This story is over 5 years old.

The Fashion Issue 2011

Remembering the Wandervogel

You thought that youth culture began after the Second World War, but it didn't. In fact, the story goes back to the late 19th century, when urban gangs in American and Northern Europe began to attract outraged press attention through their behavior and...

You thought that youth culture began after the Second World War, but it didn’t. In fact, the story goes back to the late 19th century, when urban gangs in American and Northern Europe began to attract outraged press attention through their behavior and dress: the Hooligans in London, the Apaches in Paris, the Scuttlers in Manchester, and the Hudson Dusters in Manhattan. These street kids saw their flamboyant dress and bad attitudes reflected by the newly growing media, but they were in no way ideological. Another group acted differently. Beginning in Germany during the early 1900s, the Wandervogel—literally, wandering birds—rejected the onset of the materialist, consumerist, mass-production society in favor of researching folklore and tramping around the countryside. After the First World War, the Wandervogel split into many different groups and factions, ranging from the proto-hippies of the Ascona commune to the proto-fascist White Knights. After the Great Crash of 1929, Germany’s economy went into meltdown and—just like today—youths were disproportionately hit: Half a million adolescents wandered round the country in hopeless vagabondage. What had been a lifestyle choice had become sheer grim necessity. In this desperate situation, many adolescents crossed the boundary into outright criminality. One of the most bizarre groupings was discovered by the investigative journalist Christine Fournier in Berlin during 1930, who called them “Ring” youth gangs and typified their attitude with the phrase “a hatred of society.” Fournier traced their origin to a traditional inner-city gang mentality turned toxic after a decade of political polarization between fascism and communism, and boosted by massive unemployment figures. A year after the Crash, there were about 14,000 feral kids between 14 and 18 living rough in the outskirts of Berlin (a district that was circled by a “Ring” of avenues, hence the term). Homeless and adrift from adult society, these kids organized themselves into gangs with bloodthirsty—often Indian-derived—names like Blood of the Trappers, Red Apaches, Black Love, Black Flag, and Forest Pirates. They supported themselves through crime: petty burglary, theft, larceny, and prostitution, both male and female. This was fairly standard-issue stuff for juvenile delinquents in Europe and America, but what was extraordinary about the Ring youth gangs was their sheer number and the sophisticated savagery of their social structure. In the late 1920s, they had consolidated into one large federation with geographically zoned groups (e.g., the South Ring, the East Ring) led by a “Ring Bull.”

By the early 1930s, they had established elaborate and bizarre codes of behavior. Prospective members had to go through sexual rituals—a pagan “baptism” often involving public intercourse or masturbation—before admission. The initiation ceremony almost always degenerated, according to Christine Fournier, into a “drunken binge, a mad orgy.” She called it “a spontaneous return to barbarism.”

In 1932, the radical French journalist Daniel Guerin, on a visit to Germany, encountered a wild gang near Berlin. They looked like Wandervogel but “had the depraved and troubled faces of hoodlums and the most bizarre coverings on their heads: black or grey Chaplinesque bowlers, old women’s hats with the brims turned up Amazon-fashion, adorned with ostrich plumes and medals.” He also noted “handkerchiefs or scarves in screaming colors tied any which way around the neck, bare chests bursting out of open skin vests with broad stripes, arms scored with fantastic or lewd tattoos, ears hung with pendulums or enormous rings, leather shorts surmounted by immense triangular belts daubed with all the colors of the rainbow, esoteric numbers, human profiles, and inscriptions such as Wild-frei [wild and free] or Rauber [bandits].” Guerin thought they were “a bizarre mixture of virility and effeminacy,” and worried that “those who would know how to discipline these masquerade Apaches could make real bandits out of them.” Some did become Nazis—like Winnetou, a prominent Ring Bull. But others went underground: They continued to live free, wandering and harassing the Nazis wherever they could. This was no mean feat. By 1939, more than 80 percent of all German males between ten and 18 were members of the Hitler Youth: Compliance was enforced by strict laws and powerful police organizations. Evading this “prison organization forced upon youth” was extremely difficult, but even with the regime at its height, there were many youths who risked their liberty, if not their lives, to live the way they wanted. The Nazi regime had been at its weakest in the German industrial heartland, the Rhine-Ruhr region, and in the early war years neighborhood gangs in those big cites began to form with the express intention of avoiding Hitler Youth service. They were given the generic name of Edelweiss Pirates—like the Ring gangs, they had taken edelweiss badges as their insignias—and had fabulous names like the Shambeko Band (Düsseldorf) or the Navajos (Cologne). Usually working in essential wartime industries, they expressed their difference by wearing Anglo-American clothes—an act of defiance shared by the better-known Hamburg Swings. As well as the exaggerated Stenzen (wide boy) shape, they sported loud checked shirts, battered hats with edelweiss badges or colored pins, and proto-goth skull-and-crossbones rings. This was a direct affront to the uniformity demanded by the Hitler Youth during wartime. The Edelweiss Pirates continued the old Wandervogel tradition of tramping through the countryside, but now that these activities were strictly forbidden, they took on a political edge. They would alter the words of contemporary song hits into anti-Nazi anthems: For example, “Hark the hearty fellows sing/Strum that banjo, pluck that string/And all the lasses join in/We’re going to get rid of Hitler/And he can’t do a thing.” Inevitably, the Edelweiss Pirates came into conflict with the Hitler Youth, and when they did, they would clobber them. In 1941, a youth worker noted that “they are everywhere. There are more of them than there are Hitler Youth. And they all know each other, they stick close together. They beat up the patrols, because there are so many of them. They never take no for an answer.” As the war went on, the regime’s desire for control escalated, as did the opposition to it. In Cologne, a large group of Edelweiss Pirates hooked up with escaped concentration-camp prisoners, deserters, and forced laborers in a program of armed resistance that culminated with the assassination of the local Gestapo chief. The Nazis publicly hanged 13 Pirates in the city center, including the 16-year-old leader of the Navajos, Barthel Schink. On the ground, the Edelweiss Pirates acted out the struggle between fascism and capitalism that was one ideological underpinning of the Second World War. In a totalitarian state, they wanted freedom: the freedom to have their own peer culture of clothes, music, and fun. This was the ideal of youth promoted by America during the war years—in the figure of the teenager—and the dissident German gangs showed that they wanted in.