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A Mountain For Minorities, by Heidi Paris and Peter Gente

Excavation on a hill near a small Swiss town where Nietzsche, in 1871, finished his Birth of Tragedy, brought to light a scene which is not unrelated to the present-day Berlin scene. Actually, at the beginning of the century, it was known as the "Berlin Suburb."

We are speaking of Ascona on Lago Maggiore. This "Bermuda Triangle of the Mind" was made by Harald Szeemann into an exhibition which, after its premiere in Ascona, toured Zurich, West Berlin (the Akademie der Künste), Vienna, and Munich. For, as Szeemann said, "Ascona around 1900 was the southernmost outpost of a far-reaching Nordic lifestyle-reform, that is, alternative movement."

Anarchists and Life Reformers

Bakunin could not possibly foresee all the things he was setting in motion when he moved to Ascona. After ten years, spent in Russian prisons and exile, he had returned via Japan and the U.S.A. to Europe, where indefatigably he contrived new uprisings and became Marx's antagonist in the First International. Always fleeing his persecutors and dependent on the help of friends, he settled in 1869 on Lago Maggiore, around the corner from Nietzsche, because he feared the evil gossip of prudish Marxists. (His girl- friend, whom he later married, was pregnant at the time.)

Later on, other anarchists came to gather material on Bakunin, among them Max Nettlau, Peter Kropotkin, and Fritz Brupbacher. And there they met strange people like the theosophes, who had been drawn to the place in 1895 because Alfredo Pioda had intended to found his laymen's monastery, "Fraternitas," on La Monescia Hill. Pioda never lifted one stone to build the monastery, but he founded a joint-stock company - whose shares nobody wanted.

The anarchists also met in Ascona, especially between 1900 and 1920, life style reformers and nature freaks. In 1900 Ascona had been christened Monte Verita (Mount Truth) by Henri Oedenkoven, son of a Belgian industrialist; Ida Hofmann a piano teacher; Gusto Gräser, a former Austrian army officer "who, being an unassuming man, sometimes called himself Gras instead of Gräser (grasses) because one being should not be named in the plural, and who left leaves of grass as his visiting card," (J. Frecot), as well as his brother Karl; Lotte Hattemer the daughter of a Mayor of Berlin and F. Grine, a theosophist landowner from Graz, Austria.

This group, searching for paradise and hence without much luggage, had come to live on the hill. They were looking for an alternative, a Third Way without or beyond Capitalism and Communism, both of which even back then were getting more and more powerful. Thus Monte Verita came into being as a settlement, sanatorium, and later a school of life.

Then as now "alternative" meant: different styles of production and of life, hence abolition of the sexual division of labour (men vs. women) and the social division of labour (brain vs. brawn); it meant communal property and the beginnings of straight barter. Even so, life reformers did not consider themselves a collective but an individual cooperative, which complicated their working together. In technical matters Gusto Gräser advocated the puristic variant: neither running water nor electricity, hibernation instead of heating. A friend of Hermann Hesse's, he became a model for many of the novelist's guru characters.

Dancers such as Rudolf Laban, Charlotte Bara and Mary Wigman, who founded the new school of expressive dancing, were welcome on Mount Verita: they helped give rhythm to meal-cooking and vegetable-preserving. Debates about technology led to the first factionalising: on the one hand the nature people (Vester, Gräser, etc.), on the other the vegetarian reformers who, after the "Nature and Comfort" slogan, were to move over into the sanatorium and hotel business, complete with promotion prospectuses, their speciality: withdrawal cures for intellectuals, poets, and artists.

In 1904 a lung specialist exhausted by political battles, Dr. Friedeberg, underwent a cure on Monte Verita. While fighting in labour-movement organizations for the General Strike (he was eventually expelled from SPD in 1907), he hung out his doctor's shingle in Ascona. His first patient was Hermann Hesse, whom he treated for alcoholism; Kropotkin, Brupbacher and Nettlau; Otto Braun and Karl Kautsky of the SPD; Mühsam and Otto Gross met at his place. Dr. Friedeberg tried to enlarge Historical Materialism with Historical Psychism, which led him to reject treatment by medication in favour of a natural therapy that emphasized raising fruits and vegetables and sawing wood.

Crazy or Anti?

Among the most interesting characters of the early Ascona scene is the psychiatrist and psychoanalyst Otto Gross.

As early as 1908 Freud referred him to his colleague C.G. Jung for an opium and cocaine withdrawal cure at Burghölzli. The analysis with Jung was very intensive, with sessions of up to twenty-four hours. After two weeks, Otto fled from Jung, who certified him as suffering from dementia praecox. Freud announced triumphantly to Jung: "I intend to appoint you to continue and finish my work; you are to apply to psychoses what I have begun with neuroses."

Otto's father, the famous Graz criminologist Dr. Hans Gross, as well as his psychoanalyst colleagues declared him crazy. The reasons are all too apparent. Dr. Hans Gross liked to use psychoanalysis to prove why criminals, vagabonds, revolutionaries, and homosexuals should be deported. Always on the move, living in open relationships, consuming all kinds of drugs, his son, on the other hand, made it clear that he wanted to "turn people into sexual immoralists." In his writings, Otto kept expounding antipatriarchal arguments, questioning the doctor-patient relationship in analysis, rejecting 234 transference. Sure enough, this kind of psychoanalysis and antipsychiatry did not enrapture Freud and Jung, who were attempting to establish psychoanalysis academically. Gross came to Ascona early and returned to it again and again, establishing contacts with Mühsam, Friedeberg, Max Weber, the Richthofen sisters, and through them with D.H. Lawrence.

