Foundation of the Naturefriends’ movement

When the first Naturefriends founded their organisation in Vienna in 1895 they described their aims as such:

‘…to stand beside the bourgeois alpine clubs and by asking low membership fees, give the opportunity to working-people to practice mountaineering …’

(‘…neben die alpinen Vereine des Bürgertums zu treten und durch geringe Mitgliedsbeiträgedem Arbeiter die organisierte Teilnahme am Bergsport möglich zu machen …'(K. Renner, An der Wende zweier Zeiten, Wien, 1946)

The language of Karl Renner already shows that the ‘Naturfreunde’ understood themselves as a part of the emerging working class movement. The founders of the so-called ‘Touristenverrein der Naturfreunde’, wanted to give working-class people the opportunity to enjoy outdoor-life as way to escape from their unhealthy living and working conditions. Gaining access to untransformed nature was crucial to this undertaking. As a result the rallying call of Naturefriends, still used today, became “Berg Frei” (“Mountains Free”). It represents the first claim of the Naturefriends: equal access to nature for everyone, not only the wealthy and privileged:

‘…We want to pull the working-class-people out of the places of alcohol, gambling and playing card. We want to get them out of their small houses, the smoke of the factories and the pubs, to lead them into the wonderful nature, to let them discover beauty and happiness…’

(‘… Wir wollen vor allem die Arbeiter losreisen van den Stätten des Alkohols, vom Würfel- und Kartenspiel. Wir wollen sie aus der Enge der Wohnungen, aus dem Dunst der Fabriken und Wirtshäuser hinausleiten in unsere herrliche Natur, sie der Schönheit und Freude entgegenführen…(K. Volkert, General Assembly of Friends of Nature Austria, Vienna, 1925)

The organisation’s activities were not only aimed at getting their members to beautiful natural settings, but also at awakening their love for nature and offering them opportunities of educating themselves. From the beginning ‘outdoor sports’ were a core business of the Naturefriends. Even more, outdoor sports for them were tools of education in addition to being fun and healthy means of spending leisure time. From the beginning, Friends of Nature wanted to spend time in nature in a specific way, their way.

The method of Friends of Nature from the beginning was to gather people in local groups and offer them ‘sports & culture’ in their leisure time. In an era where working class people had to work up to 10 hours every day, 6 days a week and without paid holidays, this was something new. From the beginning they also started building shelters, the so called ‘Naturfreunde Häuser’–(Naturefriends Houses), as an alternative to the inaccessible, elitist and expensive mountain huts run by the Alpine Clubs. Building their own huts was a social activity, promoting and putting into practise solidarity (all the work was done by volunteers), and at the same time a political statement. They were a very concrete expression of their slogan: ‘Berg Frei!’ (Mountains Free), that they used in opposition to the ‘Berg Heil!’ (Mountains Be Greeted!) in the bourgeois clubs.

Emerging of IYNF

Founded in 1975 following a breakaway from NFI, IYNF started life with an abundance of energy and enthusiasm for establishing a youth section of the Naturefriends movement. A space for young people to organise their own activities at an international level as well as working together on political and environmental campaigns, IYNF was established by a small group of young people from a few member organisations who went on to form the first presidium. Headed by the first Secretary General, Jochem Zimmer from Germany, the Presidium included members from the Netherlands, Austria, Germany, and Switzerland.

The 1980s saw one of the most significant changes within IYNF’s history and its ‘rebirth’. Following a ‘disastrous’ seminar in the European Youth Centre in Strasbourg, where no presidium member showed up to lead it, a group of young people decided to ‘take over’ IYNF. One of the first things they did was switching to English, instead of German, to make co-operation easier and open to non-German speakers.

At that time IYNF was still part of IUSY (International Union of Socialist Youth) and IFM-SEI (International Falcon Movement- Socialist Educational International) and organised activities within these umbrella organisations. IYNF was also a member of the Kinder Internationale – the only pan-European Youth cooperation with the Soviet Union which organised international children’s camps and wrote the Children’s Peace Booklet. In the early 1980s a film was also produced: ‘Vergeben aber nicht Vergessen’ about forced labour in Nazi Germany.

Internal IYNF activities were also clearly ‘red’ during the 1980s, focusing a great deal on the socialist roots of the organisation. The 1989 seminar in a still-divided Berlin focusing on songs of resistance as a method for political work and a number of activities on anti-fascism, peace and political education put IYNF in an unambiguous political position. Since then IYNF’s political approach has softened considerably, becoming markedly more ‘pink’ and unassociated with party politics.

After the 1989

“Somehow the nineties marked the end of the old left-right wing divide. The ‘seriousness’ of workers’ education and emancipation, the background of the Naturefriends movement -gave way to a more leisurely way of organising things. Although learning from international exchange and discussing themes such as racism, poverty and ecologic disaster remained the ‘core business’, working methods that were more loose and ‘fun’ came to the foreground. Heavy ideological struggle was more and more abandoned.”
Astrid Van Herpen (Secretary General 1992 – 1998)

The enlargement of the organisation with organisations from Central and Eastern Europe was the most important development in the early 1990s. IYNF was one of the first international youth NGOs to open itself so cleary. Banners declaring ‘East meets West’ were carried around the streets of Gödöllö (Hungary) during an international camp, the first real activity held behind the former Iron Curtain. . The reason IYNF was successful in so quickly integrating the ‘new countries’ was twofold. Geert and Jurgen were visionary about the opening up of ‘the East’, and started from very early on organising meetings with youth (organisations) from Central and Eastern Europe. The second reason was that although traditionally associated with the Socialist movement, IYNF did not promote a political ideology, despite being social and ecological. This made it easier to get in touch with newly emerging organisations in Central and Eastern Europe which were hesitant of being associated with socialist, liberal or Christian-democratic organisations. IYNF was open, and therefore a suitable partner for new ‘pillarless’ organisations, and all those young people who, for the first time in decades, could travel across borders and meet their peers in ‘the West’. Although, as Astrid Van Herpen puts it: “Well freely…. I spend hours and hours and hours talking to ministries and filling out forms and statements to obtain the necessary visa.”

IYNF after 2002

The turn of the millennium presented new challenges and opportunities for IYNF’s development.  The Presidium, led by Hanka Sedlackova as President and Monika Novosadova as Secretary General, made a bold decision to move from Brussels to Prague. Financial reasons stood behind this decision but mainly IYNF wanted to move closer to its member organisations in Central Europe. Moving the Secretariat to Prague has strengthened co-operation with Duha – the Czech member organisation – and has allowed us the space to grow.

As mentioned before, IYNF has slowly moved away from its socialist roots to a more neutral political position. This has brought with it advantages in attracting new organisations in Central and Eastern Europe. At the same time it made it harder for its members to identify with IYNF as a clear ideology was missing. The campaign Gotcha – Attractive Youth Work, designed by Monika, organised in 2003-2005 had a tremendous effect on IYNF itself. It gave the punch needed to bring member organisations and the leadership of IYNF together and develop a profile of the organisation that would include the best of the IYNF history and transform it into an organisation relevant for its current reality.

A result was almost three years process of organisational development. Starting in the very beginning of 2006 and ending three General Assemblies later in 2008, it was a turbulent period with many ups and downs. The process brought essential clarity on the role of IYNF merging its three roles of programme organiser, network facilitator and members’ representative. How exactly these roles are implemented is a question answered daily by our many volunteers, as you can find out on this website.