“Gammler,” Juvenile Delinquency, and Moral Panics in 1960s West Germany


Jail. Work camps. Or just gas them. Few of Munich’s citizens held back once asked about Gammler young vagrants, a term used to demean wandering youth. Journalist Peter Fleischmann had been curious about their feelings towards such nomadic young idlers for his 1967 documentary Herbst der Gammler. Produced mainly by the Bayerischer Rundfunk broadcasting corporation, Fleischmann wandered the streets interviewing curious onlookers. Some were visibly angry and outraged; most were utterly confused and deeply worried. And many wondered why anyone would drop out of society just to travel, or linger, on street corners, begging for money.


Juvenile Delinquency in History

In my recent book Coming of Age: Constructing and Controlling Youth in Munich, 1942-1973 (Berghahn 2016) I explore juvenile delinquency and the hysteria around young people in the Bavarian capital. Gammler arguably personify juvenile delinquency in the mid-1960s. Many contemporaries feared young vagabonding bums roaming the streets of numerous cityscapes. Sociologist Stanley Cohen’s concept of a “moral panic” has been most useful when trying to make sense of this phenomenon. In fact, arguments surrounding Gammler can tell us much about contemporary anxieties and fears; we also see efforts by some authorities to expand mechanisms of social control. Actual young people, on the other hand, found themselves repeatedly harassed and stereotyped, yet also gradually able to carve out agency for an increasingly more international youth movement.

Scholars have long understood youth as a social construct only partially connected to age. After all, youth often appears in history as a hope for the future or as a threat to contemporary society. Those studying policing and juvenile delinquency have wrestled with stereotypes surrounding young people. Apart from studies concerned with the protest year “1968,” it is here that we find some of the few publications interested in Gammler.[1]

My objectives here are threefold. First, I aim to showcase that Gammler were, to some extent, constructs: few fit simplistic stereotypes or defined themselves as such, and there was certainly no epidemic. Instead, we see a partially manufactured media outrage as namely conservative forces helped to further distinguish and use this image of youth to their advantage. Secondly, the brief agreement with or acceptance of what I call a Gammler-panic as reality highlights widespread societal anxieties along generational lines: adults worried about the future of the workforce, family values, and the draft while young people were concerned about bourgeoisie life, militarism, and capitalism. The Nazi past became a dividing line, with some adults pointing to the “good old days” and young people worrying about exactly those times. Finally, I hope to capture the national—if not international—character of youth in transit. In many ways, Gammler encapsulated the global youth of the 1960s well before student revolts and organized backpackers.[2]


Gammler in the 1960s

Young people on the move originally appeared on the streets of West German cities in the early 1960s. First, contemporaries saw them as regular travelers—just shabbier. One voice in the weekly newspaper Die Zeit tried to figure out this new group of youth by asking, “Why does youth have to travel this way?” In that author’s view, young people simply did not want to spend time in an organized setting. In Hamburg-Bergedorf, at least, a government-supported place for youth remained empty—young people over eighteen rather hung out in bars and restaurants. “Nice dancing music won’t cut it anymore,” the author complained. By 1964, the media began reporting about young people hitch-hiking to Paris. At that point, they already used the term Gammler given supposed shabby appearances and behaviors.[3]

