Tuesday, August 25, 2009


Eve Rosenhaft

During the Weimar Republic, popular anxieties about the state of society became focused on a field of problems in which youth, political radicalism and a general brutalisation of social and political relations were assumed to be directly linked with one another in peculiarly threatening ways. In this field were to be found both the Communist Party (Kommunistische Partei Deutschlands, KPD), the junior party of the working class, bearer of revolution and political rowdyism, and the cliques (Cliquen or Klicken), or youth gangs, of the urban centres.1 This essay examines the actual and formal relationship between the two forms of working-class organization in Berlin. The points of contact between the two are interesting because they existed on several levels: cliques and Communists met and mingled not only in the rhetoric of the popular press and conservative authorities, but also in the everyday life of sections of the working class. And Communist Party policy was calculated to hasten both these processes. The KPD adopted a style and rhetorical posture which implied that it accepted and even welcomed the role, ascribed to it by its opponents and rivals, of a party of outlaws. It also made periodic efforts to organize and recruit among the cliques. The result was a more than usually self-conscious confrontation between a proletarian culture and the expectations of the party that claimed to represent the proletariat.

The geographical territory on which Communists and cliques met was the old neighborhoods of working-class Berlin. In the 1920s Germany's capital had some 4 million inhabitants, nearly half of whom lived from industry; 41 per cent of the population at the 1925 census belonged to the manual working class.2 The largest single employer of male labor was the metal industry, including both electrotechnical and engineering firms, followed by the building trades.3 With the numerous opportunities for casual labour offered by a metropolitan area in which both manufacturing and distributive operations were prominent (one- quarter of the population depended on trade and transport for its living), Berlin's population included a higher proportion of unskilled and unspecialised labourers than were to be found in the national workforce, about 42 per cent.4 Berlin's working-class inhabitants were concentrated in the north and east of the city, with significant pockets in the centre. The pre-industrial slums of the old city,' Berlin-Mitte, were ringed by districts packed with the tenement houses built to accommodate the workers who had flooded in during the boom years after 1870: Wedding and Prenzlauer Berg to the north, Friedrichshain to the east, Neukalln, Kreuzberg and parts of Schaneberg in the southeast, Moabit and a comer of Charlottenburg in the west. In addition to having heavily or predominantly working-class populations, five of these districts - Wedding, Kreuzberg, Friedrichshain, Mitte and the district in which Moabit lay - housed disproportionate numbers of the least qualified workers." It was in these traditionally proletarian areas that the Berlin KPD had maintained its strongholds since 1919; the most solid of these were Wedding, Neukolln, Friedrichshain, Mitte and parts of Kreuzberg. Here, too, most notoriously in Neukolln, Kreuzberg and Wedding, flourished the cliques. The Communists' attitude to this shared milieu was a contradictory one. Once the cliques have been characterised, the examination of the KPD's response to them and the aspects of working- class life they represented makes it possible to draw out some of the contradictions and their implications for the practice of the Communist movement.


As it was used in the late 1920s and early 1930s, the expression 'clique' ordinarily referred to a category of unofficial hiking clubs, 'the wild hiking cliques'. They were made up of working-class adolescents, usually ii unskilled or unemployed. The image of the cliques comprehended elements of style and cultural consumption as well as behaviour, but it was their capacity for anti-social action that made them interesting and frightening to the public. They drew their sinister cast from a section of their members who had turned to a life of vagrancy or crime and from a still larger number who, without being involved habitually in economic crimes, nevertheless cultivated aggressiveness and physical violence as a function of their organizational life. During 1930 a former clique member estimated that there were 600 cliques in Berlin, 'of which perhaps ten per cent are criminal cliques, while 20 per cent are borderline, between criminal and [merely] hiking cliques. The other 70 per cent are hiking cliques." In the view of one professional youth worker, 'the very existence of a clique exercises an unhealthy influence on the youth of an area'; at worst 'they represent the first step on the road to organised crime."

We cannot be certain where the cliques came from. It is as difficult to identify a coherent reality behind their overwhelmingly negative image as it is to describe the phenomenon of the cliques without reference to it. The spontaneous and unofficial nature of their organisation meant both that they were a priori suspect in the eyes of the authorities and that their internal working are not well documented; it also fixes them in a very much wider range of more conventional, relatively 'harmless' smoking, savings and social clubs, organised by young people in their own neighbourhoods, with which the cliques certainly merged at many points.8 The history of the cliques is the history of the stages by which sections of this unofficial youth movement came to be associated in the public mind with a certain style and the resulting image became a focus for anxieties about the potential, both criminal and political, of working-class youth. The antecedents of this development lie in the events of the first two decades of the twentieth century: the identification of youth as a social issue and the growth of self-conscious and relatively autonomous 'official' youth movements from about the turn of the century, followed by the radical disruption of social norms and expectations during the years of war and revolution. At the height of their notoriety the cliques represented both a degenerate parody of the former and a terrible nemesis of the latter.

It has become a commonplace of the historiography of modern Germany that the years around 1900 witnessed a new concern with youth and its problems on the part of the bourgeoisie, the 'discovery of the adolescent'.9 That this phenomenon is still most commonly approached by way of discussions of the activities and attitudes of young people themselves is very largely a consequence of the successes of the Wandervogel (or wander-bird).10 Perhaps the most remarkable example in modern history of a coherent movement both initiated and led by young people, the Wandervogel was essentially middle-class in character and composition. It originated among students and progressive teachers at a Berlin secondary school between 1896 and 1900, and by 1913 had become a national movement with a bureaucracy of its own and an extensive literary output. The small groups of secondary-school students which made up the movement were regarded by its theorists as providing the ideal milieu for the development of the spirit and faculties of the adolescent striving towards maturity and social leadership. Outward and visible sign of this striving was the practice of wandering or hiking in the countryside, a familiar form of recreation to which the earliest groups gave a new and special character by wearing romantic clothing and accompanying themselves on guitars and mandolins. Wandervogel became a catchword for the whole of the German youth movement, and provided an impulse for the creation, before the First World War, of groups like the government-sponsored and militaristic Young Germany League and the German section of the Boy Scout movement.

The numerical and cultural significance of the Wandervogel has prompted historians to concentrate on relations within the educated middle classes when discussing the problematisation of youth at the turn of the century. In this context, the problem of youth' was defined as the problems that the bourgeois adolescent suffered. But the identification of the middle-class adolescent coincided with new approaches to working-class youth as well, and in these young people appear as a source of problems for society rather than their victims. During the first years of the century campaigns were initiated to create new regulations and institutions for the control of the young and their protection from undesirable influences of all kinds. In Prussia, restrictions on working hours were accompanied by measures to limit the sale of alcoholic drinks to miners." Concern for the moral health of young people was also expressed in a wave of intensive lobbying and literary polemic against Schundliteratur, the penny-dreadfuls and adventure serials bought by schoolchildren in their hundreds, which were blamed not only for the 'systematic stultification' of youth, but also for a series of crimes, many of the most serious kind'.12

In a period when the youthful work-force had increased rapidly while its working conditions deteriorated, and where there was an active and growing Social Democratic movement, the principal fear of German officialdom was the political radicalisation of the young. When this fear was realised, with the launching of the Social Democratic youth movement in 1905, the government responded with both overtly repressive and nominally welfare-oriented measures. The Imperial Law of Association of 1908 prohibited the political activity or organisation of youths under 18, while a ministerial decree of 1911 declared active care for the social needs of youth 'a national duty of the first order', its aim 'the formation of a cheerful, physically productive, morally sound youth filled with public spirit and piety, love of home and fatherland'. At the same time the Prussian government made its first substantial grant of funds to the newly consolidated, non-socialist private foundations for youth welfare.13

All of these developments continued under the Republic, receiving a new impetus from the conditions of war and revolution. In the critical years 1914-19 it was unequivocally the circumstances of proletarian youth that were at issue. As the boom in munitions production for the war effort coincided with the absence of much of the adult male population at the front, there emerged the spectre of an unsupervised economy entirely peopled by youths. The streets of Berlin, it was said, were made unsafe by scores of teenaged lorry-drivers and cabbies.14 Too many young people had too much money to burn, and the fear that they would spend it on drink and debauchery led to the introduction of compulsory savings plans for minors by the military authorities. The possibilities of maintaining such plans in peacetime, along with more conventional measures like curfews and restrictions on alcohol and tobacco consumption, were widely discussed, though ultimately rejected." And where 'artificially' stimulated appetites came up against the shortages that Germany's cities suffered during the last two years of the war, observers began to complain of an increase in the incidence of juvenile crime.'" Germany's collapse in 1918, finally, threatened the structure of authority in this as in other spheres. The Versailles Treaty, by bringing the tradition of the conscript army to an end, removed one of the most effective means of socialisation and control of lowerclass youth. The revolution and the Spartacist uprisings of 1919, in which the threat of Bolshevism was not only raised but institutionalised in the formation of a German Communist Party, fulfilled every conservative anxiety about radicalisation and social degeneracy. By the end of that year, even the Social Democratic daily newspaper, Vorwarts, could treat the interrelationship of debased consumer culture, inadequate moral sense and radical politics as a given:

Many an irresponsible youth who recently took part in [the Spartacist uprising] drew his enthusiasm for violence from the murky dregs of bloody penny-dreadfuls. Not the Communist Manifesto, but the nameless Schundliteratur prepared the ground for this sprouting of political fantasies.17

