Even today, in an era of cheap travel and constant connection, the image of young people backpacking across Europe remains seductively romantic. In Backpack Ambassadors, Richard Ivan Jobs tells the story of backpacking in Europe in its heyday, the decades after World War II, revealing that these footloose young people were doing more than just exploring for themselves. Rather, with each step, each border crossing, each friendship, they were quietly helping knit the continent together.
From the Berlin Wall to the beaches of Spain, the Spanish Steps in Rome to the Pudding Shop in Istanbul, Jobs tells the stories of backpackers whose personal desire for freedom of movement brought the people and places of Europe into ever-closer contact. As greater and greater numbers of young people trekked around the continent, and a truly international youth culture began to emerge, the result was a Europe that, even in the midst of Cold War tensions, found its people more and more connected, their lives more and more integrated. Drawing on archival work in eight countries and five languages, and featuring trenchant commentary on the relevance of this period for contemporary concerns about borders and migration, Backpack Ambassadors brilliantly recreates a movement that was far more influential and important than its footsore travelers could ever have realized.
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How Youth Travel Integrated Europe
By Richard Ivan Jobs
The University of Chicago PressCopyright © 2017 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
Youth Mobility and the Making of Europe
Odette Lesley, a young Londoner, marveled at all the people she had met from around the world during the Second World War. She found that these encounters gave her a profound desire to travel when the conflict was over, and this was something she felt she shared with others her age. "We realized that there was a very big new world out there, that we knew nothing about at all. All I knew, for instance, was my little bit of north London, where I'd been brought up; the local streets, my neighbours, and the local dance hall. But I was hearing these marvellous stories, and they opened up horizons to such an extent that I thought I might even see those places one day. I might go there. And I felt a strong sense of independence as a girl that I'd never felt before. It was so exciting, I felt anything was possible." Lesley's enthusiastic expression of liberation and autonomy tied to mobility and international travel was typical for the period and for her age, as young Europeans began to travel on an unprecedented scale in the years following the war.
Meanwhile, Anne O'Hare McCormick, the respected foreign correspondent for the New York Times, wrote in her column "Abroad" about the need for clarity in the European postwar settlement. She thought that some form of European unity was in order, which was rightly being demanded by the young in particular. What they wanted was "a large world like yours," she quoted a young Frenchman as saying, "where you can move freely across State lines and feel at home anywhere." McCormick claimed that the young envisioned a continent "not without nations ... but without customs or passports." However, this was in jeopardy, she insisted. As the Allies divided Germany and the continent into rigid zones of influence, there was a danger of young Europeans becoming part of the problem rather than the solution. "These citizens of tomorrow are no longer the material for unity, within their own country, with neighboring countries, or in the United Nations." To her mind, the internationalism of European youth, expressed through their desire for unfettered mobility, was essential to Europe's peaceful future, to the problem of Germany, and to recovery in general. If Odette Lesley expressed a youthful desire for independence and mobility to explore the world and meet new people, Anne McCormick advocated a rationale for state policies to harness this mobility to serve the purpose of stabilizing postwar Europe.
In the years following the Second World War, Western Europeans, through private and public initiatives, invested significant resources to send the young across national borders and to welcome young travelers from abroad. They did this in a variety of ways: through the establishment, expansion, and transformation of their national youth hostel networks, shifting the focus away from domestic and toward international travel; through the proliferation of international work camps where the young could labor for the reconstruction of Europe in fraternal camaraderie; and through the organization of the European Youth Campaign, aimed at uniting the continent through the abolition of border controls. In short, the young of Europe were encouraged to visit, encounter, and engage other nations and nationalities. All of these endeavors were intended to help Western Europe recover from the violent hostility of the recent past by facilitating youth mobility across national borders. Nationalist and internationalist endeavors were deeply intertwined as the young were treated as assets in the national humanitarian and reconstruction projects.
This cultural internationalism had its roots in the interwar period, was focused on reconciliation between belligerent nations, and was premised on the interpersonal interaction of the young. International hosteling, American study abroad, Franco-German youth exchanges, and pan-European federalism all originated in the 1920s and 1930s. While the vitality of internationalism in the interwar period is often overlooked, given the vehement nationalism with which it competed, it relied on transnational structures and activities of non-state actors just as its postwar successor would. As part of the 1940s postwar reconstruction in Western Europe, international gatherings of young people labored to restore and build hostels, railways, parks, and schools. As a component of this endeavor, the international travel of European youth was promoted generally, but Germany and young Germans were targeted specifically, in an attempt to integrate them into a broader European community by bringing western youth to occupied Germany, and by encouraging travel outside the occupied zones by young Germans. Indeed, in the decades after the Second World War, many young Germans, who had a somewhat troubled relationship with nationality, used travel as a means to Europeanize themselves.