The visibility of these dropouts soon raised concerns from bystanders. Males had long hair and beards, and most wore shabby clothing. They hung out in public spaces. In West-Berlin, they lingered in front of the Gedächtniskirche memorial church near the railway station at the zoo; in Munich, they were mostly in Schwabing, the bohemian quarter with its university and Mediterranean charm. Their presence became even more noticeable once they not only loitered in the middle of the day but also begged for money. Nosy pedestrians stopped and watched. Some seemed simply curious whereas others felt provoked by such behaviors. Many asked questions. In West Berlin, one woman wondered, “Why is your hair that long? Why do you walk around so unclean? Where is your home? Why are you lingering? It is not improper that boys and girls sit so close to each other? What will tourists think once they visit Berlin and see you all here? Over there [in East Berlin] they would not allow something like this!” She received several questions in return, like, “Don’t you know that Mozart, Goethe, Marx, and Jesus had long hair? […] Which pieces of clothing are allowed, which ones are not? […] Indecent? Only indecent because you are having improper thoughts.” In Munich, the aforementioned documentary caught such daily interactions on film: in one scene a bystander asked about the unwillingness to work. This question impressed little—one young man simply responded by pointing to his interest in traveling. A discussion surrounding the value of a good day’s work materialized, and some bystanders soon called for stricter laws and even labor camps. Such statements were in line with a survey conducted by the polling group Allensbach in 1968. Fifty percent of those asked about Gammler wanted them sent to sort of compulsory work camps. Other curious onlookers pointed to the past. Back then, they felt, this would not have been possible. “We want that again,” someone noted. Another voice chimed in: “We wouldn’t need all these Gastarbeiter guest workers.” Gammler are not people, someone else argued, and “those ones could be gassed if needed.” A visually angry middle-aged woman believed “this should be taken care of” before adding: “I would kill them all!”[4]


A Moral Panic

Similar to the situation in Munich and West Berlin, the arrival of Gammler soon captivated the imagination of many media outlets. There were stories from Frankfurt, Hamburg, Bonn, Stuttgart, Düsseldorf, and Hannover. In Frankfurt, Gammler were mingling in front of the central police office; in Hamburg, it was the club “Paletta” that seemingly linked them to dubious subcultures and a dangerous underground scene. In Hannover, Gammler were hanging out with bicycle gangs on a central square, Georgsplatz. Soon the media followed them more closely, at times unsure what to make of them.[5]

In 1966, the national news magazine Der Spiegel dedicated a cover story to this new phenomenon. Although pointing to the Bavarian capital as the center of “the German sleeping-bag movement,” it featured examples from other West German cities. It also included the voices of supposed Gammler. There was Werner, age nineteen, who claimed, “The [older] generation does not understand what we want. They just say the order we have also must be your order.” A young man by the name of Mevi, lingering on West Berlin’s Savigny Square, explained, “My parents were too narrow-minded [spießig]. My father a brick mason, my mother, a Hausfrau housewife, as if that’s a job. I did not want to turn into that.” Young females could also gammeln linger: Helga Reiners, age twenty, loitered in blue jeans and a sweater in Munich, begging for “a penny, a drink of a beer, a draw from a cigarette, all while doing nothing else otherwise.” Those individuals, according to one columnist of the conservative Springer press, were the “ugliest the twentieth century” has seen. By 1966, the Gammler-problem, as contemporaries quoted in Der Spiegel called it, had turned into a national crisis.[6]

Apart from the media, the voices of those worried about the state of youth also chimed in. This namely included sociologists and educators, but also some other scholars. Most tried to define what Gammler were all about. According to one such description, they

“have messy hair and beards, [and] wear ragged and audacious clothing. The Gammler takes it easy while leaning against walls or sitting on stairs. The Gammler is not walking but rambling, slouching, looking lost, worn out, disinterested. At night the Gammler is sleeping outside, in parks, in grit boxes, run down cars, and unfinished buildings. […] The Gammler is not interested in money or ownership, [and] could be compared to the Greek philosopher Diogenes, just sitting in the sun, thinking and discussing with other Gammler. They live for the moment.”[7]

Some tried to go undercover to find these shabby characters, with some interviews soon characterizing Gammler behaviors as a critique of bourgeoisie normality. In the public discourse, however, a simplistic binary emerged, pitching two groups against each other, along with age or generation. On one side, there were mostly adult authorities, more conservative in their values, and in favor of social order, traditional morality, and structured political processes. On the other side, there was the Gammler: mainly young middle-class males, with female companions, unwilling to fit in—Wohlstandskriminelle or criminals with means. As one contemporary summarized, on the streets, “two opposites meet: the bourgeoisie owners against those without ownership, the clean against the unclean, the working against those dismissing work.”[8]


