How are countercultural movements possible?

The 1968 movement

Detlef Siegfried

To person

Dr. phil., born 1958; Associate Professor of Modern German History and Cultural History at the University of Copenhagen and research assistant at the Research Center for Contemporary History in Hamburg.
Address: Research Center for Contemporary History in Hamburg, shoulder blade 36, 20357 Hamburg.
Email: [email protected]

Publications among others: (Ed. Together with Axel Schildt and Karl Christian Lammers) Dynamic times. The 1960s in the two German companies, Hamburg 2003 (2); The aviator look. Intellectuals, radicalism and aircraft production at Junkers 1914 to 1934, Bonn 2001.

Consumer culture and alternative everyday life

Long hair, loud music and drugs: young people created their own private counterculture in the 68s. Growing economic prosperity made it possible. Those who were self-conscious traveled to Swinging London or Copenhagen.

The "68er movement" stood in the tense relationship between politically motivated demonstrations and on the other hand the slow commercialization of the culture industry. (© Günter Zint)

In the everyday life of the 68s not only should an alternative life be realized, it was also part of a political concept. Fritz Teufel, member of Commune I, explained: "You have to change society in order to be able to change yourself. You have to change yourself in order to be able to change society." As has been shown in the lives of many actors who valued British pop music and German songwriters, represented radical ideas and smoked hashish, organized political actions and hitchhiked to the Mediterranean in the summer. Music, travel and drug consumption were anchored in everyday life in the counterculture, whose followers identified themselves through a specific habitus. An alternative everyday life could only arise because West German society had changed rapidly since the late 1950s. Economic prosperity drove the erosion of traditional social environments and enabled youth to invest their growing funds in records, consumer electronics, clothing, cosmetics, fashion and music magazines. New ways of life could be tried out because school and university times extended over a growing biographical period. The boost to betterment was accompanied and culturally reshaped by a change in values ​​that began around 1964 and lasted ten years. [2] The desire for self-realization and participation superimposed traditional norms such as order and subordination; no longer saving up for a hoped-for happiness in adulthood formed the model, but - encouraged by advertising to the best of its ability - enjoyment of life here and now. The counterculture and alternative milieu were a result of this process of change, which was driven and shaped by the actors themselves. The forms and characteristics of everyday culture around 1968 were controversial. It stood in a threefold tension - between a rational enlightenment thinking and an emotionally based "new sensitivity" (Herbert Marcuse), between commercialization by the culture industry and the anti-commercial demands of young people, between the equalization of social differences and the emergence of new mechanisms of distinction.


Beat and rock music was an important emotional link for those groups that saw themselves under the collective term 'counterculture' as an antagonist to a presumed majority. Some already discovered a revolutionary potential in the not explicitly political beat music of the early 1960s. It could be consumed, but it could also help raise awareness. [3] In the musically based transnational youth culture that had spread across Europe since the late 1950s, electrically amplified popular music was coded on the left because it represented a particularly democratic form of media articulation and represented cosmopolitanism, individual activity and participation. Because it is not primarily the text, but the sound that establishes its social bond and mobilization function, beat music has been called a 'speechless opposition' at the time. It was the least articulated form of social criticism, but it accompanied the emerging political protests on the symbolic and habitual level. [4] Since the mid-1960s, electrically amplified music has also become a medium for political messages. In 1967, Frankfurt Provos saw beat music not only as a 'cultural revolution in the show business', but also wished that the Beatles, Bob Dylan and other stars would found an 'international beat party' to fight racism and colonialism.

Places of origin of beat music such as the Cavern Club (Liverpool) or the Star Club (Hamburg) offered an ambience of deviation from social conventions that could also be interpreted as a protest. In the course of the 1960s, localities such as the Club Voltaire (Frankfurt), the Lila Eule (Bremen) and the Club Ça Ira (West Berlin) were added, offering jazz and beat, art, films, readings and political events, as well as oppositional ones Combining culture and politics into a new event concept. In the upswing of the discotheques since 1967, dance temples such as Creamcheese (Düsseldorf), Grünspan (Hamburg) and Sound (West Berlin) emerged, in which psychedelic music, drug consumption and political opposition were diffusely combined.

