Laban, Ascona, Nazism and the hippies

\"Lichtgebet\" (\"Prayer to the Sun\") - Fidus, 1913

I’ve been meaning to post a link to this article for some time now. It tells the story of the development of hippie philosophy and is a good starting point if you want to investigate the conceptual similarities between Nazism and the hippies. Much of the story takes place in Ascona, Switzerland, which was the epicentre of the ‘back to nature’ movement, popular with Hermann Hesse and Carl Jung among others.

The guiding philosophy at Ascona was a mixture of “nature mysticism, sun worship, theosophy,” and vegetarianism, which together with various other ideas constituted the idea of Lebensreform (life-reform). These concepts were also bound-up in two apparently opposing political positions: Nazism and Ghandism. Ascona looked like something many of us would recognise from various 1970s films and documentaries:

The beautiful natural setting inspired urban people to sunbathe in the nude, sleep outdoors, hike, swim and fast. This village quickly developed a universal reputation as a health center.

Hermann Hesse was excited when he saw four long-haired men with sandals walk through his village on their way to Ascona. He followed them, settled in and then took a nature cure for his alcoholism. The year was 1907.

It was from Ascona that people like Dr. Carl Schultz and the wonderfully named Dr. Benedict Lust exported the concepts of Lebensreform and Naturopathy to the United States and California in particular.

In 1906 Bill Pester first set foot on American soil having left Saxony, Germany that same year at age 19 to avoid military service. With his long hair, beard and lebensreform background he wasted no time in heading to California to begin his new life.

He settled in majestic Palm Canyon in the San Jacinto Mountains near Palm Springs California and built himself a palm hut by the flowing stream and palm grove.

Bill spent his time exploring the desert canyons, caves and waterfalls, but was also an avid reader and writer. He earned some of his living making walking sticks from palm blossom stalks, selling postcards with lebensreform health tips, and charging people 10 cents to look through his telescope while he gave lectures on astronomy.

He made his own sandals, had a wonderful collection of Indian pottery and artefacts, played slide guitar, lived on raw fruits and vegetables and managed to spend most of his time naked under the California sunshine.

The many photos of Pester clearly reveal the strong link between the 19th century German reformers and the flower children of the 1960’s…long hair and beards, bare feet or sandals, guitars, love of nature, draft dodger, living simple and an aversion to rigid political structure. Undoubtedly Bill Pester introduced a new human type to California and was a mentor for many of the American Nature Boys.

But Ascona wasn’t merely the birthplace of the ‘perennial counter-culture’ which informed the hippies of the 1960s and 1970s. It was also a centre for the development of a modern, Germanic art form which was closely linked to concepts of race and nation (as well as nature). Ascona was, to all intents and purposes, the birthplace of modern dance. Rudolf von Laban (along with Mary Wigman), closely connected to the Lebensreform idea, established his ‘School for Art’ at Ascona, and it was here that he developed his notation which was an attempt to remove the formality of classical ballet and replace it with an almost tribal expressionism, a freedom linked directly to the concepts of Lebensreform.

Modern dance went on to become “an art form that went on to build the National Socialist myth,” (Laure Guilbert). That last link is to a review for Guilbert’s book, Danser avec le IIIème Reich, which I haven’t had the opportunity to read yet. In the book, Guilbert makes the point that modern dance has, for some time, managed to expunge any idea of a connection with Nazism from its history. The truth is that,

Laban et al. were entwined with the mind-set from which the NSDAP itself issued.

Leading figures of the Lebensreform movement went on to design and choreograph the ritualistic dance of the 1936 Berlin Olympics, all captured on film by Leni Reifenstahl – a former student of Ascona’s Mary Wigman.

Now, my intention in drawing these threads together is not to imply that all hippies are Nazis. That argument doesn’t stand up. But it is interesting to see how the the ‘Summer of Love’ in San Francisco was partly influenced by cultural movements seemingly a million miles away from the beliefs of most who would call themselves “hippies”.


Hitler’s Dancers: German modern dance and the Third Reich

Hippie Roots and the Perennial Subculture (caution, contains images of nude hippies)

The Asconan Idea in Politics

7 thoughts on “Laban, Ascona, Nazism and the hippies

  1. If hippies are Nazis, why was Hugo Boss called in to design the SS’s kit? Actually, designers (with one exception) are Nazis, and hippies are Nazis only to the extent that they embrace design.

  2. Hippies are Nazis also in that they fear science and technology, advocate the superiority of the esoteric and tribalist, and refuse to eat delicious meat.

    The only major element of modern Lebensreform lacking in the early twentieth century is tie-dye, imported to Europe and North America from East Asia in the 1960s. If it had been widely available before then, I have no doubt that Hitler would have asked Boss to include it in his SS designs.

    Actually, the Grateful Dead (the ultimate hippy rock band) made wide use of skulls and skeletons in their pamphlets and album covers. Just like the SS.

  3. With you on this one, Tom. Whenever some organization moans about the artificiality of the modern world and the need to get back to a more “authentic,” “natural” existence, I can always hear the jackboots in the background. It starts off as nature worship and ends up as social Darwinism.

  4. hippies are ridiculous.Used to be a few intellectuals who grew up and turned toward the society they mocked previously.Now the decent real few serve the community and contribute.Ken Boschert and all the tie dyed losers running around missouri are Christian hating red man loving thieves and non working leaches still dependant on parents to support them It is disgustingly hillarious to observe 50 + year old bald aging wannabee 20 hippie talking about the good old days and having pot smoking tie dye parties that always end up with a foolish twist.God bless them and thank the lord they are almost extinct.Child molesting,drug taking non working losers!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  5. The previous comments leave something to be desired- because they are crap. I see who it is starting wars, being terrorists, and polluting the world into a pile of garbage. It’s the technocrats, the religious fundamentalists of all stripes, and the extremely stupid consumer societies that spawn them.

    Comments about the “Summer of Love” are obviously from someone who wasn’t there, before the media brought in the hard-drug addicts and the rest of society’s ineffectuals who had nowhere else to go.
    So, eat your meat and die of cancer. Spend your life online commenting about things of which you are completely ignorant. Have your wars on drugs and wars on terrorism and all the rest. “I ain’t marchin’ anymore!”- Phil Ochs, 1967

  6. “Actually, the Grateful Dead (the ultimate hippy rock band) made wide use of skulls and skeletons in their pamphlets and album covers. Just like the SS.”

    So does the Mexican Dia de los Muertos. Does that make Mexico a Nazi state?

    Fred aside, you people are idiots. I’m no hippie by any stretch of the imagination, but I at least know that comparing a bunch of disproportionally Jewish, Jimi Hendrix-worshipping pot-smoking longhairs to Nazis is way off.

  7. I just noticed the faint accusation of antisemitism suggested in Phil’s comment. Phil, the article doesn’t say that anyone who listened to the Grateful Dead would also have been happy as a member of the SS. What it does say is that there is a surprisingly large number of aesthetic and philosophical similarities shared by two apparently diametrically opposed social and political movements.

    In other words, like Fred before you makes clear, it’s easy to try to bunch people together as ‘us’ and ‘them’ (as if I support a war on drugs!)… the truth is that sometimes very different movements actually share similar inspiration.

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