Frequently Asked Questions About the Wandervögel Movement

Why is Wandervogel called the first hippie movement?

So many of the issues, ideas, and lifestyle practices of the early Wandervögel are a direct match with those of the American hippies of the 1960s and ’70s. Photographs of the Wandervögel with their long hair and beards, dancing and making music, cavorting in the nude, wearing hiking boots, sandals or going barefoot, look like images from the concerts at Woodstock and Golden Gate Park, or of Haight Ashbury street life in the “Summer of Love.”

Yet the similarities are even more striking when you compare the values and cultures of the two movements. The Wandervögel, in the early years especially, were often the same people who called themselves lebensreformer (life reformers). These were people who practiced vegetarianism, natural medicine and healing, abstinence from alcohol, nudism, and clothing reform—all mainstream ideas today. It was important to the young men and women alike to eschew the starched collars and corsets of their age for a more natural, comfortable, and healthy fashion of dress.

The following description of the Wandervögel, written by Richard Miller in 1977, might well have described the hippies: “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.”

There were 50,000 Wandervögel by 1914. They were anti-bourgeois and Teutonic-pagan, composed mostly of middle class German young people, organized themselves around leaders into autonomous cells called Bunde (bands), and tended to follow charismatic leaders.

Like American hippies five or six decades later, the more committed among them were forming communes, cooperatives, garden towns, and settlements where soil reform, organic gardening, communitarian and economic experiments were carried out and perfected in daily life.

One such well-known settlement was “Monte Verita.” at Ascona, a fishing village on the shore of Lake Maggiore on the Swiss side of the border with Italy. Ascona became a gathering point for Europe’s spiritual rebels. Hermann Hesse, Carl Jung, Isadora Duncan, D.H. Lawrence, and Franz Kafka were among the notables who were drawn to Monte Verita and the life-experiments undertaken there. Although the settlement at Ascona died out after 1920, the spirit of it was reborn in California at Big Sur in the 1960s, with Esalen Institute becoming a monte verita on the Pacific.

As the ideas and influence of the Wandervögel and related groups diffused into and infected the larger culture, the surviving Bunde inevitably became less radical and more conventional. They morphed into organizations quite different from those envisioned by their initiators. A similar pattern of development can be observed in the history of the hippie phenomenon.

Wandervogel is often described as a proto-Nazi youth movement. Is this accurate?

Not at all. It only appears this way to some because the Nazis appropriated so many elements of Wandervögel style and activities into their own youth movement.

The Wandervögel were diametrically opposite to the Nazis in at least three respects. First, the Wandervogel movement began as a non-political organization, while everything the Nazis touched became belligerently political. Second, the Wandervögel were not systematically anti-Semitic and allowed Jews into its ranks. Third, the Wandervögel emphasized individual freedom and self-responsibility, whereas the Nazis enforced regimentation and unquestioning obedience to authority.

This contrast can be appreciated through the romantic words of this Wandervogel song by Otto Roquette. These lyrics are very different from the marching songs of the Hitlerjugend, which so often spoke of spilling Jewish blood and fighting to the death:

Ihr Wandervögel in der Luft,
im Ätherglanz, im Sonnenduft,
in blauen Himmelswellen,
euch grüß’ ich als Gesellen!
Ein Wandervogel bin ich auch,
und meines Sanges Gabe
ist meine liebste Habe.

You wandering birds in the air,
in the ether-shine, in the sun-aroma,
in blue sky-waves,
I greet you as journeymen!
I am also a wandering bird,
and my gift of song
is my dearest possession.

After the Nazi takeover of power and the outlawing of independent youth organizations, the Wandervögel Bunde joined the Hitlerjugend (some of them voluntarily), which also offered hiking and camp life. Officially, the Wandervogel leagues were dissolved in June 1933, and their members were transferred to the HJ. Individual groups, however, remained in contact with their members, and some eventually became nuclei for the White Rose and other youthful opposition to the Third Reich. After the fall of the Nazi regime, Wandervogel was reestablished as a movement dedicated to its original core values.

The Wandervögel movement has sometimes been called “the first gay scout movement.” Is this true?

No. While there undoubtedly were some gays in the movement, this would be like saying the whole state of California is homosexual because San Francisco has a visible gay community.

This canard has been promulgated by some “queer theorists,” as well as anti-Nazis, to demonstrate supposed developmental roots of the Nazi storm trooper organization (the SA), which did have many gays within its top leadership and had authority over the Hitlerjugend for a brief time when the HJ was formed as the Youth League of the NSDAP in 1920. Through this intended smear, virulent anti-Nazis appear to be calling into question the manhood and honor of all organized German youth prior to 1933, as if to argue that the National Socialist era was a direct and inevitable result of deficits in the German character.

Nevertheless, open homosexuality was a factor within at least one minority faction of the Wandervögel, and detractors have made too much of it. In 1911, Wilhelm Jansen, a wealthy gay who was a leader in the German youth movement, circulated a letter informing parents of Wandervogel members that they needed to become accustomed to the participation of homosexuals in the organization. As might be imagined, his letter created an uproar among the parents. In the ensuing scandal, Jansen and his supporters broke away from the main movement and formed their own faction which they called the “Young Wandervögel.”

Detractors have incorrectly attributed the outspoken views of the Young Wandervögel to the entire Wandervogel movement.