Founded in 1971 by a group of hippies who squatted a deserted naval base in Copenhagen, Christiania is a global phenomenon. For experts, it is a legend of alternative culture, Europe’s most famous and sole functioning hippie enclave. After the Little Mermaid and the Tivoli amusement park, it is also the Danish capital’s third most popular tourist attraction. A million visitors come every year to wander among the psychedelic mural-adorned barracks and buy illegal cannabis in Pusher Street.
Christiania, a self-proclaimed free town, has its own anthem (I kan ikke slå os ihjel, meaning “You cannot kill us,” a protest song by the rock group Bifrost), its flag of freedom (three yellow spheres against red background), its own currency, and its own set of rules and customs. There is a ban on car traffic (residents park their cars outside), running (if you run, you’re taken for a thief), photography, and bulletproof vests.
Recently, after forty years of existence and twenty-two of legally sanctioned independence, Christiania has lost its free-town status. On 18 February, the Danish Supreme Court rejected an appeal by the enclave’s residents against a 2009 court ruling that re-established state control over the 35-hectare former naval base. Thus a long legal battle over a status secured by hippies and squatters in 1989 has come to an end.
Authorities want developers to take advantage
The battle began in 2004 when the centre-right, conservative government of Anders Fogh Rasmussen (today the head of NATO), repealed a decision made fifteen years previously by Denmark’s left-wing government ceding control over the territory to its residents. In 2006, Christiania lawyers appealed against the decision, arguing it violated the European Convention of Human Rights. Danish courts have now decided, however, that there was no violation and that Christiania belongs to the state (specifically, to the Ministry of Defence). And it is the state that will determine its future.
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“The court procedure is over. Now it’s time to think about the future,” says Thomas Ertmann, the commune’s spokesman. He admits that the lawyers representing the enclave’s 850 residents – hippies, artists and all kinds of freaks – will now have to sit at the negotiating table with the government.
“We needed the court ruling to finally solve the issue of ownership,” says Nils Vest, a movie director who has been living in Christiania for twenty years and who runs an independent film studio there. “One thing is certain, Christiania will survive. We want to be a legal community, but on our terms. The terms proposed so far by the government have been unacceptable for us because they’d surely result in Christiania’s disintegration”.
Europe’s alternative metropolis
According to Mr Vest, the incumbent administration has done everything for Christiania to fall into ruin in order to then recover the precious hectares in Copenhagen under the pretext of restoring order and prosperity. With the court ruling, the authorities want building developers to take advantage of the area’s investment potential. First, however, they will have to reach an agreement with the residents because eviction by force is out of the question for political and social reasons.
The government plan for Christiania provides for a return to normality: tearing down the illegally erected huts and houses, weeding out soft drugs (the hard ones are banned by the residents themselves) and gradually getting rid of the squatters. The problem is that, according to experts, this would mean the end of a social experiment on a global scale that was Freetown Christiania. Those unable to find a place for themselves in normal society and willing to forego the achievements of modern civilisation in the name of living in utopia have been coming here for years.
“We are Europe’s alternative metropolis. The largest experiment of its kind,” says Mr Vest. “When you have the possibility of self-government, you care more about your environment,” he argues. Despite the unfavourable court ruling, Mr Vest is optimistic. He says the ruling coalition will lose the upcoming elections and power will go to the social democrats, more flexible and more favourably inclined towards the Christiania community’s postulates. During the coming months, the enclave’s residents will be raising funds and securing bank loans to buy as many “squatted” properties as possible.
“The crucial issue now is how Christiania will be managed. We want to have a say over how it develops, what kind of people live here. We certainly won’t allow real estate speculation by people from outside the community,” insists Mr Vest.