The “Lebensreform Bewegung” (Life reform movement) is the term used to cover the various sorts of reform movement in Germany and Switzerland which began in the middle of the 19th century, and which influenced a number of intentional communities at the end of the 19th century and the start of the 20th century.
It was critical of industrialisation and urbanisation, and had the motto of “Back to Nature”. There was no overall central organisation, and there is some argument about whether the movement can be seen as progressive and modern or more backwards-looking and reactionary. Some of the reform ideas were taken on by left-wing post WW1 german communities, but some of the völkische settlements also held these ideas.
Aspects of the movement:
The movement came into being as a reaction to some of the developments of modern life. There was a belief that industrial, urban life was damaging to physical health and mental well-being. The representatives of the Reform movement proposed various solutions which people could undertake to have a healthier life. These included ecological agriculture, naturopathic medicine, natural clothing, vegetarianism and nutritional reform, and nudism. The movement was organised into associations and clubs which concentrated on these single issues. These in turn had contact with other reform movements, such as the Land Reform movement, groups proposing alternative economics, and various youth movements, such as the Wandervogel.
There was a belief that a “natural” way of life would be more healthy than that in the existing industrial cities. Water, warmth and fresh air were better than medicines. One of the more well known figures of the period was Sebastian Kneipp, whose therapies using water and foot-baths are still common in Germany today.
Some people believed that wool was the best material for natural clothing, other supported cotton, while Kneipp believed that linen was best. A major reform in women’s clothing was an end to wearing corsets. In the USA, Amelia Bloomer gained fame for her inovations in clothing for women. The women at the Oneida community wore similar, comfortable clothing which gave them more freedom of movement. Similarly, simple footwear and sandals became popular within the reform movement.
Nutritional reforms and ecological agriculture:
Many of the reformers saw the “civilised” diet of the day as being reponsible for many modern diseases. Products such as white flour, sugar, and conserved foods had become cheap and common. The reformers proposed various new dietary practises. The spread of vegetarianism in Germany began in this period. The benefits of wholemeal bread and whole corn products were emphasised, as was the consumption of raw fruit and vegetables. Some reformers became fruitarians. One of the most famous of the nutritional reformers was Maximilian Oskar Bircher-Benner, the inventor of muesli. Linked to the interest in “natural” foods came the start of the “Reform Houses” selling these products. The first forms of ecological agriculture began at this time. In Germany, Rudolf Steiner was influential from the 1920s onwards for his bio-dynamic agriculture. Similar ideas were being developed in other parts of the world at the same time. See: Wikipedia: History of Organic Farming.
The idea of Nudism as a way to improve health began in 1853 with the foundation by Arnold Rikli, of a Sun-Healing Institute (Sonnenheilanstalt) where people improved their health by naked sun bathing. By 1905 there were 105 similar “baths” in Germany. Some of the reformers saw nakedness as an antidote to the decadence produced by civilisation. Others linked the “cult” of the healthy, beautiful body to Völkisch and anti-semitic ideas about the superiority of the aryan race. In general, the nudist movement distanced itself from the ideas of free sexuality and pornography. They were more interested in discipline, self-control and control of the body as well as in morality, seeing clothing and clothed people as immoral and against nature. Over the years, two tendencies developed: the conservative groups and the socialist groups. The socialist groups extended their ideas about the body into sex education, contraception, fitness and medical counselling. In 1933, the conservative groups were integrated into the nazi regime, the socialist groups were banned.
Many of the Lebensreform ideas resurfaced in the “New age”, hippy, commune and counter-culture movements of the 1960s. And, just as in the early 20th century, they have been hotly discussed and criticised since the sixties.
More than ever today, and despite many advances, industrial urban civilisation clearly has a negative effect on our planet and on our health. Some of the Lebensreform ideas therefore still have relevance today. Vegan and vegetarian nutrition is more ecologically friendly than consumption of factory-farmed and grain-fed meat. Fresh, organic food is generally healthier than junk and fast food. Organic agriculture in its many forms can contribute to a more sustainable lifestyle. Living and working outdoors is usually healthier than sedentary indoor pursuits, but due to holes in the ozone layer, too much sun on naked skin is more harmful than a hundred years ago. Some of the medical ideas can be seen as fads or as unproven, but others have become established and accepted. Use of organically grown and fair-traded natural fibres as opposed to man-made materials has become more and more widespread, as have freer styles of clothing for women. Many intentional communities put these things into practice.
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