In April 1967, the radical denizens of Kommune I in West Berlin hatched a plan to assail the visiting US vice president, Hubert Humphrey, with ‘pudding bombs’ made of flour and custard. ‘Laughter must be on our side,’ they declared. They were arrested before they could unleash the desserts. The following month, after a horrific department store fire in Brussels, they issued a pamphlet which asked, ‘When will Berlin’s department stores burn?’ Two communards, Fritz Teufel and Rainer Langhans, were arrested again, this time for advocating arson, and turned their trial into a satirical media spectacle. After the acquittal of the ‘fun guerrillas’, Kommune I enjoyed a period of countercultural celebrity – Jimi Hendrix dropped by one day – but by the end of 1969 it had disintegrated. Langhans went on to create a women’s commune (known, to his annoyance, as ‘the Harem’); Teufel joined the militant 2 June Movement and was jailed twice for complicity in firebombing and kidnapping.
The story of Kommune I has familiar contours: the rebel whimsy, the rejection of societal norms, the mixture of hedonism and violence. The communards’ courtroom performance feels like a dress rehearsal for the Yippies’ antics at the trial of the Chicago Seven two years later, while Langhans and his model girlfriend, Uschi Obermaier, were promoting the sexual revolution before John Lennon and Yoko Ono. America’s postwar counterculture – Huey Newton and Abbie Hoffman, Gloria Steinem and Bernardine Dohrn, ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’ and the Port Huron Statement, ‘Don’t trust anyone over thirty’ and ‘The whole world is watching’ – has been mythologised in songs, movies and bestselling books. Although Europe had the uprisings in Paris and Prague in 1968, the revolutionary violence of the 1970s and theorists such as Herbert Marcuse and Guy Debord, the counterculture it produced tends to take second place in the Anglophone world’s imagination. Joachim C Häberlen’s wide-ranging book gives the continent its due.
Häberlen, a German historian who until recently taught at the University of Warwick, is not primarily interested in street-fighting men. He is drawn instead to blue-sky attempts to design a better world in microcosm, between the Scylla of Soviet communism and the Charybdis of capitalism. He takes us