Youth Speaks/Youth Was Silent

Youth speaks, the future. Let us listen.

– Franz Pfemfert, ‘Youth Speaks!’, Die Aktion, Vol. 3, No. 41, October 11, 1913


Youth Was Silent

Ardor [pseud. Walter Benjamin], Die AktionVol. 3, No. 42, October 18, 1913 


Dedicated to the Tägliche Rundschau

Now is the time to stand firm. We are by no means going to allow ourselves to be overcome by the fact of the Free German Youth Congress. To be sure, we experienced a new reality: two thousand up-to-date young people come together, and on High Meissner the onlooker saw a new physical youth, a new tension in the faces. For us, this is just a pledge of the spirit of youth. Excursions, ceremonial attire, folk dances are nothing new and – in the year 1913 – still nothing spiritual.

We in ourselves would rather not greet the Youth Congress with enthusiasm until the collective spirit has been as fully imbued with the will to youth as only certain individuals are today. Until then, we will continue, in the name of youth, to weigh the Youth Congress against the demands of the spirit.

The following scene occurred during the meeting of delegates on the Hanstein. A speaker concluded: “… with a salute to freedom and to German nationality!” A voice: “And to youth!” The speaker hastily corrected himself: “And to youth!”

There was worse. When the prizes for sports were being awarded, the name Isaacsohn was announced. Laughter rang out from a minority. So long as one of those who laughed has a place among the Free German Youth, it will be without nobility and youthfulness.

This Youth Congress proves it: only a few understand the meaning of the word “youth.” That from youth alone radiates new spirit, the spirit.  They still seek their feeble, rationalized  pretexts  for self-­discovery: racial hygiene or agrarian reform or abstinence [from alcohol and nicotine]. Hence the power-hungry could dare to defile the festival of youth with party jargon. Professor Dr. Keil cried out: “Raise your weapons high!” Two men came to the defense of youth: Wyneken and  Luserke, both  from  the  Free School Community.Wyneken promised to organize his forces into something like a wall around youth, vulnerable as it is to all the pressures of an election rally. For this struggle we may confidently look to the students from Wickersdorf, who in their white caps were a well-defined troop on the Meissner.

Gustav Wyneken addressing the First Free German Youth Congress (High Meissner, 1913)

Gustav Wyneken addressing the First Free German Youth Congress (High Meissner, 1913)

Youth was silent. If they shouted their hurrahs, it was more in support of the chauvinist Keil’s speech than of Wyneken’s words. It was dismaying to see them entertained by the avuncular Avenarius. That these young people tolerate jovial bonhomie is the worst of all. That they should allow every knowing, “self-possessed” wit to rob them of the sacred seriousness with which they came together. That they go along with smiling conviviality-instead of maintaining distance. This youth has not yet found the enemy, the born enemy it must hate. But who among those that assembled on High Meissner has experienced that? Where was the protest against family and school we had expected? Here no political slogan paved the way for youthful feeling. Has the way therefore remained untrodden?  Here everything was still to be done. And here should be revealed what is youthful – indignation at the parental home that dulls the mind, indignation at the school that punishes the spirit. Youth was silent. – It has not yet had the intuition before which the great age-complex breaks down. That mighty ideology: experience–maturity–reason–the good will of adults– it was not perceived at the Youth Congress and was not overthrown.

The fact of the Youth Congress remains the one thing positive. It is enough to bring us together again better prepared next year – and so for all the-years to come, until at some future Free German Youth Congress youth speaks.

[trans. Howard Eiland, Walter Benjamin: Early Writings]

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