In 1909 the police started preliminary proceedings against Otto for the death of an anarchist woman, "Lotte." It turned out that Lotte Hattemer, a co-founder of Monte Verita, had committed suicide using morphine she had gotten from Otto. In 1911 another suicide occurred in Ascona in which Gross seemed involved: a young anarchist woman, a painter, had taken a cocaine overdose. Arrest warrants were issued for him in Germany and Switzerland. Eventually, at the request of his father, proceedings against him were stopped. In the following years, Otto lived in Vienna, Florence, and in Berlin, where he collaborated with Franz Jung and the Aktion group." Returning to Berlin in 1913, he was arrested as an "anarchist of unsound mind," deported to Austria, put in an insane asylum and declared incompetent. His father had supplied the expert opinion needed for the commitment. A press campaign in which Franz Jung, Blaise Cendrars, Erich Mühsam and others took part forced his release after a year's confinement.

Starting in 1933 one of Otto's friends, Olga Frobe-Kapteyn, ran the Eranos Circle in Ascona, a round table which tried to overcome the East-West, spirit-nature, science-myth antagonisms. Meetings dealt with Yoga and Meditation, redemption and rebirth, symbolism of light and mysteries, or "the Great Mother - the Archetype of the Great Feminine." Among those who attended were Karl Kerenyi, Mircea Eliade, Gershom Scholem, Martin Buber, and Adolf Portmann.3 The esoteric parties were headed by, of all people, C.G. Jung.

"Next to Capri and Taormina in Italy, Ascona has become a place for the rediscovered cults of the Young Man, of the Woman and Great Mother, of the Wise Old Man, of Elements and Constellations; it has become a focus for the projections and desires of Nordic peoples" (Szeemann).

This finds its architectonic expression in ideas of liberated living space, theosophic building projects, nature-healing facilities, light-and-air huts, solar villas, and temple designs. Fidus^ wanted to build for the Monte Veritans a "Temple of the Earth" whose model can be seen in the exhibition. The Baltic nobleman Elisar von Kupfer actually built near Ascona his Temple of Clarity, called Sanctuarium Artis Eliasarion, which he dedicated to his hermaphroditic ideals. Even more beautiful is his cyclorama, "Dance of the Blest," with a multitude of transsexual saints in Arcadian realms.

What with so much free love, alternative lifestyle, meditation, antipsychiatry, and Esoterica, the chic of wealth and the golden aristocracy were bound to get curious. In 1923 Max Emden, owner of a Hamburg department store, bought the Brissago islands, along with their botanical garden, from Baroness Antonietta von Saint-Leger, who, says Richard EI Iman?, "had buried seven husbands without a tear" before she invited James Joyce to the islands and inspired the Siren and Circe episodes of Ulysses. (She eventually died in the poorhouse in 1948.) Meanwhile, rich Max had naked beauties hop and skip around - for "life too is an art" - in the island garden. The sanatorium closed. Artists were squatting in the Semiramis Hotel, built in 1910. The terrain was for sale. The Kaiser's banker, Eduard Freiherr von der Heydt, without much ceremony, bought the entire Monte Verita, across the water from the islands, which long since had been left by the lifestyle reformers. He built there a de luxe hotel in Bauhaus style.

A Patchwork of Minorities

There is nothing to understand about this dunghill, this mountain of truth; neither didactics nor structure of meaning; at best, there is plenty that can spur the imagination. Ascona has shown how revolutionaries, crazies, hippies, psychoanalysts, theosophists, and artists can "become parts and wheelworks of each other."

Everywhere in this exhibition we meet unpleasant company: next to the anarchist the religious freak, next to the revolutionary the petty-bourgeois gone wild, next to the women's libber the cute little baby doll, next to the "alternative" people the ascetic whole-wheat faddist. If a search for identity drew a sharp line between elements that are in such close touch, it would rest on an ego cult and a personality cult, and we all would be right back in old Berlin's Cafe Megalomania. Instead, the exhibition visualizes a transversal symphony of "a thousand small dissolved egos" (Foucault). As Elisar von Kupfer's temple of transsexual saints has it: a roundelay of most variegated poses of the same person.


1. Max Nettlau is a leading historian of the European anarchist movement. Peter Kropotkin was a Russian anarchist and theorist of mutual aid. Fritz Brupbacher was a writer and "People's Doctor" in Zurich, Switzerland.

2. Aktion was a revolutionary anarchist magazine published in 1911 in Berlin by Franz Pfemfert.

3. Karl Kerenyi (1897-1973) was an influential mythologist. Mircea Eliade is Professor in the History of Religions at the University of Chicago. Gershom Scholem is a philosopher (1897-1982). Buber (1878-1965) a philosopher and theologian and Adolf Portmann a biologist.

4. Fidus was the pseudonym for Hugo Hoeppner (1868-1948), a painter, illustrator and concrete utopian.

Translated by Hedwig Pachter

Heidi Paris and Peter Gente, anarcho-artists of the Berlin off-off scene, run the Merve publishing collective.

A Mountain For Minorities From Semiotext, The German Issue, Volume IV No. 2 1982, $ 5.95

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