Law and Order

Conservative politicians interested in law and order jumped on the opportunity to exploit such a division. On the local level, there were specific voices calling on the solution of the Gammler-problem. In Munich’s city council, for instance, there was the conservative CSU and the right-wing nationalist party NPD. In 1966, one city council member of the earlier demanded the police to “reduce Gammlerism […] to an appropriate amount.” The Nationalist Party NPD hoped for a strict response. In a party leaflet, it called for “measures […] to deal with the whole problem […] in a radical way and along public sentiments.” These voices had support from high up. In a directive to state ministries of the interior, West Germany’s conservative Chancellor Ludwig Erhard asked for more information regarding Gammler. Erhard wanted to know “in what manner do Gammler threaten law and order; are Gammler similar to vagabonds; do Gammler riot and vandalize and are foreigners among the Gammler.” Nationally, it had been Erhard that tried to define himself as the defender of societal norms. “As long as I am governing we will fight Gammler,” he noted in summer 1966. In fact, he boasted that he would destroy their misbehaviors once and for all, even if responses from various cities noted that Gammler were not a major concern. It was an election year, after all, and as one critical journalist pointed out, it is not dangerous to go against Gammler given that they do not vote.[9]

This law-and-order narrative was deeply ingrained within conservativism. Most aggressive was certainly the NPD. Raging against guest workers, criminals, and Gammler alike, they pushed for a return to law and order; they also wanted to stop talking about the Nazi past and bring back some sort of German dignity. A satirical piece by Wolfgang Ebert captured their calculations in an article when he noted that for right-wing groups Gammler, like Jews beforehand, were a useful scapegoat and bogeyman.[10]

To be clear: there were self-identified Gammler. Some wandered due to broken homes, others had escaped from certain institutions; some did have anti-capitalist rhetoric while another group simply wanted to avoid the draft. Most sought a break, a vacation, before joining the workforce—why not travel and see the world? Yet, the media and some local authorities vastly exaggerated their presence, with some speaking about ten thousand and more of them. Especially tabloids like Munich’s Abendzeitung or the infamous Bildzeitung featured sensationalist headlines. The former spoke of “Gammler-kings;” the latter paper even stepped in at one point, helping Josef Seeler, age twenty-one, get a job at a car rental company—only to claim outrage once he returned to the streets shortly thereafter. Likewise, some authorities pointed to clearly false stories about widespread prostitution, orgies, alcohol, drug use, criminal energy, and more. Individuals might have behaved that way—but not all loitering young people were criminals. Actually, and as pointed out by other scholars, “the numbers of such dropouts were, in fact, relatively small.” If anything, and to follow historian Werner Linder, this was the “unscrupulous marginalization and criminalization of these individuals.”[11]

The panic surrounding Gammler soon brought results, at times within weeks. Most immediately, local law enforcement now had a reason to step in. In Munich, and given the recent so-called Schwabinger Krawalle riots in 1962, police president Manfred Schreiber had introduced modern policing known as the Münchner Linie Munich Line. It consisted of gathering intelligence and preemptive de-escalation. Undercover police officers were now monitoring Schwabing; there was also a database with records of potential disruptors. In June 1966, Schreiber then spent six weeks touring in the United States, stopping in no less than seventeen cities. He concluded, “for the liberalization of our laws we have to pay a price. […] We need to put even more emphasis on preemptive measures, [and] […] attempts to influence the young have to be expanded. Additional means of control are necessary for Beat clubs, Gammler, and pseudo-artists.” Since “dirt is not a crime,” to quote Schreiber, only preventive measures could stop what many called “a crawling revolution.”[12]

Soon the police, defining them as asocials and criminals, harassed young people. They employed ID and traffic laws. For instance, the local police in Munich used paragraph 1 of the Straßenverkehrsordnung traffic regulations to fine young people for blocking sidewalks. One newspaper reported other ways to deal with the Gammler-issue:

“For the first time in the history of Schwabing seven long-haired ‘Gammler’ were called off the trees in the English Garden park. They had spent the night there and were now welcomed by the Munich police. The wake-up call was ‘ID check.’ Initially, these jobless young gentlemen with their mop tops [hair] spent their short nights […] in the English Garden park. There they faced trespassing charges. On the grass […] they got too cold. ‘The first snow will deal with this problem,’ noted a local and optimistic police officer.”[13]


