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27 May 2007

The trailblazing Dutch Provos: Radical print culture in the 1960s (Part 1)

Policeman shouts but I don’t see him
They’re one thing I don’t believe in
Find some judge, but it’s not leavin’
Lift both hands, his head in disgrace
Shines no light upon my face
Through the darkness, we still speed
My white bicycle and me
Tomorrow, “My White Bicycle” (1967)[1]

This seminal psychedelic anthem, by the English band Tomorrow, drew inspiration from a scheme for lending bicycles in Amsterdam without charge, this scheme was the work of the Provos.[2] As with psychedelic music, the development of countercultural activism in the 'sixties is associated with the United States. Yet, before the San Francisco Diggers, before the Yippies, and emerging at roughly the same time as the Hippies of Haight-Ashbury, there were the Provos of Amsterdam. They published magazines and pamphlets, held theatrical public spectacles to demonstrate against what they saw as the ills of modern living, they dabbled in conventional politics, took consciousness altering drugs, and drew attention to environmental causes. They not only provided a template for the satirical anarchic countercultural movements that are popularly associated with the second half of the 1960s, but also the later environmentalist and anti-capitalist movements. The pamphlets that the Provos produced provide an insight into the inspirations, ideology and mythology of their movement. This review focuses on three such pamphlets, two of which detail their “white plans”: Provocation No. 5 (1965)[3], the aforementioned white bicycle plan, and Provo’s White House Plan (1966), a radical scheme to alleviate the housing shortage in Amsterdam.[4] The third was an announcement of a public demonstration against what the oppressive policing that they felt they were subjected to: Provocation No. 6 (1965).[5]

In May 1965 a group of Dutch anarchists announced a new monthly magazine called Provo (short for ‘provocation’) in a leaflet. In this announcement, they bemoaned the lacklustre ritual demonstrations of socialists and anti-nuclear campaigners. In addition to the magazine they announced the publication of numbered pamphlets titled Provocatie (provocation). The Provos - as the group came to be known - preferred the direct revolutionary action of anarchism to the empty ‘slogans and gestures’ of the traditional political left. Their aim was to actively oppose capitalist, bureaucratic and militaristic society. The members of which, the Provos thought, were ‘brought up to worship Having and despise Being’: they could ‘only become creative, individual people through antisocial conduct’ and ‘now had nothing to look forward to but certain death by atomic radiation.’ In order to mount a challenge to this society the editorial board of Provo wanted ‘to gather around [the magazine] a core of anarchist youth’.[6] The Provos intended these youths to form the vanguard of the ‘Provotariat’, a loose counter-cultural popular front, who would bring about a social and political revolution by provoking the authoritarian forces to such a degree that it shed its benign mask.[7] The term was clearly a pun on ‘proletariat’, showing the Provos mocking attitude to traditional class politics.

They published the first issue of Provo in July 1965,[8] only to see the five hundred duplicated copies seized by the police because it contained (rather outdated) instructions for making explosives that they copied from a 1910 pamphlet, The Practical Anarchist. Nevertheless, publication of the magazine continued and within a year its issues were selling around twenty thousand copies.[9] Good to their word, the Provos also published their Provocations: free street leaflets that they distributed around Amsterdam. These pamphlets varied in form, some detailed the Provo’s various “white plans”, others contained announcements of “happenings” or other demonstrations, and later pamphlets were election material, when they ventured into democratic politics. The Provos were trailblazers in the publication of counter-cultural magazines and pamphlets, which became a major media for the expression and dissemination of radical political and social ideas in the latter half of the 1960s.

