German Nationalist Youth Groups: Wandervogel Philosophy

Figure 1.--This undated photograph was probably taken shortly before World War I. It shows Wandervogel boys in Bavaria relaxing with their musical instruments and taking a pause from their hikes through the hills. They were middle-class, fairly well educated boys seduced by the message of the Jugendbewegung (Youth Movement) of the time. These "wandering birds" were devoted to outdoor exploration and the playing and singing of folk music, hence the guitar and what looks like some sort of woodwind mouth-instrument. Most of the boys wear knickers or knee pants with long black stockings, but a few wear dark knee socks--perhaps really long stockings that have been turned down below the knee. Notice that in this photo, where they look to be outdoors in an old part of the city enjoying refrehsments instead of out in the country, the boys mostly wear jackets and ties. Presumably this was their town dress and thus a bit more formal.

Wandervogel founder Hoffmann did not have a firmly-defined program for the group. He had vague notions about what did and did not represent a reasonable life. These thoughs were developed as the Wandervogel movement spread and was adopted by increasing numbers of German youth. He realized that industry and commerce had come to stay, but he was equally convinced that the individual, instead of passively surrendering to the impersonal and atomizing forces of industrialism, should actively control them. What seems strange to the modern reader is that along with the heralding of nature and the individual was a healthy dose of Teutonic nationalism and anti-Semitism, sounding much like a melding of todays' greens and neo-NAZIs. Here we discuss some of the tenants of Hoffman and other Wandervogel adherents.

Idealizing Nature

Boys went on weekend retreats, where they would hike and learn to survive on their own in the wilderness. The Wandervogel were noted for their love of the land, not the new, modern conveniences of the cities. Hiking and skiing were chosen over activities such as watching a movie or going to a dance. But the Wandervogel philosophy was more profound that the appraoch in Baden Powell's Scouts. Hoffman believed that the individual had to be made aware of his natural environment in the first place. Boys living in the city had little exposure to nature. Youth had to redisciver nature, the fields, woods, brooks, lakes, and meadows from which the city dweller had been alienated. Nature, Hoffmann felt, had to be experienced in the raw: the scorch of the sun, the whiplash of the rainstorm. Hiking and camping became a mainstay of the Wander vogel. A haystack was preferable any time to a well-made bed, fresh air to nicotine, and water to alcohol. Only by an awareness of pre-industrial forms of life would man, and then society as a whole, appreciatethe good in the past and use it to alleviate the the abominations of the present. The Wandervogel in essence rejected bourgeois culture and big-city civilization, seeking out instead an encounter with and shared adventure in nature.

Youth Culture

The groups strove for an alternative culture specifically for young people, with hiking, camping in tents, folk songs, and folk dancing. A key element in the Wandervogel was the absence of adult direction. The boys involved tended to be older than Baden Powell's Scouts and they were incouraged to organize and plan activities themselves. As such youth itself was idealized. Hoffman picked up on the philosophy of German education, Gustav Wyneken, who coined a term "Jugendkultur"--meaning that youth should develop among youth, youth should lead youth, with adults providing ultimate guidance as imperceptibly as possible.

Nationalism: Nordic Romanticism and Volk Culture

There was no movement toward international brotherhood among the Wandervogel. The movement group was highly nationalistic and sought to draw inspiration from German's idealized Nordic roots. Folk songs sang while hiking or around camfires were a mainstay of the Wandervogel as was folk dancing. The Nordic mythology was of course eventually appropriated by the NAZIs. A German reader writes, "I don’t agree that the Wandervogel was teutonic and nationalist, at least not as a whole, their main aim was to travel on foot, playing on staples or lutes and deciding their lives independently. Only a few of the many groups which made up the Wandervogel movement were nationalist. This was especially the case in the early 1930s when the Wandervogel were joined with the he HJ." [Mueller] This perhaps requires some additional research. HBU's understanding is that German youth, including the Wandervogel youth, were highly nationlistic. What would be surprising to HBU would be the fact that German outh were not highly natioinalistic in the late 19th and early 20th century. Youth in the rest of Europe as well as America were very nationalistic. This can be seen in the fervor with which men and youth went to war in August 1914. It seems very likely that Germany as a newly unified country may have been especially natonalistic. Here HBU would be interested in any historical references that readers may have.

One former Wandervogel member recalls, "We little suspected then what power we had in our hands. We played with the fire that had set a world in flames, and it made our hearts hot...It was in our ranks that the word Fuehrer originated, with its meaning of blind obedience and devotion...And I shall never forget how in those early days we pronounced the word Gemeinschaft ["community"] with a trembling throaty note of excitement, as though it hid a deep secret" [Hartshorne, p. 12.]

Führer Principal

It was in the Wandervogel that the term Fühurer became popularized among Germans. Louis Snyder notes in the Encyclopedia of the Third Reich that, "The Führer Principle became identical with the elite principle. The Führer elite were regarded as independent of the will of the masses". [Snyder, p. 104.]


