200 Years of Gymnastics in Germany
Enlarge image Portrait of Friedrich Ludwig Jahn, undated lithograph by R. Loeszk (© picture-alliance/ akg-images) The Hasenheide is an approx. 125-acre park in Berlin’s district of Neukölln, bordering Kreuzberg. Here, Friedrich Ludwig Jahn (1778-1852) held his first public gymnastics instruction with boys and men in June 1811. And with that, the German gymnastics movement was born. But the athletic aspect was not Jahn’s only aim, rather he was also pursuing a patriotic mission through the movement.
Jahn wanted to make German youth fit for military service in the liberation struggle against France, which had occupied large portions of Germany under Napoleon. Jahn’s aim was to help unite Germany under Prussian rule, with the citizenry participating in the political system. He preferred a constitutional monarchy as the form of government. His idea inspired many young people, and he found his followers mainly among university students.
Enlarge image Unknown athlete with decorations, ca. 1890 (© picture-alliance / akg-images) In 1816, he published his major work Deutsche Turnkunst (“German Gymnastics”), a guide on how to create public athletic fields and to practice sports. Apart from throwing, jumping, wrestling, fencing, and swimming, the physical exercises also included apparatus gymnastics. The horizontal bar, parallel bars, and pommel horse were all developed by Jahn. Membership in the gymnastics movement entailed attending joint festivals, participating in gymnastic excursions to get to know Germany, singing patriotic songs, and reading patriotic works.
The idea of gymnastics spread throughout all of Germany. By 1819, some 12,000 members were organized in 150 gymnastic associations. But the political restoration forces that gained in influence following Napoleon’s defeat in 1815 viewed the activities of the national-liberal gymnastics movements as a threat to the state.
Enlarge image In 1894, 3,000 “Turner” participated in the inauguration of this commemorative gymnasium in Freyburg (Saxony-Anhalt), which is still in use today. (© picture-alliance/ ZB) The book burnings at the student Wartburg festival in 1817 and the murder of the Russian consul general by the student and gymnast Karl Ludwig Sand in 1819 gave King Frederick Wilhelm II of Prussia a welcome alibi to ban gymnastics. Several gymnasts from Jahn’s circle were arrested. Jahn himself was imprisoned for six years. For the rest of his life, he remained under police surveillance and was not permitted to live in any university or high school town. Following the lifting of the ban in 1842, the gymnastics movement experienced a renaissance. By the end of 1847, its membership rose to approx. 90,000. The failed March Revolution in 1848 brought an end to gymnastics as a political movement, because many associations were once again placed under surveillance or dissolved. With the establishment of the German Empire in 1871, however, one of Jahn’s aims, the German nation-state, was achieved.
Gymnastics in modern-day Germany
Enlarge image This commemorative statue of Friedrich Ludwig Jahn is located in the Hasenheide Park in Berlin. (© picture alliance / dpa) Initially, gymnastics was a purely male activity. Women were viewed as the weaker sex, and doctors and teachers saw health risks in female gymnastics and the endangerment of propriety at public events. But as women’s role evolved around the turn of the 20th century, views changed with respect to female gymnastics. In 1897, approx. 3 percent of association members in Germany were women; in 2008, nearly 70 percent.
Today, the Association of German Gymnasts has over five million members. Every age group engages in sports – from young children to seniors. Both performance and recreational sports trace back to Jahn’s model. Modern-day gymnastics clubs contribute significantly to the well-being of society.
And the Hasenheide today? Recreational sports – from soccer to skateboarding, to roller hockey, to basketball – continue to take place at the site. At the north entrance to the park, there is a monument to Jahn commemorating the first gymnasts 200 years ago.