In Hannover, police officers relied on similar measures. In at least one instance there is evidence of police brutality against twenty-two-year-old Otto Funk. Actually, in August 1967 authorities in Hannover cleared Gammler in massive raids, at times with batons. Those “cleansings” of Georgsplatz square made national news and raised concerns about police responses. Maybe it was fortunate that many young travelers generally left West Germany for warmer regions in the cold winter months.[14]

Apart from direct actions against Gammler, city governments also employed more hidden avenues. Signs on flower pots or other structures often forbid people to sit down; in Munich, the city council went a step further. In a non-public meeting on November 14, 1965, a report backed by the police and the city park service outlined its solution to the Gammler-problem on Wedekindplatz square. According to the official record of the meeting, “Based on years of supervision and numerous experiences by the police, it has become obvious that Wedekindplatz square [in Schwabing] in particular remains an attraction for so-called Gammler and a starting point for disruptions of all kinds.” Such unruly forces included local youngsters and travelers from all over. “They occupy the benches and the area of Wedekindplatz square from early in the morning until late at night.” In order to deal with such disruptive individuals, the report proposed a new spatial concept: “Only the cultivation of plants at Wedekindplatz square can bring relief. The new spatial concept would limit the behaviors described above […]. Legally the police would also have the leverage to tighten control in this area because the space left after spatial restructuring needs to be clear for pedestrians; trespassing onto city park property is a misdemeanor.” The report even outlined that some plants were better than others and suggested the use of thorny bushes to avoid trespassing. “Planting roses would further increase the threshold within the population to damage this public space,” it noted. The city council agreed, and city planners went to work. Over the winter months, authorities remodeled the public area around Wedekindplatz square; city services narrowed the sidewalk and planted spikey shrubs—all to keep the Gammler away. Later reports pointed to the success of this measure—though young people simply found new spaces to hang out.[15]

Apart from such efforts, some voices tried to push for harsher laws against youth altogether. As in the past, those measures were framed as helping young people. For them, young people aged twenty and above that have no clear grounding in society and trouble finding their role should be gently pushed towards steady employment—before forcing them into more institutionalized settings. Bundessozialhilfegesetz federal welfare act paragraphs 72 and 73 was supposed to provide the legal basis for that. In a six to one vote, however, the supreme court struck down such efforts. It cited the higher right tied to the freedom of the individual as outlined in article 2, paragraph 1 of the Grundgesetz West German basic law. Democratic structures—the rule of law, if you will—limited the reactions of authorities.[16]


Coming of Age

The Gammler-problem disappeared by itself. By the late 1960s, public concerns shifted away from dropouts and towards politicized students. There were overlaps, of course: Gammler generally frequented urban spaces with larger universities and were clearly in support of anti-establishment protests—depending on the issue; they also had experiences with discussions and interactions at the street and grassroots level. Either way, now the student dominated debates.

The mobility of Gammler as European travelers had also connected them to other young people—in London, Paris, Rome, and certainly Amsterdam. These young people migrated along informally known routes, crossing Europe like backpackers later on. They were trailblazers, if you will, early tourists wandering around for cheap. While such wanderers could rely on youth hostels and other infrastructures later on, at the time each city seemed to have its unsanctioned spaces for Gammler—though some were much more welcoming than others. “Magical Amsterdam,” as it was known by the late 1960s, became one Mecca for young travelers and has kept its youthful image to this day.[17]

And so discussions of juvenile delinquency and specific images of youth can tell us much about moments in history. The hysteria surrounding Gammler at least briefly exposed underlying conservative values and fears. After all, Gammler had challenged existing norms. And over time that arguably helped a young West German republic to become a more open and tolerant society—to come of age.



Martin Kalb is Assistant Professor of History at Bridgewater College, a small liberal arts college in Virginia. His research focuses on Germany and its empires, with an emphasis on youth cultures and environmental history.



