The ways of counterculture

Much more than just being against the mainstream

A black and white photograph of two people with long hair and loose-fitting clothing sitting on a stone wall.
by
Jan Błaszczak (FINA)

British, Dutch and German counterculture movements of the 1960s could be defined as movements that would rather not be defined. This is understandable, as even the name is misleading: counterculture was about much more than just being against the mainstream.

Professor Jerzy Jarniewicz, a Polish poet and philosopher who has been researching the history of counterculture, claims that what set counterculture movements apart from other subcultures is the sheer belief of their creators that art can change the world.

Counterculture movements inspired artists of different generations to create art that was unexpected, transgressive and revolutionary.

A black and white photograph of a person with a ponytail and a bandana wrapped around their head, wearing a white shirt and looking to the left.

The 1960s were, without a doubt, the golden age of counterculture. From hippies’ headquarters in Haight-Ashbury in California to Provos running Dadaistic happenings in Amsterdam – the cultural and political resonance of these movements had never been larger. However, most of these utopian gatherings of artists-turned-activists lost their importance in one way or another within the next decade.

If counterculture could ever be flashy, it surely was in London. Counterculture found fertile ground in the United Kingdom for a number of reasons.

First of all, in the early sixties, Britons were tired of strict, conservative rules organizing every aspect of life. Secondly, due to a historic affinity with the United States, young Britons were familiar with liberating jazz music and Beatnik poetry. Authors such as Allen Ginsberg and William Burroughs were celebrated in venues such as Better Books at Charing Cross Road, where they were exchanging drinks and ideas not only with local poets, but also Paul McCartney, Mick Jagger or Syd Barrett.

The American poet Allen Ginsberg stands in a packed theatre, spotlights on him, the centre of attention.

Countercultural poetry in the UK reached its climax in June 1965, when authors from all over the world gathered at the Royal Albert Hall during the International Poetry Incarnation. The event attracted around 7000 people, including honourable guests as Indira Gandhi.

The massive scale and media coverage of the event foretold the sudden commercialisation of British counterculture. Bands such as The Beatles and Pink Floyd ended up becoming pop culture supernovas, worldwide celebrities whose message became watered down by their mass popularity.

a black and white photograph of John Lennon shaking hands with raving fans in a packed stadium

As British counterculture imploded by being turned into t-shirts and mugs, the movement in the Netherlands took a wholly different trajectory.

They called themselves Provos, Dutch anarchists that fought consumerism and the daily sobriety of Protestant society. Counterculture in the Netherlands had clearly defined villains to rebel against, such as Princess Beatrix that had been about to marry Prince Claus von Amsberg. Von Amsberg was not only German but had also been a member of the Hitler Youth. Provos disrupted the wedding ceremony by throwing smoke bombs.

a black and white photograph of a large group of people gathered around a statue on the Amsterdam Dam.
a black and white photograph of two people in largely denim clothing hugging each other in the rainy streets of Amsterdam.

It needs to be mentioned that the roots of the Provo movement were solely pacifistic though. It originated from the Dadaistic, anti-consumerist happenings organised by Robert Jasper Grootveld.

Among Provo actions, the most recognisable were ‘The White Plans’: sets of ideas that were supposed to tackle Dutch social issues. Among them, the most iconic action was the ‘White Bicycle Plan’ – demanding that bicycles would be given priority in a city centre closed for all motorised traffic. This originally Dadaistic movement slowly reshaped into a legal, civic organisation. With one of their members elected to the city council, Provos drifted towards professional politics.

A person clothed in white stands in front of a bike modified to be able to carry large cargo, filled with signs saying 'Provo witte Fietsen Plan, voor betere Provokaatsie'. A police officer looks on in the background.

Meanwhile, in Germany, yet another countercultural movement was brewing.

Provocative, anti-consumerist Kommune 1 had much in common with the Provo movement. This group of situationists emphasised that work should be eschewed for pleasure, and that humour can also be a guerrilla tactic.

Even though Kommune 1 has never come close in popularity to the hippie communes, it drew the attention of the German mainstream media with its libertarian views. Two of their members received special media attention: the group's co-founder Rainer Langhans and his girlfriend – actress and model Uschi Obermaier. The couple became symbols of sexual revolution in Germany, and therefore were often compared to John Lennon and Yoko Ono.

A black and white shot of Uschi Obermaier laying on her stomach languidly, looking into the camera. She wears heavy dark eyeliner and a light coloured dress.

Among political happenings staged by Kommune 1 the most famous was the ‘Pudding-Attentat’, a hoax where the group spread rumours that United States vice-president Hubert Humphrey would be assassinated as a sign of protest against the Vietnam War. After the police raided the Kommune 1 headquarters and the officers found an assortment of alleged explosives, the group made headlines. One day later, it became clear that the confiscated explosives contained nothing more than pudding and cheese.

Kommune 1 turned terrorism into happenings. After a policeman killed Benno Ohnesorg – a student protesting against an official visit of Shah of Iran, Reza Pahlavi in Germany – the happenings turned into terrorism. Some members of Kommune 1 became radicalised and joined the militant 2 June Movement that was allied with the Red Army Faction.

Dieter Kunzelmann leans against a desk in an interrogation chamber, wearing prison garb. He wears an eyepatch over one eye, and has wild explosive hair.

From today’s perspective, there is no doubt that the counterculture movements of the sixties were powerful. Their creators might have been beaten by the police, enticed by big corporations or outsmarted by down-to-earth politicians, yet their legacy has survived and even grown among the following generations. Once too radical and utopian, counterculture movements irreversibly changed not only mainstream culture but many other aspects of our lives, from mental health and education to urbanism. If you want proof, pick any crossroad in the Amsterdam city centre and try counting all the bicycles.

A black and white picture of Bob Dylan, taken from a frog perspective, looking fly with a polka-dot shirt, velour vest and baggy pants.
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This blog is part of the Europeana XX. A Century of Change project which focuses on the 20th century and its social, political and economic changes.