The Beatles, here in their film "Eight arms to hold you", put the young people of the late 1960s into hysteria. This made the musicians themselves members of the media and culture industry. (© AP)
The rise of beat and rock music challenged the boundaries between high and popular culture, avant-garde and mass. It became a mass culture because it represented the cultural preference of a minority - young, critical, individualistic - that became more and more attractive as values ​​changed. This was evident, for example, in the success of Radio Bremen's TV Beat Club, which hit the TV screen in 1965, was soon internationally recognized as "the best of the bunch" and reached an average of 75 million people in 1968 - with verbal contributions since that year, z. Partly of a political nature. [6] Also economic
companies picked up on the new trend when it was still controversial and thus served a growing demand. The fact that American record companies such as CBS and Liberty or the Swedish company Metronome popularized the idea of ​​revolution through English-language popular music gave young nonconformists a headache. In particular, CBS made 'underground' a trademark and thus marketed the sound of the counterculture. [7] At the same time, record labels such as Ohr, Kuckuck and David Volksmund Produktion were created, which were self-administered or shimmered between the cultural industry and the left-wing scene. In the course of the 1960s, a new type of manager emerged in youth-related sectors of the culture industry who viewed artists not only as exchangeable displays, but as autonomous producers. The ethos of professional, morally correct and audience-oriented music management was embodied early on by the Frankfurt concert agency Lippmann + Rau, which organized the American Folk Blues Festival between 1962 and 1969 and thus not only served the current musical tastes of young white Europeans, but also their increased need for identification with the oppressed and marginalized around the world, their criticism of alienation and their anti-racist self-image. [8]

Between 1964 and 1969 there was a European nucleus of the folk movement at Waldeck Castle, where several thousand young people met every year. From the impulses of the Waldeck and the American underground, the International Essener Songtage was born in September 1968. This until then largest European pop festival attracted 40,000 visitors and featured around 200 artists from various genres - including Alexis Korner, Franz Josef Degenhardt, Tangerine Dream, Mothers of Invention and The Fugs. In 1970, festival culture moved closer to the everyday life of young people when a large number of community concerts were held for the first time in all parts of Germany - a sign that rock music, which was often still negotiated under the banner of counterculture, was increasingly diffusing into society. This year around 500,000 young people took part in the festivals, although they only met the high expectations of a solidarity community of 'beautiful people' to a limited extent.

Apartment and consumer electronics

The fact that the central hardware of youth culture in the 1960s was the turntable was already shown by the prominent position it occupied in many youth rooms. Now sound carriers with pop music could be heard independently, alone and at home, but also with friends. Around 1968 stereos became popular, highlighting the subtle differences in music consumption. Social prestige was no longer provided by owning a device for playing records, but by having access to material that was advanced in terms of taste and technology. Stereophonic playback technology and compliance with a minimum sound level defined a new standard that put the not particularly demanding turntables of earlier years behind. [9]

Men in particular benefited from the electrification of everyday life - not least because they were more technically socialized than women. With the pop music discourse, they occupied an area in which the gender relations had been more balanced ten years earlier. At the beginning of 1975, 16.9% of women aged 15 to 23 had a stereo system, compared with 42.9% of men of the same age. [10] In these meager numbers, a massive accumulation of cultural capital on the masculine side becomes visible, which only arose in the process of the expansion and differentiation of pop music and the material ensemble on which it is based. A comparison with the early 1960s shows that here both sexes were almost equally in possession of record players - with a slight advantage for the young women. [11] Women listened to pop music and danced after it more enthusiastically than men, but as subjects of specialist discourse, records and phonograph equipment, including pop concerts, and even pop music in general, had become a preferred terrain, especially for young men. Refined technical reproducibility through a differentiated ensemble of technical equipment was the basis for this shift in the gender relation. Girls also developed opinion leaders in this area, albeit at a distance from boys and subordinate to their main areas of expertise, fashion and cosmetics. Reading a youth magazine that reported in detail (also) on pop music was indispensable in order to be able to keep up. Anyone who wanted to gain significant informational advantages had to get information from magazines such as "Pop" or "Musik-Express", which had been serving the growing need for specialist knowledge since 1966 - the most ambitious turned to "Sounds".

Commune in Hamburg. The residents set themselves apart from their parents' homes in terms of appearance and furnishings and thus protested against rigid moral standards. (© Günter Zint)
When it comes to furnishing their homes, young people differed not only from their parents' tastes, but also from what the cultural industry saw as particularly modern. The soft material popularized at the end of the 1960s, the curved shapes and the playful pop accessories certainly broke through the functionalist furnishing principle of modernity. But this industrially shaped idyll was far removed from the reality of West German youth rooms or student stalls. [12] Students often resorted to obsolete furniture, including comfortable upholstered furniture that, torn from the context of the suite and living room cupboard and combined with self-made shelves and political posters, lost its bourgeois symbolism. [13] As in the early 1960s, young people preferred the moderately modern in 1969, as a survey of the particularly fashionably advanced "Twen" readership shows. [14] The multifunctional youth room, which had been favored a few years earlier, had been displaced from its top position by somewhat more generous, lavishly upholstered, but nonetheless functional arrangements. The 'Gelsenkirchener Barock' received the worst marks, as did the seating group made of ultra-modern plastic furniture. In practice, the combination of old and new material dominated. In this 'bricolage' an innovation in furniture construction, specially developed for the youth room, was occasionally used: the 'Sacco' filled with foam beads, which, as a frameless fabric or artificial leather cover, radicalized the principle of soft upholstery by adapting itself to the body as much as possible instead of to make it functionalist.