Project Meiga: How It All Began

Leila Dregger

(Translator: Eva Langrock)

In the summer of 1978 four young Germans in their 20s and their 35 year old mentor, radical sociologist Dieter Duhm (1) met in Herrenberg, South Germany, with an ambitious aim. This group, representing a variety of backgrounds that included Christian theology, physical science, social work, Sufism and psychology had conceived the vision of a holistic centre for living, working and research into human nature.  By the spring of 1979 the five had organised themselves as the Bauhuette association working together on a farm in Leuterstal near Stuttgart.

 The little group were interested to put into practice Duhm's ideas for bringing about the transformation of our modern western individualistic and exploitative capitalistic society to a more cooperative and equitable one. This transition, Duhm argued, would have to come, not through violent revolution, but through the development of alternative lifestyles and institutions that fostered basic needs for contact, for meaningful work and for a reduction in conflicts and fear. Moreover, it was clear to him that fulfilling these needs was a potentially revolutionary programme, since the new lifestyle that would be required to meet them could never be realised within capitalism. Duhm's vision was that the new social alternatives would have to be developed out of intentional community combined with humanistic research that would be dedicated to discovering how men and women could live in peace and harmony with each other and with the planet.

 Because Duhm sharply criticised Marxism for its use of violent revolution, the mainstream Left rejected his ideas. In 1974, finding it more and more difficult to work in an establishment institution, he resigned his University post and embarked on a tour to study how several alternative communities were organised and how they functioned. In Poona (India) he observed how Bagwan Shree Rashneesh (later Osho) was combining living and working with meditation and encounter groups. In the Christian Taizé community in France he saw how the monks and nuns lived simply, bringing the gifts of spirit, renunciation and voluntary simplicity to everyday life. At Otto Muehl's commune in Friedrichsdorf (Austria) he found a group experimenting with free sexuality and there he realised that society could never be transformed until the relations between the sexes were freed from culturally conditioned prohibitions and fears that blocked human life energy.

 By the time the group of five moved to their farm, Duhm had already set out his ideas for a centre that

...will be both a village and a community experiment. The inhabitants will endeavour to solve problems as they arise not only by new eco-technological means and novel organisational structures, but also through inner work with the energetic, emotional and social aspects of human nature. (2)

 Evidently this was meant to be a pilot study for research into finding an alternative humane way of living which could provide a model for a peaceful society grounded on historical analysis and informed by an ongoing psychological reflection. The group was drawing ideas from each of the communities that Duhm had studied, but they rejected from the outset the strict hierarchical structures centred around a guru or omnipotent leader that characterised those projects.

 Two years later, fortified with some experience in group living, the project was becoming more clear in the details of the vision that was developing. Duhm, as spokesman, articulated it this way

We want to build up a growing community of individuals that we feel comfortable with. That means, above all, people with whom we can explore the interfaces of love, fear and truth. Within these edges lie the actual problems that we are aiming to solve, since humanism is impossible so long as people remain dishonest. We aim to disconnect ourselves step-by-step from the fears that make us act like puppets. We are developing this project because we want to find ourselves before we turn to political aims. We want to live and love freely without ideological uniformity, because we know that this is actually what everyone wants who takes a clear stand for a positive lifestyle. The human and political meaning of the project lies in our attempt to realise within it our own dreams of a life lived as completely, deeply, and consciously aware as possible. (3)

 From Duhm's writings of the time it is clear that the aim was to establish a settlement which embodied three basic principles for the creation of a new society. Firstly, there would be a new economic system that would be equitable and just, inspired by Marx's epigram: "To each according to his needs, from each according to her abilities." Secondly, the model would have to incorporate a new relationship to nature, one that would bring mankind into a symbiotic relationship with the earth respecting the uniqueness and essentialness of all species and ecosystems, what today we would call deep permaculture. And thirdly—what ultimately was to uniquely characterise this project and the communities that were to develop out of it—there must be a new order of human relationships whereby men and women could find peace with each other. The settlement envisaged itself setting up a working alternative culture centred around and integrating education, medicine, architecture, sustainable energy technology, basic science, organic agriculture, art, and a new social fabric in which love was freed from fear. The group wanted to discover strategies for solving fundamental social, economic and relationship problems that would be universal. In short, they had a grand vision: to build first a working model, and then a network which would serve as a starting point for a new society.

