Alternative Presses, Alternative Futures: Environmentalism in German Countercultural Publishing
Explore environmental history through the lens of German countercultural publishing...
This blog is part of a series on environmental history leading up to History Day 2021 on 4 November. History Day brings together students, researchers and anyone with an interest in history with professionals from archives, libraries, and other organisations with history collections from the UK and beyond. This year the event will explore collections that capture the experiences of ordinary people, collectors and scientists, looking at nature, landscape, climate change and much more.
In times of climate crisis, environmental issues are a dominant topic in our print and digital media. Our current collective consciousness for the environment is built upon a foundation of publications and activist movements spanning the 1960s to 1980s. During the 1970s, a momentous cultural shift towards environmentalism occurred. This was shaped by a variety of historical factors, including the looming threat of nuclear weapons and growing criticism of unlimited resource extraction to feed capitalist economies. Around the same time print cultures evolved to support the new movement. This history can be traced through the lens of a collection held at Senate House Library, the Institute of Germanic Studies Alternative Periodicals collection.
The publication Alternativkatalog, published in 1975 to distribute information about the growing alternative press landscape in German-speaking countries, defined the alternative press (German: “Alternativpresse”) as all small publishers and magazines running on a not-for-profit basis, whose audiences were based in the alternative scene. German alternative press publishing had been evolving since 1965, inspired by its U.S. counterpart, the “underground press”. It was a rejection of the capitalist-minded commercial publishing and distribution landscape and aimed to carve out a space for “new literature” (“neue [L]iteratur”).
The Institute of Germanic Studies Library’s Alternative Periodicals aimed to “form a representative collection of ‘underground’ or ‘alternative’ periodicals” (see: Institute of Germanic Studies, German language literary and political periodicals, 1960-1974, 1975). The collection, likely one of the only of its kind outside Germany, contains various expressions of new countercultural movements and alternative lifestyles forming in 70s and 80s Germany. Alongside literature the topics it spans are vast, including student politics, feminism, LGBTQ+ issues, contemporary radical political movements, and local and regional initiatives. The items are often self-published, using elements of DIY culture, and are the products of (mainly West) German, Swiss and Austrian writers, editors, printers and artists. Among the myriad topics addressed, environmentalism was frequently discussed in these newly emerging print cultures.
Grassroot green politics and the alternative press
Modern environmentalism started gaining momentum in the early 1970s in West Germany. An important impetus for local activism was the anti-nuclear movement. Especially after the successful resistance against the construction of a nuclear power plant in Wyhl, Baden-Württemberg, in the mid-70s, many local, independent citizen groups sprung up across the country and became major drivers of the new protest movement. One of these was the Arbeitskreis Umwelt (AKU), which formed in Münster around 1976-7. Among many other sites in West Germany at the time Münster was marked as the potential spot for a new nuclear power plant. The AKU published Münsters Grünes Blatt to support its activities to halt its construction. The centrality of the anti-nuclear issue is evident in an issue from January 1978, in which the problem of atomic waste dominates the front page.
Several other publications cover the environment and relate it to the wider countercultural scene. Issues of Alternativen and Durchblick cover anything from alternative economic models to book reviews and recipes. Alternativen gave its readers advice on how to connect with the alternative scene (German: “Alternativszene”) by acquiring alternative press titles, joining information networks and events, and creating their own spaces for alternative lifestyles. Alternatives press titles acted as essential conveyors and coordinators of information, helping their audiences form networks surrounding their political and cultural concerns.
Playful approaches to print culture
The alternative outlooks represented found their expression in the creative ways publishers played with the format of their publications. In this issue of Löwenzahn several pages are dedicated to a so called “Sammelsurium” (English: “hodgepodge”) filled with collages of images and information. Other magazines, such as Der Grüne Zweig start out as multiple leaves of text stapled together and become more creative with formats during their later issues. One issue is a series of postcards gathered in an envelope, another an illustrated foldout in a sleeve and one issue is a LP record. Alternative publishers pushed the boundaries of social discourse while questioning and expanding the limits of the print medium.
German countercultural print cultures
German countercultural print cultures provided an important medium for the expression of alternative ideas including environmentalism. By choosing to not publish through traditional publishers or formats, the creators of these publications empowered themselves to put marginal and local concerns to the forefront. As was the case for the broader environmental movement in West Germany, decentralising the governance of political expression and empowering individuals was an important part of the formation of alternative press culture.
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Environmentalism is only one topic addressed in this multifaceted collection. The Institute of Germanic Studies Alternative Periodicals collection is partially catalogued and discoverable through the Senate House Library catalogue. Over the course of the next year, we will be undergoing a project to fully catalogue the collection and improve its discoverability.
For further collections containing political protest and countercultural materials at Senate House Library, have a look at the Ron Heisler collection and the e-resources Environmental Issues Online and GreenFile (access with a Senate House Library membership).