a ring of wandering birds

Perhaps, like me, you thought that youth culture began after the Second World War. Jon Savage tells us otherwise:

Beginning in Germany during the early 1900s, the Wandervogel—literally, wandering birds—rejected the onset of the materialist, consumerist, mass-production society in favor of researching folklore and tramping around the countryside. After the Great Crash of 1929, Germany’s economy went into meltdown and youths were disproportionately hit: Half a million adolescents wandered round the country in hopeless vagabondage. 

image found here

One of the most bizarre groupings was discovered by the investigative journalist Christine Fournier in Berlin during 1930, who called them “Ring” youth gangs and typified their attitude with the phrase “a hatred of society.” A year after the Crash, there were about 14,000 feral kids between 14 and 18 living rough in the outskirts of Berlin (a district that was circled by a “Ring” of avenues, hence the term).

image found here

Homeless and adrift from adult society, these kids organized themselves into gangs with bloodthirsty—often Indian-derived—names like Blood of the Trappers, Red Apaches, Black Love, Black Flag, and Forest Pirates. They supported themselves through crime: petty burglary, theft, larceny, and prostitution, both male and female.

image found here

This was fairly standard-issue stuff for juvenile delinquents, but what was extraordinary about the Ring youth gangs was their sheer number and the sophisticated savagery of their social structure. In the late 1920s, they had consolidated into one large federation with geographically zoned groups (e.g., the South Ring, the East Ring) led by a “Ring Bull.”

By the early 1930s, they had established elaborate codes of behavior. Prospective members had to go through sexual rituals—a pagan “baptism” often involving public intercourse or masturbation—before admission. The initiation ceremony almost always degenerated, according to Christine Fournier, into a “drunken binge, a mad orgy.” She called it “a spontaneous return to barbarism.”

human orgy art found here

In 1932 French journalist Daniel Guerin, on a visit to Germany, encountered a wild gang near Berlin. They looked like Wandervogel but “had the depraved and troubled faces of hoodlums and the most bizarre head coverings: black or grey Chaplinesque bowlers, old women’s hats with the brims turned up Amazon-fashion, adorned with ostrich plumes and medals.”

image found here

He also noted “handkerchiefs or scarves in screaming colors tied around the neck, bare chests bursting out of open skin vests with broad stripes, arms scored with fantastic or lewd tattoos, ears hung with pendulums or enormous rings, leather shorts surmounted by immense triangular belts daubed with all the colors of the rainbow, esoteric numbers, human profiles, and inscriptions.

image found here

Guerin thought they were “a strange mixture of virility and effeminacy,” and worried that “those who would know how to discipline these masquerade Apaches could make real bandits out of them.” Some did become Nazis—like Winnetou, a prominent Ring Bull. But others went underground: They continued to live free, wandering and harassing Nazis wherever they could.

image found here

The Nazi regime had been at its weakest in the industrial heartland, the Rhine-Ruhr region, and in the early war years neighborhood gangs in those cites began to form with the express intention of avoiding Hitler Youth service. They were given the generic name of Edelweiss Pirates—like the Ring gangs, they had taken edelweiss badges as their insignias—and had fabulous names like the Shambeko Band (Düsseldorf) or the Navajos (Cologne).

insignia found here

Inevitably, the Edelweiss Pirates came into conflict with the Hitler Youth, and when they did, they would clobber them. In 1941, it was noted that “they are everywhere. There are more of them than there are Hitler Youth. And they all know each other, they stick close together. They beat up the patrols, because there are so many of them. They never take no for an answer.”

Hitler Youth found here

As the war went on, the regime’s desire for control escalated, as did the opposition to it. In Cologne, a large group of Edelweiss Pirates hooked up with escaped concentration-camp prisoners, deserters, and forced laborers in a program of armed resistance that culminated with the assassination of the local Gestapo chief. The Nazis publicly hanged 13 Pirates in the city center, including the 16-year-old leader of the Navajos, Barthel Schink.

image found here

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54 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Fascinating – both the origins of this group and the fact they ended up taking on the Nazis. Also sad – they were just children…

    • Sad, in both cases.

