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DECEMBER 9, 2009 7:35AM

The tomato that launched a women's revolution

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A RECENT PRESS REPORT about a tomato that was inexpertly tossed in the direction of former Alaskan governor Sarah Palin in the Mall of America recalls a similar incident that occurred in Frankfurt forty-one years ago. That time the thrower not only had a better aim, but her historic toss also helped launch a revolution in the way women and men would see one another in Central Europe for the next four decades and beyond.

A whiff of revolution... and rotten fruit

Temperatures were rising on West German campuses in the late 1960s. Disgusted at what they perceived as a repressive conservative society wrapped around a loathsome Nazi past, a new generation of university students took to the streets, demanding a revolution in social relations. The movement they created has gone down in history as the "Extraparliamentary Opposition."

But society fought back. In 1967 a West Berlin policeman shot student Benno Ohnesorg dead during a demonstration against a state visit by the "fascist" Shah of Iran. The following spring, a young neonazi put a bullet through the skull of the young Marxist revolutionary Rudi Dutschke. Fidel Castro and Chairman Mao had by this time supplanted John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King as progressive role models. A range of new organisations sprang up, ranging from gentle pacifist groups dedicated to "free love" all the way to the bloodthirsty, bomb-throwing Red Army Faction. Those groups hovering in between, collectively known as Spontis (from the word "spontaneous"), skillfully captured headlines by occupying university buildings and publicly humiliating authority figures from the bourgeois "Establishment" - preferably by lobbing rotten fruit and vegetables at them. But despite their diversity, there is one thing all of these organisations shared in common: they were dominated by men.

The Socialist German Student Union (SDS), originally founded as an adjunct to the Social Democratic Party in 1946, was no exception. The further the group moved to the left, the less of a say women had in its decisions. Moreover, male activists were growing more macho by the minute and bragged publicly about their quickly rotating sex partners. Their favorite slogan was "Wer zweimal mit derselben pennt/Gehört schon zum Establishment." ("If you sleep with her twice, you're already part of the 'Establishment'"). And anyway, they liked to argue, with a revolution to fight, somebody had to clean the house, make the coffee, type the manuscripts, and look after the kids, right?

"Everybody talks about the weather. We don't."
Poster of the SDS (late 1960s) displaying the heads of Marx,
Engels, and Lenin - and not a single woman!

A young Frankfurt-based sociologist called Monika Seifert agreed that support was essential to social change. But why should only the women get their hands dirty? And why all of them at once? In 1967, inspired by the writings of psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich on self-regulation, Seifert developed the notion of the "Kinderladen" ("child shop)" ), a sort of anti-authoritarian kindergarten that was often opened up behind empty storefronts where preschoolers could be taken care of on a community and semi-voluntary basis with minimal supervision. Seifert believed that the Kinderladen system would provide inexpensive and progressive childcare while allowing mothers to become truly equal members of society and take part in political activities. A year later, Seifert's colleagues in the newly-formed "Action Council for the Liberation of Women" took their proposal to an SDS conference that was being held in Frankfurt on September 13, 1968.

The revolution devours its own children

Their goal was to get the SDS behind the Kinderladen idea and otherwise persuade it to listen to female concerns and fight for complete equality for women within the organisation. "The point is to change private life on a qualitative basis," one of their documents stated, "and to understand this change as a revolutionary act." But the male SDS members knew all about this sort of thing. They even had a word for it: Weiberkram ("women's crap").

The meeting began. After a dull theoretical discussion on "exploitationist capitalism," female SDS member called Helke Sander was finally granted the floor. Standing before a podium consisting solely of men, including star theoretician Hans-Jürgen Krahl, Sander patiently laid out the urgent need for Kinderläden and full gender equality.  Frustrated by the men's obvious indifference, she concluded her talk with these words: "Comrades, if you are not prepared to accept this discussion, which must be conducted on a practical basis, then we cannot fail to note that the SDS is nothing other than an inflated counter-revolutionary yeast dough. The female comrades will then know what conclusions to draw."

