There is Nothing in the World But Youth: the Ambiguous Legacy of the Wandervögel

Though it would come to encompass everything from nudism to Nazism, the German Youth Movement of the early 20th century could not have had humbler or more innocent origins. The first stirrings occurred in the late 1890s, when a 22-year-old philosophy student named Hermann Hoffmann began organizing hikes into the countryside for teenagers in the Berlin suburb of Steglitz. Dressed in bright colors and funny hats, the adolescent boys would tramp through field and meadow, singing songs and camping beneath the stars. Formally established in November of 1901, the Wandervogel-Ausschuß für Schülerfahrten (Wandering-Bird Committee for Schoolboy Excursions—Wandervogel for short) soon attracted thousands of members, with chapters sprouting up all over Germany. “Long Live Rambling,” Hoffmann proclaimed in an influential article.

And for a number of years, that's about all they did. Gentle rebels against modernity and the stifling conventions of turn-of-the-century Germany, the early Wandervögel played out their youthful passions against the timeless backdrop of nature; they played lutes and collected folk-songs, cooked over an open fire, affected medieval dress and customs. When rambling through rougher, more-working class areas, they were known on occasion to get their asses whupped. But for the most part it was all very lighthearted and, y'know, gay. 

But by the early 1910s, with Europe on the brink of catastrophe, the Wandervögel began to take on a more serious tone. Until then they had eschewed politics altogether, content to frolic in nature and Be Young. But now, on an unprecedented scale, many German youth—Wandervögel foremost among them—began to demand their own voice.

The first major conference of the budding German Youth Movement, held in 1913 on the Hessian peak of Hoher Meissner by several thousand young people, was a revolutionary milestone in the history of independent youth movements. Descending the mountain with the 'Meissner Proclamation' in hand, the Movement announced to the world that “Free German Youth, on their own initiative, under their own responsibility, and with deep sincerity, are determined to independently shape their own lives. For the sake of this inner freedom, they will take united action under any and all circumstances.”  Which was impressively worded, for a bunch of teenagers, but as a manifesto had all the depth and substance of Justin Bieber: I want my world to be fun. No parents, no rules, no nothing. Like, no one can stop me. Jugendkultur (Youth Culture) became the catchword for a short time,” wrote one historian many years later, but the vagueness of the idea allowed various outside influences to “fill the conceptual vacuum with their own fears.” 

The total war of 1914-1918 effectively sidelined the whole project, but it came roaring back in the chaotic years following Germany's crushing defeat. The political lucha libre that was post-WWI Germany quickly embroiled the youth movement, which splintered into a vast array of sub-movements covering the ideological spectrum from extreme left to extreme right. In many of its incarnations the German Youth Movement was appallingly exclusive. Girls and young women were barred entirely from the Wandervögel until 1907, when some groups began offering them limited, non-leadership roles. Catholics were thin in the ranks, Jews even scarcer, and the few adults around were mere advisers; the movement, especially in its early days, consisted almost entirely of middle-class schoolboys.

Still, the Wandervogel and its offshoots would have far-reaching impact over the next decade. German youth were at the center of groundbreaking debates on subjects like education and sexuality, and political parties of all stripes vied for their allegiance. Some groups prescribed pagan xenophobia, while others preached proletarian revolution. One popular youth-movement leader named Tusk offered a sort of homoerotic Samurai training. Uniting all these disparate factions, if anything, was that unlike the church and State-sponsored youth programs that were also rapidly proliferating, they were youth-led, a novel and powerful concept.

Closely aligned with the Wandervogel, the Lebensreform Bewegung (Life-reform movement) of the late 1800s and early 1900s promoted nudism, vegetarianism and the sort of back-to-the-land, pseudo-pagan philosophy that would reemerge in the counterculture of the 1960s. The artist Fidus, for example, who influenced and was influenced by the Wandervogel movement, drew trippy, vaguely occult idealizations of long-haired naturmensch in their sun-worshipping element, largely based on his years of communal, experimental living; his style was appropriated by many psychedelic poster-artists of the 1960s. Wandervogeler Friedrich “Muck” Lamberty was a self-made prophet who presaged the modern Jesus People movement with his traveling band of barefoot mystics known as the Neue Schar, exhorting a “revolution of the soul” achieved through ecstatic dancing and free love, and earning a significant following-- until word got to the authorities that Muck's love was perhaps a bit too free, vis-a-vis some of his nubile young adherents.

Another notable proto-freak, Bill Pester imported key Wandervogel and Lebensreform concepts stateside. In 1906, at the age of 19, Pester fled Germany to avoid military service and emigrated to SoCal's Coachella Valley, where bearded and naked he built a palm hut, played slide guitar and preached Lebensreform concepts like raw-foodism and naturopathic medicine, attracting a group of disciples who came to be known as the “Nature Boys” and are widely considered granddaddies of 1960s counterculture. Ironically,  Lebensreform was also a major influence on Germany's budding fascists, who bent its folksy, land-based ethos to their race-based ideology of Blood and Soil—Lebensreform would prove, as one author has it, a “common ancestor of both Nazism and the Woodstock generation."

Then there were the homos. It's perhaps no great surprise that many of Germany's pioneering gay rights activists have been largely forgotten, brushed demurely beneath the carpet, considering the misogynist and proto-Nazi sentiments that often flourished in their ranks. But for a while there, at the start of the last century, open homos, whatever their politics, had an unprecedented degree of influence in the youth movement and Germany at large.

Though his legacy as an anti-semitic pederast is pretty off-putting, Hans Blüher did break some important ground in pre-WWI Germany with his history of the Wandervogel as a homoerotic phenomenon. One of the earliest Wandervogels, Blüher had joined the group in 1901, at the age of thirteen, and apparently engaged in a whole lot of male-on-male hanky panky over the next decade, leading up to the publication of his three-volume memoir of the movement. Expounding on the importance of the erotic in male-bonding and youth education, he proclaimed that “every successful hike is a love story.” The spicy tell-all didn't earn many admirers; the largest of the Wandervogel organizations sent thousands of letters out to concerned parents, assuring them that the Wandervogel was not one big gay campfire orgy and effectively disowning Blüher. A modest minority of Wandervogel groups did align themselves with Blüher and his Hellenic coterie in the subsequent schism, effectively announcing that their hiking organizations were just fine with some queer hijinks out on the trail, thank you very much.

Educational reformer Gustav Wyneken, much like Blüher though well to his political left, advocated “youth-love” as an essential component of pedagogy, a model he openly practiced at his influential Wickersdorf Free School in the Thüringian forest. Though stopping short of condoning actual, like, gay sex, Wyneken argued that the erotic tension between (male) teacher and (male) pupil was mutually beneficial. Though already in his late 30s, Wyneken had a major influence on the early Wandervogel/youth movement, coining the term Jugendkultur, editing the controversial youth-authored journal Der Anfang and giving a sort of keynote address at the fabled Hoher Meissner conference in which he warned against the dangers of blind nationalism.

Then came the Great Depression of 1929—Germany was hit hard, and tens of thousands of kids were  poor as fuck, hustling on the street for their schnitzel. Suddenly all these teenagers were really on their own—like, no parents, no rules, no nothing. One Sunday afternoon in 1932, in the streets of suburban Berlin, French journalist (and, years later, noted Anarchist thinker) Daniel Guérin came across what he later described as a “strange troupe” of young “hoodlums:”  

(They had) the most bizarre coverings on their heads... old women's hats with the brims turned up in 'Amazon' fashion, adorned with ostrich plumes and medals, proletarian navigator caps decorated with enormous edelweiss... handkerchiefs or scarves in screaming colors tied every which way around the neck, bare chests bursting out of open skin vests... fantastic or lewd tattoos, leather shorts daubed in all colors of the rainbow, esoteric numbers, human profiles, and inscriptions such as Wild-Frei (wild and free). Around their wrists they wore enormous leather bracelets. In short, they were a bizarre mixture of virility and effeminacy.

It's difficult to imagine stumbling across such flamboyantly weird street-gang anywhere—maybe out on the fringes of the queer imagination in William S. Burroughs' late-60s masterwork The Wild Boys, or at an early Cockettes performance, but certainly not in the streets of Berlin on the eve of Hitler's appointment as chancellor of Germany. A “tall boy with sensuous lips and eyes with black rings under them” introduced himself to Guérin as Winnetou, leader of the Apache gang. 

