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