The Social Democrats who presided over the creation of the new Republic also assumed responsibility for transforming the 'social imperialist' police state of the Bismarckian Empire into a genuine social state in which the interests of the working class would be protected and its conditions of life improved. But their own ambivalence and the continuing strength of social conservatism in parliament and the country were such that the institutions that arose out of this initiative were distorted in conception and practice by a compromise between the purposes of social service and of control. The first five years of the Republic saw the creation and consolidation at the national level of a machinery of youth welfare and juvenile justice through which young people were accorded a special legal and institutional status, while the parties and pressure-groups of the political right continued to press for such measures as censorship and the creation of alternatives to military service.18


This was the context in which the 'dark side' of the youth movement became visible. Although the pre-war years had seen reports of thefts by gang of youths, the word 'clique' itself, used to denote a criminal gang, appears to have found its way into the jargon of the Berlin under- world only after 1918.'9 The earliest use of it in the sources on which the present study is based comes from 1923; only in early 1929 does it begin to be used routinely by clique members, police, social scientists and press alike. The same sources concur in reading the development of the cliques back into phenomena of the war and early post-war years. The hiking aspect of the movement, in particular, is reminiscent of the Wandervogel, and one reporter maintained that their less respectable counterparts, popularly dubbed "Wander-boors' (Wandervogel), had already appeared on the Berlin scene by 1916.26 Their tumultuous appearance at suburban railway stations, conspicuously kitted out with beer and Schnaps bottles, nurtured anxieties about the effects of a war which left lower-class youth overpaid and undersupervised, and contributed to the image of a catastrophic brutalisation of urban youth. The amnesty decrees of 1918, prescribing exceptionally mild treatment for juveniles convicted of certain noneconomic crimes, were criticised on the grounds that, among other thing, they were sure to encourage the criminality of organised youth gangs.2l

By 1923 what Vorwarts called 'that hiking movement whose ranks are filled with the dual morality of today's culture, whose members were exposed to the influence of the low instincts fostered in wartime'22 was an explicit object of concern to the official youth movements of both left and right. Now known as 'Wander-boors', 'Wander-crows' (Wanderkrahen), or simply 'the wild ones', they not only gave hikers-in general a bad name by refusing to use the hostels and permitted camp- sites, drinking and littering the forests, but also behaved in an offensive and sometimes threatening manner to others whom they met during their outings.23 On 25 August 1923 about 30 youths marched to the Silesian Station in Friedrichshain, 'singing and playing the mandolin'. When a policeman told them to get off of the pavement and into the road, they reportedly fell upon him and beat him with knuckle-dusters until two more groups of officers were summoned and-used their revolvers to drive the youths off.24 This is one of the earliest reports in which a particular element of the visual image of the cliques appears: the youths were carrying a yellow flag with a black hand stenciled on it.

Like the war years, the inflation year 1923 was marked by heightened social and economic distress, bringing with it a plague of crimes against property and a new wave of concern for the moral health of city youth: As prices outstripped wages and the urban population suffered from shortages of vital commodities, Berlin's mayor sketched the situation of the young:

Children are often urged or forced by their parents to beg or even steal - hawking, rubbish-picking. . .by children - decline in honesty - increase in greed - currency speculation frequent among children - increasing alcoholism among youths - loss of parental authority - increasing degeneration of morals.25

The conclusion of all this was not far to seek. Referring to the most notorious of Europe's criminal subcultures, the columnist of the liberal daily newspaper Berliner Tageblatt warned:

They say that the Apaches of Paris. . .were descended from the youth that went to the bad during the war of 1871. Considering the length and privations of the last war and the state of war that prevails even in peacetime, we could get a species of Apaches in Berlin that would make the Parisian ones pale by comparison.26

The same newspaper columns that complained of the Wander-boors' now regularly carried reports of the criminal activities of juvenile gangs. Unlike the anonymous bands of Wilhelmine Berlin, but like the cliques as described a few years later, some of the gang of 1923 and 1924 reportedly had names: Association of Bloodhounds of Reinickendorf, May-Column, Noble-Guild of Moabit.27

After an apparent lull in gang activity in the mid-twenties, the years 1927 and 1928 were identified by many observers, most notably by sources close to the police and public administration, as the hey-day of the cliques.28 The question that presents itself here is whether this new perception reflects changes within the unofficial youth movement itself or shifts in police and administrative practice that made the cliques visible. The impact of the recession that set in the autumn of 1925 was such that the answer probably lies in a combination of the two. In the 'urging crisis' that followed the collapse of the inflationary boom of 1923, hundreds of German businesses were liquidated. Between February 1925 and the end of the following year the number of registered unemployed in Berlin doubled three times. Of the more than 112,000 working men in the city who were registered as out of work in the summer of 1926, nearly 15,000 were under 21, a figure which represented something over 15 per cent of working-class males aged 14 to 21. This first shudder of stabilization presented itself, at the time and in retrospect, as a crisis for the young in particular, for juveniles never again formed such a large contingent of Berlin's unemployed.29

Where social analysts recognised 'the first signs of the formation of a stratum of chronically unemployed',30 moreover, they were looking not only at the catastrophic unemployment of 1925-6, but also at the shape of the labour market that survived the crisis.31 The German economy was carried into its brief phase of prosperity on a wave of industrial rationalisation whose earliest and most active proponents included Berlin's largest employers, engineering and electrotechnical manufacturing. The effect of this process was both to compound the contraction that had already taken place between 1923 and 1925 and to make the t employment situation of young workers in industry less stable. Mechanization reduced the demand for skilled labour to a minimum that could be supplied by experienced workers, and at the same time eliminated large numbers of unskilled ancillary tasks. The number of apprenticeships available to ambitious youths shrank, and while trained, half-trained and unskilled young people could now compete for the semi-skilled jobs created by the machines on an equal basis (and often with greater chances of success than older workers), they became equally subject to the intensified fluctuations in size of work-force of plants newly responsive to changes in demand.

For many of the young people themselves, then, the recession meant poverty and the enforced leisure of catastrophic unemployment, to be succeeded by a career in which low-paid work alternated with idleness. In response to this situation there arose a set of new institutions, official and unofficial, that provided the means of surveillance as well as social service. During the winter of 1926-7 it was reported that a number of taverns had opened up in the vicinity of one of the central labour exchanges, which specialized in offering credit to young vagrants and runaways from the reform-school system. Identity- and work-papers or valuables were required as security. By thus drawing young people into a cycle of unemployment, indebtedness and crime, these taverns were held to have contributed to the regeneration of the cliques."' At about the same time, the Berlin youth bureaus began to. establish day centres for unemployed youths. By late 1927 the cliques had been identified by the youth workers as a particularly disruptive element within the centres," and when the day centres were threatened by cuts in public expenditure during 1931, this very function was cited in their defense; they were described as

the only official institution which has so far succeeded in getting close to members of the cliques, to which, indeed, we owe any deeper understanding of [their] shadowy nature... the only tried and proven method of influencing cliques and above all would-be clique members.34

In these years, too, the press played a part in reflecting and shaping changes. During 1927 the incidence of brawling and stabbings among Young people was reported to have increased, and newspaper readers began to learn of youths assaulting passers-by 'for fun', or without apparent motive.35 The year 1928 brought the first reports in which all the elements of the clique image appear and the first generally reported trial of members of a clique.36 In early 1929, when a second such trial took place - this time involving members of what looked like a federation of cliques - the groups were already being described as 'criminal societies', in explicit analogy to the organised 'ring' of the Berlin underworld; these were very much in the news as a result of a spectacular brawl the preceding Christmas.37 There are indications that the police thought they had got the cliques under control after 1928,38 but the depression that set in at the end of 1929, throwing more than 600,000 Berliners out of work in three years and ushering in the Republic's last and most fatal period of distress and disruption, aroused fresh anxieties about juvenile delinquency. In 1931 the correspondent of the left-liberal weekly, Die Weltbuhne, summing up a new wave of publicity in the gutter press, characterized the cliques as 'a phantom, impossible to grasp or to unmask', lurking in the background of all criminal prosecutions of juveniles in Berlin.39


All we know of the reality of the cliques marks them as a product of the culture of the lower-paid working class.40 Estimates of the actual numbers involved in the cliques varied widely; figures of from 100 to. 600 individual groups, with memberships of between 10 and 100 were proposed during the 1930s. Although numbers as high as 30,000 were mentioned, a cautious guess would suggest that something under 10,000 youths were involved at any one time. This represents roughly 7 per cent of Berlin's male working-class population between 14 and 25 years of age, still only a fraction of the total numbers of unskilled or unemployed youths who were known to supply most of the cliques' recruits. In their structure, though, the cliques were none the less typical of a particular and familiar working-class milieu, one in which home life played a limited and precarious part. If new values of domesticity had begun to penetrate the working class during these years, the minimum precondition for their realization was the family's ability to escape the overcrowded conditions that were still the norm in the old working- class neighborhoods. For workers with neither regular incomes nor contacts in the trade union and so-operative organizations that sponsored many of the new, suburban housing projects, the street remained the principal locus of sociability and socialization, the peer group their chief vehicle.' The character and activities of the cliques reflected, often in exaggerated form, the circumstances and values of that section of the working class whose best expectation was a life of physical labour for uncertain return.