Hans-Juergen Krahl
Macho, charismatic, but not tomato-proof:
Marxist theoretician Hans-Jürgen Krahl

Krahl and his colleagues politely thanked her for her contribution and, as always,  immediately turned to their own agenda. That is when the pregnant SDS activist Sigrid Rüger jumped to her feet - and entered the history books. "Genosse Krahl!" she shouted. "Seen objectively, you are a counter-revolutionary and an agent of the class enemy too!" And with that she pulled a particularly juicy tomato out of the bag she had been clutching on her lap and launched it straight at Krahl's forehead. Bullseye! She tossed two more for good measure before Krahl could finally duck out of the line of fire.

sigrid rueger 
Blessed with a good throwing arm:
Women's rights activist Sigrid Rüger

Thus was born Germany's radical "New Women's Movement." Nothing would ever be the same again. Suddenly, women's councils popped up on college campuses across the country. In their women-only meetings, intriguing, unfamiliar new words like "patriarchy" and "phallocracy" were heard even more frequently than those old chestnuts "dictatorship of the proletariat" and "the imperialist American war in Vietnam." The works of Simone de Beauvoir and Betty Friedan passed from one eager pair of hands to the next. The private became political, as the revolution was extended to the bed, the kitchen, and the nursery.

At the next SDS meeting a year later the tone was very different. Instead of begging to be allowed to speak, a new crop of female delegates passed out thousands of copies of a leaflet (ominously entitled "Statement of Accounts") showing a naked, witchy-looking woman reclining on a couch with a hatchet in her hand. Above her hangs a double row of mounted "trophies" alongside a list displaying the names of particularly macho activists. "Liberate the socialist eminences/From their bourgeois ******s!" it read, leaving no doubt what kind of "liberation" the women had in mind.

Flyer 1968
The infamous "Statement of Accounts":
Leaflet of the Action Council for the Liberation of Women (1968)

There is no record of any of the new empowered women carrying this threat out, however. And yet, hardly any of the men uttered the line about "the Establishment" again either. Perhaps the tomato - and the leaflet - were enough...?

The tragic fate of Theodor Adorno

But if the Frankfurt tomato throw was a brilliant propagandistic triumph, a protest of a different kind just seven months later had utterly heartbreaking consequences. On April 22, 1969, the great German-Jewish philosopher Theodor Adorno, one of the founders of the renowned Frankfurt School for Social Research, arrived at his lecture hall at the University of Frankfurt to deliver his "Introduction to Dialectical Thought." Adorno had spent the war years in the US, and after his return to Germany he embraced the budding student movement, even visiting some SDS members in jail. Upon hearing of Ohnesorg's killing, he even went so far as to say that in 1960s Germany the poor students "are playing the role of the Jews" - which is a rather remarkable statement to come from the lips of a Holocaust survivor who once said that it was impossible to write poetry after Auschwitz.

But for some impatient activists, even the kindly but pedantic Adorno, who insisted on painting the walls of his lecture hall battleship gray so that his listeners could never be distracted from his lectures for even a moment, had finally become yet another symbol of the dreaded "Establishment." He had also outraged many earlier that spring when he panicked at the sight of a horde of Spontis occupying his building - this violent action probably reminded him of the old days, when the Nazis brutally hounded him out of Germany - and called the police. Yes, it was time to take the old man down. So just as he started to speak, SDS members in the audience started to jeer at him. A perplexed Adorno stopped and asked the students whether they wanted to hear the lecture or not. At that moment three young women in black leather jackets stood up and approached Adorno at his desk. First they sprinkled flower petals on his head and kissed him, then all at once they snapped open their jackets and flashed three sets of naked breasts just inches from the old man's face.

Taking the old man down:
Philosopher Theodor Adorno (1903-1969)

Adorno was dumbfounded. He jumped to his feet, clutching his briefcase before his  face as if his life depended on it. And perhaps it did. Historian Guido Knopp, at that time a student seated in the front row, watched in horror as tears streamed down the great philosopher's cheeks. An assistant led Adorno out of the room, treading on leaflets the SDS had just distributed bearing the prophetic words "Adorno as an institution is dead." This would be his last lecture. Adorno finally died of heart failure three months later.

