riots, West Berlin was without a doubt the center of the West German 1968. But what was it about the isolated Cold War city in the late 1960s and early 1970s that made it a locus of political struggle? This talk examines how state investment in education and arts infrastructure, intended to bolster West Berlin against a communist threat, actually helped transform the city into a hotbed for movements against capital and imperialism.

At first glance, much about West Berlin in the 1960s would seem to mitigate revolutionary struggle: the city lacked industry and, with this, a strong workers’ movement; it was the most heavily policed city in the Federal Republic; its citizens were, by and large, proudly pro-American and staunchly anti-Soviet. Nonetheless, West Berlin was where many of the period’s major political upheavals would unfold. It was here that Rudi Dutschke and the anti-authoritarian wing of the student movement found a foothold. It was here that the first squats emerged. And it was here that activists from around the world gathered for key meetings that built international solidarity with Vietnam, Cuba, Iran and the Congo.

Scholars have suggested various explanations for why West Berlin became a center of struggle in the late 1960s, ranging from its prominence in the global media to more prosaic facts like the quality of its public transportation system, which Eric Hobsbawm once credited as a reason “the west Berlin student [were] a rather effective body of rioters.” This talk does not ignore such arguments; instead, it adds to them by focusing attention on how government investment in the city itself amounted to investment in insurrection.

Dr. Boyle will concentrate on two sites of investment that made West Berlin especially ripe for revolt. In an effort to keep the city populated and culturally vibrant, the government provided generous subsidies for education and the arts. This included grants and stipends to attract students and artists, many of whom would take the lead in various political movements. Likewise, the city’s generous funding of civic institutions, especially the Free University of Berlin and theater venues like the Schaubühne, inadvertently supported crucial arenas for movement organizing. By focusing on such sites of civic investment, this talk examines how state efforts at hemming in radical struggle actually worked to foster it.

Shane Boyle works in the Drama Department at Queen Mary University of London. His forthcoming books include Nazi Punching and Other Anti-Fascist Theatrics in Post-War West Germany and Logistical Aesthetics: Performance in an Age of Supply Chain Capital. He is also co-editor of Postdramatic Theatre and Form.

Moderator: Judith Hamera, Princeton Lewis Center