Commentary Magazine


Young Germany 1900-1960, by Walter Z. Laqueur

The Splendid Failure

Young Germany 1900—1960.
by Walter Z. Laqueur.
Routledge & Kegan Paul. (Basic Books in October, $6.00)

The world’s rotten bones tremble with fear of the Red War. We did away with terror, that was our triumph. Onward we’ll march, let everything fall in ruins. Today Germany is ours—tomorrow the world!

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These lines were written not by an SS leader or a professional patriot, but by a middle-class Catholic German high school boy, in 1932. Hans Baumann was then eighteen; later he became a minor leader in the Hitler Youth and regarded with naive amazement the great deeds of the Fuehrer. But boys become men, and as Baumann grew up he began to evince a mild resistance to National Socialism, while doing his patriotic duty as a soldier. Today he is a pacifist, author of children’s books and avant-garde plays. His song, so famous under the Third Reich, is a product of the forces which shaped his youth. Does German youth today write the same sort of thing? I believe not.

In any case, it would be impossible today for such ideological verse to spread with the same speed as Baumann’s youthful effort. For one thing, the sense of destiny expressed can have no real meaning in a nation divided and at the mercy of the Great Powers. For another, it is too soon, after the total defeat, to envisage a total victory. Yet the underlying attitude of mind springs from a view of the world which has never lost its appeal in modern Germany. The problem of unity, around which German nationalism has always centered, once more confronts the nation. If the young Baumann was obsessed with it in 1932, he had the example of the German youth of generations preceding his. Even the fathers and mothers of the young were always patriotic, after all—given to Bismarck-worship and Wagnerian operas. But in the case of the parents, a strident patriotism seemed to conflict with a placid acceptance of Germany’s internal division. The young searched for a deeper, more genuine connection with the “genius” of the nation, as evident from the first rebellious spirits who around 1900 started the Youth Movement.

Mr. Walter Laqueur has given us a new and interesting history of the German Youth Movement, though it seems to me that he has, in his introduction, laid too little responsibility for Nazism at its door. If its early representatives did not express themselves in words like Baumann’s, their attitude was nevertheless congenial to his. And though it is true that the Youth Movement ultimately rejected National Socialism, its responsibility for the German catastrophe cannot be minimized.

Laqueur quite rightly starts his discussion with a chapter on the “romantic prelude”: it was the romanticism that followed the French Revolution which provided the impetus for German nationalism. The young men who banded together around 1900 did not form gangs or proclaim the coming of a new society, but went on rambles. Few people in the West would associate rambles with revolutions, a love of nature with the subversion of the existing order. But this latter-day romanticism was in no sense a simple “back-to-nature” movement (as Mr. Laqueur seems to suggest). Rather, it represented a highly combustible fusion of nature, man, and “folk.”

Schoolboys doubtless wanted the fun of being on their own, of having adventures in the as yet unspoiled countryside. The leadership was a different matter. Karl Fischer, the first head of the Movement, had already around 1900 taken his groups to visit the German minorities in the Austrian Empire, and as time went on the leaders became increasingly involved in ideological discussions. These burst into the open at a celebrated meeting of all youth groups in 1913 on the Meissner mountain, when an effort was made to tie the Youth Movement to ideas of revolt that went beyond a national renewal. Gustav Wynecker, a remarkable teacher (later a Social Democrat), who believed that youth should find its own forms and break with the past, issued a passionate appeal to total revolution and rejection of 19th-century romanticism, and continued in this role during the revolution of 1918 which resulted in the Weimar Republic. But the powerful anti-modernity of the Movement defeated him.

A different kind of teacher attained to influence: one who had gone through the patriotic training of the university and was far from being a foe of authority. The teachers had always been a reactionary force in Germany and were to remain so (in contrast to neighboring France). The Youth Movement served to draw them closer to their pupils, but they retained their nationalist outlook. The First World War was instrumental in bringing the youth to the fore—they accepted with enthusiasm a war started by the very elders against whom they were supposed to be in revolt. Mr. Laqueur is formally right when he sees vagueness in the early Wandervogel, but the attachment of the youth to the “folk” and to the German cosmos of nature was never vague, and it was this romanticism that set the tone for the war and its aftermath. Such romanticizing led inevitably to a sense of futility in political action. Thus the Movement was inherently susceptible to totalitarian influence and solutions—whether from the right or the Communists.

Yet individualism had once been an ideological goal. The Movement had set out to escape both the caste society of Wilhelminian Germany and the stifling atmosphere of the school. The original historian of the Youth Movement, Hans Blüher, recalled that in the early days, when a simple romanticism prevailed, the “soul” of the individual joined itself to nature, and the organizational superstructure, which the individual joined of his own free will, was minimal. True, the leadership idea was strong, for the leader recruited his followers directly; but no outside force intervened between leader and follower. It was enough that the leader was endowed with what Max Weber named “charisma.” The continual splits and regroupings which Laqueur describes testify to the enduring strength of the personalized leader-follower relationship. Inevitably, the loose association grew more rigid. Laqueur calls 1919 the “end of the individualistic period.” It must be emphasized, however, that never had individualism been conceived within the Youth Movement in terms of that liberalism which all the groups rejected as divisive. The concept of leadership blocked genuine individualism.

