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Lafcadio’s Adventures: Footloose Youth of the 1910s

The Wandervogel of Germany.

I recently found myself thinking about the name Lafcadio, which has two associations for me. The first is Lafcadio Hearn, the turn-of-the-20th-century author of Kwaidan: Stories and Studies of Strange Things, a collection of Japanese ghost stories. Apparently, Hearn was named for the Greek island of Lefkada where he was born. Despite his being a Westerner who moved to Japan late in life, Hearn found success in his second career as a collector of Japanese literary curiosities — his first career was as a journalist in New Orleans. His work is well-known in Japan to this day, and the 1964 movie Kwaidan by Masaki Kobayashi was based on his book. I watched the film a couple of years ago and read the book after that, however that’s not what I want to talk about here.

My second association for the name Lafcadio comes from André Gide’s 1914 novel Les Caves du Vatican, most often translated into English as Lafcadio’s Adventures. In the novel, Lafcadio is an elegant rogue of 19 who attempts a “gratuitous act” — a purely arbitrary, unplanned, and unmotivated act, in his case tossing a fellow passenger from a train. Much else happens in the novel besides, and a good summary can be found here. Some critics seem to think that Gide based Lafcadio on the real-life artistic provocateur Arthur Cravan, a poet-boxer and proto-Dadaist, but this seems like a stretch. Cravan was at the height of his Parisian fame (such as it was) when Les Caves du Vatican was published, and he’d attacked Gide the year before in his literary revue Maintenant (which was sold from a pushcart), but Gide had been developing ideas for his novel for several years by then. It seems far more likely (according to analyses such as this one) that Gide drew his inspiration for Lafcadio from the characters of Raskolnikov and Kirillov in Dostoevsky, Julien Sorel in Stendhal, and a variety of young men he knew in real life.

As often happens when I start doing research on the internet, by now I felt like I was being drawn into a labyrinth. I had two questions to answer: What exactly did Arthur Cravan say about André Gide in his review that (according to André Breton, at least) left Gide still hurting twenty years later? And why was the concept of a “gratuitous act” so controversial in the early 20th century, that many of the early critics of Les Caves du Vatican apparently saw little else in the novel, ignoring its send-up of bourgeois morality and its picaresque qualities?

To answer the first question, I had to locate the original French text of Cravan’s take-down of Gide, and I found it in several places on the Internet, including here. Since no English translation was available, I made my own. In it, Cravan describes his fantasy of visiting Gide, seducing him with “my shoulders, my beauty, my eccentricities, my words,” and persuading him to finance a romp together through Arabian lands. Since his actual visit to Gide didn’t go off nearly so well, Cravan decided to take his revenge by caricaturing Gide as a stingy, overly fastidious, humorless bourgeois. The bulk of his essay has the same tone of mockery as Bob Dylan’s famous line, “Something is happening here but you don’t know what it is, do you, Mr. Jones?” Here is a sample:

    “A maid opened to me (M. Gide doesn’t have a butler). She took me up to the second floor, and had me wait…. Some stained-glass windows, that I found tacky, let daylight fall on a writing desk where pages were spread whose ink was still moist. Naturally, I didn’t abstain from committing the small indiscretion you may imagine. That is how I can inform you that M. Gide punishes his thought terribly — it must be impossible for him to send the typographer anything less than a fourth draft.
    “The maid came to get me again…. At the moment I came into the salon, some yappy little dogs were barking noisily. Was this going to lack dignity? But M. Gide would soon be here. Nevertheless, I had plenty of time to look around. … Above all, a very Protestant obsession with order and cleanliness. I even broke out, for a moment, in a disagreeable sweat at the thought that I might have soiled the carpet. I would have probably pushed my curiosity a bit further, or even succumbed to the exquisite temptation of putting some small trinket in my pocket, if I could have rid myself of the very clear sensation that M. Gide was spying through some small, secret hole in the wallpaper. …
    “Finally the man showed up. … ‘Monsieur Gide,’ I began, ‘I’ve taken the liberty of coming to you, and yet I believe I must tell you from the get-go that I prefer, for example, boxing a great deal more than I do literature.’
    “’Yet literature is the only point where we might meet,’ my interlocutor replied rather drily.
    “I was thinking: What flair for life!
    “So we spoke about literature, and since he asked me that question that must be particularly dear to him, ‘What have you read of mine?’ I answered without raising my eyebrows, and putting the greatest possible loyalty into my gaze, ‘I’m afraid to read you.’ I imagine that M. Gide must have raised his eyebrows spectacularly.”

