The University of Bonn had the reputation, among West German universities in the mid-1970’s, of being relatively conservative and orderly. However, when I was privileged to study there beginning in the fall of 1974, I was astonished at the prevalence and virulence of Marxist thought among the students. Echos of the 1968 student revolution in western Europe still reverberated throughout the university, and anti-capitalist rhetoric was common and went largely unopposed in student discussions and throughout the student social scene.
However, most of the lectures and seminars that I attended, in history and political science, were led by professors who presented balanced, responsible scholarship. It was not unusual for activist students to “take over” a lecture just before a class would begin, occupying the front of the classroom and insisting on the necessity and urgency of social solidarity and action to oppose capitalist propaganda. When this happened, the typical professor would walk in, move to the front of the classroom, wait a couple of minutes with modesty and dignified patience, and then interrupt the student and suggest that it was perhaps time for him to have a turn and present his lesson. Activist students sometimes tried to carry on, but students in the classroom usually showed a preference to have the professor do the lecturing. In spite of the passion with which the activist students asserted themselves, such confrontations–at least the ones I witnessed–were peaceful, lacking even a suggestion of physical intimidation, and spectator students in the classroom were normally dispassionate regardless of their social/political leanings.
Only once did I see a professor get excited and angry when this kind of thing happened, but that one exception was memorable. It was a lecture in a regular political science course by Professor Krazewski, a visiting professor from Poland. At the time, Poland was part of the Soviet empire, behind the Iron Curtain.
Prof. Krazewski had arrived at the University of Bonn in the fall of 1974. The fact that the Polish regime (and the Soviet Union) had permitted his year-long residence and teaching in West Germany suggested to me that he was a reliable Communist, with a thoroughly Marxist/Leninist interpretation of history and international relations. That’s why I wanted to hear his lectures. (Know your enemy.)
At the end of April and on 1 May 1975, the last of the U.S. presence in Vietnam ended in the ignominious rout that we of the Class of 1969 remember so vividly. At the University of Bonn, students were gleeful–the underdog communist North Vietnamese had prevailed over the neocolonial imperialist United States of America. Gathering for Prof. Krazewski’s lecture that day (my notes taken at the time show it was 29 April 1975), the students were raucous, celebrating as the class was about to begin, and several students had occupied the front of the classroom and wanted the professor to celebrate with them and change his topic to the war in Vietnam and the defeat of the United States.
Prof. Krazewski was not amused. He became angry and berated the students, accusing them of immature foolishness and of failing to understand what that war had meant for the Communist movement. He said that tremendous resources had flowed from Poland and the other satellite states to fight the United States in Vietnam, and the economic impact had been devastating; if it had not been for that war, the Soviet Union would have beat the United States to the Moon.
Angry overstatement? A narrow and prejudiced view from a member of the Polish “nomenklatura” who had been denied the standard of living so evident in the West? I don’t know. But I have never forgotten his reaction to the students, who were so sure that they were witnessing a huge milestone in the worldwide struggle for social justice. Prof. Krazewski helped them toward an understanding: it’s not so simple. The economic effect of the war on the Soviet empire was enormous and stressful. And I believe it’s not wrong to say that it was the social and economic pressure of our country on the Soviet empire that won the Cold War.
While attending the university, I tried to be modest and blend in as just a student, but I made no secret of the fact that I was an active-duty Captain in the U.S. Army. As a class was about to start on 1 May, after news reached the world of the departure of the last American helicopters, one of the student activists addressed me. He was not trying to denigrate me, but his tone was, “America deserved this outcome, and we told you so.” I responded that four U.S. administrations of both political parties, had tried to defend a semblance of South Vietnamese freedom in the face of North Vietnam’s military aggression, so it wasn’t just one cabal of American capitalists manipulating the public and pursuing profits. He hadn’t thought of it that way, and it quieted him some.
Our country is certainly not always “right,” as each of us has seen in our lifetimes of service to her. Still, there is a lot of good that results from the high ideals that the United States stands for and that we accepted upon graduation and have worked to further. And perhaps even in some of our worst failures, the ideals we try to uphold prevail and make our country better.