 The group  began as a laboratory for ecological research and the study of alternate technology. They experimented with holistic architecture, biological sewage treatment, with vibration and hydrodynamics and with organic gardening. But they were soon encountering serious difficulties as conflicts and crises surfaced. Many of these concerned issues of male power and rivalry, and centred around sexuality, possessiveness and jealousy. By 1980, barely a year after its founding, the Bauhuette was in trouble, riddled with interpersonal conflict and antagonistic rivalries. For all its beautiful ecological and economic vision, the group soon reached a precarious moment of whether it should continue at all. Teetering on the brink of extinction, the members realised that they must shift their emphasis from ecological research to research into the very issues that were threatening to blow them apart: love, sexuality and relationship. It was clear that the issues of power and sexuality would have to be addressed first. One of the founder members, put it this way: "We noticed that we needed to create a social structure, in which the highest priority community enterprise would first of all be that the healers healed themselves. Surprisingly perhaps, it was art, not psychotherapy which was to prove our key."(4)

 Driven by the crisis, the group began to focus on questions such as: How can we work on our character? What is ego and what is personality? How can we establish a community in which the love of one person to another does not create fear and jealousy and hatred in a third person? This was a shift in emphasis, and thereafter visitors came not so much for the ecological research, as to participate in the human research on such topics as: What do human beings really want? What kind of social feedback is necessary for one to become the person he or she really is? How to openly integrate Eros into everyday life? The workshop programme for that period (1981) reveals an unusual, for that time, mix of psychology with ecology. A sample of some of the weekend workshops included: Wilhelm Reich, Pioneer of Universal Life Energy; Pulsing, The Vibrating Universe; Ecological Culture and Sexuality; The Functioning of a Biotope; Ecological Theory and Social Systems.

 The turning of the research project to the very problem that nearly swallowed it up was, in hindsight, a brilliant stroke, because it opened up the possibilities to new and as yet unknown ways of defusing the powder keg that has blown apart numerous utopian social experiments which focused only on new economics or new technologies. Once the turning point was reached and the group began to experience the benefits of the resultant increase in harmony and creativity, the Bauhuette began to grow. By 1983 the German peace movement was at its height of influence, and the ideas of the Bauhuette group were sufficiently appealing to attract nearly 50 more adults split almost equally between men and women, so that they were able to move to a much larger farm in the village of Schwand in the southern region of the Black Forest. At Schwand they focused exclusively on the human questions, how to free love and sexuality from fear, how to create sustainable nourishing community where every member could grow and be uniquely creative. Using art, theatre, various therapeutic techniques and group dynamics, they devised methods to bring awareness to both the psychological side of human history—e.g., the struggle for survival, fascism, revolutions, slavery, Old Testament morality; as well as to each individual's own personal history which included their birth, their family nexus, their love relationships, even how they each incorporated as an archetype a piece of the human race's karmic past.

 Through a continuous process of trial and error, through chaos, confusion and constant surprises, the group began to work out general principles and basic techniques for solving conflicts and for creating a stable community. These included methods for inducing increased levels of honesty, openness and transparency, and also new social forms for love relationships which promised to guarantee a more stable, but equally vibrant society. To mark their departure from old habits and ego patterns, some of the founders changed their names.

 On the one hand this was a group of sincere serious researchers working at the frontiers of social science; and on the other hand they were young people living together and having fun. Sometimes they were lazy, they smoked and drank too much, they read Asterix comics and lay about watching James Bond on television. It might take them an entire day to plant a small patch of potatoes, and then they would forget to harvest their crops. For them, dreams were playgrounds both for serious and for trivial matters. They prayed in sweat-lodges, meditated under waterfalls, and suffered from the permanent absence of their desired deity. Then they would turn their suffering into a piece of art and make it a thanksgiving celebration. What they loved most of all was sensuality and sexuality. They laughed at jealousy, they tolerated with amusement the occasional tantrum. Even the way that they roughhoused with their pets had a loving and sensual quality. (5)

 Conversely, they could often be incredibly industrious. They once worked on a mud house that, after 500 man/woman hours, remained a ruin that was finally turned into a hyperbolic mud cone. Quite astonishingly such apparent fiascos only served to strengthen further their joy, their self-confidence, their intelligence and their commitment to community. They conducted spiritual exercises in which they alternated talking and silent meditations for 72 hours on the question, "Who am I?" They were intoxicated with their study together of humanity, of the world, of their gods. Sometimes people would wake each other in the middle of the night to experiment with reversing their sleeping patterns. They did research whilst asleep, some went to the desert to fast, others dived in the Mediterranean. They talked about their findings and new ideas playing table-tennis, whilst drinking, eating, painting, play-acting and sometimes while making love. These young people were becoming experts in transformation. They knew that they were in process of changing completely and they believed the world to be at the brink of a complete metamorphosis. As a consequence, they taught themselves not to hold on to anything, neither to their possessions, nor to certain ways of thinking, not even to the organisational structures that they had painstakingly created. Theirs was a group able to look at the chaotic passages in their mutual development with amusement, for they believed that they had entered into a time of radical social change and were themselves at the vanguard of it. (6)