All in all, I find this rather droll, and it’s hard for me to believe that Gide was so insecure as to still feel insulted twenty years later. In his place, I think I would have felt almost flattered that a talented young man had gone to the trouble to insult me so cleverly. (Though the part about my sickly appearance, my tiny white hands, and the skin peeling from my face might have disturbed me — and I might have asked my entourage for weeks afterward, “Are you sure those stained glass windows aren’t tacky?”) As far as what motivated Cravan to burn his bridges so publicly, Philippe Sollers expressed an interesting theory in Le Monde: it was payback for Gide’s failure to support Oscar Wilde more publicly in his trial, the one where Wilde called homosexuality “the love that dare not speak its name.” As Sollers puts it, “It’s a matter of avenging Wilde, who died in misery, by demonstrating that there can be an official, orderly, profitable, Nobel-worthy homosexuality and that, therefore, that isn’t the question here.”

So let’s move on to my second question, about the “gratuitous act.” When I read The Vatican Cellars years ago, Lafcadio came across to me as an enjoyable rogue, someone I was rooting for — so it surprised me to recall that he’d done something so brutal as toss a man from a train, just because he could, and because he didn’t like the guy’s looks. Once he did that, however, I would have preferred that he’d remained true to his original amoral nature, rather than start to have regrets. We seem jaded to existential questions like these nowadays, but when Gide’s novel appeared in 1914, it was controversial enough to provoke strong reactions, all the way from young men carrying it with them into the trenches of World War I (because they saw Lafacadio as a hero), to the predictable outrage on the Catholic right. Wishing to better understand the debate around the “gratuitous act” (which apparently dates back to Dostoevsky), I did a search on the phrase and came up with this, by George D. Painter from his book André Gide: A Critical Biography.

    “Did Gide himself believe in the ‘gratuitous act’? Presumably not, for he repeatedly denies its existence, and he discusses it through the mouths of burlesque characters…. He believed in it, if at all, not as a fact, but as a fabulous absolute, a moral and aesthetic concept not valid in itself, but showing the way to new discoveries. The gratuitous act is like a pointer on a scientific instrument, indicating some impossibly high figure — it is important not because it is truthful in itself, but because it demands an explanation. …
    “The gratuitous act is a symbol: philosophically, of freedom; morally, of instantaneous expression of the whole personality; and psychologically, of the break-through of the Id. … But the moment we investigate the gratuitous act not as a fruitful image but as a real entity, it disintegrates into fallacies. If a really motiveless act were possible, as might be with some lesion of the brain, it would be meaningless — to have any significance it must have a significant cause — and so cease to be gratuitous! And in practical aesthetics, if the novelist is to convince the reader that a gratuitous act has been committed, then he must make it credible by giving it a motive — and once again its gratuity disappears. A gratuitous act is pure only so long as it remains mysterious. …
    “The act of Lafcadio, a mere mortal, has its hidden causes. He does not know them, attributing his deed…to curiosity and love of risk, and Gide does not state them; but they are clear enough. Lafcadio’s illegitimacy has made him an enemy of society. He has simultaneously found and lost his father; his inheritance of 40,000 francs a year of useless money is only a final mockery. His unconscious need for recognition and parental love…has turned to equally unconscious need for revenge. In the mediocre bourgeois image of Fleurissoire he pushes overboard the society that has rejected him. … When Gide came later to discuss the suicide of Kirillov in his Dostoevsky, he called it ‘gratuitous, but not without motive’; and re-defined ‘gratuitous’ as ‘without motivation from outside.’ By thus restoring logicality to the gratuitous act he detracted from its mystical significance; he made it a riddle with an answer, a specimen of mainly psychological interest.”

In an earlier work, Prometheus, Gide defined a gratuitous act as “an act unmotivated by passion or interest, born from itself, a means to no end.” But logically, such an act is impossible. Anyone who consciously sets out to do something arbitrary and unmotivated is seeking to prove to himself that he can do something arbitrary and unmotivated — and this, then, is his motivation. Conversely, anyone who acts in a seemingly arbitrary way without conscious motivation is simply a victim of his own unexamined impulses, and thus hardly a paragon of free will. Gide himself tired of the argument in later years, and gave increasingly snippy answers when the subject came up.