Aggressive masculinity was an important element in that character. The sexual composition of the cliques varied; there existed a handful of girls' cliques, as well as a few mixed ones. But a certain male exclusiveness formed part of the image of the most dreaded gangs. The former clique member cited above reported that the female groups had been formed in reaction to efforts to purge the cliques of girls. He interpreted this as primarily a hygienic measure: many members suffered from venereal diseases, a circumstance that reflected the emphasis on the erotic which was one of the most worrying aspects of clique life. Even the all- male groups were ordinarily accompanied on their adventures by one or two 'clique-darlings', whose responsibilities reportedly included looking after the sexual needs' of the boys. One 16-year-old outlined the activities of his group in these words:

We go through the streets and look for girls to take along on our hikes. I am in the hiking clique Storm-proof... At Easter I go with four other clique-boys to Kloster Chorin [a tourist spot about 35 miles from Berlin]. I want to quit the clique, because they whore around too much with girls.42

The programmatic rejection of female company was expressed in such clique names as Girl-Shy and Girl-Haters.

The names which, as has already been suggested, were intrinsic to the public image of the cliques, also offer an insight into their cultural roots. Many of them were taken from the world of the penny-dreadfuls with which, it was said, their club-rooms were crammed. From the same source came many of the nicknames by which the members knew each other and the models for their grotesque rituals and collective adventures. At the same time, the particular names that the groups selected for themselves reflect their own self-image and aspects of their activity. Alpine-Glow and Heath-Flower, for example, refer directly to the romance of the Wandervogel movement which the cliques imitated and caricatured. The principal aim and central experience of life in the 'classic' clique was the weekly camping trip.

The extent to which the Wandervogel element in clique life represented an adaptation of cultural forms that were familiar to all classes in German society is suggested by the value that members placed on having the costumes, emblems and club flag that fitted the traditional image of a hiker or scout. But the form was one that was suited to many con- tents and contexts; it had its own utility for proletarian children. For young workers with limited free time, hiking provided physical recreation and escape from cramped housing conditions; in Berlin, with its extensive parks, lakes and outlying villages accessible by public transport, the flight to the country was a traditional leisure activity of the lower classes." For unemployed youths the cohesiveness and mobility fostered by the experience of camping could provide the basis for a new moral and material way of life. Further aims of the cliques, as perceived by the authorities, included mutual support, a common front against the representatives of the youth bureau, the reform-school system-and the police, or, in the case of truly vagrant gangs, co-operation in the daily search for food and shelter.

No single group necessarily pursued all of these aims at any given time; rather, the cliques provided a context in which problems and challenges could be dealt with collectively as they arose. When and how they arose was largely out of the hands of the clique members them- selves, although a working-class boy might well have known what to expect by the time he was 16 or 17. This is one reason why it is practically impossible to categorize the cliques; the attempt of the former clique member to distinguish amongst essentially harmless, border-line and criminal groups is as naive as the conclusion of criminologists and youth workers that the cliques, however they started out, had an innate tendency to degenerate into the hooligan clubs familiar to the courts. What seems most likely' is that the functions of the clique changed as the circumstances of its members changed. Although one' source speaks of a high rate of membership fluctuation within the cliques, there are examples of groups nominally existing for three to five years with some stability of membership.44 This was a long time in the conditions of the Weimar Republic, and the members of a clique might go through several cycles of work and unemployment. The peculiar liability of their social situation was compounded by the fact that if they were known to have engaged in pilferage or other offenses, young labourers were more likely to be both dismissed and reported to the police than apprentices and skilled workers guilty of the same crimes.45 Finally, it was largely a matter of luck whether any group of youths spending a good deal of time in the open air could avoid coming into conflict with the police.

One aspect of clique life that increased the chances of such conflict was the high value that clique members placed on toughness in word and deed. This was related to the aggressive masculinity characteristic of workers whose livelihood traditionally depended on the exercise of physical strength. It was reflected in some of the clique names: Farmers' Fear, Red-Apaches, Bloody Bone, Sing-Sing, Death-Defiers. The gang was led by a youth known as the 'clique-bull', often its founder. In order to maintain his position he had constantly to prove his ability to keep the group together, to hold his own in a fight, and to work out successful schemes for realizing the aims of the clique and defending the interests of its members. The authority of the Bull' was such that his arrest could mean the dissolution of the group. Toughness was also an important qualification for rank-and-file membership; some cliques reportedly required that new members undertake some act of petty theft or vandalism as a test of aptitude and good faith. 'The regulations of the cliques are usually of a lapidary brevity: The member must always pay for his round..., he must defend an attacked or insulted comrade under all circumstances, he must never "rat".'46

The corollary to absolute solidarity within the clique was an aggressive posture towards outsiders. On outing they would attack or ambush official hiking and scouting groups, seizing their badges or pennants as trophies. Individual hikers, too, were sometimes assaulted. Outsiders spoke of a 'continuous state of war' between the cliques, observing that the landlord who played host to two rival panes on the same evening could expect to have his tavern demolished in the ensuing battle. Press reports suggest a somewhat more complicated picture." If there was a state of war between them, it was one tempered by tactical alliances and diplomatic maneuvers, in which violence was either a ritualized form of self-representation and mutual entertainment or the ultimate sanction for some actual insult or offense against the code of mutual solidarity. When used against outsiders on a sufficiently large scale to be reported in the newspapers, physical violence most often appears as a means of enforcing the right of the clique to some form of entertainment - where fighting itself or the aggressively maintained freedom to intrude on other people's amusements could be construed as entertainment. The most common targets seem to have been landlords who refused to serve ill-dressed or disorderly youths and interfering police officers. In either case, the lines were clearly drawn: two fighting gangs might turn on the officer trying to separate them or - as occurred in the 'North-Ring' case of 1928 - an alliance of cliques might organize a punitive expedition against a tavern where some of their members had been refused service.

The characteristic offenses of the cliques in periods of relative prosperity were thus disturbing the peace, damage to property, assault, robbery and petty larceny, occasionally the theft of a car or a motorcycle for a joy-ride. Even during the depression, when many of them must have been tempted to engage in serious crimes, few achieved the notoriety of Egg-Slime, a Schoneberg clique whose members undertook some 16 motorized robberies during 1931 and 1932, ending with an attack on a wages transport that cost the life of a guard." In spite of popular fears, the cliques also remained largely independent of the structures of organised crime in Berlin, although many of their members clearly aspired to and some succeeded in gaining entree into the influential circles of the underworld.49

The case of Tartar's Blood, which was widely reported in 1928, contains all the elements of the typical clique style. In February of that year 18 members of this gang, unemployed youths from Neukolln, attacked a group from the Academic Athletic Club of Berlin in one of the city's parks. They searched them and carried off their club badges as well as all their money and provisions. When the police caught up with them, the members of the clique were found to be carrying knuckle- dusters, knives and other dangerous instruments - and their banner: red, with a white border and rising golden sun, inscribed W.C. Tartarenblut. According to the report in Vonwarts, the youths were dressed 'in Tyrolean style', with knee-socks, black 'Fascist jackets', open shirts and feathered hats. At the end of a short trial the following December several members of Tartar's Blood received commuted prison sentences. In January 1929 members of the clique were again convicted and again released for their part in the North-Ring affair. Finally, in 1929, the 'bull' himself was sentenced to serve a prison term for brawling, and the clique broke up.50

As long as the clique maintained the hiking tradition - and, again, their capacity to do so was a matter as much of economics as of inclination - their geographical horizons extended beyond the city and into the suburbs. At the same time they were always closely identified with their home districts and neighborhoods. Attachment to the immediate residential area is, of course, a characteristic of young children, and many of the cliques probably had their origins in friendships formed on the block or in school.51 A series of thefts at a Neukolln primary school in 1931 led to the discovery 'that a group of friends in the Pannierstrasse has formed a street-clique, which gets up to no good during their free time. Pupils from all the neighboring schools belong to the clique, even those of differing [confessional] orientation.'"' This says at least as much about the expectations of the educational authorities as about the actual origins of adolescent gang. The question of whether Germany was witnessing the development of child gangs comparable to the besprisomyi of famine-stricken Russia was widely mooted during the depression,53 and while expert opinion remained dubious, it was only too easy to read the clique phenomenon into the associations formed among children. But the structure and demands of the school system were as much a part of the everyday life out of which the cliques developed as the tenements and courtyards of working-class Berlin. The child's allegiance to the neighbourhood was not weakened by the existence of local schools, although in the Neukolln case the ties of friendship and locality were explicitly seen to cross institutional boundaries. At the same time children living in a notoriously depressed area were assumed to be especially susceptible to the temptation to unsocial behavior. And in practice the exercise of sanctions against what looked like the beginnings of criminality (in the case of this relatively liberal school, the transfer of the ringleaders to another school with a note on their records) might actually promote the transformation from 'group of friends' into 'clique' by setting in motion a process of criminalisation in which the individual child's self-image as well as his life chances were affected.54

The element of territoriality in the life and attitudes of the cliques was reinforced by their choice of meeting-places. That choice generally fell within the range of options offered by the traditional forms of working-class entertainment, which were small-scale, relatively cheap and easily accessible within the local neighborhood. The most common meeting-place for a clique, as for any other local association, was the tavern. Gang members met regularly in the same one, either in the bar or, if they had enough money or were on good terms with the landlord, in the clubroom at the rear. If they could not afford to spend much time in the tavern, if there was no landlord willing to harbor them, or if they preferred other forms of amusement, a nearby park, dance-hall or Rummelplatz might provide an alternative hang-out. Thus we read not only about hiking cliques and street cliques, but occasionally about Rummel-, dance-, or park-cliques. Among these unofficial institutions, the Rummelplatze in particular were popularly associated with the genesis and nurturing of juvenile delinquency. These were a kind of small traveling carnival, offering freak-shows, wrestling matches, erotic displays, shooting-ranges and other amusements, which were set up on areas of waste land in the city. Even before the First World War, the Rummel was an acknowledged and deplored future of the old working- class districts of Berlin.55 In its association with the cliques we may identify again a link between the youth gangs and that section of the working class which was relatively backward in terms of the new styles of life and forms of consumption available to better qualified or more secure workers.

