“Steel their Bodies and Minds” – How the Wandervogel reconciled nature with modernity

By Charlotte Alt

Life in Germany at the turn of the twentieth century was an overwhelming experience. Modernity by then had arrived in full force: cities exploded with masses of people, and modern innovations like the telegraph and railway drastically changed the pace of everyday life. As urban spaces appeared increasingly overstimulating, people began to look towards the natural world for a ‘slower, more habitual, more smoothly flowing rhythm’. [1] Life reform movements, focusing on developing healthier lifestyles in nature, quickly sprang up across Germany and included nudism, vegetarianism – and the youth movement of the Wandervogel (Wandering Bird).

The Wandervogel emerged in 1896 when a group of young school children from Berlin began undertaking hiking trips through the German countryside on weekends and during school holidays without parental supervision. During the excursions the young pupils, usually between ten and eighteen years old, carried their own supplies, slept in barns, and cooked their own food. Over the next several years, this quickly developed into a nation-wide movement, which by 1914 counted 800 local branches and around 25,000 members. As their self-proclaimed core mission, the Wandervogel encouraged ‘self-responsibility, true comradeship, a primitive healthful life [and] new forms of recreational activity’. [2]

An integral aspect of the youth movement’s purpose was a desire to experience nature and develop a deeper understanding of the rural. This appreciation for the natural world is tangible in much of the writing from within the Wandervogel. In 1913 Trude Bez, for example, described a morning hike in one of the movement’s magazines: ‘From branch to branch, colourless little drops of water glide, fall on the tall, wavering forest grasses, on the low blue flower bells, on the dark forest floor. You stand – and listen and listen. It goes through the forest like breathing, like a great, silent waiting, waiting for the sun.’[3]

Historians have often characterised such a preoccupation with nature as the expression of a desire to escape modern urban realities. Peter Stachura, for instance, characterised the Wandervogel as a ‘Bohemian-type withdrawal from […] mainstream society’ towards the natural world.[4] The separation of nature and the city is a common feature in scholarship of this age, which argues that the two spheres became diametrically opposed during modernity. The city, for example, was associated with a faster pace of life, a focus on consumerism, and often a host of vices such as alcoholism or prostitution. The rural, however, became a symbol for tranquillity, for purer values of beauty and compassion, and of a space not impacted by the developments of modern industrialisation.

However, looking at the way in which the Wandervogel interacted both with nature and urban modernity questions this assumption. To its members, the natural world did not stand in opposition to the modern city. Rather, the Wandervogel felt that the rural and the urban existed in a reciprocal relationship within modernity: ‘To us today the relationship of the strong, impulsive city to the more equal, calm, self-willed country seems more like a marriage where both give and both receive and both have more to give the more they remain conscious of their individuality.’ [5]

Within the Wandervogel, nature was not understood as a space to which the young wanted to escape but instead was viewed as an important part of modern life itself. On the one hand, they felt that the experience of the pace of modernity overstimulated the nerves of city-dwellers, that the explosion of consumerism changed social values, and that crammed cities had negative effects upon the bodily and spiritual health of Germans. However, the Wandervogel also strongly believed that their own interaction with and appreciation of nature could be transplanted into modern life and thereby become an important driving force in improving these realities of modernity. As they proclaimed during a youth conference in 1913: ‘They strive for a lifestyle that corresponds to a youthful nature, but which at the same time enables them to take themselves and their actions seriously and integrate themselves as a special factor in general cultural work.’ [6]

Their ‘cultural work’ focused specifically on the improvement of the physical and mental health of society. This was to be achieved through exercise within nature, as the Wandervogel believed that hiking had a beneficial hygienic and healing value. The physical exercise of walking was understood to create a healthy body that could fight off  the sicknesses associated with urban life, such as infectious diseases, poor lung health, or illnesses caused by inadequate living conditions. Likewise, the experience of the natural world was viewed as benefitting people’s mental strength and make them resilient to the forces of degeneration found in modern cities: ‘The purpose of the association is to promote hiking among young people, especially at higher educational institutions, and thereby to steel their bodies and minds, to give them the opportunity to get to know the land and people of their German homeland from their own experience, to awaken and heighten their sense of nature.’ [7]

Consequently, the natural world to the Wandervogel was not a realm of escapism. They did not perceive it as innately separate from the modern city. Rather, they understood their experiences within the natural world as an integral part of ensuring a mentally and physically strong and resilient German population that would be able to better withstand the degenerative symptoms of modern life.

