Fowler on Jobs, 'Backpack Ambassadors: How Youth Travel Integrated Europe'

Richard Ivan Jobs
David Fowler

Richard Ivan Jobs. Backpack Ambassadors: How Youth Travel Integrated Europe. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2017. 360 pp. $35.00 (paper), ISBN 978-0-226-46203-5.

Reviewed by David Fowler (University of Cambridge) Published on H-Diplo (June, 2018) Commissioned by Seth Offenbach (Bronx Community College, The City University of New York)

Printable Version:

Richard Ivan Jobs’s Backpack Ambassadors: How Youth Travel Integrated Europe is an original exploration of a cultural experience undertaken by thousands of young people, predominantly middle-class students, across Europe and beyond (some embarking on the hippie trail to parts of North Africa, India, and Nepal) after 1945. Jobs’s central claim is that “as backpackers built a transnational network of mobility, their interactivity incorporated growing numbers of young people into a transnational youth culture” (p. 258). Despite this bold claim, Jobs does not prove that this transnational youth culture ever existed.

Backpack Ambassadors is a utopian book. It is, essentially, a social history of youth travel defined very broadly and incorporating state-sponsored schemes undertaken by such bodies as UNESCO and ERASMUS (European Community Action Scheme for the Mobility of University Students), as well as beatniks, hippies, student hitchhikers, and other members of youth subcultures who ventured into Europe as free agents for a variety of reasons. Unfortunately, except in isolated years such as 1968, this activity seems rarely to have been linked to the desire to build an international youth culture.

Jobs, a historian at Pacific University in Oregon, is unquestionably a diligent researcher and should be commended for the breadth of his archival digging. He lists archives in Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Singapore, the United Kingdom, and the United States. He also discovered a new archive that will be unknown to most modern British historians, the Hostelling International Archive in Welwyn Garden City. That said, his discussion of the historical episodes recounted in these rich archives misses key facts. For example, his chapter on “1968” (chapter 3) includes a section on the BBC program Students in Revolt, but unfortunately this section is not fully documented. Like many other historians, Jobs claims that Daniel Cohn Bendit, a French-German student who resided in France and was studying sociology at Paris Nanterre University on the outskirts of Paris, was an international student leader who set in motion an international youth movement across Europe in May and June 1968. I would argue that Cohn Bendit was in fact a divisive figure among his peers who, on his four-day visit to England in June 1968 to participate in Students in Revolt, was snubbed by the student body at the London School of Economics who claimed he was a media-created student celebrity. It was the British Press and the Labour Home Secretary, James Callaghan, who courted him. Callaghan even volunteered to teach him all the words of the “Internationale” after seeing him stumble through the performance on television.[1] Jobs has not researched this episode thoroughly enough, which was well documented in the national press, and thus his account of Cohn Bendit and what he represented is unconvincing.

The chapter on the international hippie movement of the 1960s (“Continental Drifters,” chapter 4) gives new prominence to European centers of hippie culture, such as Amsterdam, as beacons for youth travel, especially by the 1970s, and shifts the focus away from hackneyed concentration on San Francisco and the University of California, Berkeley. This is, by far, the most original and richly researched chapter in the book. But, again, the discussion suggests the lack of credibility of Jobs’s central thesis. Far from forging a new Europe, the hippies were opting out of mainstream European society and creating alternative communities within European cities, such as Amsterdam. And the photographs of European hippies (pp. 168-169) reveal a tribe of languid, Druidic sun-seekers rather than a purposeful community of youth “ambassadors” seeking to build a new “transnational” Europe. The hippies were opting out rather than constructing a new Europe.

Jobs has found, and mined, an interesting seam of twentieth-century youth history. Nonetheless, many central questions are not addressed in this book: when and how did this transnational youth culture come into existence? What forms did it take? How did it “shape” European integration? Moreover, there was surely a need in a study of youth travel across Europe after 1945 to discuss the specter of English football fans running amok across Europe during the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s and tarnishing the image of English youth abroad. There was also a need to discuss conscription and in England “National Service” (1948-62), which must have created a wanderlust among the thousands of young males who served abroad and could not settle on their return to their countries of origin. There was, finally, a need to discuss both Americanization and its cultural impact across Europe from the late 1950s and also the cultural impact of the Beatles in Europe from 1963 onward.

The Beatles ought to have been more central to Jobs’s study, especially given that they were actually forged in Europe—in Hamburg, between 1960 and 1962, to be precise. One of the personal testimonies in Jobs’s book offers a revealing insight into the cultural impact of the Beatles among the young of mainland Europe. In 1974 a fifteen-year-old Russian boy recorded in his diary his thoughts during a school trip to western Ukraine, where foreign travelers were welcome. He overheard Canadian and American tourists speaking “the tongue of the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and Deep Purple” (p. 198). This suggests that the role of English pop culture in forging youth identities in Europe, even Eastern Europe, was significant. Perhaps over the course of the 1960s and 1970s the Beatles and other English pop and rock groups helped shape youth identities, even behind the Iron Curtain, at least as much as young backpackers; and surely popular music and its cultural impact on youth deserved some consideration here. The Beatles are tangible and their cultural impact can easily be traced through Europe. A nebulous concept such as “an international youth culture” forged by “mobility” sounds much harder to trace and document. Jobs’s book is a sound attempt but it ultimately falls short of its aims.


[1]. See, for example, David Fowler, Youth Culture in Modern Britain, c.1920-c.1970: From Ivory Tower to Global Movement-A New History (New York: Macmillan, 2008), chap. 8 for a detailed examination of Cohn Bendit’s visit to Britain in June 1968, not cited by Jobs.

Citation: David Fowler. Review of Jobs, Richard Ivan, Backpack Ambassadors: How Youth Travel Integrated Europe. H-Diplo, H-Net Reviews. June, 2018. URL:

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