'A few cliques', one observer reported in 1930, 'dominate and terrorise whole streets and districts.'6 This may serve to underline both the territoriality of the cliques and their aggressiveness, but it takes us a step further, since it implies a closer and more self-conscious link between the clique and the neighborhood than mere proximity. Like the structure of the clique itself, both the sense of locality and the capacity and readiness to practice physical violence within it were more than simply aspects of style or inherited values. As ways of organizing and exercising power, they could be applied instrumentally to the pursuit of material aims as the need arose. At the most crudely economic level, the clique that supported itself from 'street crime' depended on violence or its threat both in carrying out its attacks and in defending its 'hunting- ground' against rival gang. The early 1920s provide an example of this sort of conflict developing between a gang of youths (the May Column) that persisted in harassing local landlords and shopkeepers, and the underworld ring which was operating a protection racket in the same area - with unpleasant consequences for the youths.57 In a less unambiguously exploitative relationship, a familiar neighborhood could provide cover and support for the gang living by its wits. A clique in the north-east of the city, which called itself at first Death-Defiers and later Gypsy Love, was able to keep its hiding place a secret, avoiding arrest and supporting itself by begging and stealing for a considerable length of time, because its members knew the area and were aided by local residents.58

In principle, the cliques were also available for the enforcement of other people's material interests or of collective values particular to the neighborhood. The forms of enforcement that organized gangs of toughs had to offer became more important as the waves of economic dislocation that characterized the Weimar years both intensified the struggle for material survival and diminished the possibilities for the economic or financial mediation of power relations within neighbourhoods.59 The degree to which the cliques were actually engaged in local networks of power and control must remain an open question, but it needs to be raised, for it is directly relevant to the efforts that were made to involve them in the contest for public and supra-local influence - that is, to politicize them.


By the 1930s, the assumption that at least some of the cliques had identifiable political sympathies was as common as the general rhetorical association between political radicalism and the rising crime rate. The Berlin police characterized the Neukolln cliques as 'Communist oriented', and Vorwarts showed considerable interest in the question of whether the lads of Tartar's Blood were Communists in disguise or simply had left-radical leaning." The best informed of contemporary writers estimated in 1930 that while approximately 71 per cent of non-criminal cliques were apolitical, 21 per cent had left-wing and 7 per cent right-wing sympathies - where left-wing ordinarily meant Communist, right-wing radical nationalist or racist.61

The coalescence of criminal and party youth groups was made a matter of general concern by the combined spectacle of widespread politicization of youth and the rise in the incidence of political violence during the twenties and early thirties. By the end of the First World War, the idealistically apolitical impulse of the Wandervogel had dissipated. Many of its older members became professional social workers, and the bourgeois youth movement collapsed into a welter of organizations more or less militarist and nationalist in character.62 At the same time, the political parties and associations of the Weimar Republic began to make specific appeals to young people. To the Social Democratic youth were added the Bismarck Youth of the conservative German National People's Party, the youth arm of the right-wing veterans' organization Stahlhelm, the Communist Youth, the National Socialists' Hitler Youth, and others. The most radical parties of right and left, Communists and Nazis, even set out openly to organize schoolchildren.63 Young people were also among the most avid recruits to the paramilitary organizations that the parties created during the course of the Weimar Republic, chief among which were the mainly Social Democratic Reichsbanner, Stahlhelm, the Red Front-Fighters' League (Roter Frontkampferbund, RFB) of the Communists and the Nazi Stormtroops (Sturmabteilung, SA).64 These developed out of the insurrectionary troops and vigilante organizations formed between 1918 and 1923, when Germany was in a state of simmering civil war. In the period of relative stability that followed, they became the bearers of a substantially new form of political gang-fighting. During the late twenties, every major political campaign was punctuated by mutual disruptions of meetings or demonstrations and street-corner brawls. The onset of the depression was accompanied by a surge in activity of and popular support for the radical parties, chief beneficiary of which was the Nazi Party; in the general elections of September 1930, the National Socialists won over 6 million votes, their Reichstag delegation increasing from a handful of seats to being the second strongest in the house. This gave fresh impetus to a spiraling 'battle for the streets' in proletarian neighborhoods; as the SA attempted to establish itself in the strongholds of the Communists, knives and guns were brought into the conflict as well as fists. Between May 1930 and November 1931, 29 people died in Berlin as a result of what had become largely a three-way fight between Nazis, Communists and police."" The pattern of arrests and convictions in Berlin during these years suggested that 'the outrages with which the newspapers of every political coloring are filled' were the peculiar province of young men, especially 18- to 21-year-olds.66

Given this development, it was natural that observers should seek links between radical politics and the traditional bearers of youthful violence, drawing parallels between 'awakening' and 'delinquent youth'.67 For the combatant parties themselves, whose credibility depended on their displaying an active and effective response to the threat of violence that each claimed the other posed, the advantages of mobilizing the energies of the cliques in their own cause must have been apparent. Such instrumental considerations played an important part in the attitude of the KPD; The interest of the political left in the unofficial youth movement had a fairly long history. Before the war the Social Democratic press had warned its readers about the dangers of the wild youth clubs whose members allowed themselves to be lured into a life of senseless consumption - 'swilling and "loving" ' - urging them not simply to avoid such excesses but to confront and combat the clubs on their own ground.68 Vorwarts showed a similar attitude of distanced sympathy combined with reforming zeal in discussing the 'Wander-boors' a decade later, and in 1931 Adolf Lau published an article in its columns, countering the claims in the bourgeois press that the cliques as such were identical with criminal gangs. He argued that the cliques, whatever their faults, fulfilled important functions in promoting cohesion and co-operation among working-class young people and outlined the role that Social Democrats had played in trying to educate and organize them.69 All the evidence suggests that in Social Democratic activities the functions of education and moral leadership were deliberately and effectively distinguished from those of political agitation and practical advocacy. During the late 1920s and early 1930s the SPD press displayed an anxiety about the politicization of young people very much in keeping with the temper of bourgeois 'public opinion'." The Communists showed themselves on the whole less eager and less able to keep their distance. Their attitude was never articulated in programmatic terms, but took the more active form of direct approaches to the cliques.

Those approaches formed a very minor aspect of the agitation of the KPD during the Weimar Republic. They are interesting, however, because they illustrate in a particularly vivid way some important contradictions in the party's understanding of its constituency. The cliques represented a proletarian reality with which the Communist movement engaged most vigorously in practice, but which it was unable to comprehend within the understanding of the working class that legitimated its existence.

At one level, the cliques and the Communists could hardly have kept apart. With a party membership that fluctuated between a low of 11,000 (in 1927) and a high of over 30,000 (in 1923), and several thousand more organized into its auxiliary formations like the RFB, the KPD was a highly visible and active presence on the streets of Berlin.71 It claimed as its strongholds the very neighbourhoods in which the cliques were at home, and the milieu of the cliques was reflected in its social composition. By comparison with the population at large and with the SPD, the KPD's membership normally included high proportions of manual and unskilled workers, of men, of younger (though not of the youngest) people, and of the unemployed. These groups were still more clearly over-represented in the party's militant auxiliaries, and with the swelling of the KPD's ranks in the course of the depression (the Berlin membership nearly doubled between 1929 and 1932) the bias towards the young and unemployed became overwhelming.72

The interplay of social conditions and political interests in the constitution of the cliques also gave them an affinity with the Communist Party. The cliques existed as such in the realm of everyday life outside the workplace; they appear to us as a product not only of relative poverty, but of the quality of housing that poverty implied, the neighborhoods in which such housing was to be found and the expectations that the authorities and the press expressed about the behavior of young people living in those neighborhoods. The same general structural conditions applied to Communist residents of the same areas. Among the most important of these was the presence of the state and its direct intervention in daily life. This was more obvious in the neighborhood than at the workplace. Moreover, the attentions of the police or of a system of public welfare which was complicated, under-financed and increasingly punitive in its administration were most likely to be experienced as intrusive or constraining by the least affluent workers. In the late 1920s it was the new state agencies that helped to make the cliques visible and to define them as a fit object of both service and control; in turn, the cliques were portrayed as organizing in opposition to the police and the reform-school system. This represents the 'objectively' political component of the cliques, and it is entirely congruent with the practical concerns of the KPD. The KPD was an avowedly insurrectionary party, whose raison d'etre consisted in providing a revolutionary alternative to Social Democracy As such, it adopted a policy of opposition to the Weimar state, not excepting those welfare measures for which the Social Democrats took responsibility and which, in Prussia and Berlin, Social Democratic officials often administered. An important aspect of Communist activity was neighborhood-based agitation around such institutions as the police, the welfare bureaus and labour exchanges and the schools, involving both direct action - demonstrations or, in the case of the police, the advocacy of physical resistance - and repeated demands for such radical reforms of the system as workers' control.73

