Monte Verità (The Mountain of Truth) was an early 20th century community in Ascona in the swiss canton of Tessin, near Lago Maggiore. It began as a small intentional community in 1900 and within a few years became a settlement made up of various projects. The founders wanted to start a new way of life, which was to lead to a new form of society. The key words were Light and Life, they wanted freedom from state and church and they were against private property. They were influenced by the Lebensreform movement. Many visitors came for periods of rest and retreat (two of the founders ran a sanatorium there), others for the vegetarian food, the nudism and free love.
Between 1900 and 1920, the community and the settlement of projects around it was home for shorter or longer periods to a large number of famous people, ranging from artists and writers, such as Paul Klee and Herman Hesse, to well known anarchists, such as Peter Kropotkin and Erich Mühsam. There were dadaists and dancers (Isadora Duncan), psychologists and theosophists (Rudolf Steiner). Even Lenin and Trotsky were vistors for a short time. The wide range of personalities who visited or lived at Monte Verità, and the variety of ideals that they held illustrates how many sided the pre-WW1 european “counter-culture” was.
In summer 1899, Henri Oedenkoven, the young son of a Dutch industrialist, met Ida Hofmann, a music teacher, at the Naturheilanstalt Rikli, a natural healing institute in Veldes, Austria. Both were disenchanted by modern society and by allopathic medicine, and were seeking meaning and healing through the ideas of the Lebensreform movement. Oedenkoven and Hofmann began to think about and discuss alternatives to existing society and medicine, and on leaving the health institute they kept in contact and began to correspond.
Oedenkoven proposed that, using funds from his family, they should start their own natural health institute and together with other people who shared their ideas they should start an intentional community with artisan workshops, food production and eventually a school. In October, 1900, together with five other people the couple met in Munich to discuss the foundation of a community which would run a natural health institute as its first enterprise.
Apart from Ida and Henri, the group comprised Karl Gräser, a Hungarian ex-officer turned anarcho-pacifist after a stay in Veldes in summer 1899, his younger brother Gustav, then 22 years old, Lotte Hattemer, one of Lotte’s friends who was a Theosophist and who soon left the group, and Ida’s sister, Jenny.
The group decided that they wanted to start their Lebensreform project somewhere in the south of Europe. The first place that they wanted to look at was in Lenno, Lake Como. Leaving Jenny behind at first, Henri, Ida, Lotte, Karl and Gustav set out on foot to walk there. They were a somewhat eccentric group, the men in short trousers, the women without corsets, all with long hair, mostly going barefoot, only occasionally wearing sandals. On reaching the area of Lake Como and Lenno, they began to look at properties but had the feeling that it was not quite the right place, so began to look further afield, around Milan and also around Lugano and Lago Maggiore. Eventually, they concentrated their search around Ascona in Canton Ticino, Switzerland. From November they were based there, and here they found a property of one and a half hectares at Monte Monescia. Through the purchase of further, adjoining parcels of land the property quickly was enlarged to three and a half hectares.
The first Winter
Before much work could be started, the group suffered from the first conflict, which lead to the departure of Gustav Gräser. However, at the end of November, Jenny Hofmann rejoined the group and they began work. They cleared much of the overgrown hillside, laid out paths and prepared building material. Both men and women did much the same work. There was only one existing building on the land, a run-down stone building which had first been a rest-house for lumberjacks and then later used as a stable. Therefore the group lived in Borgo, Ascona, and worked from morning to night on their property. News of their project soon spread through the associations of the Lebensreform movement and its publications, even though it was still little more than an idea. Guests began to visit, wanting to see the project, give advice and tips, but seldom to actually help and do much work. Gustav Gräser returned for a short period while Henri and Ida were away. He exerted some influence over Jenny and Lotte, but on Henri and Idas’s return he was again expelled from the community as a good for nothing scrounger. During this first winter, a sixth member became part of the group; Fritz Röhl, a carpenter and glazier with anarchist ideals of freedom and brotherly love. His practical skills were of great benefit to the others, who were rather amateur when it came to the practical work necessary in this pioneer phase.
In spring, the first small huts to live in were built. As the 6 community members were overworked (and under-skilled), a number of builders, gardeners and carpenters were temporarily employed. Two more substantial houses were completed in May, and many plants, bushes and 300 fruit trees were planted. All this cost money, which Henri had to obtain from his family. As summer 1901 progressed, more and more guests came – and they were charged money for the visit. If they weren’t going to help (and they seldom did) and were also stopping the community members from working themselves, at least they were contributing something.