An unexpected angle of the debate appeared when I saw in my search results that Thomas Mann described homosexuality as a kind of gratuitous act. So what’s the connection, according to Mann? “A lack of consequences and responsibility…a proud and free attitude.” The following quote is from A History of Homosexuality in Europe: Berlin, London, Paris 1919–1939 by Florence Tamagne.

    “The symbolic weight of homosexuality was perceived early on by Thomas Mann who, in his book On Marriage, legitimates inversion because of its artistic and aesthetic potential: ‘One may justifiably qualify homosexuality as the erotic of esthetics…. It is ‘free love,’ in that it implies sterility, a dead end, a lack of consequences and responsibility. Nothing happens as a result of it, it will not form the basis for anything, it is art for art’s sake, which on the aesthetic level can be a very proud and free attitude, though without any doubt immoral.’ Homosexuality is art for art’s sake; in this formula Thomas Mann summarized the topicality of the phenomenon; homosexuality was modern, a symbol of the gratuitous act, just like the murder of Lafcadio…. A whole generation murdered by the war was recalled in this useless, irresponsible and sterile act.”

Wait — what’s this about “a whole generation murdered by the war”? Was Mann saying that the death of hundreds of thousands of young men in World War I was an “irresponsible and sterile act” like Lafcadio throwing a stranger from a train? And did this make homosexuality good or bad? I read further in Tamagne’s book, but rather than pursuing this subject, she turned instead to homoeroticism in the German youth movements of the 1900s–1930s.

    “Youth movements really took off in the Twenties and Thirties. In these movements, there was an emphasis on contact with nature, and a preoccupation with hygiene. Boys, sorted by age brackets, wore shorts and shirts with open collars. They learned autonomy and a sense of responsibility, on their own. … And it was in Germany that the Jugendbewegungen [the youth movements], of which the Wandervogel was the most famous example, made their greatest strides. … Founded in 1895…in the beginning Wandervogel was made up of high-school pupils and educators who wanted certain reforms. After the war, its promotion of nationalism was reinforced…and it developed a myth of youth as the regenerative force of the German people. The war had encouraged the rise of this myth, propagated in particular by the book with powerful homoerotic overtones by Walter Flex, Der Wanderer zwischen beiden Welten [The Wanderer Between Two Worlds], published in 1917. … Flex met Ernst Wusche in the spring of 1915, on the Eastern front, but in August Wusche was killed, leaving Flex…in despair. He wrote his book in homage to Wusche’s memory, giving an idealized image of his friend, a symbol of the patriotic youth that gave its life for Germany.”

It seemed that I’d turned a corner in my labyrinth, and was now in a new sector. I recalled reading about the Wandervogel in the past. They were groups of teenagers, mostly boys aged 14–20 or so, who went roaming the countryside for days at a time, singing, building campfires, bonding with nature and each other. Since the Nazis’ rise to power was also marked by the formation of a powerful youth movement, the Hitler Youth, some have accused the Wandervogel and similar groups of being precursors to fascism. Yet their ideals seemed more inclined to the romantic notion of self-discovery, freedom from propriety and constraint, and an almost hippie-like return to nature. I decided to abandon my research on the “gratuitous act” and instead learn more about the Wandervogel. I recalled how in the novel Demian by Hermann Hesse, the arrival of World War I appears to its youthful protagonists as the unavoidable call of a historic destiny, a sort of cleansing that would sweep all before it and prepare the way for a new ideal. How did the German youth movements tie into that?

This quote from Ernst Jünger captures the feeling. Jünger himself was a former Wandervogel who became one of Germany’s most highly decorated veterans of World War I, and later a celebrated author.

    “We had left lecture room, class room, and bench behind us. We had been welded by a few weeks’ training into one corporate mass inspired by the enthusiasm of one thought…to carry forward the German ideals of ’70. We had grown up in a material age, and in each one of us there was the yearning for great experience, such as we had never known. The war had entered into us like wine. We had set out in a rain of flowers to seek the death of heroes. The war was our dream of greatness, power, and glory. It was a man’s work, a duel on fields whose flowers would be stained with blood. There is no lovelier death in the world…anything rather than stay at home, anything to make [us] one with the rest.”