In terms both of who they were and what they represented, then, the cliques were characteristic of the KPD's own constituency in the big cities, embodying in distilled form the section of the working class whose immediate grievances were most clearly and vigorously articulated by the Communist Party. But the Communists did not recognize them as such. In spite of their flexibility in practice, the idea of class struggle that the Communists represented had no room in it for specific interests shared by members of the working class but determined by relationships outside the workplace, the sphere of direct confrontation between labour and capital. This reflected an understanding of the working class and its relationship to the party that was problematic in both theory and practice: in keeping with its leading role in-the International founded by Lenin, the KPD defined itself not simply as the vanguard of the working class and leader in the class struggle, but as the embodiment of the class-conscious proletariat. As an axiom, this self-definition implied a denial of the possibility of any legitimate working-class politics outside the party. As a programmatic statement, it directed the Communists to organize the workers within the factories, since these were seen as both the foci of class conflict and the principal power bases in the capitalist system. The 'proper' constituency of the KPD, then, was made up of those workers who experienced their collective interest and their collective strength at the point of production. In fact, Social Democracy and the Free trade unions retained the allegiance of the great majority of organized workers; after 1924 the Communists found it very difficult to operate within the factories and were often compel- led to seek recruits outside the ranks of the organized and employed working class. In its efforts to mobilize various sections of the population, the KPD showed considerable sensitivity to the concerns of specific interest groups; its unemployed agitation and its participation in campaigns against the abortion law are cases in point. But when the movement approached the worker outside the workplace, or the child of workers who had never known a workplace, it always did so with some suspicion.74


The pattern of official Communist approaches to the cliques indicates that when the party leadership thought about the gangs it saw them as possible allies rather than as members of its own constituency. Those approaches were undertaken during the most openly radical phases of party activity. They coincided with deliberate efforts of the Communists to distance themselves from Social Democracy and to extend their influence to sections of the lower and working classes which they construed as being outside the revolutionary vanguard' embodied by the party. Moreover, the appeal to the cliques was sounded at times when the party recognized a danger that young people would be drawn into right-wing movements, and it always accompanied the call for physical resistance to 'Fascism' in its current avatar, through which the workers were to be steeled and schooled for the insurrection.

The earliest of those occasions was in the spring of 1923. The national crisis precipitated by the French occupation of the Ruhr and runaway inflation led the KPD to organize widespread mass protests, to issue loud and frequent warnings about the dangers of an Italian-style Fascist movement engulfing Germany, and finally to begin preparations for a workers' revolution." In this situation, members of the Communist Youth in Berlin reportedly conceived the idea of organizing their own umbrella organization for the cliques which were so much in the news.76 The organization was called the Red Hiking Ring (Rotor Wanderring, RWR), and it issued a paper under the title Der Rote Wanderer (The Red Hiker). The first number of the paper carried an appeal headed: 'Degenerate youth! Guttersnipes! Pimps! Bums! Thieves! Plunderers!' Its authors did not offer a judgment on the accuracy of these epithets, beyond expressing contempt for the bourgeois press that applied them to the cliques and its 'gibbering about the alleged "moral degeneration" of youth'. They emphasized that Vorwarts had joined in the outcry against the hiking clubs. Now 'the only recreation available to the young proletarian who slaves all week' was under threat from inflated transport costs, hostile publicity and attacks of the 'Fascists' (members of the Bismarck Youth and Jungsturm in particular),77 and adherents of the 'Free Guild'78 had resolved to form a common front. It was reported that a delegate assembly had been held in Berlin in April, at which 700 clique members and the representatives of 74 different clubs had agreed on a programme of mutual aid. The only points in the programme that betray the fact that the RWR was more than a cartel of ordinary recreational clubs are the provisions for free legal aid, 'collective defense against our enemies', support for revolutionary organizations and the establishment of a common housing list. According to Der Rote Wanderer, a group of clubs objecting to the radical posture of the Ring split off at the first meeting to form a Free Hiking Ring'. If the very scant evidence can be believed, it was in the 'national congress' of this organization that Social Democratic youth leaders took part during the same year.79

Although the RWR was a sufficiently serious undertaking to merit the establishment of an office and hostels of its own, the moment and occasion of its founding were not directly acknowledged in the main KPD press until many years later." During the late summer of 1923, however, the party's political daily paper, Die Rote Fahne, reported several occasions on which 'comrades' from the RWR stood by Communist and Socialist Youth members in confrontations with police and Bismarck Youth. Sections of the Ring also appear as active - alongside other, not easily identified local social and political clubs - in the 'proletarian youth cartels' formed all over Berlin in the last phase of the KPD's proto-revolutionary agitation.81

According to one police report, members of the RWR were still being arrested for brawling in the spring of 1924.82 But the Ring did not survive long. The collapse of the Communists' revolutionary effort at the end of 1923 and the three-month ban on the party that followed may have weakened the political impulse. It was also reported that the more hard-bitten clique members were alienated by the reforming zeal of the Communists. Others, however, remained faithful to the movement. Some joined the Communist Youth, and when the Red Youth Front (Rote Jungfront, RJ), the youth arm of the RFB, was founded at the end of 1924 clique members showed particular enthusiasm. Although activists in both of these organizations were aware that clique life could involve excesses of behavior that ought as far as possible to be suppressed, it was generally acknowledged that current and former clique members had made important contributions to party life.

Even during the mid- to late twenties, when the Communists made no particular effort to win them over, sympathetic cliques continued to operate on the fringes of the party. With the Nazi movement growing in Berlin from 1926 on, these groups were ever more likely to be drawn into the political fight, as politics took on the character of a ubiquitous public entertainment. The members of the Neukolln clique Eagle's Claw, for example, swore up and down that their club was entirely unpolitical. One evening, they tried to get into a National Socialist meeting but were turned away because they could not pay the admission charge. A short time later they were arrested in a crowd which had attacked a group of SA men.83 This incident occurred in May 1928. A year later the RFB and RJ were officially banned, after illegal May Day demonstrations had ended in serious and prolonged battles between police and residents of Wedding and Neukolln.84 Observers noted that 'a large section' of the Berlin membership of the RJ, loosed from its political moorings, floated back into the cliques.

The year 1929 also marked the beginning of a new epoch in the tactics of the Communist Party; the turn to an 'ultra-left' policy required the development of new forms of mass agitation. In their attempt to gather in the 'laboring masses', and particularly to win the young and . unemployed to their cause, the Communists devoted themselves more vigorously and more self-consciously than ever before to agitation in the neighborhoods. An important aspect of this agitation was the propagation of a movement for self-defense against the terror of the SA, the 'militant fight against Fascism', and among its preconditions were the construction of legal and covert successor organizations for the banned paramilitary formations and the recruitment of young activists to the local self-defense squads.85 At the end of 1930, in the wake of the National Socialists' sensational gains in the Reichstag elections, the leadership of the RJ, already reconstituted as an underground organization, instructed its Berlin and Hamburg sections 'to work out a plan for agitation among the cliques and to compile their experiences in this field in a report to the leadership, so it can be considered for use by the whole organisation'.86

This second initiative in the recruitment of asocial elements', although more obviously part of a national policy, was carried on with less colorful propaganda than the campaign of 1923. Now the emphasis was on co-optation of the cliques rather than public representation of their particular interests as such. From 1929, the party was deeply involved in a campaign against the reform-school system, in which noisy and sometimes violent protests by reformatory inmates were combined with extensive public agitation." But outside this context there was only one widely circulated item of literary propaganda which might have been directed towards the winning over of actual or potential clique members: Waiter Schonstedt's Kampfende Jugend. This volume was issued in 1932 in the 'Red One-Mark Novel' series of the Communist publishing house. The advertisements for it that were printed in other party publications aimed at a youthful audience recommended as 'humorous and interesting' its 'depiction of how Tomcat and Spider and their wild hiking clique become members of the Communist youth'.88 The author was a RJ leader in Kreuzberg, and his portrait of a Kreuzberg clique emphasized the aspects of its mentality that were most relevant to the hopes and expectations of the party. As Schonstedt pictures them, the boys of Noble Sow are temperamentally sympathetic to the Communists, openly admiring the party's leading personalities, but contemptuous of official jargon and the regimentation implicit in party discipline. 'Punch-ups, a little Thalmann [Ernst Thalmann, KPD Chairman], and as for the rest, they don't care... Like caged beasts of prey, with the wildness still in their bones'. At the same time, the value of just such elements in current struggles is unmistakable:

But when word went out: The Nazis are coming through the Nostizstrasse, then the lads were better than many of the organized ones. 'Getting ready to make another speech, Theo? [asks the clique member Spider] Don't bother, man. You know, if anything happens, well be there, we know what we've got to do. Just smash 'em, smash 'em, till the roof falls in!89

The Central Committee member who reviewed Kampfende Jugend for the literary journal of the Communist Society of Proletarian- Revolutionary Writers, Die Linkskurve, recommended that each Communist Youth local should organize public discussions of the book, involving 'not only their own members, but the youth of the cliques'.90

As in 1923, the official press and propaganda organs of the party itself treated this agitation gingerly, if at all. When a l7-year-old brick-layer's apprentice was shot dead by Nazis in Schoneburg in March 1931, Vorwarts reported it as the murder of a member of a 'Communist hiking- club'.91 In successive reports of Die Rote Fahne, the victim was transmogrified from an 'unorganised worker who belonged to a hiking-club' and whose friends had now vowed to join the anti-fascist movenent, to a valiant young proletarian... on the way to joining the Conununist Youth', who organized the comrades in his hiking-club into the [Communist] Red Aid', to 'member of a hiking-club, red "shop-steward" and organizer of the militant fight against fascism' in his vocational school.92 These reports reveal a tension between the wish to provide an example to those outside the party, like the cliques, of how one of their own might make (or be forced into) common cause with the Communists, and the need to reassert the axiom that there was no real proletarian politics outside the organized working-class movement and no anti- fascist politics outside the Communist movement. This ambivalence had other consequences, which will be discussed below; here it may suffice to account for the fact that there were no public declarations about recruitment from the cliques to match the KPD's repeated claims of converts from rival parties.