More buildings were started. Henri had a chalet built. A dining room and kitchen were built as the first part of a community house. Most of the living space was still unfinished – the communitarians slept on the floor and, in good weather, outside in the open.
With many guests “doing their own thing”, sleeping in the hay and eating what ever they could find in the kitchen, (and sometimes organised by Röhl into doing useful work) the community in this period had the character of what in those days passed as a bohemian communist commune. Indeed, Karl Gräser and Fritz Röhl were very much in favour of this development. On the other hand, Henri and Ida were much against this chaotic free-for-all situation, but saw that at least some of the guests under Fritz’s guidance were useful workers. However, by August, there had been little practical progress from the situation in April.
Most supplies had to be transported a long distance and there was no water supply on the property. Therefore they bought a donkey, which was used the whole day long bringing water from a spring some distance away. Plans were made for a water pipeline and also for the purchase of an automobile. These and other ideas were, however, not to Karl Gräser’s liking, and after discussions and conflict, he and Jenny (who were now together) moved out in December 1901. They bought a property not far from the community and were thus the first of many offshoots from the community which came into being in the following years.
While Lotte Hattemer drifted more and more into a sort of religious world of her own, it was left to Henri and Ida to try to realize the plans which they had made together. Again, using paid labour rather than the help of guests, five small houses and a reading room were completed. New plans were made, including electrification – indeed the community was later the first place in Ascona to have electric light. As well as favouring technological innovation, Oedenkoven and Hofmann were supporters of other new ideas: they named the project a “cooperative”, they wanted consensus decision making, they wanted as much self-sufficiency as possible, they were against “bourgeois” marriage and in favour of free partnerships, and they were vegetarians, sun-bathers and nudists.
In spring 1902, the cooperative, newly named “Monte Verità” – the Mountain of Truth, issued its first prospectus, which announced the formation of a cooperatively run natural health institute. This lead to a renewed influx of guests: people interested in joining the coop, supporters, critics, practitioners of alternative medicine and curious sight-seers from all over Europe, many of them famous.
During this period, some visitors who were at first interested in the cooperative but who were more individualistic in their character began to buy properties in the area, which lead to Ascona itself becoming famous independently of the project at Monte Verità, and which also lead to a growing alternative network in the area. This development, in turn, lead to occasional problems with the Swiss authorities (e.g. about nudism, free-love and the lack of marriage certificates). However, generally the community and the new settlers were accepted.
Oedenkoven and Hofmann undertook a number of journeys in this period, visiting artists, healers, sanatoria and also their relations. On their return to Monte Verità they found that quite a number of eccentrics, scroungers and demagogues had settled in during their absence. This lead to a series of conflicts and expulsions, after which, the efforts of the remaining colonists began to bear fruit. One especially interesting new member was Salomonson, a strict vegan and nudist. He had the task of book-keeping and of purchasing foodstuff. A couple of times a week he took the donkey cart down to Ascona to buy fruit and vegetables. However, as most of the communitarians were ovo-lacto vegetarians, this policy of buying only fruit and vegetables lead to problems. Solomonson, who was also against spices and woollen clothing, then left the community, despite support from Oedekoven, who shared his nutritional ideas. Indeed, the attempt to limit the diet of the community to a salt-free vegan diet lead to rebellion, with some communitarians storing “forbidden” foodstuff hidden in the bushes of the hillside.
During these early years of the 20th century, Monte Verità attracted a wide spectrum of visitors, from Buddhists in Indian clothing to Theosophists, and from Spiritualists to Anarchists such as Erich Muhsam, (who wrote one of the first (critical) books, “Ascona” about the project in 1905) and Syndicalists such as Dr. Raphael Friedberg. Friedberg, who settled in Ascona, supported many anarchist comrades who came to the area and, for a while, had a whole group of them living with him.
In 1904, the main building at was complete. The grounds were well cared for and had become a park. Only access to the property remained a problem, with no road and high costs for the transport of goods to the community. A rainwater cistern was installed with a piping system to gather the water and to distribute it for garden irrigation, washing and cooking. Drinking water remained a problem, until an offer came from outside to start a consortium providing the users with spring water from the mountains. Soon afterwards the first electricity supply was completed with underground cables. The sanatorium had a good number of clients, and there were quite a number of people who were willing to join the community. The ownership, however, was in the hands of only Hofmann and Oedenkoven, the remaining founder members having left.
“Ascona – Monte Verità” by Robert Landmann, 1979.
Ullstein Sachbuch Nr. 34013
Verlag Ullstein GmbH, FFM-Berlin-Vienna
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