WARSAW – In Paris, West Berlin, London, and Rome, the spring of 1968 was marked by student protests against the Vietnam War. In Warsaw, too, students were protesting, but their cause was not the same as their Western counterparts. Young Poles took to the streets of Warsaw not to chant “Ho, Ho, Ho Chi Minh” in solidarity with the Viet Cong, but rather to defend their own country’s freedom and culture against a smothering Communist rule.
Instead of chanting Ho’s name, young Poles put flowers under the monument of Adam Mickiewicz, a nineteenth-century poet whose drama Forefathers Eve , written in praise of the struggle for freedom, had recently been declared subversive and anti-Soviet, and its performance at the National Theater in Warsaw closed down.
These are only a few of the differences between West and East European students in that springtime of rebellion of forty years ago. Although the two youthful revolts were undertaken by the same generation and took similar forms of street demonstrations and sit-ins, there were far more differences than similarities as students rebelled on both sides of the Iron Curtain.
It was, of course, the context that made the difference. The point of departure for Western students – freedom of speech and assembly, ideological pluralism, and a democratic political system – was, for their Eastern colleagues, a distant objective that they were unlikely to achieve.