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To Get to the Other Side

A journey through Europe and its anarchist movements

Domela Nieuwenhuis and Appelscha

In Friesland, a northern province with its own language, there is a small village outside the city of Drachten called Ureterp.  L told me how way back in the day there was an anarchist group in tiny little Ureterp, and between them all they managed to get a pistol, which they took turns religiously guarding and cleaning.  One day, while a member of the group was cleaning the gun he shot himself and died, after which the whole group was discovered.  We wanted to visit the cemetery where he was buried in a sort of pilgrimage to tragicomedy, but couldn’t find his name.

pinksterlanddagenA more famous anarchist in Friesland was Ferdinand Domela Nieuwenhuis, a contemporary of Pyotr Kropotkin and Emma Goldman.  Instead of going to Ureterp, we visited his museum in Heereveen.  Although he was not much of a direct actionist, for such a peaceful, compromising society he was considered a rabble rouser, an ex-priest who put his writing and speaking to use in the service of anti-militarist, worker, atheist, and socialist causes. He made an impression that has lasted long after his death in 1919.  He frequented the village of Appelscha to talk to workers, and even today there is still an annual anarchist gathering in that town, extending directly from the tradition of anarchist groups he inspired there.  I got to go to the gathering in May 2007, when I happened to be back in that corner of the woods.  A group of us biked to Appelscha from Groningen, 40 kilometers away.  In the village there’s a trailer park and campsite occupied by anarchists year round.  Every May, they host the yearly gathering.  Anarchists from all over Nederland came and set up book tables, put on workshops, and made big meals together.

I was pretty amazed by the diversity of ages among participants, with plenty of old folks and lots of children, about 300 people total.  Well beyond simple childcare, there was a fully developed childrens’ program that seemed more interesting than the adult schedule of workshops.  Unfortunately I missed my chance to pick the brains of some of the older folks to learn more of the history of the event, which had been going on for 74 years!  That was one thing that continuously fascinated me about the European anarchists—how many of them are connected to and influenced by the revolutionary struggles of past generations, whereas in the US many of us absorb the legacy of struggle retroactively, once we become radicalized and start reading histories that no one else knows about.

There was a quote from old Domela inside the main building: “drinking workers don’t think and thinking workers don’t drink;” and in fact the gathering was alcohol free.  Having organized a conference myself I can say how frustrating it is when people can’t muster the discipline to lay off the booze for one weekend of workshops.  Nonetheless the gathering was laid back and fun, and I daresay people were better able to enjoy it with clear heads.

I gave a workshop on the US prison system, and another one that presented a criticism of nonviolence. The latter caused a minor stir.  The Appelscha conference was traditionally under the influence of the old school anti-militarist pacifists, and apparently mine was the first anti-pacifist talk to ever occur there, though there had been plenty of antifascist or animal liberation talks that were implicitly not pacifist.  It was really comforting to see both the presence of an anarchist tradition, something that can provide resources, continuity, and inclusion, from one generation to the next, and also a flexibility in that tradition, allowing it to be challenged by the younger generation.  The older folks didn’t try to prevent the talk, and some even came and participated.