“What was unique about 1968 was that people were rebelling over disparate issues and had in common only that desire to rebel, ideas about how to do it, a sense of alienation from the established order and a profound distaste for authoritarianism.” says Mark Kurlansky, author of 1968.
To some, 1968 was the year of sex, drugs, and rock and roll. People who came of age in 1968 immediately recognize each other as a “sixty-eighter”, no matter where in the world they spent that year and what they did.
It was the year when Dylan and Ginsberg became prophets, when TV began to change the media, when Negroes became Blacks, and we got the first pictures of the Earth from outer space. But it was mostly a terrible year: the year of the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy; the suppression of antiwar and pro-democracy student movements in the US, Poland, France and most violently, Mexico; the crushing Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia; and the largest single-year casualties in the Vietnam war, including the My Lai massacre.
The first student uprising in 1968, year of millennial hopes and young insurrections, took place in Warsaw. But the west’s media commemorations of 1968 – selective, supercilious about such idealism, and yet faintly nervous in case a new generation feels tempted into imitation – overlook Poland entirely.
For TV’s history programmes and newspapers’ Sunday supplements, it all happened in Paris, in Berkeley and (for the British media) in a few Vietnam demos in Grosvenor Square. And yet in Warsaw, that March, thousands of university students were battered down by police clubs and arrested, their teachers purged and exiled, in a battle for intellectual liberty against hopeless odds.
Like many great European stories, it began with a theatre performance.
For more detailed background, you can read it here.
The Gdańsk train station was the saddest place in Warsaw in March, 1968. The platform of the East-West line that brought the lucky ones to the West via Vienna or Paris was crowded with tearful families and goodbyes. There are hundreds of stories on the that day, every day. My friend Jurek has one of them. These are his pictures of that day. Just like the photos, it was gray and dreary. His mother and father are getting on the train. He thought he was too but he was denied permission at the last minute and had to wait 2 years before he was allowed to leave and reunited with his family in the States. Finally he was forced to renounce his Polish citizenship and apply for an Israeli emigration visa although he already had a US emigration visa and a plane ticket to Boston.
Jurek wrote a history of his story 10 years after arriving in the States. He calls it “My Class, 1964”. It’s in Polish and it might be worth the agony of putting it through Google translate to read a first person account of the turmoil of this period. You can read it here.
And what were you doing when you were 22?
And the theme song for this generation: