history lesson


Last weekend, I bought this World War I postcard that’s related to the history of the Wandervögel.

Wandervogel, of course, was the first youth movement of the 20th century; before its establishment in the last decade of the 19th century, the concept of “teenager” was unheard-of in Western society.  The ethos of the Wandervögel was to shake off the restrictions of urbanized society. It was a back-to-nature youth organization emphasizing freedom, self-responsibility, and the spirit of adventure. By comparison, the Boy Scout movement wasn’t established until 1908  in the UK and 1912 in the US.

Although it was a popular movement in Germany, in the years before the First World War it was never terribly big—some estimates are that it never exceeded 60,000—yet it was extremely influential. It is said that almost every major intellectual in Germany at one point passed through some segment of the German youth movement. It should also be emphasized that the “movement” was highly fragmented. Groups were often splitting off from one another and sometimes coming together. They all called themselves Wandervögel, but were organizationally independent. Nonetheless, the feeling was still of being a common movement, but split into several branches.

The name can be translated as rambling, hiking, or wandering bird—but perhaps the most apt translation in English is “vagabond.” Created in reaction to the materialism, hypocrisy, and stifling social conservatism of the Kaiser Reich, the Wandervogel movement is sometimes called the first hippie movement. At first this youth movement consisted exclusively of boys, but girls were soon after allowed into the movement as well—although the genders were not integrated together.

Before the First World War and in the postwar years before the rise of the Nazis, thousands of young people in hiking shorts and colorful costumes could be seen hiking around the German countryside with banners flying, guitars and rucksacks slung on their backs, in search of a better way of life. They delighted in hiking in groups, rediscovering nature, sleeping out under the stars, making music, telling folk stories and singing folk songs, and dancing around campfires.

With the outbreak of war in 1914, most German youths were quickly caught up in the patriotic fervor that swept Germany. They enthusiastically marched off to the front, imagining war as a noble, romantic experience that would mold them into ‘new men.’ This Bavarian drummer boy may well have been a Wandervogel before joining the war.

In reality, however, millions of young people died senselessly. The First World War wiped out an entire generation of German youth. With them died their romantic dreams and shining ideals.

In 1920, though, various youth groups purchased the ruins of a castle and renovated it as Jugendburg Ludwigstein (Youth Castle Ludwigstein), a memorial to the many Wandervögel who perished in the war and a visible symbol of rebuilding. In long rows, young people handed the stones for the reconstruction hand-to-hand from the valley below up to the castle. In the time of rampant inflation after the war, Ludwigstein welcomed youth movement members from various groups as settlers, and even produced its own currency to help the young people to take their lives into their own hands. Jugendburg Ludwigstein is the site today of an archive of the German Youth Movement, as well as a youth hostel and training center.
Though the German Youth Movement is now dominated by German scouting, the Wandervögel still exist in a number of towns and cities in Germany.



1 Response to “history lesson”

  1. 1 Frank Manning
    October 4, 2016 at 4:14 pm

    It is October 2016. Here outside of Seattle, Washington, fall has set in. Here in the Evergreen State we have more than a few broadleaf trees, and different species from those that cover my native Northeast. They are showing off their autumn colors, while their coniferous cousins—mostly firs and spruces—maintain their majestic verdant presence.

    My historian’s mind goes back to what was happening in Western Europe 100 years ago today. Dan touches on it here, and sums up the greatest—and most horrific—accomplishment of what they called the Great War. Dan notes above: “The First World War wiped out an entire generation of German youth.” Yes, and an entire generation of French youth, an entire generation of Russian youth, of Austrian and Hungarian youth, much of a generation of British youth, Italian youth. Humanity had never before accomplished this sort of mass slaughter on such a scale.

    In 1916 northern France was the scene of butchery and carnage on a scale never heretofore seen in recorded history. Two huge battles were being waged: Verdun in the northeast and along the Somme River in the northwest. The Battle of Verdun pitted the German army against the French defenders of the fortress city of Verdun and its surrounding forts. It raged from February 21 to December 18. It cost the lives of 160,000 French and 140,000 German men—300,000 in all, most of them so like that Bavarian drummer boy on your beautiful postcard. Meanwhile, at the Battle of the Somme the British and French armies attacked the Germans entrenched along the Somme River, east of Amiens, to relieve the pressure on Verdun. July 1 to November 18. Killed were 164,00 German, 96,000 British, and 50,000 French soldiers. Total of 310,000. What was gained? Basically nothing. Unintended consequences, incalculable.

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