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Heinz Kluth, "The 'Hooligans' [Halbstarke] – Legend or Reality?" (1956)

In 1950s West Germany, the traditional values of the older generation clashed with the new and different ideas of young people, which found expression in new forms of dress, music, and leisure-time activities. The older generation’s skepticism toward younger Germans was reflected in the label they gave them: Halbstarke (“hooligans”). In his analysis of the “hooligan” problem, sociologist Heinz Kluth spoke out against the blanket verdict issued against the “hooligans” by large parts of the media and the West German public. He emphasized that the “hooligan” phenomenon was limited to a small circle of big-city youth and was closely linked to changes in the social environment within modern society. This society denied young people recognition, failed to offer suitable outlets for their natural urge toward action, and forced them into an awkward position between the world of children and that of adults.

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The discussion over the ways and wrong ways of youth never dies down completely; from time to time, though, it definitely reaches a certain crescendo. These crescendos are clearly recognizable by the condensation of all confusions, judgments, and prejudices into a single catchword that informs the public’s view of everything these young people do. The frantic questions about “hooligans” prove that we are currently once again in such a situation. It is surely more than a coincidence that these crescendos always seems to occur when society seeks to establish itself upon the supposedly secure field of what has been “achieved.” In such a phase of development, people are especially sensitive to all signs that might portend a threat to the current situation; it is a time when molehills are turned all too easily into mountains. Every behavior that is supposedly or actually different from one’s own already constitutes a threat. Now, every younger generation will develop – to a greater or lesser extent – new forms of behavior that are more appropriate to the structural conditions under which it is growing up than the corresponding behavioral models of adults. Therefore, not everything that deviates from the behavior that is perceived as “normal” at a given time is pathological; however, it is denounced as pathological as soon as it runs counter to the conventional foundations upon which the behavioral security of adults rests.

[ . . . ]

A Spectacular Catchword

If the word “hooligans” has any separate meaning at all, then what it refers to must be situated within the insecure field that lies beyond youth criminality. With their crude ascriptions, people overshoot the comparatively tiny segment of this field that one could address as the sphere of “hooligan behavior.” At its core, this behavior is neither criminal nor asocial; however, it is also not social in any relevant sense of the word. It lacks the continuity and purposefulness needed to be either one or the other. What characterizes the “hooligan” is his all but explosive action for the sake of it. The word “hooligan” today, however, does not refer at all to a specific problem; rather, it has become a spectacular catchword in the above-mentioned sense – and this can be demonstrated by the fact that the public discussion not only associates such diverse phenomena as criminality, jazz fans, and gang violence with “hooligans,” but also counts both fourteen and thirty year-olds among them.

“Hooligans” are new in neither word nor substance; the only new thing is that the large metropolitan environment no longer seems equipped to deal with the matter. The word “hooligans” is already about six decades old. Around the turn of the century, the Hamburg bourgeoisie used it to describe the proletarian youth. Thus, from the beginning, it was a designation for a sphere of life that was foreign and possibly even hostile toward one’s own. However, the problem of the “hooligans” has probably already existed for as long as young people have confronted the task of growing into the norms prescribed by society. But the forms in which the youth of any given age could, or can, wrestle with this issue vary a great deal. Thus, the “hooligans” do not represent the youth today, as such, any more than the “Tango youth” or the “Swing-Boy” once did. So far, the “hooligans” have remained limited almost exclusively to the large cities; and in the affected cities, even according to the most pessimistic estimates, only one percent of youth, at most, could be labeled as such.

However, if one counts every criminal youth among the “hooligans,” and if one sees in everyone who attends a jazz event or watches a Western, or simply stands around the street looking bored, a potential “hooligan” at the very least – and this perhaps even independent of his age – then the phenomenon does indeed grow to menacing proportions; but in that case any possibility of a reasonable discussion ends. The attempt to bring the question of the “hooligans” back to an appropriate level, at least in some aspects, does not mean that such a discussion is either impossible or simply unnecessary. If even the small group of “hooligans” does not represent today’s youth as such, the extreme forms that their reactions take do reveal problems that the larger part of our big-city youth probably has to contend with in some form or another.

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