Crying out for change: A short history of student protests in Europe

With demonstrations erupting across the US and Europe against the West arming Israel in its bombardment of Gaza and the rising civilian casualties, we take a look back at the history of student protests in Europe.


At time of writing, riot police have arrived at the University of California, Los Angeles to disperse a pro-Palestinian protest against Israel’s bombardment of Gaza. The police’s arrival and removal of protestors is the latest example of a heavy-handed institutional response to student protests against the ongoing humanitarian crisis.

The protests at UCLA are some of the biggest US student demonstrations since the anti-Vietnam War protests in the 60s. The arrival of the riot police follows violent clashes when Zionist counter-protestors attacked the encampment of students and faculty members at UCLA.

Beyond UCLA, there have been similar protests at Columbia University in New York. An encampment was removed from the campus by riot police on 1 May with 282 people arrested, many at the nearby City University of New York campus.

There have also been protests and confrontations with the police at Fordham University, New York; University of Wisconsin, Madison; University of Arizona, Tucson; University of Texas, Dallas; and Tulane University in New Orleans, Louisiana.

European students have also joined in the protests against their governments’ endorsement and arming of Israel in its violent assault on Gaza which has killed at least 34,000 people, roughly 70% of which are women and children.

Students in Britain have protested with sit-ins organised at many major institutions including the Universities of Manchester, Leeds, York, Newcastle, Sheffield and Bristol.

In Paris, around 100 students protested earlier this week near the Sorbonne University after an earlier demonstration outside the Sciences Po University resulted in clashes with the police. Similarly, police in Berlin dismantled an encampment of protesters.

A European history of student protests

Some of the biggest student protests in history were held in opposition to the Vietnam War across the US in which more than 50,000 Americans were killed and 300,000 wounded over the 20-year war. 

While the Vietnam War protests may be the first to come to mind, Europe has a long-standing tradition of rising up against the so-called evils of the day through organised student protests. 

Potentially the first ever student protest was the 1229 University of Paris Strike. Back then, the university was only attended by the elite of Europe and a riot broke out after students were kicked out of a tavern for getting too drunk on Shrove Tuesday. 

The ensuing riot saw students destroy multiple shops and beat the tavern owner. In response, King Louis IX allowed the city guardsmen to exact punishment and kill several unrelated students. As a result of the violence, the university went on strike for two years. 

Higher education became more achievable for large sections of the public over the 20th century, which saw increasingly politically active student bodies. Some of the first notable student protests occurred in the lead-up to the Second World War. 

As Adolf Hitler  rose to power in the 1930s, anti-fascist students clashed with supporters of the Nazi Party. 

Soon after Hitler’s appointment as German Chancellor in January 1933, the party enacted a boycott campaign against Jewish employees and products. This was met by an anti-Nazi boycott countermovement in both Germany and abroad. In the image above, you can see the violent clashes after Nazi supporters arrived at a student rally against the new government. 

Following the death of Joseph Stalin, a movement in Poland pushed for a less Stalinist regime to take control of the country, laying the ground for the return of Communist politician Władysław Gomułka in 1956. 

Over in Hungary, the return of Gomułka inspired major student protests against their own Stalinist government. The widespread upset across the country led to the beginning of the Hungarian Revolution of 1956. Although the revolution was quickly quelled by the USSR, leaving around 2,500 Hungarians dead and 200,000 seeking refuge, it’s striking the influence the student protests had on the country’s fate.

No discussion of European student protests can miss out the huge movements across the continent in 1968. Most prominent of these protests in cultural memory are the May 68 student riots in Paris. 

Almost the entire French economy came to a halt as politicians feared the student protests and union strikes would lead to all out civil war. President Charles de Gaulle even fled the country. All this came from a union and student movement that was met by huge violent pushback from the authorities. 


Every year, students in Athens commemorate the student protests of 1973. On 14 November that year, students at the Athens Polytechnic university went on strike against the military junta that had controlled the country via a right-wing dictatorship since 1967. 

The students took over and occupied the university’s buildings and set up a radio station to broadcast their anti-dictatorship demands. Then, the government sent a tank through the university gates. Although no-one on campus was injured, the police killed 24 civilians outside the campus during demonstrations. The junta ended the next year and the Athens Polytechnic Uprising has remained in Greek cultural consciousness as a crucial moment of activism. 

The Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia all started with a student protest. On 17 November 1989, International Students’ Day, Communist Party riot police violently broke up a student demonstration in Prague marking the 50th anniversary of the Nazis violently suppressing a demonstration there in 1939. 

Watching history repeat itself spurred on almost the entirety of Czechoslovakia to strike and assemble in protest over the following month. As pressure mounted on the Miloš Jakeš government, the rest of the Warsaw Pact around Eastern Europe fell apart. Finally, the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia could take no more and stood down on 28 November. 

Serbian students went on a peaceful strike at the end of 1996 that lasted until the early months of 1997 in opposition to the President Slobodan Milošević‘s use of electoral fraud to win the local elections for his Socialist Party of Serbia. 


Over 200,000 students and other protestors gathered in Belgrade before Milošević finally acceded and allowed several opposition politicians into local government seats. Three years later, Milošević would be overthrown. 

Once again in Greece, a student protest erupted into violence. This time it was spurred on by the police’s killing of 15-year-old student Alexandros Grigoropoulos in 2008. Demonstrations turned quickly into riots across the entire country. 

While the violence was at first pinned on grievances around the fatal shooting of Grigoropoulos, the situation was also the result of the country’s failed response to the global economic crisis. 

In 2010, UK students in their tens of thousands hit the streets of London in anger at the government’s raising of university tuition fees. It was the first year of the new Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government, and the Conservatives had pushed their governing partner to roll back against their promise of raising tuition fees. 

The scenes on the streets of London turned quickly into disarray as the police violently kettled huge numbers of protestors. It would set the tone for the next 14 years of Conservative rule as the demonstrators failed to achieve their aim of reversing the unpopular policy. 


In 2018, a 15-year-old student from Sweden stopped going to school until her government would take action against climate change. That student was, of course, Greta Thunberg and this small strike from a teenager turned into a global movement over the following years. 

The School Strike For Climate movement led to millions of students not participating in school to stand up for their futures. It is one of the biggest and most popular student protests in history.

Source link

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *