20th Century

The 20th century has told us many lessons. History does not repeat itself, but it appears that new variants of old themes keep coming back. Slowly passing the century like a movie in decades instead of episodes, we witness socio-emotional tides. The first decade, the 00s intensify the beginning of urban planning and social revolutions. The 10s show the arousal and subsequent extinction of masses of people in trenches. The 20s were described as the Carefree Twenties. In the 30s we observed the rising tides of fascist organisations followed shortly afterwards by the disastrous 40s. After the Shoah and the World War the 50s were fabulous viewed from the U.S. and Western Europe. The 60s propagated sex, drugs and rock n’ roll spreading across continents. The wild 70s became almost inescapable through the continued rise of mass media. The 80s were depicted as the colourful 80s as the 2 previous decades had set the scene for psychedelic colours. The 1990s have been coined as the gay 90s by some. Coming out as a gay person became easier and Western societies more sensitive and open to diversity. The back cover of the recent publication by Aurélien Bellanger “Le vingtième siècle” (The 20th century) speaks of the book as “roman polyphonique virtuose”. I look back on the 20th century as “polyphone” in many respects. It would be an illusion to believe we can only keep the nice sounding harmonies without the tensions or dissonances.


In studying the 60s we still come up with a number of remarkable ideas. Not only concerts moved the masses but also new ideas flourished. Many subcultures developed specific forms of protest. To implement new ideas, new forms of protest were applied to advance civil rights, to overcome established routines and to raise awareness for inequalities and injustices. New forms of participatory democracy were tested and some reached public attention and/or approval. Burner (1996, p.162) even goes as far as defining freedom as “continuing exercise in decision-making” which hinges on the taking-in of all voices across society. The coming together of freedom and community constitutes the cross-roads of politics. Besides terrible effects of violent abuses, peaceful forms originated in Gandhi’s peaceful resistance in 1930. Martin Luther King and later Nelson Mandela reached historical milestones through peaceful forms of protest. In 1967 in Oakland, California, the form of “action protest” took place. The basis of protest was civil disobedience going beyond sit-ins as the civil rights movement had applied. “They involved blocking roads and entrances to buildings, peacefully inasmuch as the demonstrators used no force beyond the presence of their own bodies or other obstacles to passage.” (p.163). The new feature was, that protesting persons take the risk of being a victim of violence without a violent response from themselves. The intention is to “convert temporary antagonists into permanent friends”. Through the repercussions in mass media protesting persons can reach larger audiences and touch “uninvolved or possibly sympathetic bystanders” (p.163). Such new forms of participatory democracy, acting in the public arena, are stretching the idea of peaceful protest to its limit, where the freedom of others might be impinged. Participatory democracy, therefore, is a balancing act. Some recent forms of protest, in fact, have their origins in the 1960s or the year 1968 a focal point. They continue to be influential 55 years later in many countries and at all instances where basic freedoms or minority rights are violated or threatened.
Protest has also moved online. Internet sites are not only used for simple communication, but they serve as port of entry to prepare and organise protest. High-jacking of company or political adverts in the public arena can be taken online as well. Challenges to conventional politics and media representation is enacted through webpages like www.adbusters.org or www.indymedia.org the latter page comprises a whole network of local activist groups. Brian D. Loader (2003, p.1320) has added activist approaches against particular corporations to the list of online protest forms. Through public shaming of brands these activists attempt to raise awareness of the public for abusive employment practices, cruelty towards animals, environmental disasters or fake information using online channels like social media, email-lists or chatgroups via mobile phone numbers. The funding of protesting persons is another relatively new form which ranges from crowd-funding initiatives through platforms as well as forms of corruptive practices applied by states or corporate interests. Protest against protest is online and offline the next round of activist forms of protest. Democracy, law and the police have to balance out these new forms of protest. Learning about the way democracy functions is a continuous task, some would say a continuous struggle. Evaluations of the short-term or long-term effectiveness of protests yields important insights about the functioning of democracies and autocratic regimes. New forms of protest need new forms of measuring impact as well.


Make love, not war”, is a summary slogan of all sorts of protests that have moved the sixties. With the spread of television impressive images caught attention no longer just locally, but almost across the whole world. With the inauguration of political debates on TV between Kennedy and Nixon, reaching millions of persons at once and images travelling borders faster than to translate text, spreading of new ideas and political actions was more rapid and more emotional. Commonly the 60s are described as the sex, drug and rock-n-roll period. But there is much more to it. Yes, the sex revolution got started and access to, as well as experimenting with, drugs became more widely spread. Music became a defining moment for young people from teenage years onwards. After Rock n Roll from the 50s, came the rock music and pop culture, which were able to bring together huge crowds of several hundred thousand party-goers. The Woodstock festival and hippie gatherings became a defining moment mainly for the young. Older generations still battled for affordable housing and the “Great society”, as a large-scale anti-poverty program was called.
The phenomenon of the Beatles co-defined the 60s. The Beatles captured more than just one generation with their popular songs and iconic style. Mary Quant, attributed to have designed the mini-skirt, equally co-defined a period with a visual provocation to conservative life-styles. In parallel, the sixties saw the civil rights movement grow, Black Power succeeding with peaceful actions more widespread attention, leading to the abolition of openly racist practices. The peaceful movements and happenings, however, had to face the deadly attacks on J.F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King during the 60s. The whole decade was influential in the field of education as well. Based on a new spirit of altruism and happiness combined with, but also beyond religious feelings, new forms of living together, sharing and the common good were tried out. Anti-authoritarian educational practices were influential beyond the 60s.
Books covering the 60s are manifold. In addition to Arthur Marwick’s impressive, multi-faceted volume “The sixities”, I enjoyed the book by David Burner “Making peace with the 60s”, especially his approach to burn some received wisdoms about the 60s, namely the restriction of it to those 10 years. “The withering away of philosophy”, the beginnings of postmodernism and a theory-driven or conceptual approach to the decade, amongst other topics, is the merit of Fredric Jameson (1984, p.192). “The 60s without apology” is a programmatic title well worth thinking about seriously as the editors and authors did.
Besides the ecological disasters of the 60s already, (nuclear, oil and wars), Mini Cooper cars, Lava Lamps as well as Blow or Ball Chairs, Barbies, Frisbees, Brigitte Bardot and Pippi Longstocking (Patricia Massó, 2010), all were dressed to impress. “The 60s without apology” by a group of editors nicely summarises the review of the 60s and their lasting effects on us, for better and/or worse. 2 generations later in 2023 youth is again threatening mass mobilisation in France as depicted in LeMonde 4.2.2023. It is a kind of “déjà vu experience”.