  2. Wow. I had no idea. I’ve always been fascinated with feral kids, but for some reason I just assumed that they lived in the wild, feeding off the land. The only thing that shocked me more was seeing The Hoff in all his white pant-legged glory.

    • The Hoff does have that effect

  3. Good grief, you come across such interesting stuff, stuff I have never heard of. I have seen quite a lot of history of Berlin, but never a mention of these. Are they really true? I sometimes feel your blog is a wonderful insight into an amazing parallel universe.
    Great post.

    • Jon Savage is a very reliable source

  4. As others have already noted, this is fascinating! And i have new plans for retirement… something to do with ‘hopeless vagabondage’, methinks….

    • There’s nothing hopeless about you daisyfae. and you’d make vagabondage rock!

      • I had a feeling Daisy would key in on the “vagabondage.”

  5. I agree with everyone else! I had no idea about these particular feral children or that this kind of resistance on such a grassroots level was active in Hitler’s time.

    I’m reading along and then out of the corner of my eye “Is that the Hoff?” His hair was almost as tall as him in those days!

    • He is such a distraction

  6. I don’t get why the crash would hit kids the worst. Did all the McDonald’s jobs dry up?

    Poor Barthel Schink. He was a hero. So young!

    • I know! At 16 my boys were playing video games and sneaking alcohol

      • Yes and I am still playing
        games, and of all genres too 🙂

        Are you having a nice evening
        Nurse Myra, I have been taking
        a nosy around your Space 🙂

        Androgoth Xx

  7. I chuckled to see you’ve posted a picture of “the Garter Knights Gang” …then , below that, a chap with big hair and a camel toe.
    I, too, learn much from this blog. Mr. Camel Toe is someone called The Hoff and I shall now ask Mr. Google who the hell he is/was!….I did and I’m no wiser!

    I think I like the idea of vagabondage.:-)

    • I think the Garter Knights gang and The Hoff complement each other perfectly 😉

  8. Never heard of them before. What great choices for the German youth of the time.

  9. Fascinating indeed.

  10. Now I know my between-the-wars history better than most, but this was new to me. Hats off. Still, it only confirms the truth that Golding drove home in “Lord of the Flies.”

    • Until I read Jon Savage’s article, I’d not heard of this either.

  11. as if germany didn’t have enough tsouris.

  12. the human orgy art photo! Eeek!

  13. It’s always impressive to hear of people that stood up against Hitler back in those days.

    • true dat.
      its disturbing both ways – they were kids.

  14. Reblogged this on Milenanik3's Blog and commented:
    Very interesting..

  15. Thank You for sharing a story about this boys..Now they will be remembered.

    • Yes, i think it should be more widely known. I’m glad Mr Savage enlightened me.

      • 🙂 Wish You a very nice day!

  16. Very interesting – the stories of resistance to Hitler sometimes don’t get enough of a mention. All new to me this, and shows how distorted poverty can make life.

  17. When one reads about the likes of the Eidelweiss Pirates it comes as a revelation. My favourite piece of resistance was the Rosentrasse women’s protest in 1943 when christian wives of most of Berlin’s remaining jews protested about their husband’s detention and pending deportation. THey kept up the protest in the face of machine guns. Goebbels who was Gauleiter of Berlin backed down and they survived.

    If you see a film by Margarthe von Trotta called Rosenstrasse don’t bother, it’s not very good sadly

  18. The poor kids 😦

  19. Confess my dear – you are a Volkskundler too. Allow me some remarks, as they come to my mind.
    The “Ring” – before there was a Autobahnring (I doubt that it was completed before 1945, but may be wrong), there was a “Ringbahn” (Eng.). This may have played a role. Another possibility is the institution of the “Ringvereine”, a self-help-organisation for criminals. Often called sdimply the Ring.