So make no mistake: symbolic actions are a serious business. They are by nature cruel and unadvised, and they always operate under the law of unintended consequences. But they don't have to end as tragically as Adorno's infamous Busenattentat ("busom attack").  The best advice to give those planning such an event (aside from "don't!") is, first of all, that it should be commensurate to the intended target. (The attack on poor Adorno clearly amounted to shooting fish in a barrel). Second, aspiring Spontis should practise first and then get it right. Just imagine the global ramifications if Muntadar al-Zaidi, the Iraqi shoe thrower who lobbed his footwear at George W. Bush in 2008, had spent a few days chucking shoes at a fake dummy before taking aim at the real one! Why, a successful blow - leaving an iconic scuff mark - might have reconfigured the entire Middle East and ensured al-Zaidi's eternal fame. As it is, he will always remain but a footnote to history.

Shoe thrower 
Iraqi shoe thrower Muntadar al-Zaidi
(in an alternative universe...)

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Who throws out the first tomato is always an interesting question of history.
Of course, what the counter-revolutionaries need to do is turn tomatos into ketchup.
I find the use of comrade and class enemy revealing. I wonder how much the Stasi and GDR encouraged all that? I bet a lot.
Oh well, spook games of life, death, breasts, and tomatos.

At least it has color........ great post, even for a confirmed Militarist.
@Don Rich
Were the Stasi behind the tomato toss and the Adorno attack? A fascinating question. While researching this, I had a strong feeling they must have been, particularly now that we know Ohnesorg was actually shot by a Stasi agent. For example, I was intrigued to note that the three young women involved in the Adorno incident (three others lost their nerves and stayed seated) did not come up with this themselves but were put up to it by male SDS activists. (The only one of them ever to come forward decades later is now profoundly ashamed of what she did to the poor man.) One thing is for sure: the history of these times needs to be entirely rewritten.
Tomatoes always manage to find their rightful place in history. Excellent, informative article as always, Alan.
Let s/he who is without subjectivity, cast the first tomato...fabulous history...I love it! - if only the women's movement would get back to that kind of objectivity...alas...this post is really rich in many ways and I will revisit...I'm especially into 20th century German and European history ever since (back in the day) reading books by Heinrich Boll like Group Portrait with Lady...and of course, books by Simone de Beauvoir...R
the militant machismo struck a chord, some of the protest societies on u.w. were uniformed, bearded, and so strident in front of a microphone that they recalled news clips of pre-war nazis. american women didn't hit on vegetable struggle, just too thrilled at being near those warriors of socialism.
Who knows maybe if the intended tomato hit its target things may have been different. Perhaps the police would have shot him dead. Or maybe it would anger her followers to the point a back lash against the opposition that would result in her being made president in 2012. Wouldn't that be revolutionary?

When mob rules apply anything is possible. When mob mentality replaces open and free speech all that is left is one act of violence topping the next one until the one with the biggest gun or tomato silences all objections to their rule.

Sarah Palin has a book, some love it some hate it. In our free society it is quite acceptable to challenge her ideas. To debate the merit of her conclusions and heaven knows even learn something from others that disagree with our point of view. Someone decided to assault her and instead of a outcry against violence (especially violence against ideas) it is treated by those of OS as a heroic and even humorous thing. It was just dumb violence and should be treated as such.

When you play the what-if game maybe if Muntadar al-Zaidi made a direct hit, or worse what if he had a gun instead. Who know may have touched off WWIII. Funny thing about dumb violence (especially against ideas) it takes on a mind of its own and down the road little good comes of it.

Living in a free society means that people say things you may disagree with. The serious consider what is said and either counters or find consensus. The mob just want blood and anything but free thinking.
The operating terms here are "satire" and "tongue-in-cheek." I naturally could have added a disclaimer at the end saying that I do not endorse the tomatoing of Sarah Palin or anyone else, but I feel it would be both superfluous and also ruin my punchline. So let me state it here: Obviously the guy would have earned whatever the law decided to throw at him. I should point out that my personal MO as an historian is not to judge (anyway, it's much too late in Krahl's and Adorno's cases), but rather to observe, learn and wonder at the amazing world we live in.