His curiosity piqued by this encounter, Guérin soon learned that there were a number of such gangs (estimates ran as high as six hundred), and “rac[ing] through the editorial offices of the far-left press” in search of more information came across investigative journalist Christine Fournier, who'd spent time with the somewhat-secretive gangs in the course of writing an article on them. Fournier's astonished observations of the Wild-Frei gangs outdid Guérin's by a stretch. Rattling off a list of names (many of which—Wild Crime, Black Love, Peasant Scare, Blood of the Trappers—would make for excellent punk bands), she went on to describe thousands of angry and disenfranchised youth in the Berlin suburbs who hung out in gay bars, stole cars and lived communally in “attics, cellars and storage-rooms... furnished with cheap paperbacks and so-called Stoszsofas (fucking sofas).” The youths, she claimed, were known to tattoo their genitals and perform bizarre sex-rites out in the woods.

Fournier saw in the Wild-frei gangs a direct connection to the Wandervogel (a common slur, in fact, referred to them as Wanderflegel, or Wandering Rude-People) but made an emphatic distinction: “The hiking groups that existed before the Great War... aspired toward a better future, for which their adherents were willing to work. Inversely, the gangs, whether deliberately or not, mainly thought about destroying what existed.”

Some of the Wandervogel-gone-wild tribes were more focused in their rebellion. A number of gangs in the industrial Ruhr-Rhine region (including the delightfully-named Roving Dudes of Essen), banding together under the Edelweiss Pirate banner, spent much of the Second World War engaged in active resistance against the Nazi Party, harassing the Hitlerjugend (which by then was the only state-sanctioned youth organization) with particular rancor—Eternal War on the Hitler Youth! was a popular rallying-cry. They painted anti-Nazi graffiti, sheltered Jews and deserters and distributed insurrectionary leaflets. The Cologne Navajo faction went so far as to carry out the assassination of a local Gestapo chief, for which six teenage members were publicly hanged.

Unfortunately, most of the youth movement went wild in quite the opposite direction. The many right-wing and nationalist-leaning youth groups were easily absorbed into the Hitlerjugend, helping the Nazi Youth movement reach a critical mass. Prominent in the Artaman League, a far-right branch promoting organic agriculture and racial purity, was a young Heinrich Himmler, who'd go on to engineer the Holocaust. Even Winnetou, that handsome-sounding boy with the big lips, was seen by Fournier not two years later walking the streets of Berlin in an SS officer's uniform.

What, then, to make of this German Youth Movement, if it could contain such wildly contradictory impulses? To consider how thoroughly the movement ended up being devoured by the Nazi apparatus is a frightening lesson in the limits of youthful autonomy. Certainly from the perspective of the adult historian, there is always something of the absurd in the demands of the young: “Youth! Youth! There is absolutely nothing in the world but youth!,” declared a 36 year-old Oscar Wilde, half-mockingly, in The Picture of Dorian Grey, a sentiment that would resonate well into the next century (Youth! Youth!, echoed the refrain of Fascist Italy's national anthem). It might be argued, really, that youth-centric political movements have generally proven prone to failure, given the inherent, age-based limitations of the medium—one thinks of the clownish Youth International Party (Yippies) of the late 1960s, who, like the  adolescent krauts of the Wandervogel, were willful enough, self-centered enough, high enough on their own youngness to proclaim youth a revolutionary class unto itself, as if youth itself guaranteed righteousness (and who, aside from frolicking in the grass, accomplished virtually none of their stated objectives before fizzling out within a decade).

What opportunities, then, does it leave a young person for meaningful political engagement, if the history of modern Youth Movements has largely been a bust? If youth is now considered more valuable as a marketing ploy (Bieber) than an instrument for social change? And what of the young anarchist squatters and genderqueering punks of present-day Berlin, Wild-Frei down to the leather bracelets and fucking-sofas—what will their future look like? How will they shape and be shaped by history? The crux of the matter, perhaps, the conundrum of youth movements in general, lies not in being young, but—a far trickier feat—in staying young, free from the coercion and co-option that so frequently accompany adulthood.

(Originally published in Landline Quarterly)


  1. Interesting article. Do you have the title of a good history or survey of these youth groups? (Preferably in English, although other languages are okay too.)

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  3. OK, so I googled a bit more and found these:

    Peter Stachura, The German Youth Movement, 1900-1945: An Interpretive and Documentary History
    Walter Laqueur: Young Germany: A History of the German Youth Movement

  4. England's Kindered Of The Kibbo Kift ��
    [George Orwell thought they were ‘sex maniacs’. They thought they were spiritual samurai, rebuilding Britain after the Great War. With their magical rituals, outdoor living and utopian vision, they are the most fascinating of forgotten youth movements – and their ideas still resonate ]


  5. This comment has been removed by the author.

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