Meanwhile, the young themselves began to travel in greater and greater numbers, using and shaping the development of a vast infrastructure to support their mobility. The frequency of their travels and the routes of their itineraries brought them in contact with one another through a transnational expansion of social space that was regionally limited to the western half of the continent. As organized exchange groups or as independent hitchhikers, these young travelers began to recognize themselves as a cohort with shared interests via their circuits of travel in Western Europe. Because of the informality of these social relations, they were indirect as well as largely imagined, yet they were powerful nonetheless. Thus, in the postwar period, there was a complex top-down and bottom-up process of policies and demand regarding youth mobility, which led to the emergence by the 1960s of a vast new travel culture; this, in turn, helped give shape to Western Europe as a democratic and "Europeanized" social space.
The Cultural Internationalism of Hosteling
The first youth hostel was the brainchild of Richard Schirrmann, a teacher in Altena, Westphalia, who liked to take his students on days-long rambles through the surrounding hills and forests. He envisioned the availability of overnight accommodations throughout the German countryside to facilitate hiking and exploration by the young. In 1909 he set up the first youth hostel in a school, but with support from the local Landrat, he was able to move it to the old fortified castle of Altena in 1912. Schirrmann's idea emerged in the context of an existing widespread hiking culture among young Germans, known as the Wandervögel or Zugvögel, or "migrating birds," whose shelters were often called "nests." By 1913 Schirrmann had already established eighty-three youth hostels in the hills of the northern Rhineland. While the onset of the First World War disrupted this expansion, soon thereafter momentum was restored, with much of the hostel equipment bought cheaply as army surplus. There were twelve hundred German youth hostels by 1921, and twenty-one hundred a decade later, with the number of overnights in 1931 reaching a staggering 4.2 million. In the Weimar era, the German youth hostel movement became a respected national institution, independent but enjoying the support of national and local government, providing a common meeting place for young people from a variety of backgrounds. The scope of the youth hostel membership in terms of class, gender, and region was remarkable as the association successfully managed to navigate the difficult political climate of the 1920s.
Schirrmann's original vision was limited to his own country; he had no aspirations for an international movement. Nevertheless, in the 1920s the concept began to be duplicated elsewhere, usually by young people who had visited Germany and then brought the idea back home. The first youth hostel outside Germany was founded in Zurich in 1924, with the concept spreading the next year to Basel, and then elsewhere in Switzerland. Next was Poland, where the government was particularly keen on the possibilities of hostels for nation building. Then, in quick succession, youth hostel organizations were founded across Western and Northern Europe. By 1931 they were in Denmark, Norway, the Netherlands, Belgium, Scotland, England, Wales, Ireland, and France. Each of these was a local endeavor, using the German association as a model, but taking on attributes specific to its own national context.
Indeed, in many ways the national was paramount. A Hamburg businessman funded a program to build hostels on Germany's perimeter in order to emphasize a German cultural identity on the nation's margins. The Swiss hostels were not eager to welcome foreign visitors, and discouraged them with higher fees while reserving beds for the exclusive use of Swiss youth. In Basel, the hostel's first annual report stated frankly that it intended "to ensure that youth hostels should not be overrun by foreigners." In Poland, youth hostels were a government rather than private initiative. The Polish government wanted not only to help the young appreciate the beauty and variety of their new country, but also to "awaken in them a feeling of national pride, and encourage a positive attitude towards the State." This functional use of youth travel to serve national integration was common throughout the various networks where the young were encouraged to discover and appreciate their homelands and fellow countrymen through hosteling. While bicycling around Sweden in the mid-1930s, for example, Gösta Lundquist marveled at the new patterns of contact between young workers, farmers, and students via the new Swedish hostel network; he commented in his journal that "out of this, something must grow," reflecting his sense that this was a positive development for the Swedish community because hosteling was fundamentally in tune with the egalitarian vision of social democracy. Yet here, too, the Swedish Tourist Association, which had established the hostel system with nearly three hundred hostels and more than seven thousand beds by 1939, was overtly nationalist, refusing to join the International Youth Hostel Federation (IYHF) until 1946 to avoid the required reciprocity, and strictly limiting accessibility to foreign youth in favor of native Swedes of whatever age.
The most overt nationalist politicization, unsurprisingly, was in Nazi Germany. In early 1933 the Nazis took power, and that spring they took over the German Youth Hostel Association, just as they eventually eliminated all independent youth movements by absorbing them into the compulsory Hitler Youth. The number of German youth hostels shrank by 25 percent under the Third Reich, even though they were used as places of political and militarist indoctrination for groups of "Aryan" youth. While the Nazis viewed group travel and tourism as an effective tool of nationalism, independent travel was firmly discouraged; effectively, it was considered to be vagabondage. A young Frenchman who witnessed these dramatic changes noted that in 1932, German youth hostels had already become politicized spaces for competing ideologies: "the uncommitted were few," he wrote, and "everyone had taken sides." A year later, in 1933, he found the hostels completely taken over by Nazism, with portraits of Adolf Hitler and rousing renditions of the Nazi anthem "Horst Wessel" sung by the common-room fire.