@al loomis
You're right about the machismo. The Baader-Meinhof Gang contained a great many militant woman, but Baader and a sort of macho gangster ethic always held sway. The tomato-throwing incident was where the two strands separated.
Sounds like Sarah needs to go to Germany for a pitching coach.
@M Todd
"maybe [a successsful tomato attack] would anger [Palin's] followers to the point a back lash against the opposition that would result in her being made president in 2012. Wouldn't that be revolutionary?"

Yes, it certainly would be! It's the law of unintended consequences - something best kept out of the hands of children.
Yeah, right, but the Sarah pelting was more fun.
There is a big difference between a tomato or a potato, or do you say toh mahto and poh tahto and say, a brick.
Unless one is throwing the tomato from a tremendous height, it will not probably do much damage.
Adorno was clearly a little stuffy; if I had ever had students do that, I would have fallen to the ground laughing.
Let not slings and arrows of our misfortune try us
but instead let us make condiments out of our smashed vegetable friends. oh well, lost the repeat there.
I think Ms. Palin, who I am still predicting will be the next elected president of the United States, will survive a tossed salad or two, because she is a hotty, not a notty.
Thoughtful, informative and well written. Kudos.
i got hit in the eye with a meat ball one time and couldnt see for an hour
It is part of a later legend that this was a social liberal movement. It is horrible to read the language of these persons, and still their influence surprises.

As of Mrs. Palin a tomato does not change the discourse.
Lorena Bobbitt, Hausfrau.......
Thanks for the history... very interesting !
Yes, capitalist patriarchy, supported by the chauvinist practices of Stalinist parties and inflated New Leftist males, set up the need for direct action by radical and communist women in the late 1960s. The best of them are still revolutionaries, while many men have long faded away.

That said, what woman are you claiming should stand next to Marx, Engels and Lenin? The closest I can think of is the great anti-imperialist revolutionary Rosa Luxembourg, but she failed at the key moment in 1923 and paid for it with her life - and with world historic repercussions for the Soviet Union and the working class of Germany. No other woman - and only a couple of men, notably Leon Trotsky - have even comes close to rising to the level of those three.
It would have to be Rosa Luxemburg, who is the no. 1 heroine of the Left today. It's important to note that the former East German communist party, which now goes under the name "The Left," named its party foundation after her instead of Marx or Thälmann. The old East Germans downplayed her somewhat, since she challenged Lenin's authority and tactics. Now that state socialism is gone, and since Luxemburg was killed before she could get her hands very dirty (or before she could either drop out of the movement, go Stalinist or else get liquidated by Stalin), she is a perfect martyr. It would be interesting to know how much input the radical women's movement had on this development, but I'm sure there is a connection.

The communist leader Clara Zetkin would be a close runner-up, although her later association with Thälmann and Stalin has lessened her appeal among all but the most hardcore lefties.
Great history lesson! Protests about ideas is one thing. Going after an individual, not matter what their bent, is not an act of courage. It is not okay to engage in violence against a person, any person. Blow up a bridge, block the road but do not target the messenger.
Alan, this is a very good article, about a period of history I never learned much at school, where I was at that time (why are history lessons never about what is really important) and about a country so nearby mine. I realize I know so little about Germany.

We had a famous Aktie Tomaat here in The Netherlands in 1969, which had to do with theatre. Old ideas and new didn't mix very well, a sort of theatre revolution. Some actors got really upset about the whole thing and it wasn't fair I think to disrupt their plays like this.
I was 11 at the time and had no idea what was going on, later I decided I am against throwing ANYthing at people, wheter it is tomatoes, cake or statues (Berlusconi). I can understand that people get angry and frustrated, but I think there is a very thin line between agression and demonstration if you start throwing stuff.

The man who threw that statue at Berlusconi was confused I heared. There was no movement behind it, and although I am no fan of Berlusconi, I am glad it was just one man. There must be nicer ways to protest I think.