Mrs. Rudi Dutschke

Gretchen Dutschke on the day they shot Rudi, the man behind the 1968 icon and how she thinks he is still being misportrayed.

Image for Mrs. Rudi Dutschke

Photo by Karolina Spolniewski

Gretchen Dutschke on the day they shot Rudi, the man behind the 1968 icon and how she thinks he is still being misportrayed.

Image for Mrs. Rudi Dutschke

Photo by Karolina Spolniewski

Rudi Dutschke was already one of the most charismatic leaders of the Berlin student movement, when an almost successful assassination attempt on April 11, 1968 catapulted him to iconic status (10 years ago Berlin even named a street after him which runs next to the headquarters of the conservative Springer Verlag, the newspaper publisher held morally responsible for the shooting at the time). A hero for some, he’s also still misrepresented by many, says Gretchen Klotz (known as Gretchen Dutschke), his American-born widow and the mother of his three children who came back to Berlin nine years ago after many years in the US. Her lifelong effort at righting the narrative about both her husband and the student movement has taken the shape of two books and regular tributes. We met the 78-year-old in her Friedrichshain apartment for a chat about her latest book 1968, Worauf wir stolz sein dürfen (“1968, What we Can be Proud of”) and her memories of Rudi.

In 1996 you already told your story of Rudi Dutschke in Wir hatten ein barbarisch schönes Leben. Why a new book now? 

It’s about how the anti-authoritarian movement has changed Germany. Up until recently the student movement has either been forgotten or demonised. Three years ago, Deutsches Historisches Museum had an exhibition on the RAF [terrorist cell Rote Armee Fraktion]. In the brochure, they had a picture of Rudi, and the way it was presented, it implied that he was a terrorist! I spoke to one of the organisers and I said that I was the wife of Rudi Dutschke, and I found this very upsetting. And he said he did too and he encouraged me to complain to the museum. The next day I got an answer and they said they would change it. They threw that brochure out and made a new one where Rudi wasn’t shown to be a terrorist.

Having Rudi portrayed that way must have conjured up some bad memories from the 1960s when he was already called a terrorist, right? Some people were violently opposed to students like him…  

Absolutely, and it was encouraged by the Springer press. There was a very strong antistudent sentiment, fostered and sustained by their publications. They would call left-leaning students “terrorists” and even “Nazis”, which was completely ridiculous, of course. 

What was society like back then? 

Nazi. It had only been 19 years since the war had ended, and people hadn’t changed. They had no reason to do so.  But of course at the same time there were all these young folks coming to Berlin because they heard about the student movement. There were clashes and a lot of aggression. Rudi would be attacked. Once he was in a taxi and a whole bunch of people tried to corner him. And then we just had people throw shit in the hall or scrawl “Death to Rudi” on the walls. Things like that would happen all the time, even before Rudi’s picture was all over the news.

And you blame the Springer press for adding fuel to the fire?

The guy who shot him said he had read [Springer tabloid] B.Z. That’s where he got the idea to do it.

When one thinks of German terrorists, the RAF come to mind. What did Rudi think of them?

He actually knew some of those people. He talked to Ulrike Meinhof and Horst Mahler before they went underground, trying to convince them not to use violence, that it was a really a big mistake which would destroy the movement. He was right, of course, but they didn’t listen to him. Later, when they were in jail, he still tried to make them acknowledge that they had made a mistake. After all, they still had an influence on people who were joining the RAF then. Rudi said they were so wrapped up in their own thoughts that they were incapable of listening to anyone with a different point of view. He was very sad about that.

What do you remember from the day that Rudi was shot?

Rudi had a cold so he went to get nose drops, but he also had to go to the SDS [Socialist German Student League] house to pick up some papers or bring some papers there. So he left to do both of those things. I had a baby that was only a few months old, so I waited for him at home. At some point I got a strange phone call from someone saying that Rudi was dead. I thought it was a joke and didn’t believe it. Then Rudi’s friend Gaston [Chilean writer Gaston Salvatore] came by. There was another phone call about Rudi being dead and Gaston said he thought it might be true. He called the police and they confirmed it. By then I was screaming, completely beside myself. Gaston called the morgue and found out that Rudi wasn’t dead, but that he was in hospital.

So you went to the hospital to see him.

Gaston took me. There were already hundreds of people there. When we got in, the doctor told us he had to operate to remove the bullets from Rudi. He had two in his head and one in his shoulder. He didn’t know how bad the brain damage was and if Rudi would survive the operation. All we could do was sit there and wait. At one point, I had to go home because the baby needed to be nursed. After many hours, the doctors came and told us the operation was done, but they still didn’t know how he might be affected because he was unconscious. Of course he got better, but never entirely recovered as you know. 

Can you tell us about how you and Rudi first met? You had come to Germany to study philosophy, right?