 During the years 1983-86 in Schwand, Dieter Duhm held the acknowledged leadership. This was delegated to him by the group as a conscious part of the social experiment. But the Bauhuette was always open to other ideas, and indeed methods were introduced from a variety of alternative holistic projects. The foci of the work changed as the interests of the individual members of the group changed, and as members came and went. Thus, Sabine Kleinhammes brought an openness towards spirituality and the study of religious philosophy, Sten Linnander initiated research into telepathy and trace, Joachim Niklas introduced permaculture and reinstated the ecological research, while Dieter Duhm himself held the focus for a subgroup on painting and healing. Yet throughout the diversity the common denominator of their research remained "Healing humanity, healing the earth." In those early days no one ever seemed to require a doctor. Occasional illnesses were treated through group dynamics, rituals or by making changes in lifestyle. And doubtless because they believed in the power of these processes, they were generally successful.

 During three years at Schwand, they hosted more than a thousand visitors and guests at camps and workshops. Then, in 1986, Bauhuette came under the frenzied fire of a wave of negative press articles directed against them. The tabloids tarred the project with epithets: "Sex Clinic with Olive Oil," "Sex With a Hundred Couples," and even more fantastic headlines. The articles were invariably written without any real investigation into what was actually happening down on the farm, and were designed more to arouse the public's vivid fantasies than to give an accurate description of the group. Nevertheless, the local neighbourhood grew uneasy with the sensationalistic news reports of a mysterious community with wild sexual practices in their quiet provincial farmland. It was not long before the group lost their permit to hold workshops, and soon after their charitable status was revoked. The Schwand period came to an end when the last straw came: the refusal of the owner to renew their tenancy of the farm.

 The year 1986 marked the moment of radical changes taking place within the Soviet Union: disarmament, perestroica, glasnost. Simultaneously, the Chernobyl nuclear catastrophe emphasised the urgency for worldwide ecological changes. The group, now without a home, but wiser and more dedicated to global social change than ever, realised that such change would not be brought about by an insular commune of drop-outs. What was needed was a community-based political and cultural movement to offer an alternative for the whole of society. As the larger concept began to take shape and communicated, the circle of individuals interested in being part of such a community grew to nearly a hundred. Momentarily, a site in the Pyrenees loomed likely, however the leadership decided to defer the creation of a community. Rather it encouraged individuals associated long-term with the project and a few who had frequently visited the experiment at Schwand to start their own individual smaller projects to be united under a loose network called "Project Meiga". These included a few galleries (Galerie Roda in Radolfzell run by Sabine Lichtenfels, in Frankfurt run by Katza Kreutzmann, in Berlin run by Lee Voossen), a publishing house (Verlag Meiga run by Beate Moeller), a magazine (San Diego Magazin run by Leila Dregger), the "Sexpeace" group of artists, the youth club "Jetsz", run by Achim Ecker, an ecological centre on the Bodensee lake (Heretswilen), a trendy pub in Winterthur, a humanitarian charity, "Aktion Perestroika," run by Sten Linnander and Mario Stucki, and a conference-team run by Sarah Vollmer and Herbert Faller.

 By autumn 1989 East Germany was rapidly moving towards democracy, and the members of the Meiga network took up active involvement in assisting the process. On 9 November the Berlin Wall fell, and the next day Meiga people were out were distributing 10,000 copies of their now legendary flyer "Mauerflugblatt." As the following excerpt shows, the group were continuing to weave the personal and the political into a coherent framework for action.

    The Wall is collapsing. It was the symbol of the fight between two political systems. All of us share the joy that comes from its fall, which arises from a feeling, not of victory, but of an all-embracing human unification. There will be no true victory unless all political systems and walls have been overcome....

    Walls have always been built. They were built for protection. They were erected around peoples, around political institutions, and around belief systems. They were even built around basic human needs, around Eros, love and partnerships....

    It is a contradiction in terms when truths, humanity, liberty and freedom have to be protected from the world through walls, as humans are only truly free where fences and walls are no longer needed. Loyalty to a political system that is more than lip service can only grow when other systems are understood and acknowledged. That is as true for politics as for love. You can only be faithful when you are free to love others. (7)

 A year later came German reunification. Land and properties that had previously been owned by the East German state flooded the market, and for the first time it became possible to find a sufficiently large and affordable piece of land for the envisaged community. The Meiga team organised a big summer camp in Walsrode which attracted over 700 participants for the presentations, talks and workshops given by many of the original members of Schwand. At the summer camp a planning and fund raising team was set up which managed in a relatively short time to gather sufficient financial support to make ZEGG an immanent reality.

