One, Two, Three, Many 1968s? Lessons and Legacies of the 1960s

On Wednesday, May 14, the German Historical Institute hosted a panel discussion with Tom Hayden, Patty Lee Parmalee, and Norman Birnbaum on the lessons and legacies of the 1960s. The conversation focused on the impact of the 1960s on culture and society and the decade’s relevance for the upcoming presidential election in the U.S. 

Norman Birnbaum, now University Professor Emeritus at Georgetown University Law Center, was one of the founding editors of the New Left Review which had a significant influence on the British New Left in the early 1960s. Birnbaum described his encounters with the British and French New Left as formative for his later thinking and activism in the U.S. He argued, however, that despite the international dimension of the youthful eruptions during the 1960s there was still a particular national flavor to the various protest movements across the globe.

Patty Lee Parmalee, who was active in the American and German student movements during the 1960s, recalled her journey from UC Irvine, where she co-founded an SDS chapter, to the Free University of Berlin at the end of 1967. In Berlin, Parmalee participated in the activities of the West German SDS (Sozialistischer Deutscher Studentenbund – Socialist German Student Union) and was especially impressed by the theoretical level of the debates among student activists.  In her view, today's representations of the 1960s in fiction and public discourse are often distorted by the role of violence during and at the end of the decade.

Tom Hayden, one of the leading members of the American SDS (Students for a Democratic Society) who has been called the "single greatest figure of the 1960s student movement" (New York Times), also firmly defended the legacy of sixties' activism. Pointing to achievements in the field of civil rights legislation, voting age (18-year-old vote), and environmental laws and consciousness, among others, Hayden argued that the "sixties ended when the sixties won." He explained that for him and his generation, the murders of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy had a devastating impact and unjustly turned the image of this very progressive decade into one of chaos.

All three panelists commented upon the striking differences between the Cold War 1960s to our contemporary situation, but saw the two different legacies of the "sixties" embodied in the upcoming U.S. elections between Barack Obama and John McCain, which provoked an engaged discussion with the audience.

The panel discussion was moderated by Philipp Gassert and Martin Klimke (both GHI Washington) and was part of a film series entitled "Revolution is in the Streets: The Sixties from an International Perspective" from May 5-21 in cooperation with the Goethe-Institute Washington.

Martin Klimke