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Die Zeit: "The Great Head-wagging about Young People" (1956)

In the 1950s, the question of how to deal with young people became an important topic of social policy in West Germany. The so-called Halbstarke (hooligans), a term used partly in irony and partly in outrage, were enthusiastic about American popular culture and clashed with the conservative zeitgeist of the Adenauer period. Against this backdrop, the critic Walter Abendroth painted a gloomy picture of West German society in the weekly Die Zeit in 1956. For Abendroth, the excessive enthusiasm for movie and music idols, the fanaticism of the “fans,” was the expression of a perversion of religious forms, which in the secularized and self-centered postwar society were no longer tied to genuine ideals but rather served forms of superstition.

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The Great Head-wagging about Young People
The modern superstition of the movie and jazz fans

Let me begin with three news items:

In Norwalk, California, three boys, ages seven, nine, and ten, killed their father because he had grounded them for stealing (rifle cartridges). Instead of any signs of remorse, they expressed to the police merely their regret that the simultaneous attempt to kill their mother had failed. The chief motive was: the boys wanted to lead a life in keeping with their own taste . . .

In Manchester and London, the jazz film “Rock around the clock” threw young people into a tumultuous dance mania, which reached the point of the vilest excesses . . .

In Munich (and elsewhere) there are fan clubs that were formed by girls who are crazy about movies, girls who, upon joining, pledge “to see every film in which their idol has a part and to defend their star against all attacks.” The “International Maria Schell Club,” for example, complained about a press photo that showed Maria Schell together with Romy Schneider (supposedly an improper juxtaposition); while the “Romy Schneider Club” declared itself “deeply offended in its most sacred feelings” because Romy was spoofed by a cabaret comedian. . .

So much for the facts. People will say: the second, or even more the third, of these reports does not belong in the company of the first. After all, movie fan silliness and jazz fan orgies are not crimes. That is true, of course. And yet there is a “common denominator” to which these symptoms, which seem so varied, can be reduced; to which they in fact must be reduced, if the “youth problem” so widely discussed today is to be understood in its innermost nature. It cannot be stated emphatically enough and it cannot be repeated often enough that there would be no youth problem if adults did not create a problematic world for the youth!

Fanaticism – the Basic Evil of our Time

As terrible as the first report may sound, as profound as the horror it triggers may be: it, too, reveals merely the gruesome consequence of a mental attitude that is familiar to the normal person of our times (notabene: the mental attitude – not yet the consequence unburdened from all restraints). What modern person would not find it self-evident to arrange life “in keeping with one’s taste” by using all more-or-less permissible means?

However, as far as the permissibility of the means is concerned, that term is entirely changeable; and it is only a short mental path from the – widely held – notion that whatever is not explicitly forbidden is allowed, to the belief that prohibitions are put in place solely by the despotism of those in power. In other words: even the average adult of today is impeded in the radical pursuit of his interests not by the inhibitions of an unshakable moral consciousness, but solely by the laws of the state, and under the best of circumstances also by the unwritten moral code of his social class. But the person who, in the first case, is most horrified by the fact that children could have and could express such an utter lack of feelings toward their own parents, should consider the not exactly rare instances where the situation is reversed: the horrible abuses and torments committed by parents against their own children. These parents, too, are among the “elders,” among the adults who create the atmosphere of all possibilities into which the children then grow and where they make their way according to their proclivities. One must not imagine this process in such simple terms that it invariably occurs like pressure and counterpressure between equal partners, in the sense, that is, that inhuman parents have inhuman children in their wake, as a “response,” so to speak. Rather, historical logic (if one may speak of it here) functions “blindly,” as it were; it does not ask about the partners, not about personal responsibility; instead, the responsibility of the times unfolds its effect and gives birth to new guilt in the direction taken or in a natural countermovement.

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