Following the First World War, Germany experienced widespread social change. Young people in the Weimar Republic turned their backs on the social conservatism and aristocratic pretensions of the failed Prussian empire. Thousands of them left the cities for the country, roaming through farms and mountains in their search for meaning. This Youth Movement rejected the crass materialism of the cities in favor of the rural life, with its simple pleasures of folk-dancing and hiking, and renounced the sterility of factory life to embrace the hard work – and the stench – of the farm. For them, the collapse of civilization as they knew it was proof of humanity's need for nature, and for God. And although many of them soon drifted into the hedonism and moral decay that characterized the post-war period, others, like the Arnolds, saw in the Youth Movement an affirmation of their spiritual quest for wholeness. The following paragraphs from different periods in Eberhard Arnold's life demonstrate his indebtedness to the Youth Movement and provide some important evaluations of its social and spiritual significance.
In 1899 and the following years, the Youth Movement sprang up in different parts of Germany. We young people had barely emerged from childhood. We longed to get out of the untruthful conditions of the churches and schools. The fight for purity and freedom took different forms in different places, yet was the same fight. We were driven by the longing to live as natural human beings, to live with nature.
The whole rigid system of tradition and class distinction seemed to us an enslavement of true humanity. We wanted to get away from our social surroundings to the highways, fields, woods, and mountains. We fled the cities as much as possible. What were we looking for in nature? Freedom, friendship, community. We went out together, not isolated like hermits. Together we sought life in the outdoors.
Postwar youth abhorred the big cities as places of impurity for body and soul. They felt the cities were seats of mammon; they felt the coldness and the poisonous air. They found that people did not live as God wants them to live. Families had two children, one child, or in many cases none. The whole atmosphere of the city seemed to them saturated with murder and degeneracy. The cities were straying far from what God wanted for human beings. So the young people left the cities. It was not quite the same as Rousseau’s back-to-nature philosophy, but somewhat similar. They wanted to return to places where they could be close to God’s creation, where they could feel afresh that God breathed his own living breath into human beings and into plants and animals. They wanted to get away from the stench, the dirt, and the smoke, and from the folly of human works.
Their spirit drew them back to nature, to ally themselves with the spirit at work there. To them the spirit at work in nature and the Spirit of God were one and the same. God first created the land and the plants and animals, and then he created human beings. They all were in harmony. In this movement [the Youth Movement] all of these flowed together again.
People told us, “You are nature lovers, you want to go back to nature!” No, that was not what we wanted. On the contrary, we recognized more and more how corrupted nature is in the old creation (Rom. 8:20–22). We did not want to return to the old nature (that is why we have always rejected nudism), but we did feel that behind nature the divine is at work (Rom. 1:20; Ps. 19:1–4). Behind all nature we felt its inner coherence, its unity willed by God, in spite of the opposition of satanic and demonic forces. God’s love is manifest in that unity. Creative life from God is revealed. What we worship is not things, not nature, but the mystery of God the Creator.
That was also a danger in the Youth Movement. Some people revered creation itself. They romanticized the beauties of nature and of the human body. In some cases this led to nature worship. The next step was to reject the Creator in favor of the creature, just as National Socialism does today.
In nature, too, there are good and evil side by side, light and shadow. Nature does not give us pure light but an alternation of light and darkness. Human life has its bright hours and its dark hours. So there has to be a revelation outside the book of nature. The book of nature is important, but it is not enough. The best advice for a person who does not yet believe in Jesus is to search the history of the human race for the person in whom God’s truth and light are most clearly revealed. We recognize Jesus Christ to be that person (Col. 1:15–20). We know that in him there is nothing but light, that his love and his word give us perfect light, and that this light is indeed love. So we have come to know God as love. God is love; and those who remain in love remain in God and God in them (1 John 4:15–16).
Article edited for length and clarity.