Figure 1: Provos promote their bicycle plan.[10]

The Provo’s Provocation No. 5 published in the Summer of 1965 detailed what was arguably the most famous of their “white plans”: the White Bicycle Plan.[11] The author of the plan was the industrial designer Luud Schimmelpennink who wrote an article on the plan in the second issue of Provo published in August 1965.[12] Provocation No. 5 attacked ‘the motorized bourgeoisie’ who brought daily ‘sacrifices’ to the roads of Holland and who polluted the air with their ‘incense’: carbon monoxide. The Provos offered liberation from ‘the car monster’ through ‘the white bicycle, a piece of public property,’ which they claimed to be ‘a provocation against capitalist private property.’ The text contrasts the anarchistic, simple and clean white bicycle with the vane, foul and authoritarian car.[13] Thus the Provos were a precursor to later environmentalist and anti-capitalist movements. The idea of communal bicycles was not new: in 1958, H. Brandt Corstius wrote somewhat optimistically in the Amsterdam student publication Propria Cures:

Why not nationalise bicycle ownership for the common good? This could be accomplished by a simple Act of Parliament: 'It shall be forbidden to have in one's possession a bicycle or to make said bicycle unavailable for the use of others.' Everyone who needs a bicycle simply takes one, rides it to his or her destination, and leaves it there. They need have no concerns about return, theft, parking, storage, maintenance or whatever. The State will undertake repairs and ensure that the 'fleet' is kept up to strength. The police force can be halved immediately. It will mean an end to all the world's troubles, once the bicycle is public property to the same extent as the road itself.[14]

The Provo plan did not go as far as criminalizing the private ownership of bicycles and whilst, like Brandt Corstius, the Provos saw the communally owned bicycle as a utopian tool, they primarily saw it as a cure for traffic congestion and pollution rather than a panacea for the ills of society.[15] They called upon the population to donate their own bicycles, which volunteers would paint white at the Spui, a square in Amsterdam, at midnight each Saturday night. Their goal was to provide twenty thousand white bicycles on the streets of Amsterdam available for anyone to use.[16] Yet, the white bicycle plan met with failure. The police confiscated the first fifty white bicycles because they were an enticement to theft. In retaliation, the Provos stole a few police bicycles.[17] Suspicion aroused by the radical politics of the Provos prevented the plan from achieving widespread approval and unsurprisingly many people took the white bicycles for their own personal use, defeating the plan’s objective.[18] Nevertheless, other institutions and city authorities across the world resurrected the Provos forward thinking proposals as the problem of city traffic congestion worsened. Amsterdam itself saw the return of white bicycles in 1999, however, technical problems meant that the project ended in 2002.[19] Other schemes have met with more success such as the “city bikes” instituted in Copenhagen in 1997, which works on a deposit system,[20] and in Holland’s largest national park, De Hoge Veluwe, which has provided white bicycles for use within the park without charge since 1975.[21]

Figure 2: Presentation of a white bicycle.[22]

The only image used on the Provocation No. 5 pamphlet was a rotated apple, which also formed the central motif on Provocation No. 6 (1965).[23] This symbol, which they dubbed the “Magic Apple”, represented the shape of central Amsterdam on maps, with the stalk corresponding to the Amstel River. This illustrates that the Provos prime concerns centred on their home city rather than international politics, such as the Vietnam War, and that they were more interested in implementing social plans at home rather than larger ideological struggles. The Provos repeatedly used the ‘Magic Apple’ image in their pamphlets. The artist that created the White House Plan leaflet (1966) used the ‘Magic Apple’ image many times, again as a major motif containing an image of the Royal Palace in Dam Square, but also smaller versions containing images of a white bicycle and a white chicken in acknowledgment of previous “white plans”, thus creating a Provo mythology.[24] In the White Chicken Plan, the Provos dealt with reform of the police. The name of the plan derived from the Dutch slang for the police: “blue chickens.” As part of the plan the Provos founded ‘The Society of Friends of the Police’, an ironic response to the strong-arm tactics the police began to employ against demonstrations. The plan was to ‘re-establish the image of the policemen as your best friend’ by taking away their weapons and giving them ‘a bag containing medicine, aspirin, matches, little orange slices with chicken meat.’[25] The Provos drew up many other white plans dealing with issues from industrial pollution to schools.

