Luud Schimmelpenninkl provo bicicletta biancaStereotype-in-English

“Provo”, Amsterdam’s 1968 (three years earlier)

When we think about 1968 demonstrations, we got Paris or San Francisco in our minds. Or maybe the Prague spring, when Czechoslovakia tried to rebel against the Soviet Union (unsuccessfully). Someone, by that time, had already passed through all these requests for a better, fairer, more equal society: Holland.

Luud Schimmelpenninkl provo bicicletta bianca
Luud Schimmelpennikl, ideologist of bike sharing for Provos

At the end of the 1800’s, Amsterdam is experimenting a new prosperity, after being (basically) the center of the world in the 1600’s. But then, France and the United Kingdom rose up and made the Netherlands decline a little bit.

Nothing compared with what happened in World War II, when Holland is living its worse times ever. They declare their neutrality, yet they are easily invaded by the Nazis, as there is no natural border with Germany. The royal family and the government escape, the number of collaborationists who contribute to the “final solution” is very high.

Census of 1941 counts 140 thousands Jews in the country. 107 thousands of them are deported, only a slight percentage survive (a little more than 5 thousands).

olanda liberazione seconda guerra mondiale
1945 postcard celebrating “Holland free again”

After the war, like any other place, Holland has to deal with its conscience. It’s easy to condone a behavior, to find for excuse, to put everything behind. But not for the younger generation. They look at the tragedy with different eyes and they demand a social change.

The libertarian, anti-authoritarian, anarchist boost is incarnated, 20 years after the end of the war, by Provo. Provo is a movement whose name comes from “provoceren”, the Dutch word for “provocation”. The sociologist Wouter Buikhuisen is the one that officially give them that name, because Provos are famous to organize provocative events. The founders are: Robert Jasper Grootveld, artist in his 30’s, Roel van Duijn and Rob Stolk, anarchists in their 20’s.

Already in 1964, Grootveld targets the tobacco industry and its (unaware) symbol: Het Lieverdje, a statue in Spui square, meeting point for Provos. The monuments just represents a street urchin, but it was commissioned by a tobacco businessman from Eindhoven.

In 1965 they become spokespersons for environmental issues, through the proposal “white bicycles”, the most famous of a series of “white” projects – so the bike will be a symbol for Provos. They ask for a public distribution of bicycles, in order to reduce the car traffic. They anticipate bike sharing by 30 years. They also talk about pollution taxes, occupation of abandoned buildings, contraceptives, sexual freedom and education, homosexuality, cannabis. More generally, about individual rights and freedom and opposition to authoritarian forms of ruling: capitalism, consumerism, fascism and communism – the reason why socialists and Marxists will criticize Provo for a (supposed) lack of sensibility towards the working class and for their not revolutionary reformism.

het lieverdje amsterdam tabacco piazza spui
Het Lieverdje, monument to a street urchin in Spui Square, Amsterdam. It was Provo’s meeting point

Despite pacifism, the relationship between Provos and the police had been tense. Detentions, confiscation of fliers, clashes. Not coincidentally, among Provo’s points, there’s the “white chicken”, from the Dutch slang “kip” (chicken), used to mock officers.

Provos wish for a reorganization of the police force: unarmed and actually serving society beyond their mere rule of guardians. Plus, they ask for the election of commissioners. A key episode is the murder of Jan Weggelaar, construction worker, committed by the police during a strike. Police brutality contributes to Provos’ popular consensus.

But there’s another event, goliardic in its intentions, which enshrines Provos’ fame. On March the 10th 1966, princess Beatrix gets married with Claus van Amsberg. He is the son of a German baroness and an untitled nobleman, but that’s not the real problem: Claus was a member of the Hitlerjugend, the Hitler Youth. In his defense, adhesion wasn’t discretionary.

matrimonio reale amsterdam 1966 provo
Picture of the Royal Wedding in 1966, Amsterdam

Provos demonstration include the distribution of flyers and smoke bombs, to disturb the wedding procession. And, most of all, a fake speech on behalf of Beatrix, in which the princess announces an anarchist turn, with a transition of power in favor of Provos. The police, however, reacts harshly, with many arrested and injured.

Provos non-violence, in the long term, will prevail. The public opinion is appalled by police brutality, between 1966 and 1967 the chief of Amsterdam police Hendrik Jan van der Molen and the mayor Gijsbert van Hall resign.

At the maximum moment of popularity, when the activist Bernard de Vries is elected in the municipal council of Amsterdam in 1967, Provo decides to disband. A bit because many members, starting from van Dujin, continue their protest in less easy-going ways, through anarchist (like Kabouters) or environmentalist groups. And a bit because the movement is aware that a radical revolution isn’t possible.

giorgio bocca il giorno provo
Italian press on Provos. “Il Giorno”, 20th December 1966

Provos aren’t utopians, they know very well that overturning the mentality of the masses is hard. More than revolution, they aim at a progressive change – and we’re back at far-left criticism. Nevertheless, many points of Provo’s program, had been incorporated by contemporary Holland through the years. The movement obtained some acknowledgment, demonstrating a certain level of pragmatism.

All over Europe, many movements inspired by Provos arise. Even in the United States, where the beat generation had more than 10 years, there’s a bit of Dutch influence. Sure, the hippies will take the scene, not only in America but in the international collective imaginary. But we can say that when Paris and Europe live their “hot” 1968, Holland had already been there three years earlier.


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