The same feeling of extreme romanticism is captured by Jay W. Baird in To Die for Germany: Heroes in the Nazi Pantheon, where he paraphrases the account of Franz Brüchle, who was present on the field of battle at Langemarck, Belgium in October 1914. This event, in which thousands of raw recruits were cut down in the flower of youth while singing a patriotic hymn, later became a powerful symbol to German nationalists of youthful purity and sacrifice.

    “The young men…were outrageously overconfident in early October 1914 as they headed west in their troop transport trains toward France. There was no hint of melancholy in their songs, which promised parents and sweethearts their swift return…. Most of the young men were university and gymnasium students, thrilled with the opportunity thrust upon them at this historic moment in the nation’s history. Many had the immature faces of seventeen-year-old boys, and their eyes shone with enthusiasm. They encamped for a few weeks near Lille, behind the front lines, where they received what passed for military training. Many went into battle without even being issued the shovels needed to prepare cover to protect them from enemy fire. And there were too few officers to lead these units. Suddenly, on the night of 26 October 1914, they were ordered into alarm readiness and thrust into the front on the line between Langemarck and Ypers, facing battle-tried English units armed with artillery and machine guns. As a result, the zealous youths, many of them drunk with excitement and bursting into song, were mowed down by the thousands as they attacked the enemy in open fields. Their assault had not been prepared by an artillery bombardment, and the result was senseless carnage.”

Adolf Hitler was present at Langemarck as well, as a young private, and he recounts the experience in Mein Kampf.

    “We marched silently through a wet, cold night in Flanders… shrapnel and shells exploded all around us; but before the smoke had cleared, the first hurrahs welled up from two hundred voices as the first messengers of death. Then we heard the crack and roar of gunfire, singing and yelling, and with wild eyes we all lunged forward, faster and faster, until suddenly man-to-man fighting broke out in turnip fields and thickets. We heard the sounds of a song from afar which came closer and closer to us, passing from one company to another, and then, just as men were dying all around us it spread into our ranks, and we passed it on: ‘Deutschland, Deutschland über alles, über alles in der Welt!'”

Florence Tamagne had referred to The Wanderer Between Two Worlds and the “powerful homoerotic overtones” with which its author, Walter Flex, portrayed his dead friend August Wusche, idolizing him as a symbol of youthful sacrifice. I learned that Wusche had been a leader in the Wandervogel before going to war, and that Flex’s book — published posthumously, because he himself was killed in 1917 — had an enormous impact on German youth during and after the war, selling hundreds of thousands of copies. However, the book is almost forgotten today, and no English translation exists, so it wasn’t easy to learn more about it and the values it expressed. I tried searching for the book’s title along with the term Wandervogel (which means, by the way, “Migrating Bird”) to see what connections I could discover. This led me to a chapter from The Face of the Third Reich by Joachim C. Fest, in which the author traces the rise of the German youth movements and the way they were ultimately co-opted by the Nazis. He is particularly critical of what he sees as their failure to face up to reality, their escapism and lack of “objective values” which, he feels, made it easy for the Nazis to manipulate their emotions.

    “[The Wandervogel’s] criticism of bourgeois society did not touch its foundations but merely opted for looking for a romantic way of life within it. Strictly speaking, this protest against the lies lived by the elder generation was, for all its striving after ‘inner truthfulness,’ a demand by these young people for the right to live their own lies. … Of all their literary productions, what survived for only a short while…[was] Walter Flex’s book Wanderer Between Two Worlds, whose hero in fact wanders exclusively towards that other world which he has built up in his daydreams out of ‘theology, political irrationality and resignation to fate.’ To remain pure and [yet] become mature: this formula summed up the self-knowledge of that pre-war generation which withdrew from the demands of its present…. It was entirely consistent with this that the legendary gathering on the Hoher Meissner, shortly before the outbreak of the First World War, proclaimed retreat to ‘inner freedom and personal responsibility’ as the answer to the contemporary situation, which it clearly felt to be an emergency. The best the Wandervogel movement had to offer was honesty, self-discipline and the capacity for enthusiastic faith, but all this remained largely self-centred, without anchorage in an objective system of values…. The First World War further reinforced the attitudes established by the Wandervogel movement. … Only about one third of the 15,000 or so Wandervogel who went to the front returned, and the exceptionally high casualty rate was seen as confirming their way of looking on selfless devotion, self-sacrifice and readiness to die as high virtues. But the old anti-civilization attitude, too, remained and in fact emerged even stronger, imbued now with nationalist bitterness.”