In the White House Plan pamphlet, the Provos drew attention to Amsterdam’s housing problem. They considered that the Royal Palace, which also acted as the Town Hall, provided an ironic symbol the shortage of housing. ‘There is a house in Holland,’ the pamphlet begins, ‘And nobody lives there.’ The Provos’ ‘grand revolutionary solution’ to the problem was the implementation of squatter’s rights on an unprecedented scale. Anyone could enter the Palace, which would be renamed the White House, and choose their own apartment to live in. Also, the ‘thousands of empty houses around the canals and in the Jordan’ (a working class district of Amsterdam) would have their doors and doorposts painted white to ‘indicate that anyone can use them.’ As part of the plan, the Provos also ‘proposed the mobilisation of young people in the summer months’ to work on providing more accommodation, an indication of the Provos’ collectivist ideology.[26] The pamphlet contains other elements, which indicate the Provos’ inspirations. The reference to ‘New Babylon’ indicates the influence of Constant Nieuwenhuys, an architect who designed a utopian city with that name in 1950. According to the French sociologist Henri Lefebvre who was friends with him, Nieuwenhuys helped instigate the Provo movement with whom he shared disquiet about cars and commercialism dominating city life.[27] The pamphlet contained other references to Provo mythology: the Palace in Dam Square would be renamed ‘the collective Klaas Temple of the Magic Centre.’[28] ‘Klaas’ was Provo’s messiah-like figure derived from Sinterklaas, the Dutch Santa Claus, and Klaas Kroese, restaurant owner and patron of Robert Jasper Grootveld who was also an inspiration for the Provos.[29]

Figure 3: A “happening” with Grootveld at the Lieverdje.[30]

As well as producing social plans, the Provos held regular “happenings” centred on the Lieverdje, a statue of a street urchin on the Spui, which the Hunter cigarette company donated to the city.[31] Provocation No. 6 (1965) referred to the Lieverdje as ‘the addicted consumer of tomorrow’, no doubt a satirical reference to its origins.[32] The Lieverdje had been the centre of countercultural “happenings” since 1964 organised by the window cleaner turned Dada-inspired anarchist and anti-smoking campaigner Grootveld. These weekly theatrical events attracted Amsterdam’s bohemian community including the Nozems, a Dutch subcultural group that wore leather jackets and rode mopeds, who included many founders of Provo such as Roel van Duyn.[33] Van Duyn was the author of a book on the Russian anarchist Peter Kropotkin, who inspired him greatly, as evidenced by the anarcho-syndicalism of the White House Plan and many of Provo’s other projects that sought the creation of a new communalist society within the capitalist state.[34] This inspiration, along with that of the Dada artistic movement, provided the Provos with a feel for anarchic satire that was much in evidence in their public protests, such as the ‘Quiet Procession’ announced in Provocation No. 6. This protest was Provos’ response to the ‘police brutality’ they had suffered during previous ‘happenings’ on the Spui. The pamphlet announced that participants would ‘identify themselves by making the carbon monoxide sign with their handkerchiefs’, which probably involved holding them over their mouths in a continued protest against the car. Like the Hippies on the other side of the Atlantic, the Provos emerged from the drug culture of the 1960s. One of Provo’s prime inspirations, Grootveld, promoted the smoking of marijuana, and as Lefebvre recalled: the Provos ‘seemed to count on drugs to create new situations – imagination sparked by LSD.’[35] Other similarities included the staging of public “happenings” and a taste for the mystical as with the ‘Magic Apple’. The Provos considered a “happening” to be a ‘magic event’ and as such Provocation No. 6 called upon demonstrators to ‘hold a quiet procession along the magic circle around the Lieverdje.’ Provo called upon those who attended to ‘follow the Catholic example’ of ‘modesty’ and ‘silence’ – another playful provocation in a predominantly Protestant country.[36]