The evidence available from other sources, principally police records, of the activity of the Communist self-defense formations in Berlin, is fragmentary but illuminating: Erich Irmer, another bricklayer's apprentice, arrested at the age of 16 as a participant in the Eagle's Claw incident, joined one of the early successor organizations of the RJ in 1929; at the end of 1931 he was treasurer of a Communist cell and squad-leader in another anti-fascist formation. In 1926 Alfred Jager, 15 years old, joined Tartar's Blood; he was twice arrested, for illegal camping and assault on Stahlhelm members, and moved on to a Communist formation and a series of political offenses when the clique broke up three years later. During the investigation that followed two shoot-outs between Communists and National Socialists in Friedrichshain in December 1931, the police learned that one local RJ leader was a former member of Apache Blood, while another belonged to a clique which called itself the Ever-Broke Savings Club. The names of two more groups, Wood-Birds and Sea-Pirates, were mentioned in the course of the enquiry.93 There were other cases in which young people took part in clique and political activities concurrently or, as the outline of developments above suggests, moved from Communist organizations into the cliques. The charter members of Egg-Slime, for example, had belonged to the Communist Youth; one of them had been expelled for his clique activities. The clique nevertheless continued to hold its meetings in a Communist tavern, and its members remained politically active, to the extent of provoking fights with Nazis, while pursuing their criminal " More generally, the political organizations that lived shoulder career. to shoulder with the cliques in the working-class districts could not avoid sharing with them in the life of the neighborhood. And at this level it is clear that the Communists were not the only group for which the cliques represented a potential recruiting ground. After the shooting of a Hitler Youth member on the Lausitzer Platz (Kreuzberg), the police initially sought an explanation for the incident in a conflict between members of the clique Gay Blood and other local youths. Although no direct connection could be established, it became obvious as the investigation continued that the boundaries between political and non-political formations were very fluid. Shortly before the killing the newsletter of the Kreuzberg RJ had characterised a local SA leader in these words: 'This character, who is also known by the name of "Scholli", has already made off with the treasuries of the hiking-club Gay Blood and the social club Hand-in-Hand.'95


In addition to its periodic recruiting efforts, there were other, less direct but more public ways in which the Communist movement decked its affinity with the cliques. Right-wing publicists vilified the KPD with such formulae as 'the identity of Communism with the fifth [i.e. criminal] estate'." Even the Social Democrats regularly accused the Communists of having brought an unheard-of coarseness and brutality into political life, on the streets and in the parliamentary chambers, well before the Nazis began to present a threat to public order.97 And in its radical phases the KPD did its best to live up to these accusations. Not only did it openly espouse the causes of delinquent youth through the campaign against the reform schools and its agitation against the police; the Berlin leadership of the KPD also adopted the role of bearer of a culture of proletarian toughness calculated to contrast with the 'respectability' of the Social Democrats. When the Interior Minister remarked in the wake of the May Day riots of 1929 that the Social Democratic police authorities stood accused of behaving like Jagow, the anti-socialist police chief in pre-war Berlin, a member of the KPD delegation in the Reichstag he was addressing intejected, 'Aber Jagow war noch ein Kern!' - 'Jagow was a man!'98 If the cliques can be said to have inhabited what was publicly regarded as outlaw territory, in cultural and social terms, then the party that struck such poses, that was known to be relatively tolerant of ex-convicts in its own ranks,99 and whose chief political newspaper named spies and traitors to the movement and urged readers to teach them a lesson',100 declared itself an outlaw party by inviting itself on to that territory.

A party less constricted in its vision by received notions of class and of politics might have been expected to develop an analysis of the cliques that reflected this anarchic retreat from the traditional categories of acceptable behavior. Logically, there were two lines of argument open to the Communists: on the one hand, they could acknowledge that the cliques and all they represented were marginal to the working class or that they were a symptom of the actual pathology of the proletariat under capitalism, but that the party nevertheless took an instrumental and/or charitable interest in them. On the other, they might adopt an approach analogous to those of more recent revolutionary movements involved in organizing 'lumpenproletarian' populations, arguing that the fact that individuals or groups were categorized as criminal was the result not of intrinsic qualities that disqualified them from participation in the revolutionary movement, but of belonging to a single and universally (if not uniformly) oppressed proletariat, all of whose members were potentially subject to the same pressures and processes of categorisation., In terms of the KPD's preoccupations, this would have meant accepting that the cliques were no less representative of the working class for not being at work. In fact, KPD comments on the cliques and on such related questions as crime, youth and the family hover between these two approaches.

The very idea that the party should actively engage with such issues at all was hotly contested in the early years of the Communist movement. A politics of everyday life concerned with seeking out the peculiarly proletarian elements in social and cultural practice and injecting them with socialist content, which was proposed as a way to shield working-class youth against the influences of the bourgeois media and institutions, was rejected by many as a distraction from the class struggle and a temptation to Social Democratic complacency. Even when the idea of this kind of 'cultural struggle' had been accepted, it took second place in the Communist understanding of politics to the self- evident tasks of industrial action, public agitation and parliamentary activity, and training for the armed insurrection.102 Where we do find the elements of a Communist analysis of culture, it is probably significant that the two bursts of deliberate agitation among the cliques coincide roughly with phases in that analysis when leading representatives of the movement displayed a readiness to re-evaluate the aspects of proletarian daily life conventionally defined as degenerate. In the 1930s, Kampfende Jugend formed a visible link between the clique agitation and a literary movement whose exponents showed a new concern with the analysis of mass cultural consumption. Members of the Society of Proletarian-Revolutionary Writers investigated the popularity of penny-dreadfuls and pornographic magazines, no longer simply to deplore but to consider the possibilities of a socialist analogue, a proletarian novel with mass appeal.103 In the early twenties similar, though more unambiguously hostile discussions of popular literature and film had coincided with the articulation by Edwin Hoernle, a leading figure in the party, of a challenge to the idea that the family as such was identical with the bourgeois domestic unit. The problems of the working-class family, he argued, were those not of disintegration but of being forced into a mold that was inappropriate in the first place; agitation and education should start from the grim reality of proletarian life rather than from attempts to create artificial institutional alternatives to it.104

In the course of the campaign against the reform-school system in 1930-1 there emerged the beginning of a critique of the concept of delinquency that might have implied a readiness to accept the cliques as a normal phenomenon and a legitimate recruiting ground for the parties of the working class. The cliques were generally held to be characterized by a condition of Verwahrlosung, or waywardness. Evidence of this condition was one of the principal grounds on which children were referred to reform schools or placed in care. But the word itself was particularly ambiguous, for in its active form verwahrlosen could mean to neglect, to suffer from neglect, or simply to go to the bad. In its use, active delinquency was automatically identified with lack of supervision, individual depravation with an inadequate family life.105 For much of its history, the Communist movement, when it considered the question of delinquency, used this term uncritically; its representatives accepted that the proletarian child was subject to Vervahrlosung as a consequence of the destructive effect that wage-labor had on the family, or concerned themselves at most with the danger that political radicalism could be interpreted by the authorities as evidence of Verwahrlosung.106 In 1931, however. a spokesman for the reform-school agitation, writing in the party's social policy journal, characterized the term as 'one of the usual elastic concepts of bourgeois society' which could be mobilized against 'any proletarian youth who comes into conflict with the state apparatus', who 'rebels morally or criminally against the capitalist social order'.107 But this was a minority voice. The more popular organs of the party continued to present the simpler, more compelling and by no means unrealistic argument that many reformatory inmates were indeed sick, but only because capitalism had made family life impossible for them.108 Communist critics continued to argue as though true proletarians could not be criminals.109 And the handful of statements about the cliques that the Communist movement produced during its second phase of agitation reflect neither a general shift in theoretical perceptions of delinquency nor a unified view of the nature of the cliques themselves as a class phenomenon. It is characteristic of the Communists' cautious approach to this agitation that none of those statements even offers a direct comment on why the party should have been interested in them.

