20th April 2015: The Countercultural Imperative; From Lebensreform to the Kibbo Kift (1890-1930) by Anne Fernie

Kibbo Kift

Come along to Gulliver’s at 7pm to listen to Annie’s talk. Share a crust of bread, and hear the reflections he has to share…

Title of talk:

The Countercultural Imperative:  From Lebensreform to the Kibbo Kift (1890-1930)

Bullet points of what you would like to talk about:

The spiritual crisis of late 19thc urban living due to industrialisation (includes mental illness/neurasthenia/self-medicating through drug taking/patent medicines etc). Reaction against materialist/capitalist lifestyle in Germany (‘Life Reform’ Movement: Karl Diefenbach (& his ‘Himmelbach’ commune 1895 – 1898), Gusto Gräser (& his founding of the ‘Ascona’ commune), Hugo Höppener (the artist ‘Fidus’) and Johannes Gutzeit. Who they were and the radical ideas they pioneered & disseminated (theosophy, occultism, naturism, vegetarianism, communal living in nature, the ‘guru’ figure etc). Also the artwork produced by Diefenbach and Fidus that predate 1960s subjects & style.
The German ‘Life Reform’ émigrés in the USA and how they created the first ‘hippies’ in the form of the Californian ‘Nature Boys’ in the 1930s & 40s (Maximillian Sikkinger, ‘Gypsy Boots’ Bootzin, Bill Pester, Benedict Lust, John & Vera Richter, Arnold Ehret, eden ahbez (If time): Comparing to the 1920s English ‘Kibbo Kift’ movement of John Hargreaves

A few paragraphs on your subject:

If people stop to think about 1960s counter-culture, ‘hippies’ etc. They might cite early 1960s USA as a source or maybe the ‘Beats’ and European counterparts in 1950s Beatnik culture. Very few would think to root it in 1860s England (Arts & Crafts Movement & the 1890s ‘Back to the Land’ initiatives) or the 1880s German ‘Life Reform’ movement.  Later movements such as John Hargreaves’s English, 1920s Kibbo Kift (later Socialist ‘Greenshirts’) also remain undeservedly unrecognised. Various strands of the utopian living concept can, of course, be traced even further back to various religious sects or political/social reform groups like the Diggers and Levellers but for the sake of brevity I have tried to limit the subject to key individuals in Germany who were responsible for spreading some of the key ideas we associate with counter-culture to a wider demographic and taking it overseas to the USA, only for it to be reintroduced to Europe decades later.
In order to understand why these movements flourished in the late 19thc, some context will be sketched in the talk regarding the rapid industrialisation and militarization that occurred in the newly unified Germany. This precipitated a very rapid urbanisation with all the mental and spiritual ills to the individual that one would expect but which were new and frightening for society at the time. While the idealists created their alternative ‘Naturmensch’ societies, scientists developed their own remedies in the form of psychiatry and patent medicines so one could state that drug culture as we know it was also born during this period.
To conclude, I wanted to mention the 1920s Kibbo Kift mainly because they provide such a delightful (yet serious in intent) contrast to the rather earnest Germanic pioneers in their sheer English wackiness. Where the Germans shed their clothes with abandon, their  English counterparts gloried in dressing up to quite eye-popping effect.
The talk is fairly factual in its approach but does raise many questions for those interested in pursuing the topic further. What becomes apparent is that all these movements, be they in the 1880s Germany, 1920s England, 1940s USA or 1960s Europe were essentially one that middle-class, educated (or intellectual) and often artistic individuals were drawn to and one does wonder why, especially as they were offered as an alternative to the ills of contemporary urban living. Working class youth often had their own ‘counterculture’ (which is another story) but the class distinction remains an interesting one.  Despite or maybe because of this, so many of the original concepts have now entered mainstream life (therapy, vegetarianism, homeopathy, naturism, meditation etc) and yet people do remain in ignorance of where they came from and what fascinating individuals promulgated them.

A few paragraphs about you:

I work as a study skills tutor with under & post graduates on the autistic spectrum or with mental health issues. Do love the whole urban exploration thingy, architecture and photography.  I am a bit of an old counter-culturalist/’bohemian’ myself and lived in various parts of Europe until the age of 15 and then another 3 years in Austria in my early twenties. My under and post-graduate work also pertained to Austrian/German culture, specifically to that of the Weimar Republic & dying days of the Hapsburg Empire so I have always been aware of the startlingly radical ideas both artistic and cultural that were coming out of the ‘Mitteleuropa’ region from the late 19thc onwards.

What free internet knowledge resources would you recommend to others if they wish to explore your chosen theme further?

  • Re: German ‘Life Reform’: http://www.ic.org/wiki/lebensreform/
  • Re: the Wandervogel & urban early 20thc German youth gangs: http://www.vice.com/en_uk/read/remembering-the-wandervogel-728-v18n3?Contentpage=1
  • Re: Diefenbach & Gräser (in German): http://www.gusto-graeser.info/Diefenbach/graeserabsage.html
  • Re: Diefenbach: https://strangeflowers.wordpress.com/2012/01/06/dress-down-friday-karl-wilhelm-diefenbach/
  • Re: Diefenbach: https://strangeflowers.wordpress.com/2010/02/21/back-to-naturism/
  • Re: Gräser: http://strangeflowers.wordpress.com/2012/10/12/dress-down-friday-gusto-graser/
  • Re: Gypsy Boots/Nature Boys: http://www.vice.com/print/living-learning-and-going-long-with-gypsy-boots-americas-first-hippie
  • Re: The 1930s-40s Nature Boys: http://frieze-magazin.de/archiv/features/kalifornication/?lang=en Kalifornication
  • Re: English Utopian movements: http://www.hippy.com/modules.php?name=News&file=print&sid=243
  • Re: Kibbo Kift: : http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VXEt7SV1jbA
  • Re: Kibbo Kift; http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uko6ppVRWDE
  • Re: Kibbo Kift/Greenshirts/Social Credit Movement: http://www.kibbokift.org/
  • Wilhelminism and Its Legacies: German Modernities, Imperialism, and the Meanings of Reform, 1890-1930 (Google eBook). Chapter 5 (page 81) re ‘Lebensreform-amiddle class antidote to Wilheminism?’ http://tinyurl.com/pvmf2k
  • Williams, J.A. (2007): Turning to Nature in Germany: Hiking, Nudism, and Conservation, 1900-1940.  Stanford University Press
  • Sharma, A. (2012):. Wilhelmine Nature: natural lifestyle and practical politics in the German life-reform movement, (1890-1914). University of Chicago at: http://tinyurl.com/qy8l7yq
  • Foitzik , R (2003): Lebensreform und Kueunstlergruppierungen um 1900. Universit¨at Basel. By Renate Kirchgraber (Zurich) at:  http://edoc.unibas.ch/671/1/DissB_6566.pdf [PhD thesis in German]
  • HARGRAVE, THE KIBBO KIFTANDTHE WOODCRAFT EXPERIENCE (THESIS). Available online at: http://discovery.ucl.ac.uk/1348858/1/327041.pdf


What are your weblinks?

Any others: Flickr (https://www.flickr.com/photos/firebird23/)
Linked-In: Yes, under name ‘Anne Fernie’

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