200 Years of Gymnastics in Germany

Portrait of Friedrich Ludwig Jahn, undated lithograph by R. Loeszk 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.

Unknown athlete with decorations, ca. 1890 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.

Commemorative gymnasium in Freyburg 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

Commemorative statue of Friedrich Ludwig Jahn in the Hasenheide Ppark 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.

© Germany.info

Gymnastics in Germany

Acrobat on a slackline in Hasenheide Park, May 2011

Bringing Gymnastics to America

The origins of the American gymnastics movement can be traced back to three followers of Jahn who had left Germany following the first ban and settled in Massachusetts shortly after their arrival in the United States.

Charles Beck (1798-1866) began to teach Latin in 1825 at the Round Hill School in Northampton, Massachusetts, a reform school modeled on the German system. There, he built the first outdoor gymnasium for athletics in the United States and practiced physical education on the basis of Jahn’s principles. Beck translated Jahn’s book, Deutsche Turnkunst, into English.

Charles Follen (1796-1840) became engaged in the German gymnastics movement and the revolutionary student movement. Because of his ties to Karl Sand, the murderer of the Russian consul general Kotzebue, he had to leave Germany and later also Switzerland. In 1824, he arrived together with Charles Beck in New York. He started out teaching at Round Hill before taking on a position at Harvard University. There, he became the founder of the first college gymnasium in America in 1826.

Francis Lieben (1800-1872) fought in several European wars before he emigrated and began working together with Charles Follen in the American gymnastics movement. Both men believed deeply in the importance of physical education in training the body and mind.

Still, general interest in gymnastics began to wane in America in 1830. The gymnastics movement did not gain a foothold in the United States again until a new wave of German immigrants came to the country in 1848. Among the immigrant gymnasts was Carl Schurz, who later became United States’s secretary of the interior. The same year, the first gymnastics association was established in Cincinnati. By 1860, over 150 gymnastics associations existed in America. Gymnasts fought in the Civil War and provided the bodyguard troops at Lincoln’s inauguration in 1861 and at his burial. From 1880 onward, gymnastics became an integral part of school curricula.  

German-American Heritage

"Baptismal Certificate" of America © Rolf Haid dpa/lsw,  dpa - Bildfunk

Since the arrival of a German botanist in the Jamestown in 1608, German immigrants and their descendants have made an indelible imprint on this country.  Today, some 43 million Americans claim German heritage.