One of the statements appears in Kampfende Jugend. It has already been pointed out that the usefulness of gang violence to the Communist self-defense movement is one of the central themes of the novel. By way of a general characterization of the cliques, the protagonist, a Communist Youth leader, acknowledges that the activities of Noble Sow represent a form of collective resistance against the depredations of the capitalist system. The fact that they are not content to be passive victims is counted in their favor. But the Communist warns that they are in danger of sliding into the lumpenproletariat if they persist in pursuing their personal rebellion in isolation from the organized workers' movement.110

For Schonstedt's reviewer in Die Linkskurve, there was both rather more and rather less in it than that. In half-conscious acknowledgment that the cliques were not so external to the party's actual constituency as normative declarations about the 'class-conscious proletariat' implied, he described the politicization of Noble Sow as a natural event, 'the confluence of two streams from the reservoir of the street'. But he also displayed Some confusion about what did or should distinguish the two streams, Communist Youth and cliques. In his view, the most important thing the clique had to offer was a kind of instinctual solidarity, 'the feeling that each cares for the other', a personal concern too often lacking in the party organisations. He nevertheless criticised the author for portraying the gang in more vivid and lively terms than the Communist cell, speculating that the hardships of life which gave Schonstedt his insight into the clique had left him 'no opportunity for the thorough... study of historical materialism'.111

Still more remarkable for its obstinate telescoping of ideal and reality was an article devoted to the cliques that Gertrud Ring published in the cultural supplement of Die Rote Fahne in April 1931. The piece was clearly written in response to publicity about the cliques in the non-Communist press, but it does not engage explicitly with any existing analysis of them; it is purely descriptive in style. It ends with the characterization of the cliques as an 'instinctual self-defense against the pressures weighing upon proletarian youth', a sketch of the history of the RWR, and the assurance that many cliques were once again disbanding as their members became 'fighters on the anti-fascist front'. But in the depiction of their structure and activities that precedes these assertions, the cliques already appear as models of Bolshevik discipline and democratic centralism: The 'bull'

is elected at a meeting on democratic principles for an unlimited period. Everyone owes him absolute obedience, every clique keeps the strictest discipline. If anyone puts a foot wrong, he is thrown out, and not with kid gloves, either.. .New members are apprentices and have to go through a strict probationary period...

To be sure, the cliques are boisterous, even violent on occasion; their class-conscious mischief extends to 'embittered struggle' against Stahlhelm, Nazis, scouts and all bourgeois youth organizations. But they always clean up after themselves when they go camping, 'unlike the vulgar petty bourgeois [Spiesser] , who decorate the park with... sandwich wrappers'.112

Appearing as it did in the party's chief political organ, Ring's article is the nearest thing we have to an official statement on the cliques. Its distortions are characteristic of the incapacity of the party's political leadership to come to terms with forms of agitation that did not accord with its self-image as the leader in the struggle between labor and capital. In its clique agitation, the Communist movement sought and gained support from a proletarian group whose defining characteristic was its refusal to conform to normal expectations about the revolutionary working class. The practical confrontation with reality apparently allowed fresh analyses to develop of the way class relations shaped proletarian life, but these either remained inchoate or were confined to the ghetto of the party's special-interest mass organizations, like the one that issued the Communist social policy journal.113


The confusion of voices with which the Communist movement spoke matched the ambiguity of its intentions towards those whom it set out to win. The process of politicization might mean simply mobilizing social resources, resentments and forms of struggle present in the culture for application in the current fight - the instrumental function so obvious in the case of the cliques. It might also, and in the German socialist tradition did, represent an emancipatory process itself, in which, as attitudes and practices were reshaped, the socialist man was formed who would proceed to build socialism. The two aims are not mutually exclusive, but the character of Bolshevist Communism as a movement which strove to transform every action into an immediate concrete struggle for power was bound to bring out the tension between them. The tension was explicit in the debates over the value of 'cultural struggle'. In the clique agitation, it appears as the contradiction between the view that the cliques qua cliques had something to offer the Communist movement and the apparently self-evident proposition that becoming 'fighters on the anti-fascist front' meant dissolution of the gang. The same ambiguity emerges in answer to the question of what politicization meant to the politicized. It is impossible to be sure how many clique members joined the Communists as a means of escape from the wretchedness and constrictions of daily life, seeking to broaden their horizons and realize alternatives, and how many saw in the party's apparatus and material resources an opportunity to consolidate and legitimate their position in the existing local power structure or, less cynically, the means of more easily pursuing aims which they shared with the Communists.

One consequence of this mutual ambivalence can be seen in the problems that arose when young Communists behaved like clique members. The active formations of the Communist Youth engaged in fighting the Nazis in Berlin were characterized by a style and mentality strikingly similar to those of the cliques. Within the Communist organizations, these similarities were modified at certain points by the elements of a deep-rooted political culture. At others they remained a source of conflict between the Communist leadership and the rank and file.114

The least problematic aspect of the defense formations, from the point of view of the leadership, was the fact that, like the cliques, they were explicitly territorial. The party-political context of their activities colored the definition of territory, just as it determined the character of the outsider. Since the electoral successes of Social Democracy in the Wilhelmine era certain sections of Berlin were popularly regarded as 'Red' territory. The idea that all Berlin's working-class .districts were properly the preserve of the 'Reds', propagated by the KPD in its turn, was adopted by the Nazis as the organizing principle for their campaigns in Berlin. The SA men were portrayed by their own leaders as invaders in the neighborhood, determined to break the Marxist hegemony by installing themselves in one area after another. Moreover, the Communist defense movement was organized by street and neighborhood. Within this context, however, the statements of the Communists reveal a very acute sense of the limits of their own districts and their responsibilities within them. They congregated for party and leisure activities alike in the tavern or Rummelplatz, park or other open space - places that were generally recognized in the neighborhood as their own hangouts. Among the most common forms of group activity was the Durchzug, a policing action within the neighborhood: known and suspected Nazis were stopped and searched, usually to the accompaniment of verbal and physical abuse; their badges and insignia (along with any weapons that might be found) were then 'confiscated' by the Communists, who hoarded them as prized trophies. In the realm of verbal and material imagery, the political formations shared with the cliques an attachment to the visible affects of group membership, partly symbolic and partly utilitarian: badges, uniforms, weapons. On this issue the Communist leadership was constantly torn between tolerating the mania for self-presentation and display as a form of behavior natural and attractive to young people and condemning it as dangerous to the interests of an organization in which the capacity to operate inconspicuously and in secret was highly valued. Instead of the anonymous ciphers recommended by the leadership as an aspect of such conspiratorial activity, the Communists often used nicknames. Names like Tarzan, Sinalko (the brand-name of a soft drink), Gypsy and so on are reminiscent of the cliques, and some had even been won by the young activists during their clique days. They did not necessarily guarantee anonymity; their principal function was to underline the specialness of the individual while identifying him with the group. The forms of internal discipline and the structure of authority within the defense formations also show parallels with what we know of the cliques. The fate of Otto Regenthaler illustrates the problematic coexistence of organisational and communal codes:

Since I hadn't taken part in the Communist demonstration at the New Year [1931] ,on my father's orders, some RFB members came to our courtyard in the early hours of the morning, blew on a signal trumpet and shouted: This is where the coward [Regenthaler] lives! Come on down, we'll punch your face in! The very next day I went to the RFB leader and got the shouters expelled. From then on I felt as though I was always running the gauntlet. Because of the constant abuse I cut myself off completely from the Communists and devoted myself.. .exclusively to my girlfriend.

The cohesiveness and collective self-confidence that made this kind of internal terror possible depended to a large extent on the force of individual personalities. In the section of Kreuzberg where the unfortunate Regenthaler lived, the figure to reckon with was Otto Singer, 19, the unemployed son of a construction worker. As organizer for the local Communist Youth he was known to be tough: Because of his extremely radical attitude he was respected but also feared by his comrades. He never suffered hangers-on in his group.' The leader of a Neukolln group, Hermann Lessing, was a similar type. A neighbor reported that he was notorious in the area for his activism and violence: 'If you don't go along with what he says, you're eliminated and can't work in the organization any more.' The importance of strong personal leadership is also illustrated by examples of failure. When the leader of a self-defense group in Berlin-Mitte was arrested, the group began to disintegrate; it continued to lose members until he returned from prison and set it on its feet again. In the plethora of competing organizations, it was characteristic of these leaders that they were able to maintain their own power bases and even to challenge the authority of the party leadership through the formation of new groups. Hermann Lessing was the founder of the Neukolln Fighting Column, which he had led into the Communist movement, and he was sufficiently confident of the support of his members to defy the local party secretary when she tried to enforce the leadership's objections to his violence. Alfred Richter, leader of a street squad in Wedding, was expelled from the Communist Party in 1929; he went on to take over the leadership of the (not otherwise identified) Wedding Youth Defense, and in 1932 he was taken back into his local party cell against the wishes of the KPD's Berlin office. And with the case of Otto Singer we find ourselves once again in the world of the street youth: after he had been expelled from the party several times he resigned himself and founded his own group - 'But only ace lads [knorke Jungen] would be eligible for this.'