    It’s a long way from the Wandervogel of pre-WWI origins to the “Wilde Cliquen” of 1930s Berlin. Except the age of the participants they may have not much in common. The Wandervögel came mostly from a bourgeoise background and were more or less filled with Romantic Sehnsucht. They went on Fahrt and were happy outside the city. The more or less organized youth gangs of the late 20s and early 30s were living outside society in an urban environment, and they were living from the city on there own – Wandervögel were no runaways or abandoned kids. The members of the wilde Cliquen came from the proletariat, and some of them were proud and politically aware, not all.
    The website you cite mentions the Monte Verita (you already covered this?) and links it to the youth movement of after WWI. The commune on MV was founded 1900 by Oedenkoven (not sure about the spelling), a very interesting man (last time I looked (sometimes in the late 90s) there still was no biography). That is Lebensreform and all that. After he left (1919?) MV fell in disrepair and later became a pretty decadent Spielwiese

    Besides the Edelweisspiraten, the wilde Cliquen and the Berlin gangs existed a musical underground, I think mostly in Hamburg. (BTW did you know that the SS had a Jazz band?) The notabel Hamburgian arrogance is no new invention.

    Interestingly it did not end after WWII – or at least the authorities believed in a kind of organised underground and reacted, see the Greußener Jungs.

    • No I didn’t previously know about the Monte Verita nor the SS Jazz Band. thanks 63.

  20. That is the most flippin’ *awesome* story, Nursie. Where *do* you find these?

    • I was poking around in Vice Magazine 😉

  21. Has lederhosen ever been popular anywhere other than Germany?

  22. It is amazing that Hitler’s arch enemy Konrad Adenauer was able to stay uncaptured through it all.

  23. They died for a great cause…be it kids or not…my older sister lived in Berlin for 9 years…sent me the gloves she held the sledge hammer with, and several bag fulls of graffiti marked concrete…along with photos of her slamming that sledge into the wall, the day they began tearing it down.

    Now for the bad news…or, depending on how one sees it.
    Solar Storm Tomorrow:

  24. Again you have exposed my lack of knowledge. I have never heard of these groups of “Yungen”. Off to do some research of my own 🙂

  25. Thank you for this fascinating post nursemyra. I mean most of your posts are pretty fascinating, but this one is extraordinarily so with all its parallels to events and movements of the present day.

  26. Good stuff Nursie, is the Savage stuff from the book Teenage? i’d love to read some more on it and wondered if it was all from that book or you had other sources.

    • I believe it’s all from his book. I wish it were published on Kindle but it’s not (yet).

  27. I hadn’t heard of this before, either.
    Everyone’s already said it, but it is fascinating… and sad.

  28. All new to me too. Very interesting that we hear all about the Nazi Youth but don’t hear about the anti-Nazi youth, even though as you say there were more of them than the Hitler Youth and they were frequently beating up the HY patrols.

  29. Amazing…almost surreal. Loved the site with the aero car on it too

  30. Thos orgies are still quite common these days 🙂

    Well that is what
    I heard anyway 😉 lol

    Androgoth Xx

  31. It was a fascinating post. And all the while I was reading it I kept thinking of Vonnegut’s “A Clockwork Orange” and wondered how much he knew about these youth gangs when he wrote it.

    • You mean Anthony Burgess? Hmmm….. I wonder too now

  32. I never thought of wandering as bondage so the word vagabondage was startling.

  33. A vagabond is a drifter and an itinerant wanderer who roams wherever they please, following the whim of the moment. Vagabonds may lack residence, a job, and even citizenship.
    Historically, Nazis regarded vagabonds as “individuals who are not socially accepted,” and forced them to wear a black triangle badge on their jackets, following a sentence on the grounds of vagabondage, “work shyness” and homelessness

    according to wikipedia

  34. Interesting. Given that coloured triangles were used to identify different types of prisoner in the Nazi concentration camps, I assume that Vagabonds must have been gassed along with Jews, homosexuals, gypsies etc.

  35. I have never heard about this form of resistance and love the name Edelweiss Pirates – that’s an early form of Agrigirl.

  36. Nobody was gassed. Please grow up. The Wandering Birds was the homosexual sub-culture that grew into the Nazis, which was a homosexual pederast cult. Read “The Pink Swastika.”

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