We must consider again the point that these were for the most part boys, and despite the anti-intellectualism of the Movement an ideology was fostered from above. In 1911 Blüher wrote a sensational book on the Youth Movement as an erotic phenomenon, putting forth his contention that sexual inversion in adolescence played a powerful part in maintaining group consciousness and cohesion. Laqueur handles this particular question with circumspection. But if the case can never be proved, Platonic friendship did play a vital part, and one may venture beyond Laqueur: the many publications of the Wandervogel speak continually of a new sort of admiration for the muscular male body, the clear brow, the blue eyes, which seemed to pertain to the “genuine” person rooted in the soil—as contrasted with the pale-faced and flabby urban bourgeois, comfortable in corpulence, hopelessly sunk in his way of life. The ideal of masculine beauty was coupled with that of the heroic. And the leader was the heroic personality who through strength of will had overcome his own background.

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Even before any strong group cohesion had set in, “old boys” were finding it difficult to grow out of their experience of the Movement; in fact, they rarely did. A most significant adult extension of the Movement was a series of agricultural settlements in eastern Germany where property was held jointly and work pursued in common. Here were the “cells” for a new nation, renewed through actual living in nature, on the soil—and it was also here that the drive toward racial bias in the Youth Movement was strengthened. Nationalism and Germanic mysticism met and married in the communes, which make the link between the Youth Movement and National Socialism obvious. This is especially clear in the case of the largest group—and the only one with which Laqueur deals—the Artamanen, who hired themselves out as farm laborers. The Artamanen were for the most part absorbed into the Nazi party: Himmler had been a member from the beginning.

Jews were members of many of the early groups and some even attained positions of leadership. Nevertheless—as Laqueur shows—there was always a question about their right to be called Germans. When the question was debated during the First World War, the argument was advanced that the Jew in the Movement could become a complete German—even if all Jews could not; the Jew within an elite movement was special, after all. The opposing view saw the Jews as a separate people. This was Karl Fischer’s attitude early on, and it became dominant among the most significant sections of the Movement. Germanism (one quite tolerant leader wrote) was a quality of the soul which the Jew as Jew could not share. Though racial superiority as such was not at first involved, the always present German stereotype of the Jew as materialistic and unpatriotic gradually got set.

Such a view was of course implicit in the youth ideology even if some individual Jews were thought to be exceptions. But the radical anti-Semites were not a majority, as Laqueur rightly points out. Most of the ideologists, disliking Jews, still tended to distinguish between individuals and the mass; and a certain sympathy with Zionism even gave to Jews recognition as a separate “folk.” It was the “Germanism” of the ideology which from the very beginning excluded Jews as Jews. Here we have one more piece of evidence pointing to an attitude toward life which, while it went deep into the fabric of German youth, did not necessarily lead them into the arms of Nazism.

The majority in fact never became closely involved with the party. Laqueur suggests that the guilt of the young Germans lies in their sins of omission, in their failure to develop an ethos of individual political responsibility; he believes that the Youth Movement merely shares the same kind of responsibility for National Socialism as most German parties, all of which embraced the neo-romantic ideology in one way or another. The matter cannot be brushed off quite so easily, however. It is a fact of German history that the young underwent a nationalist radicalization not reflected in their parents. During the last decades of the 19th century, German students jumped on the bandwagon of the anti-Semitic court preacher Stöcker, whose movement was largely ignored by their elders. Fraternities which had accepted Jews now excluded them, and anti-Semitic student organizations began to flourish: all this in the name of the “folk,” the Germanic renewal. Half a century later, around 1930, the National Socialists captured German student organizations well over a year before their party showed any electoral strength.

The story is not yet over. As Laqueur shows, the fires now burn low, but they burn nevertheless. For where is German youth to turn to today in its dissatisfaction with the society of the “economic miracle”? A third of the nation is under Communist domination, which makes any truly radical movement difficult to promote. But the old road trod by the Youth Movement is still open—and some groups have been reconstituted.

Laqueur’s perceptive book is a fascinating and sensitive narrative of a failure, but a failure which explains better than most successes the working of those attitudes of mind which made Germany the home of the counter-revolution: a counter-revolution against the tradition of the French Revolution, liberalism, and modernity. Today, if the aggressiveness of 1932 is dead, the underlying state of mind still lives. Will the counterrevolution once again be confused with true revolution? For the “splendid failure” (Laqueur’s words) was symptomatic of a world view which produced the “Red War” that put a most unromantic end to the romanticism of German youth.

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