[1] Georg Simmel, ‘The Metropolis and Mental Life’ (1903), pp. 11-12.

[2] Peter D. Stachura, The German Youth Movement 1900–1945: An Interpretative and Documentary History (London: Macmillan, 1981), p. 3

[3] Trude Bez, ‘Morgenstunde’, Jung-Wandervogel, Vol. 3, No. 9 (September 1913): ‘Von Zweig zu Zweig gleiten farblos kleine Wassertropfen, fallen auf die hohen schwanken Waldgräser, auf die tief gesenkten blauen Blumenglocken, auf den dunklen Waldboden. Du stehst – und lauscht und lauscht. Wie ein Atmen geht’s durch den Wald, wie ein großes, stilles Warten, das Warten auf die Sonne’, p. 130.

[4] Stachura, The German Youth Movement 1900–1945, p. 2.

[5] K. Weichberger, ‘Wandervogel’, Wandervogel (Deutscher Bund), Vol. 1,No. 11/12 (February/March, 1908): ‘uns heute erscheint das Verhältnis der starken, impulsiven Großstadt zum mehr gleichen, ruhigen, eigensinnigen Lande eher wie eine Ehe, wo beide geben und beide empfangen und beide je mehr zu geben haben, je mehr sie sich ihrer Eigenart bewußt bleiben’, p. 156.

[6] ‘Freideutscher Jugendtag 1913: Jahrhundertfeier auf dem Hohen Meißner am 11.-12. Oktober’, in Winfried Mogge and Jürgen Reulecke (eds.), Hoher Meißner 1913: Der Erste Freideutsche Jugendtag in Dokumenten, Deutungen und Bildern (Köln: Verlag Wissenschaft und Politik, 1988): ‘Sie strebt nach einer Lebensführung, die jugendlichem Wesen entspricht, die es ihr aber zugleich aurch ermöglicht, sich selbst und ihr Tun ernst zu nehmen und sich als einen besonderen Faktor in die allgemeine Kulturarbeit einzugliedern’, p. 68.

[7] A4, Nr. 1, 1e (Archiv der deutschen Jugendbewegung, Witzenhausen), Constitution n.d. (1 P., Pr.): ‘Der Verein hat den Zweck, unter der Jugend vornehmlich höherer Lehranstalten das Wandern zu fördern und dadurch ihren Körper und Geist zu stählen, ihr Gelegenheit zu geben, Land und Leute der deutschen Heimat aus eigener Anschauung kennen zu lernen, ihren Sinn für Natur zu wecken und zu heben’.


A4, Nr. 1, 1e (Archiv der deutschen Jugendbewegung, Witzenhausen), Constitution n.d. (1 P., Pr.).

Bez, Trude, ‘Morgenstunde’, Jung-Wandervogel, Vol. 3, No. 9 (September 1913).

‘Freideutscher Jugendtag 1913: Jahrhundertfeier auf dem Hohen Meißner am 11.-12. Oktober’, in Winfried Mogge and Jürgen Reulecke (eds.), Hoher Meißner 1913: Der Erste Freideutsche Jugendtag in Dokumenten, Deutungen und Bildern (Köln: Verlag Wissenschaft und Politik, 1988).

Simmel, Georg, ‘The Metropolis and Mental Life’ (1903).

Stachura, Peter D., The German Youth Movement 1900–1945: An Interpretative and Documentary History (London: Macmillan, 1981).

Weichberger, K., ‘Wandervogel’, Wandervogel (Deutscher Bund), Vol. 1,No. 11/12 (February/March, 1908).

Image credits:

Uploaded to Flickr by Hans-Michael Tappen, free to use under a Attribution-Non Commercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic license. Accessible at https://www.flickr.com/photos/hansmichaeltappen/32617971472

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