Why did the Nazis, in particular, benefit from an upsurge of youth support in the late 1920s and 1930s?

    “There were many influences at work here: the difficult conditions of everyday life after the war; a longing for new, ‘organic’ forms of community aroused by the experience of comradeship during the war and in the Bunde, or youth associations, which the other parties were unable to exploit; an urge among the young to prove themselves; and various anti-bourgeois attitudes, for the most part reflecting the idea that ‘times were changing’ and so aggravating the widespread hostility towards the Weimar Republic as the ‘state of the old.’ … Credulously, fanatically, unhesitatingly ready for extreme measures, they [the post-war generation] saw themselves mobilized for the aim of National Socialism and, right down to the teenagers, swarmed into the ranks of the party. …
    “What linked them all [youth movements from the Wandervogel through the Hitler Youth of the 1930s], along with numerous other common features, was their rapturous suppression of the instinct of self-preservation, their faith in the magic of self-sacrifice. It was a romantic attitude that was described and construed as heroic, when in truth it was only an ineptitude for life and a readiness to die.”

I found myself frustrated by certain of Fest’s criticisms, which struck me as too vague to get a handle on what the youth movements actually believed. “Ineptitude for life”? I would have liked a nice, chunky quote from their writings so I could decide for myself. Though Fest had mentioned The Wanderer Between Two Worlds, I wasn’t any closer to understanding what that book was actually about, except that it was a dreamy paean to inner purity and “resignation to fate.” But his mention of the “legendary gathering on the Hoher Meissner” left me with a tantalizing clue. If that was the time and place where the Wandervogel had come together to define themselves in a time of social crisis, perhaps they had produced a declaration of principle that would clarify their beliefs? I continued my research in this vein.

I soon learned that the Hoher Meissner is a mountain range in central Germany, where several thousand youth and their adult supporters gathered in October 1913. They represented a very diverse spectrum of views from progressive to nationalist, as well as many who wanted nothing to do with politics. The main questions were how to unite the diverse youth groups under one umbrella without compromising their autonomy, and what to do with members who were now too old for a youth movement but who wanted to stay involved. One of the more coherent descriptions I found of the ideological trends of the day was (unfortunately) on the Aryan Futurism website, in a talk by Alisdair Clarke called “Hans Bluher and the Wandervogel.” (Hans Bluher was an early member of the Wandervogel who developed a theory of homoerotic male bonding as the source of the institutions of the state. This theory, which sounds crazy today, attracted the interest of Sigmund Freud and Thomas Mann.) Alisdair Clarke writes:

    “The most important event in the history of the Wandervogel was 11 October 1913 when the Jungendbewegung Free German Youth Movement was summoned to a mass-meeting on the Meissner Heights outside Kassel. A manifesto was issued, which stated in part, ‘German Youth no longer intend to remain a dependency of the older generation, excluded from public life and relegated to a passive role. It seeks, independently of the commands of convention, to give shape and form to its own life. It strives after a lifestyle, corresponding to its youth, which will make it possible to take itself and its activities seriously and to integrate itself as a special factor in the general work of culture.’ Ludwig Klages from the Cosmic Circle [followers of the poet Stefan George] composed ‘Mensch und Erde’ (Man and Earth) for the occasion, while others sang from Hans Breuer’s youth movement songbook published the same year. What was called the ‘Meissner Formula’ strove ‘to shape life through self-responsibility and wholehearted sincerity.’
    “After World War I the Wandervogel lost little of its early idealism, but its cohesiveness was tested. St. Ch. Waldecke wrote in Der Eigene [a gay journal of the day] in 1925 that it had now condensed into four distinct streams…[one of which considered itself to be] Free German, often Anarchist. It was this bunch that descended directly from the Meissner Heights meeting in 1913, and these were the most direct inheritors of the initial Wandervogel inspiration. This group was bolstered by an influx from Dr. Gustav Wyneken’s Free School Communities. This branch of the Wandervogel was closely associated with Der Weisse Ritter house in Berlin, from 1921 publisher of The White Knight newspaper for the youth movement.”

We have a number of new leads here, and it would be impossible to pursue them all. However, I’ll have occasion to return to Gustav Wyneken, an educator and a major influence on the Wandervogel from the older generation, who was present at Hoher Meissner. For now, let us note that the main tendency of the Wandervogel was “Free German, often Anarchist.” They wanted youth to take an active role in the cultural life of the nation, not as “a dependency of the older generation,” but in a new way “corresponding to its youth” and “independently of the commands of convention.”