In July 1965, the police broke up an anti-car “happening.” At another gathering the following week, the police arrested seven attendees after having scuffles with a much larger crowd, who turned up to satisfy their curiosity, piqued by sensational press coverage of the Provos during the week. Around two thousand spectators turned up to the ‘Quiet Procession’ in August 1965, but only two Provos attended. When they tried to lay flowers at the feet of the statue – as they had announced in Provocation No. 6 – the police arrested them, resulting in a riot by the crowd.[37] The following year Provo demonstrations resulted in their international notoriety. The focus of their ‘provocations’ was the royal marriage between Princess Beatrix and Claus von Amsberg, a German and former member of the Hitler Youth. The “provocations” of 1966 were the culmination of an extended campaign against the monarchy. Following the announcement of Princess Beatrix and von Amsberg’s engagement in 1965, the Provos published the pamphlet Provocation No. 3 (1965), which posed some awkward questions about not only von Amsberg, but also the husbands of Queen Juliana and her other daughter Princess Irene and their links to fascist regimes. They went as far as dropping copies of the pamphlet into the barge that carried the betrothed couple during the public celebrations to mark their engagement.[38] Before the wedding, tensions were running high: civic dignitaries boycotted the wedding, German flags were absent, and the authorities drafted in eight thousand police and soldiers to maintain order along the route.[39] Despite the presence of the forces of law and order, the Provos managed to disrupt the wedding procession by hurling smoke bombs that they smuggled past the police, who responded by clubbing protestors. During the following months, the repressive response of police to demonstrations became a centre of attention.[40] On 14th June, the police opened fire on a group of demonstrating workers resulting in a fatality, which provoked further riots.[41] On 20th September, the Provo Bernhard de Vries accused the police of assaulting him after his arrest for throwing smoke bombs at the Queen’s carriage during a procession to the Dutch Parliament at The Hague.[42]

At that time, De Vries was a Provo member of the Dutch City Council. They won the seat during the 1966 municipal elections in which they received thirteen thousand votes.[43] The adoption of electoral means to pursue Provo policies caused a split within the movement, which was never much more than a loose affiliation of like-minded activists anyway. Some of the group, such as van Duyn, began to devote their time to developing political careers for themselves by touring the country and giving lectures. While these ‘celebrities’ were away at a Provo conference the printer of Provo magazine, Rob Stolk, staged a fake coup declaring that a Revolutionary Palace Council had taken power, much to the annoyance of van Duyn. The adoption of many Provo ideas by the authorities signalled the institutionalisation of the movement. Thus, seeing that Provo’s raison d’être no longer existed, Grootveld and Stolk decided to liquidate the movement in May 1967. Yet, the Provos had one last prank to perform, they spread the rumour that American universities were interested in buying their archives, which prompted Amsterdam university to make an offer for documents that turned out not to exist.[44] The spirit of Provo lived on for a short while in the form of van Duyn’s Kabouter (elf) movement, which folded in the early 1970s. Veteran Kabouters went on to form Holland’s later Green movement: surely Provo’s greatest legacy.[45]

The various publications of the Provo movement provide an insight into the short life of the movement. The Provos were an exemplar of the many countercultural movements that emerged and declined in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Like other groups they found inspiration in anarchist theories; no doubt, an indication of disappointment with the traditional political parties and movements of the left. They also had a taste for humour, mysticism and mythologizing, which are common factors in the various movements associated with the hippies. These tastes gave shape to their public demonstrations, their provocations against society, as evidenced in Provocation No. 6. Yet, there are a number of features of the Provo movement that set them apart. They focused their aims on changing their own society from within, aiming their plans at their home city of Amsterdam, rather than seeking to change the world. Their white plans, like those detailed in Provocation No. 5, and Provo’s White House Plan, provide evidence of the parochial, and indeed anarcho-syndicalist, nature of their concerns although they did generate global interest. Although few of their plans were implemented and despite their electoral success effectively ending the movement, the Provos left behind them a number of lasting legacies: Holland’s liberal drug laws, the anti-capitalist protest movements – especially the more playful “fluffies”, and the environmentalist movements – particularly where transport is concerned. The white bicycle, if nothing else, may be an idea whose time has come.