Wander vogel was in esence anti-political, part of the rejection of bourgeois society. While this was not always possible the movement did try to remain at least apoltical. The Wandervogel reflected the main attitudes of the of the youth movement. The group was non-political, but the boys which joined were a cross section of German boys. The rmantically völkish spirit of Wandervogel was decidely ethno-Germanic. This meant that the movement was overwealminly conservative nationalistic. Early in the 1900s, political groups began to organize their own youth movements. Wandervogel until World War I sucessufully mainatained a non-political group. After World War I this was no longer possible and the movement splintered into a large number sectarian and politicized groups--incliding the Hitlaer Youth.


An outgrowth of the strong thread of idealizing the Nordic roots of Germany and Volk culture was an anti-Semetic thread in Wandervogel. Jews were not for the most part not welcome in Wandervogel units. Many Wandervogel groups rejected any contact with the similar Jewish Blue-White organization. This was not a political statement, but a natural extension of theW Wandervogel concept of purifying the true Tetonic spirit. Wandervogel itself periodically addressed the question of Jewish Membership. At the Wandervogel Conference in Frankfurt (Oder) during 1914, the organization decided to allow local units the right to exclude Jews from their ranks and remove those who were already members. [HBC note: This should be viewed in the context that similar anto-Semitism existed throughout Europe and America. Many groups such as college fraternities in America excluded Jews even into the 1960s. I'm less sure about Scouting. This is important to note in assessing the NAZIs and the Holocaust. German anti-Semitism until the NAZIs does not appear to have been exceptional. In fact many Jews fled to Germany from oppression in Russia in the late 19th and early 20th century before World War I.] The Wandervogel desire to remain apolitical became virtually impossible in the increasingly charged political situation after World War I (1914-18). Wandervogel boys even before the War were highly nationalistic. After the War boys were convinced that their country had been wronged by the Versailles Peace Treaty and the older, more politically conscious boys, were critical of the Weimar Government in which Socialist including some Jews were important. More politically active youth movements, especially right-ewing groups like the NAZIs, rejecting the Weimar Government and picking up on Wanndervogel tenants such as idealizing youth, Nordic and volk culture. Thus in the 1920s these right-wing groups with strong political agendas were able to draw many boys away from the Wandervogel movement. It also in part explains why the German youth movement was so easily incorporated into the Hitler Youth after the NAZI seizure of power in 1933. They were also disenchanted with the older generation and their new sets of values: work and money. These and other attitudes made it a relatiively easy matter for the NAZIS in 1933 to fold them and most other independent youth groups into the Hitler Youth. For many German youth, natioanlism was the key issue and with some anti-Semitism was a component of nationalism. Hitler and the NAZIs of course greatly expanded the anti-Semetic thread in the Hitler Youth movement.


A strong element of Wandervogel was a romantic rebellion against parental and educational authoritarianism. The Wandervogel rejected what thay saw as a rotting society and stressed a idealized, romantic individualism.

Poetry and Music

The love of poetry and music was another distinuishing aspect of Wandervogel. The boys were searching for what the poet Novalis (Friedrich von Hardenberg) referred to as "the blue flower of romanticism" and seeking what Charles Erich called "the greening" of Germany. The preferred music was folk songs. Images of the Wandervogel often show the boys carryingbooks of poetry and guitats or guitar-like instruments. Thre are many similarities between Wandervogel and the Hitler Youth. This is one very significant difference. Bertolt Brecht writes that many an idelaistic Wandervogel boy marched into World War I singing folk songs and carrying a book of poetry in his pack, commonly poems by Friedrich Hölderlin, Rainer Maria Rilke, and other romantics. [Brecht, Berlin, p. 139]


Wandervogel also gave considerable attention to sport. Organized sporting events of soccer and other various competitions kept the interests of the children. The sporting ethos was in keeping with the focus on healthy outdoor activities.


The Wandervogel and other German youth organizations shunned alcohol and tobacco and in those innocent years knew nothing about drugs.

Masucline Ethos

Hoffman taught at an all boys grammar school (academically selective secondary school). At firsrt Wandervogel was just for boys. One girls were permitted that were kept separate from the boys and relegated to a secondary role in the movement--an approach similar to that of the NAZIs in their youth movement. It should be pointed out, however, that Wandevogel did accpt girls. Early Scout groups were all boy organizations. The girls had to form separate Scout groups--the Guides. A HBC observer reports that during a recent visit to Berlin visting the Wandervogel exhibition and a eldely guide there regailing him with tales of her fondly remembered expeiences in Wandervogel during the early 20th century.


Another Nazi custom appropriated from the Wandervogel was the aggresively masucline "Seig Heil" salute, which was an early form of greeting popular among the wandering youth.


Brecht, Bertolt. Berlin.

Hartshorne, E.Y. German Youth and the Nazi Dream of Victory (New York, Farrar and Reinhart, Inc, 1941).

Koch, H.W. The Hitler Youth: Origins and Development 1922-1945.


Mueller, Reinhard. E-mail message, September 20, 2003.


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Created: July 7, 2000
Last updated: 4:48 PM 5/11/2005