Yet throughout the 1930s, even as the Germans forfeited leadership in the hosteling movement and the tension between European nation-states escalated, efforts were made to establish a structure for an international organization. The first international conference of youth hostel associations took place in Amsterdam in 1932. The International Youth Hostel Federation was founded soon thereafter to coordinate and organize the practical problems of international travel by the young within the different national hostel networks. For example, the IYHF focused on designing and adopting a standardized pictogram sign language, arranging bilateral agreements of membership reciprocity, getting the individual networks to agree on and conform to standard policies, and helping new youth hostel associations get established. Although the internationalist impulse dates from this period, it was after 1945 that hosteling became a forceful proponent of cultural internationalism as a distinct contrast to its more national or domestic posture of the interwar period. That is, there was a fundamental ideological shift as a result of the Second World War.
At its most basic level, cultural internationalism says that a more peaceful world order can be achieved through interpersonal interactions at the sociocultural level across national boundaries. Internationalism itself dates to the late nineteenth century. In fact, internationalism and nationalism have been parallel developments, but the historical peak of internationalism arguably came after the Second World War, when nationalism was blamed as the root cause of two devastating world wars. Whereas much of the internationalism of these postwar years was legal or economic, it was also focused on the capability of ordinary individuals to promote better understanding through collaborative endeavor. Europe was the center of this sort of internationalism.
This kind of cultural internationalism had its origins in the wake of the First World War, when "Europe" became a component of national redefinition. The aftermath of the Great War led to a multitude of attempts to rebuild European relations in political, economic, social, and cultural terms. Although they diverged with national interests and competing visions, such movements deliberately developed an ideological Europeanism. Throughout the 1920s, French and German Europeanists, for example, sought to change hostile attitudes through the intercultural contact of elites engaged in transnational collaboration and networking; but in the 1940s, such efforts became more democratic and shifted to reach a much broader audience with a heightened emphasis on the young.
Under the leadership of Jack Catchpool, the IYHF would see its task in the postwar period as not simply to promote hosteling, but in doing so to rebuild Europe and serve the international community more broadly by promoting friendship and cooperation in the face of deadly chauvinist nationalism. In his 1946 presidential address to the IYHF conference, the first to take place in eight years, Catchpool proclaimed that "with the help of our organization ... bonds of friendship and understanding may do more to prevent future wars than the work of statesmen and diplomats. We must work single-mindedly to reestablish the facilities which existed before the War and to extend them enormously. ... We must encourage young people to regard a holiday abroad as their right and privilege," because "we have an apparatus in our hands which may do much to heal the wounds of our broken world."
Indeed, internationalism became the animating force undergirding the expansion of hosteling in the postwar period. A new, profoundly idealistic and egalitarian optimism governed the hostel movement and was represented publicly by the indefatigable Catchpool: "We strive to bring together the peoples of the world, so that around the common-room fire, or sharing a common meal, or wandering along the trail, they may learn to appreciate each other's viewpoint and outlook, and realize that we are a world brotherhood." In 1946, each hostel began hosting an annual "International Weekend" to give full attention to the international character of youth hosteling. As the Danish minister of education explained, "there is no age better to start with in the international field than the young and there is no better way of starting friendships between young people than the free intercourse across all frontiers and the arrangements for housing the young wanderers under a common roof." In response to the growing demand by the young for international travel, IYHF secretary Leo Meilink, a Dutchman, stated that in the new postwar order "we will all have to live in an international way."
In 1948, Catchpool implied that the internationalist impulse of hosteling was its most compelling and significant feature; indeed, it was its greatest contribution to humanity. Because of the successful efforts he witnessed in the years immediately following the war, Catchpool grew increasingly emboldened in his vision of hosteling to serve internationalism. He described hostelers as "youthful ambassadors" and speculated that in the years to come, the IYHF would be a worthy recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize. "To-day," he concluded, "all nations are inter-dependent, and to attain lasting liberty and equality, we must practise fraternity too, on an international scale." The new IYHF constitution stated plainly that its purpose was "to foster understanding and goodwill between nations, particularly by facilitating international travel." By the end of the 1950s, the cultural internationalism of hosteling was viewed as a resounding success in bringing the young of Western Europe closer together, and in turn, bringing the countries of Western Europe closer together as well.
Excerpted from Backpack Ambassadors by Richard Ivan Jobs. Copyright © 2017 The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
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Table of ContentsBackpack Ambassadors
1 Youth Mobility and the Making of Europe
2 Journeys of Reconciliation
3 Youth Movements
4 Continental Drifters
5 East of the Wall, South of the Sea
Rights of Passage Acknowledgments
Archives and Libraries Consulted