Yes, my plan was to go get a graduate degree in philosophy and I came to Germany in 1964 to learn German. I first met Rudi at a Kneipe on Steinplatz, where many Gammler (the German equivalent of beatniks) and Marxists and all kinds of artists used to get together. The bar had beer tables outside and there were so many young people there, it was hard to find a place to sit. When I did find an empty space, it happened to be next to Rudi. He had a huge pile of books in front of him, and I think I must have asked him about them. He was studying sociology at Freie Universität and told me he was a revolutionary. It was pretty much love at first sight.

As someone coming from a conservative family in suburban Illinois – how did it feel to meet a self-dubbed “revolutionary”?

Well, I could have said that it was all too crazy for me, but it was really rather exciting. It is true that my own upbringing was extremely conservative and religious. But I actually started being a beatnik in high school. I remember this article in Life Magazine about beatniks and the girls in the photos wearing black tights. I got myself a pair, and it caused a scandal at home. My mother wouldn’t let me go to church that day – for fear of what people might think! When I got to college, I involved myself with the student movement there and took part in demonstrations, that was in ‘62 and ‘63. So I understood right away what Rudi was all about, and it wasn’t all news to me. 

What were your first impressions of Berlin back then? 

That it was really poor. I lived in a war-scarred building in Spichernstraße, Wilmersdorf, where the top floor didn’t exist; it had been bombed away. It looked pretty bad. The Wall hadn’t been there that long, and I remember it being quite scary to be at the frontline of the Cold War. At the same time I was just really curious. I went over to East Berlin and saw how bleak it was. Very, very grey. And black, too, from the bombs and fires, I guess. Demographically speaking, the city was a pretty old one, and although young men from West Germany were coming to Berlin to evade military service, overall there were more young people leaving. There weren’t many job opportunities, and compared to now there were also very few children here. 

We had people throwing shit in the hall and scrawl ‘Death to Rudi’ on the walls.”

What did Rudi’s political involvement look like at that point in 1964?

He was part of a small group called Subversive Aktion and they had a small magazine, Anschlag where they would publish their theoretical ideas on Marxism and socialism. They were also big into the Frankfurt School – Horckheimer, Marcuse, Adorno. Rudi was in favour of democratic communism and criticising what was being practised by authoritarian regimes like the GDR.

Was that why he left East Germany?

He was a refugee. He had fled the GDR because his religious background meant that he wasn’t allowed to study there. You see, he had belonged to the church and a Christian youth group. His religious upbringing also informed his political perspective. I think he liked the idea of combining Christianity and socialism. I don’t think the press at that time mentioned that at all. Anyway, the guy who shot Rudi was a member of a neo-Nazi group which supplied the weapon. The Stasi knew they were handing out guns but didn’t prevent it.

He was also part of the Socialist German Students’ Union and organising demonstrations.

Yes, it was the idea for a demonstration that brought him in touch with the SDS. In 1964, Congo’s prime minister Moise Tschombé, the guy who had murdered Patrice Lumumba, the Congolese independence leader, was due to come to Berlin, and Rudi wanted to organise a protest during the visit. You see, Lumumba was socialist and wanted to make changes in his country, especially against the colonial powers that were still influential there. So Rudi went to the African students association and the SDS and asked them if they were interested. And that demonstration marked the beginning of the German student movement everyone now associates with 1968.

And do you remember that demonstration?

At the time, I was visiting home in the US, but I remember Rudi being angry because the police didn’t allow them to demonstrate in front of Rathaus Schöneberg, where Tschombé was expected. His idea was to march at the back of the demonstration on its permitted route and then turn around and walk towards the Rathaus anyway. He was hoping that everyone would follow him, and they did. There were only a couple of police in the back and they couldn’t stop them. When they saw that Rudi was the ringleader, they tried to catch him. But he was a really good athlete and he ran. They didn’t get him.

What were his strengths as a leader?

His strength was that he had no fear. He was very strong. He could also talk loud so that people could hear him. I think that people were very impressed by him when they heard him talk. 

How would you describe the man you were married to? Was he any different in private from the public persona?

Not really. Rudi was someone who fundamentally cared about people, couldn’t bear to see suffering and never held a grudge. He even ended up exchanging letters with Josef Bachmann, the man who had shot him! He was hoping to help him see how he had been the object of Springer propaganda and become more aware of his own position [Bachmann committed suicide in his cell in 1970]. Other than that, Rudi was a good father. He would spend a lot of time with his children. He loved to play football with them. And he helped in the house. I’m a lousy chef, so his cooking skills were especially appreciated!

What do you think really drove him?

I think that it was probably his religious background. Jesus’ message was to love your neighbour. And if you love your neighbour you cannot see suffering without doing something about it. That’s what Rudi lived by. 

1942  Born in Oak Park, Illinois.

1964  Meets Rudi at a bar in Charlottenburg.

1968  Rudi is shot down on Ku’damm, the family leaves Berlin for England, then Denmark.

1979  Rudi dies aged 39 in Arhus, Denmark, from the injuries sustained in the shooting.

1996  Publishes Wir hatten ein barbarisch schönes Leben.

2009  Returns to Berlin.

2018 Publishes 1968, Worauf wir stolz sein dürfen.