The people who led the worldwide revolt of 1968 are leaving us. On August 29, Hans-Christian Ströbele died at 83. He once served as a defense lawyer for West Berlin’s rebellious students, and later was elected as the Green Party MP for Kreuzberg. Half a year earlier, Alain Krivine — a face of the Night of the Barricades in Paris’s Latin Quarter — passed away at 80.
I want to dedicate this column to another Alt-68er who is not as well known. A mass movement requires not only charismatic speakers, but also lots of technicians working behind the scenes.
He could end any student occupation without calling the police — all he needed was a crate of beer and a night to discuss with them.
Hans-Joachim Rieseberg was known to everyone, even his family, as “Riese” (which is German for “giant”). He was actually rather short. He came to West Berlin shortly before 1968 to study architecture at the Technical University. He was soon part of the TU’s student government (the ASTA) and the Extra-Parliamentary Opposition (the APO). An early picture of him shows him occupying the roof of the TU’s main building, a red APO flag waving in the wind.
The big names of West Berlin’s student movement were all from the Free University. But the FU campus is all the way down in Dahlem, surrounded by villas. If a few thousand Berlin radicals needed to meet up, there was no better place than the TU. TU activists served as the technicians of the movement: they organized meeting spaces and printed fliers.
The biggest teach-ins and congresses took place in the TU’s brutalist Audimax. Every year on July 4, the U.S. Army would hold a parade down Straße des 17. Juni. The ASTA would hang speakers out their windows in the main building and blast the Internationale and other revolutionary songs — by 1973, the military was forced to abandon their ritual.
Riese liked to tell a story about a meeting in 1969 when a border dispute was escalating between the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China. A young Maoist sympathizer called out: “We have to stop the Russians at the Ussuri River!” Riese wondered aloud how they were supposed to get to a river near Siberia’s Pacific coast. This was taken as evidence that people from the Technical University couldn’t think politically: “You’re a technocrat, Riese!”
I interviewed Riese several years ago while preparing a walking tour about 1968, which later became Chapter 6 in my book. His life’s trajectory led him to radicalism. As a small child, bombs fell on multiple homes where he was living. Later in school, he was taught by unrepentant former Nazis. So he was always a passionate opponent of war and fascism. He was never exactly a socialist or a follower of any particular ideology. His principles were summed up by the battle cry of his generation: anti-authoritarianism.
As the movement died down, many abandoned street protests for a “long march through the institutions” (in the words of Rudi Dutschke). For Riese, this meant switching sides: from the ASTA to the Presidium of the TU. He stayed there for decades, with interruptions, ending up as the head of the building division. He was responsible for the Volkswagen library (pictured above) and also for removing the parking lot in front of the main building (thanks!).
By the time he retired, Riese was very much part of The Establishment, running Berlin’s central library and sitting on the committee that planned the Humboldt Forum. Unlike many other Alt-68ers, he never apologised for his radical past — in fact he always felt like a rebel against the system he helped administer.
He was taught by unrepentant former Nazis. So he was always a passionate opponent of war and fascism.
When I was studying at the Free University (many decades later), the administrators were a generation younger than Riese. They had grown up in neoliberalism and had zero experience with protests. When they were confronted with any form of civil disobedience, the only thing they knew how to do was panic and call the cops. Riese just laughed — today’s protests never struck him as particularly threatening. He said he could end any student occupation without calling the police — all he needed was a crate of beer and a night to discuss with them.
In his free time, Riese became an expert on windmills. He not only wrote a book: in the 1980s, he purchased an old post mill from East Germany that was brought back to the Museum of Technology. You can still see it on the museum grounds today.
Riese’s most lasting contribution was his activism against the Autobahn and advocating for a city without cars. Can you believe that they wanted to build highways right through the middle of West Berlin? One, called the West-Tangente, was going to run from Schöneberg to Moabit. The entire Oranienplatz was going to be bulldozed to make room for freeway interchange. It was civic protests, that stopped the horror of the “auto-friendly city.” That makes me optimistic that we can stop the latest plans for car-based mass destruction.
Riese passed away on August 28, at age 80. The 1968 movement left behind countless lessons for our protests today. But increasingly, we are going to have to learn those lessons from books, because so many of the eyewitnesses are no longer around.
Read more about 1968 in West Berlin in Nathaniel Flakin’s new anticapitalist guide book Revolutionary Berlin, available now from Pluto Press. 304 pages, €18.99 / £14.99.