The party's attitude to the indiscipline that personal power made possible can be gauged by the repeated expulsions of local 'bulls'. On the general problem of toughness as an organizational style, the views of the leadership were ambivalent. A report of 1928 implies that bullying, particularly of younger members, 'so-called rowdiness', was a well known practice within the Berlin Communist Youth. The leadership did not see such practices as contributing to group cohesion and confidence; on the contrary, the extraordinarily high rate of membership turnover in Wedding was blamed on internal rowdyism. The report concluded, however, that 'although the bullies themselves are often not around when it comes to day-to-day [party] work, and often even disrupt it... they are absolutely revolutionary elements, which we need and must educate'.115

The character of the social bond within the group also deserves comment. From time to time doubts were expressed within the Communist movement about the mechanistic way in which organizational principles were applied in efforts to forge a disciplined solidarity, and this was the concern that lay behind the reviewer's approval of the 'proletarian comradeship' displayed by the clique in Kampfende Jugend. This form of comradeship, however, was inconsistent with a larger political expediency, for it depended on emotional and material reciprocity continually tested and confirmed in immediate experience. The cohesion of the defense formations was often of this kind, resting on a web of sentimental bonds among the members and between them and the neighborhood which could be overstretched and even torn apart by the demands of party discipline. One young Communist fighter had to spend several months in jail following a shooting; in a badly spelled letter from his cell he wrote, mixing the languages of politics and disappointed comradeship:

Dear Comrade Erich the hearings coming up if I get off I can do without the organisation working with you, since youll never make it to a Red United Front and I'd never have thought you'd leave me in the lurch...

Two aspects of group life brought the tensions between leadership and rank and file to a point of open conflict. The first, and less politically dangerous of these, was the male exclusiveness of the defense groups. Communist policy-makers had always regarded women in politics with a certain ambivalence. The whole problem of putting into practice the kind of free and equal relations between the sexes that the KPD's inherited principles prescribed - 'the sexual question' - was an embarrassing one for many Communists and a constant source of inconclusive debate. Where one commentator saw demoralising 'dirty fantasies' arising from the hole-and-corner sexuality that too many Communist youths shared with the cliques and other working-class adolescents, another found 'genuinely proletarian jokes'.116 When it came to strictly organizational relations, women were nowhere more discriminated against than in that section of the movement that emphasized the military virtues. But by 1930 at the latest the official line prescribed that the role of women in all areas of party life, including the organizing of physical defense, was identical with that of men. Very early on, however, the leadership encountered explicit resistance to any form of co-operation on the part of its male rank and file. Significantly, among the Berlin defense formations the toughest and most active of the sections, Berlin-Mitte and Neukolln, were the most tenacious in their opposition;117 the fact that the party secretary in Neukolln was a woman certainly did not ease the tension between Hermann Lessing and the local leadership.

Still more problematic was the violence of certain groups itself. In the form of the deliberate persistence in the practice of 'individual terror' - isolated, gang-style acts of violence - against the SA, this represented one of the most explosive moments of conflict within the party as a whole. The definitive statement by the party's Political Bureau of its rejection of 'individual terror', issued in November 1931 and accompanied by a concerted campaign against all 'terroristic' and 'adventurist' tendencies within the Communist movement, touched off angry debates and even fights within the defense formations and the Communist Youth in Berlin. The party's leaders were openly accused of having abandoned their revolutionary ideals and betrayed their followers; for the maintenance of the party's tenuous legality, they had traded the right of the young Communists to an effective defense against the deadly attacks of the Nazis.118

To these recriminations the leadership responded that tendencies to 'individual terror' reflected a mood of 'desperation' and 'revenge', 'motives that characterize the uprooted, insecure petty bourgeoisie run mad...alien to the socialist working class'.119 In a similar vein, members who resisted organizing women were labeled 'red-painted petty bourgeois [Spiessburger]'.120 Neither of these characterizations is an accurate reflection of the social position of the Communist activists. Nor, of course, were they intended as such; they purport to provide a measure of the extent to which those activists had lived up to - or failed to live up to - an ideal of behaviour appropriate to the working class and, still more, to the tasks of its emancipation. But it is significant that the party had no words to describe those who were neither perfectly disciplined Communists nor members of an alien class, no way of acknowledging that one might be a worker and yet behave in undesirable ways. There was a genuine confusion that arose within the Communist movement whenever a distinction had to be drawn between what was proletarian and what the proletarian ought to be, what the party had to deal with in terms of an actual working-class culture and what it meant to make of it; and this confusion was not irrelevant to the party's own capacity to carry out the political tasks it set itself.

By virtue as much of common socialization as of mutual recruitment, the cliques and the defense formations in Berlin shared a social code and an organizational culture in which the gang style of organization was closely associated with toughness, masculinity, a solidarity based on mutual aid and affection, a strong tie with the local neighborhood and violent competition with or resistance to outsiders. The respective elements of the code were mutually reinforcing and the whole was shaped and sustained by the conditions of life in the working-class neighborhoods of Berlin in the 1920s. In its 'raw' form, as some Communist diagnoses recognized, this was essentially a defensive culture; the style of the cliques and the kinds of consumption they represented reflected the models and materials made available by bourgeois society, and their functions ranged between the enrichment of leisure time and the guarantee of bare survival. They offered no alternative to the existing system of economic and power relations and no escape for their members. Within this culture, though, there were openings to forms of activity that had the potential to attack and change the system; these consisted in the objectively political conflicts that the cliques were involved in by virtue of belonging to that culture and in the ways in which aspects of social behavior were explicitly politicized in twentieth- century Germany. The visibility of the cliques was a function of the presence and expectations of certain state agencies on the one hand and of a long-standing association between social indiscipline, violent crime and political radicalism in public discourses about youth on the other. This was the 'ideological territory' on which the cliques and the Communists met, their affinity compounded by the fact, peculiar to the Weimar Republic, that the state itself was directly associated with a single party and the KPD's chief rival, the SPD, and by the KPD's practice of actively adopting the interests and concerns of the cliques as its own. When clique members began to see the police and other adversaries as part of a system that had to be fought politically, it was not unlikely that they would choose the Communist movement as the framework for their fight.

The aim of the party, in its turn, must have been to hasten the moment when this perception would become inevitable, through agitation and education to transform the defensive culture into an offensive movement. In fact, the Communists showed less awareness of the specific congruence of interests between themselves and the cliques than of the instrumental value of one aspect of clique activities, namely their violence. Whether they were viewed as a proletarian group with particular but legitimate interests or as a ready-made fighting force. though, effectively mobilizing the cliques meant fracturing the unity of the culture they represented. For while the cliques met real needs and nurtured allegiances generated in their common milieu, the political movement as such - a bureaucratic apparatus engaged in action and argument and subject to demands and pressures at every level of politics - had special needs and demanded a new kind of allegiance. In order to sustain a new synthesis, the party had to be able to provide concrete alternatives to the material conditions to which the clique culture was a response, or to offer in some other form the kinds of defense that the clique provided, or at least to make credible the promise that alternatives could be created. To do less than this was to demand extraordinary sacrifices of the party's recruits, the most obvious of which, in the situation of the party in Berlin in the twenties and thirties, were the near certainty of arrest and imprisonment and the danger of political violence.

The party's capacity to realize an alternative society through independent political action, that is to bring about the revolution which was its raison d'etre and which, in the final crisis of the Republic, the KPD presented as the only way to avoid the impending Fascist dictatorship, was limited by forces beyond its control. It would be a mistake (and one entirely characteristic of the KPD leadership) to imagine that a more coherent class analysis alone would have made it possible to overcome those obstacles. But if it was even to assess the prospects for change accurately and present them convincingly to actual and potential followers, the party had first to understand the reality it was aiming to change, to confront the nature of its own constituency as well as the general political situation. And this it could not do with any consistency. The party's self-image was dominated by a view of class struggle that implied that it should not be dealing with the cliques in the first place. This view had no place in it for the analysis of proletarian cultures as they reflected the construction of collective interests outside the workplace. It also tended to block initiatives for the active creation of a 'movement culture' which would provide the necessary alternative for working-class youth before the revolution and would be distinct in quality from both the Social Democratic cultural organisations and the defensive culture of the neighbourhood. There is no question that the elements of a new and inventive approach tothe politics of everyday life were present in the theoretical utterances of some spokesmen for the movement, and even more obvious in the actual practice of the KPD. But as long as the party's leaders continued to argue as though the progressive, politicised culture it expected its members, more or less spontaneously, to represent was the only real culture of the working class, they ran the risk both of blinding themselves to the points of vulnerability in class and movement alike, and of alienating their own followers, who knew better.


This chapter has been presented in different forms on several occasions. I am grateful to the members of the SSRC Research Seminar Group in Modern German Social History, the European History Research Seminar at the University of East Anglia, the King's College Social History Seminar, Cambridge, and to my fellow contributors to the present volume for their comments and suggestions. Special thanks are due to Richard Evans, David Crew, Nigel Swain, Paul Ginsborg, David Feldman and Nick Bullock for shared ideas and enthusiasm.

The presentation above rests to a large extent on the reports of several Berlin daily newspapers, which are abbreviated in the notes as follows: BT (Berliner Tageblatt), DAZ (Deutsche Allgemeine Zeirung), RF (Die Rote Fahne), VW (Vorwarts),, VZ (Vossische Zeitung). (M) denotes morning, (E) evening, and (P) postal editions, where applicable. The following abbreviations are also used for frequently cited sources: ZGStW (Zeitschrift fiir die gesamten Stratfrechtswissenschaften), StJB (Statistisches Jahrbuch der Stodt Berlin). Finally, where archival material has been used, the names of the archives are abbreviated: GehStA (Geheimes Staatsarchiv Preussischer Kulturbesitz, Berlin-Dahlem), LABln (Landesarchiv Berlin), StA Br (Staatsarchiv Bremen).

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