Wikipedia’s article on the “German Youth Movement” reinforces the idea that the Wandervogel began as a rebellion against the repressive conventions of the previous generation, particularly the regimentation and materialsm of the industrial revolution.

    “To escape the repressive and authoritarian society of the end of the 19th century and the adult values of a new modern German society increasingly transformed by industrialism, imperial militarism, and British and Victorian influence, groups of young people searched for free space to develop some healthy life of their own away from the increasingly contaminated cities growing all around and from where most of them came to be disappointed. Also a romantic longing for a pristine state of things and older cultural diverse traditions played a part. They turned to nature, confraternity and adventure. …
    “The Youth Movement was very idealistic, romantic and moral. Therefore its members tended to take greater risks in following and acting upon their beliefs and persuasions. This might be the reason why one can find significant members of the Youth Movement on both sides, among the Nazis and among the Widerstand [active resistance to Nazism].”

A 2011 post by Peter Berger, “Movements,” on the religion blog of The American Interest, also emphasizes the rebellious nature of the Wandervogel, as well as its extreme diversity.“It consisted of young people (mostly from the educated middle class) who wandered around the country, singing folk and marching songs to the accompaniment of guitars, camping out under the stars, feeling one with nature and each other. They considered themselves as refugees from decadent urban culture and rebels against stuffy bourgeois convention. Supposedly they were free spirits. There were discrepant strands within the movement — some German nationalist, some anti-Semitic, some politically liberal, some homoerotic (others welcomed girls). These discrepancies were very obvious in an event in 1913 defined as historic, the Hohe Meissner Treffen, a gathering of thousands of ‘free German youth’ over several days on a mountain top. After World War I the movement lost whatever cohesion it had. Different political parties created their own youth groups.”

The Wandervogel Q&A, copied from the now-defunct website, reinforces this image with a description of the Wandervogel penned by Richard Miller in (apparently) his 1977 book Bohemia: The Protoculture Here and Now.

    “They pooled their money, spoke hobo slang, peasant patois and medieval vulgate. They were loud and rude, sometimes ragged and dirty and torn by briars. They carried packs, wore woolen capes, shorts, dark shirts, Tyrolean hats with heavy boots and bright neck scarves. Part hobo and part medieval they were very offensive to their elders.”

(If all of this sounds a lot like the hippies of the 1960s–1970s, an in-depth examination of the influence of the Wandervogel on California “nature boy” culture and the later hippies can be found here, along with vintage photos of free-spirited nudity. However, we are still lost in the labyrinth and must return our task.)

The most detailed information I could find on the Hoher Meissner gathering comes from a 1969 Durham University dissertation by D. J. McGlynn, “A Historical Study of the Development of the Youth Service in Germany,” which in turn seems to draw most of its information from Walter Lacqueur’s 1962 book Young Germany: A History of the German Youth Movement. The chapter of Lacqueur’s book that covers the Hoher Meissner gathering is unfortunately not available online, but McGlynn’s dissertation summarizes it nicely.

    “Bruno Lemke, a young mathematician and philosopher, opened the Meissner proceedings by summarising the views of the Wandervögel and other organisations present, and this was followed by a general debate. Hans Paasche’s speech ‘The German House is on fire and we are the fire brigade’ was wildly and enthusiastically received. Some common agreement was reached between the Wandervögel and the puritan reformers, and it was decided that the Meissner declaration should include a passage urging that alcohol and nicotine should be banned from all meetings of the Freideutsohe Jugend. [Gustav] Wyneken and his friend, [Martin] Luserke, expressed the opinion that youth was the time of life when one had to get to know oneself…and that before entering upon the stress and struggle of adult life, young people needed to withdraw into the wilderness, as Christ withdrew into the desert, to acquire a vital inner knowledge of themselves. Without this, they could find it difficult to decide what leader or what party to follow, and there was a distinct danger that they might be captivated by some modern pied piper and lured to perdition by a powerful appeal to vague emotions.
    “It is difficult to present an accurate picture of the Hohe Meissner gathering, as the full text of the various speeches has not been preserved, but it seems clear from what has been recorded that it represented a determined effort by various fanatical extremists to capture the Youth Movement for their own ends. Of all the adults present, Wyneken was the most outstanding, and mainly owing to him the meeting was held to some extent on rational grounds. His last speech, delivered on the Sunday morning as a summing-up of the meeting, is well described by Laqueur.
      “‘Wyneken said that he approached this assignment with great reluctance, after having heard what kinds of voices and ideas had been received by many with acclamation. He deplored narrow nationalist impulses and for love of country itself he wished that there might never be a war. He recalled the great patriotism of the heroes of 1873 — but had they not been citizens of the world at the same time? Had not Gneisenau written that principles were more important than countries, and that if Prussia and its rulers were not capable of defeating Napoleon, England had better take over Germany and give it a free constitution? We are ready to display our patriotism at the slightest provocation, said Wyneken, because we have acquired it so cheaply: but there is something less than genuine about it. Germany was now no longer a geographical nation, it had achieved a political unity. But were the German people truly united? Were there not deep cleavages in that unity? … Finally, was it not true that the younger generation had a much greater task than the extinguishing of a fire somewhere? They had to help in changing the world permanently.’
    “Out of the Meissner meeting came the famous Meissner Declaration:
      “‘Free German Youth, on their own initiative, of their own responsibility, and with deep sincerity, are determined to shape independently their own lives. For the sake of this inner freedom they will under any and all circumstances take united action.'”