 However, the same summer camp also led to a new wave of negative newspaper publicity as aggressive as the one in 1986. The Meiga project charity, Aktion Perestroika, was accused of misuse of funds because it had links to groups working with the issues of community and sexuality. Tabloids ranging from the radical left to the extreme right blared out headlines like "Sex Prophets", "Sexcamp in the Luneburger Heide," and "Revolt of the Free-bonkers." It was not long before ZEGG fell under close scrutiny of the Weltanschauung-commissioners of various churches, of student groups working against religious sects, and various other administrative bodies set up to protect the public morality. Once the hue and cry of "religious sect" had been sounded, it was impossible to dissociate ZEGG from it, even though those critics with integrity (8) withdrew their accusations when Aktion Perestroika openly disclosed their impeccable accounts, and documented in full their worldwide charitable relief activities.

 Despite the negative publicity, the project soldiered on. In autumn 1990 Ramona Stucki and Franz Voigt of the ZEGG search team found a 15-hectare piece of land, a former Stasi camp in Belzig, 80 km south west of Berlin, surrounded by clear pinewoods, with habitable buildings and a large square. With the financial support of over a hundred subscribers, the newly formed ZEGG Ltd. was able to purchase it a year later, and a hundred enthusiasts started renovations to turn the camp into a centre and home for the new community. Although the new project retained the initial inspiration from Dieter Duhm's original vision, he himself, along with Meiga founder member Sabine Lichtenfels, choose not to join the new project. They elected to remain with a smaller project under the Meiga umbrella which in 1995 established itself as Tamera, Centre for Humane Ecology in Portugal, effectively a smaller sister community to Zegg which aims to integrate spirituality, ecology, art and technology. Tamera also hosts somercamps and workshops, and is engaged in establishing an Institute for global peacework, as well as research into humane social and ecological systems under the title of Healing Biotope I. 

 The withdrawal of Dieter Duhm from the ZEGG leadership paved the way for ZEGG to go its own way, and more and more tune its direction to the interests of the residents. Over the decade of the 1990s, Zegg has faced a number of personal and financial crises, but it has managed to establish itself as a European-wide conference centre with a strong and heterogeneous community. The community hosts two eco-technological companies, a publishing house, a magazine, a vigorous group of artists, and a conference team that runs seminars on ecological and humanistic topics. ZEGG serves as the hub for all the miscellaneous Meiga network projects: a desert camp for spiritual questions started in 1991 by Sabine Lichtenfels, La Massilia on Lanzarote, a meeting place founded by Frieda Radford in 1992, for Kairos, a dolphin research ship built and run by Martina Gisler, Crack Hoheisel and Bettina Dornies.

 It is probably fair to say that a common Project Meiga no longer exists, as the various activists, approaches and methods are now too diverse. There are certainly no official guidelines nor any official membership. Nevertheless, the common denominator and starting point for all these projects remain the 12 Theses for a Non-Violent World laid out by Dieter Duhm over a decade ago. (9)

Chapter 1 Notes

1 Dieter Duhm's Fear in Capitalism (1972) was as much a critique of the Marxist left as it was an analysis of the effect of capitalistic society on the individual. The book, which became a bestseller, inspired a generation of student activists who sought to bring about a humanistic transformation in society. The other four members of the founding Bauhuette group were Sabine Kleinhammes (later Lichtenfels), Rainer Ehrenpreis, Heide (later Sarah) Vollmer and Dago Lipke.

2 Duhm, D. Zentrum fuer experimentelle Gesellschaftsgestaltung (ZEGG), 1978, Kuebler Verlag, Lampertheim, p. 7.

3 Duhm, D. Die Bauhuette, Werkstatt fuer eine ekologische Gesellschaft, 1980.

4 Sarah Vollmer, personal communication.

5 Reminiscences of Sarah Vollmer.

6 ibid.

7 Duhm, D. Mauerflugblatt, 1989.

8 E.g., Thomas Gandow, the Weltannschuung-commissioner of the Protestant church of the state of Brandenburg, and the feminist group Rosarote Panterinnen. Nonetheless, the false accusations were kept afloat for many years, and are still occasionally dredged up and repeated as though they were established facts.

9 Duhm, D. (1990) Politische Texte fuer eine gewaltfreie Erde,  Verlag Meiga, p190.

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