[1] K. Hopkins and K. Burgess, My White Bicycle (Getaway music, 1967) [2] W. Sergeant, “The Ten Best Psychedelic British Songs”, The Independent Online Edition [3] Original pamphlet and a translation to follow [4] Original pamphlet and a translation to follow [5] Original pamphlet and a translation to follow [6] ‘Provo’ Magazine Leaflet (1965) in P. Stansill and D. Z. Mairowitz (eds.), BAMN: Outlaw Manifestos and Ephemera 1967-70 (Harmondsworth, 1971), pp. 20-21 [7] What is the Provotariat? (1965) in Stansill and Mairowitz (eds.), BAMN, pp. 22-23 [8] University of Michigan, Netherlandic Treasures [9] Stansill and Mairowitz (eds.), BAMN, p. 17 [10] Source: Dutch National Archive at [11] Original pamphlet and a translation to follow [12] J. Huffener, Bikes on Dikes: a Dutch plan for (almost) free wheeling (Amsterdam, 2000) [13] Provocation No. 5 (1965) in Stansill and. Z. Mairowitz (eds.), BAMN, pp. 26-27 [14] H. Brandt Corstius, Propria Cures (1958) cited in J. Huffener, Bikes on Dikes [15] Provocation No. 5 (1965) in Stansill and Mairowitz (eds.), BAMN, pp. 26-27 [16] J. Huffener, Bikes on Dikes [17] T. Voeten, “Dutch Provos”, High Times (January 1990) on Oregon NORML [18] J. Huffener, Bikes on Dikes [19] Stansill and Mairowitz (eds.), BAMN, p. 30 [20] The City Bike Official Website [21] De Hoge Veluwe, White Bicycles [22] Source: GKf fotografen [23] Original pamphlet and a translation to follow [24] Original pamphlet and a translation to follow [25] White Chicken Plan (1966) in Stansill and Mairowitz (eds.), BAMN, p. 33 [26] The White House Plan (1966) in Stansill and Mairowitz (eds.), BAMN, pp. 27-28 [27] Ross, K., and Lefebvre, H., “Lefebvre on the Situationists: An Interview”, October (Winter, 1997), pp. 69-83 [28] The White House Plan (1966) in Stansill and Mairowitz (eds.), BAMN, pp. 27-28 [29] T. Voeten, “Dutch Provos” [30] Source: International Institute of Social History, A Dozen Souvenirs of Provo [31] Provocation No. 6 (1965) in Stansill and Mairowitz (eds.), BAMN, p. 17 [32] Original pamphlet and a translation to follow [33] T. Voeten, “Dutch Provos” [34] S. Plant, The Most Radical Gesture: The Situationist International in a Postmodern Age (London, 1992), p. 91 [35] Ross, K., and Lefebvre, H., “Lefebvre on the Situationists: An Interview”, October (Winter, 1997), pp. 69-83 [36] Provocation No. 6 (1965) in Stansill and Mairowitz (eds.), BAMN, p. 17 [37] T. Voeten, “Dutch Provos” [38] Provocation No. 3 (1965) on International Institute of Social History, A Dozen Souvenirs of Provo [39] “Royal Wedding Boycott”, The Times (9th March 1966), p. 8 and “Tension In Amsterdam On Eve Of Princess's Wedding”, The Times (10th March 1966), p. 8 [40] T. Voeten, “Dutch Provos” [41] “Amsterdam police fire on rioting workers”, The Times (15th June 1966), p. 1 [42] “Assault accusation against police”, The Times (5th October 1966), p. 9 [43] Plant, The Most Radical Gesture, p. 91 [44] T. Voeten, “Dutch Provos” [45] P. Marshall, Demanding the Impossible: A History of Anarchism (London, 1993), p. 486

© K.M.H. Grieves (2006)