Incidentally, McGlynn also gives an excellent summary of the Walter Flex book The Wanderer Between Two Worlds, finally tying it with absolute clarity to the romanticism of the Wandervogel movement.

    Der Wanderer zwisohen beiden Welten was published in 1917, shortly before the author’s death on the battlefield. Over a million copies of this book were eventually produced, and of these several hundred thousand copies were sold in the first two or three years after its first publication. The book is written around a real person, Ernst Wurche, who served with Flex in the war until he was killed in 1915. Although Wurche himself was not a particularly heroic type, he had been one of the very best types of Wandervögel leader, and Flex seems both to have appreciated his qualities in this field and to have had the gift to interpret them in the written word in a way which had a special appeal to the young generation of that time. In the book Wurohe is portrayed as a good comrade, a pure youth, a hero and a model to all his men. His deepest concern was for the cause of the Youth Movement and a Germany which it was to revitalise. He says, ‘To remain pure and yet to grow mature, this is the most beautiful and most difficult art of life.’ When Wurche’s mother is informed by Flex of the details of his death, she asks if he had taken part in an attack before he was killed, and when told that this had been so, we read ‘…then she shut her eyes and sat back. “That was his greatest desire,” she said slowly, as though it was a painful joy to know that what she had so long feared, had come to pass. A mother should know what was the deepest desire of her child. And it must be a deep desire indeed if she is anxious about its realisation after his death. O mothers, you German mothers!’ When Wurche learns about Italy’s joining the Allies, he compares it with the action of Judas Iscariot. Had he lived, doubtless he would have continued to believe in the just cause of his country, and in the ‘stab in the back’ theory of the cause of the downfall of Germany in November 1918.”

The final turn in my labyrinth came when I discovered that Walter Benjamin, of all people, had been a leader in the German Youth Movement, and had been present at Hoher Meissner! Benjamin (for those of you who don’t know) was a Jewish, neo-Marxist philosopher of the Frankfurt School, a social critic with mystic leanings who died in 1940 while fleeing the Nazis, and whose writings have been hugely influential in postmodernist circles in recent years. In 1913, he was 21 years old, and a contributor to the youth journal Anfang sponsored by Gustav Wyneken, whose boarding school he had attended from 1905–1907. The following is taken from a review of Benjamin’s Early Writings (1910–1917) by Matthew Charles in Radical Philosophy.