[1] For a decent overview on youth studies see: G. Jones, Youth (Cambridge, 2009). For policing see the work of Stuart Hall and others. Klaus Weinhauer, Herbert Reinke, and Nadine Recktenwald have discussed Gammler in some detail; Richard Ivan Jobs also touches on them briefly.

[2] I focus on West Germany; there are similar dynamics worth exploring in East Germany.

[3] For shabby see: Die Zeit, “Gammler sind nicht erwünscht,” 13 December 1963. For music see: Die Zeit, “Zu glatt, zu chic, zu leer,” 6 December 1963. For the term Gammler see: Die Zeit, “Gammeln und Jobben,” 9 October 1964.

[4] For hair and Mozart see: Die Zeit, “Aber eine Zahnbürste hat jeder,” 25 March 1966. For conversations on the street level see: P. Fleischmann, prod., Herbst der Gammler (Munich, 1967). See also: Der Spiegel, “Wiar a Kropf,” 23 October 1967. For camps see: K. Weinhauer, “Eliten, Generation, Jugenddelinquenz und innere Sicherheit,” 33-58, here 49, in Recht und Justiz im gesellschaftlichen Aufbruch (1960-1975): Bundesrepublik Deutschland, Italien und Frankreich im Vergleich (Baden-Baden, 2003). For guest workers, gassed, taken care, and kill see: Fleischmann, prod., Herbst der Gammler.

[5] For Frankfurt see: Die Zeit, “Pilzköpfe an der Hauptwache,” 25 June 1965. For club see: Die Zeit, “Fichte und Beat,” 7 October 1966. For Hannover see: Die Zeit, “Kirche, die nicht im Dorf bleibt,” 30 June 1967.

[6] For cover story and specific quotes see: Der Spiegel, “Schalom aleichem,” 19 September 1966. See also: Der Spiegel, “Sie nannten mich ‘Erbse,’” 19 September 1966. For regional papers see: Der Münchner Merkur, “Gammler machen schmutzige Geschäfte,” 22/23 October 1966; Die Süddeutsche Zeitung, “Gammler,” 4 November 1966; Die Frankurter Allgemeine Zeitung, “Gammler,” 30 November 1966.

[7] For other scholars see: W. Hollstein, “Gammler und Provos,” Frankfurter Hefte 22 (1967): 409-418; M. Kosel, Gammler, Beatniks, Provos: Die schleichende Revolution (Frankfurt am Main, 1967); M. F., “Keine Toleranz für Gammler?” Deutsche Jugend 16 (1968): 93-94; E. Pelke, Protestformen der Jugend: Über Beatniks, Gammler, Provos und Hippies (Donauwörth, 1969). For the quote see: Ibid., 8.

[8] Sociologist Werner Hollstein went undercover and concluded that 53% of Gammler in Paris, Copenhagen, Frankfurt am Main, Geneva, and Zurich were (high school) students, 82% middle class, and most between 16-21 years of age. W. Hollstein, Der Untergrund: Zur Soziologie jugendlicher Protestformen (Neuwied/ Berlin, 1968), 42. For criminals with means see: H. Reinke, “’Leute mit Namen’: Wohlstandskriminelle, Gammler und Andere,” 539-553, here 551, in, Repräsentationen von Kriminalität und öffentlicher Sicherheit: Bilder, Vorstellungen und Diskurse vom 16. bis zum 20. Jahrhundert, ed. K. Härter, G. Sälter, and E. Wiebel (Frankfurt am Main, 2010). On the quote see: Kosel, Gammler, Beatniks, Provos, 10.

[9] For Gammlerism see: Der Spiegel, “Wiar a Kropf,” 23 October 1967. See also: Stadtarchiv München, Polizeidirektion München 15622. For radical and vandalize see: Der Spiegel, “Schalom aleichem,” 19 September 1966. For governing see: Die Zeit, “Kanzler-Bann,” 1 July 1966; Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, “Erhard: Kampf den Gammlern,” 27 June 1966. Cities like Mainz and Hamburg responded to Erhard’s request by noting that they had little concerns tied to Gammler. Reinke, “’Leute mit Namen’,” 551, in, Repräsentationen von Kriminalität und öffentlicher Sicherheit.

[10] For this law-and-order narrative see: Die Zeit, “Zur inneren Gesundung des Volkes,” 29 May 1970; Die Zeit, “Wenn alles in Scherben fällt,” 17 March 1967; Die Zeit, “Der Aufmarsch der Spiesser,” 11 November 1966. For the reference (Wolfgang Ebert) see: Die Zeit, “Nützliche Gammler,” 8 July 1966.

[11] Hollstein speaks of 6,000–10,000 Gammler in West Germany and Europe, a number recent scholarship has questioned. Hollstein, “Gammler und Provos,” 410. Reinke, “’Leute mit Namen’,” 550, in, Repräsentationen von Kriminalität und öffentlicher Sicherheit. For kings see: Die Abendzeitung, “Der König der Münchner Gammler liegt in der Münchner Klinik,” 27 June 1968. Der Spiegel reported on the manufactured outrage. Der Spiegel, “Schalom Aleichem,” 19 September 1966. For false claims see: W. Becker, Jugend in der Rauschgiftwelle (Hamm, 1968); H. Böttcher, Sind Gammler Ganoven? Einige Auffälligkeiten und Anfälligkeiten der heutigen Jugend (Gladbeck/Westfalen, 1968). For small see: Kosel, Gammler, Beatniks, Provos, 10. For criminalization see: Werner Lindner, Jugendprotest seit den fünfziger Jahren: Dissens und kultureller Eigensinn (Opladen, 1996), 87.

[12] For the Munich Line see: M. Schreiber, “Münchens Polizei – Kein Staat in der Stadt,” [np], in, München und seine Polizei, ed. M. Schreiber and E. Krack (Wiesbaden, 1964); M. Schreiber, “Das Jahre 1968 in München,” 39, in, 1968. 30 Jahre danach, ed. V. Schubert (St. Ottilien, 1999). For disruptors see: Staatsarchiv München, Polizeidirektion München 11130. For pseudo-artists see: M. Schreiber, quoted in J. Falter, Chronik des Polizeipräsidiums München (Munich, 1995), 169. For dirt see: Der Spiegel, “Schalom Aleichem,” 19 September 1966. For crawling see; Hollstein, “Gammler und Provos,” 414; Kosel, Gammler, Beatniks, Provos.

[13] For asocials/ criminals see: Staatsarchiv München, Polizeidirektion 15623; Staatsarchiv München, Polizeidirektion 15630. See also: Münchner Merkur, “Gammler werden kriminell,” 8 August 1969. For sidewalks see: Der Spiegel, “Wiar a Kropf,” 23 October 1967. For ID check see: Die Presse (1966), quoted in F. Fricke, München rockt: Die wilde Zeit an der Isar (Munich, 2007), 62.

[14] For Funk see: Die Zeit, “Meine Polizisten prügeln nicht,” 5 May 1967. For batons see: Die Zeit, “Heute keine Anzeigen: Hannover erklärt seinen Gammlern den Krieg,” 25 August 1967. For cleansings see: Die Zeit, “An der Gammler Front,” 25 August 1967.

[15] For signs see: Die Zeit, “Aber eine Zahnbürste hat jeder,” 25 March 1966. For spatial changes in Munich see: Staatsarchiv München, Polizeidirektion München 11130.

[16] Bundesverfassungsgericht, decision 18 July 1967, accessible at https://opinioiuris.de/entscheidung/1520, last accessed 30 March 2019. See also: Die Zeit, “Freiheit der Person,” 1 December 1967; M. Willing, Sozialistische Wohlfahrt (Tübingen, 2008), 263.

[17] On students see: K. Stankiewitz, München ’68: Traumstadt in Bewegung (Munich, 2008). For Amsterdam see: R. I. Jobs, Backpack Ambassadors: How Youth Travel Integrated Europe (Chicago, 2017), 165.


Photo: Herbst der Gammler (1967) | MUBI
Published on September 9, 2019.


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