    “The idea under which this epoch of Benjamin’s life is to be assembled is that of Youth. It is an epoch marked above all by the personal and intellectual influence of the educational reformer Gustav Wyneken. Benjamin’s philosophical interests first bloom under Wyneken’s gaze whilst schoooling at Haubinda in 1905. When he publicly denounces his mentor a decade later, he does so in order to wrest from Wyneken’s grasp the living legacy of his idea. It is one founded philosophically on Wyneken’s blend of an Idealism of Spirit with the Nietzschean metaphysics of Life, and socially on the ‘Youth Culture’ Wyneken promoted first at Haubinda and then at the Free School Community in Wickersdorf. … Benjamin was also profoundly influenced by Wyneken’s insistence that youth must actively create its own culture, one that positively fills in the hollowed-out time between childhood and adulthood, in order to transform spiritually the bourgeois institutions of society….
    “By 1913 Benjamin held a leading role in the Anfang movement, producing its journal and organizing public speakers…. [For Anfang, he wrote a] report on the First Free German Youth Congress held at Mount Meissner in October 1913, which collected together the different elements of the nascent German Youth Movement…. In February 1914 Benjamin was elected president of the Free Students’ Association of Berlin University, a post he held until the outbreak of the First World War in August. But the chauvanistic, nationalistic and anti-Semetic forces that manifested themselves on ‘High Meissner’ — and against which Benjamin’s ideals of youth were pitted — tore the fragile movement apart. Anfang was wrongly identified [by conservative politicians] as a mouthpiece for Wyneken…. Wyneken was expelled from the Free German Youth and Anfang split into factions…. The outbreak of war that summer sent a generation of young men to be slaughtered at the front. …
    “As Howard Eiland writes in his introduction to the Early Writings: ‘After this event, Benjamin effectifely ceased his student activism — in a letter two months later, he writes of the need for a “harder, purer, more invisible radicalism” — and he turned away from most of his comrades in the youth movement, including his former mentor, Gustav Wyneken, whom he denounced, in a letter of March 9, 1915, for his public support of the German war effort.'”

The young Benjamin may have broken with Wyneken over his support for the war, but it’s ironic that Wyneken was pressured to leave the German Youth Movement for the opposite reason, insufficient nationalism. A few years later, he was to suffer a far more serious career setback, when he was accused of homosexual relations with two of his students. Wyneken had come to national prominence as the leader of a network of Free Schools organized on the principle of “pedagogic eros,” which is just as it sounds, the idea that a teacher and his students share an erotic bond. Though defended during the scandal by the school’s leadership as well many of the parents, he was forced out as leader of the Free Schools in 1920, and convicted the following year of “committing vice with minors.”

What saddens me here is not so much the sexualization of trust in a parent figure — a story we’ve seen repeated with sickening regularity over the years, right up to the Catholic Church scandal of our day — but that Wyneken presented this frankly and openly as the core value of his movement, and seemingly no one gave it a second thought. He did have another idea, though, with a more positive lasting impact — the idea of a Youth Culture in which youth lead themselves, defining their own values independently of adult supervision. This principle runs through the Wandervogel from its formation, and it can be seen in the Meissner Declaration of “Free German Youth…determined to shape independently their own lives.” It was clearly an inspiration to the young Walter Benjamin, starting him on a career of radical thinking.

It should be apparent by now that the 1910s were a surprisingly radical time. Gangs of footloose youth roamed the countryside, and theories of homoerotic bonding were embraced by progressives and nationalists alike. Let’s not forget, too, that this was the era of the Suffragettes, the Russian Revolution, and Dada and Surrealism in art. The 1960s were no more radical — their radicalism was simply updated to a fancier time, the era of satellites and airplanes, computer mainframes and moon landings. If these things follow in cycles of fifty years, we should be entering another radical age now.

NOTE: The labyrinth is infinite, and this post would be too, if I were to try to exhaust all its leads once and for all. However, please permit me to present a few options for further exploration, should you decide to go further on your own.

  • Eden’s Island — a blog dedicated to eden ahbez, known as Nature Boy, a California personality of the 1940s who could be considered the first hippie.
  • Fidus: Temple Designs” on Strange Flowers — examples of the work of the turn-of-the-20th-century German artist who captured the pagan, naturist sensibility of his time, and helped to inspire the psychedelic art of the 1960s.
  • Wandervogel” on Vouloir — a collection of articles in French, including a concise history, a look at the Wandervogel as a revolt against bourgeois values, biographies of some of the key players, and a description of the modern French Wandervogel.
  • Walter Benjamin” by D. Officer — a brief examination of Benjamin’s life and work, as it appeared in the London communist journal of the 1990s, Radical Chains.
  • On the Concept of History” by Walter Benjamin — written as France was being invaded by the Nazis, it contains this quote: “The only writer of history with the gift of setting alight the sparks of hope in the past, is the one who is convinced of this: that not even the dead will be safe from the enemy, if he is victorious.”
  • The Truth Seeker: The work of Gershom Scholem” by Adam Kirsch on Tablet — a review of Lamentations of Youth, the early diaries of Gershom Schloem, close friend to Walter Benjamin and the greatest 20th century scholar of Jewish mysticism.


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