By the mid-nineteenth century European gymnastics was an established system that had evolved through a century of innovation and adaptation. Originating in the Enlightenment with the
experiments of educational reformers intent on reviving a Greek ideal which the Roman poet Juvenal had summarized as mens sana in corpore sano (a healthy mind in a healthy body), gymnastics achieved widespread recognition after Friedrich Ludwig Jahn initiated the Turnverein (gymnastics club) movement.
The inventor of apparatus such as the balance beam, parallel bars, and vaulting horse, he used the discipline of organized exercise to inspire young gymnasts with a sense of national (Prussian) duty and solidarity. Jahn turned gymnastics into an agency of German patriotism.
The ambiguity of his message: enjoyment of competition and companionship versus militant nationalism, brought about Jahn’s contrasting legacies in Europe and the United States.
Presence of Napoleon
Friedrich Ludwig Jahn was an instructor at Graue Kloster, a classical high school (Gymnasium) in Berlin. Disillusioned with Napoleon’s victories in the German-speaking territories, he concluded that gymnastics could restore the nation’s physical strength and pride.
In June of 1811, he opened the first gymnastic ground or Turnplatz, from which the Turnverein would derive its name. Known in Germany as “Turnvater Jahn,” he began instructing students in drills and exercises. Physical education was not part of the curriculum at the time and its inclusion was a radical departure from common practice. His philosophical intent was to instill principles of liberal democracy infused with a strong dose of patriotism.
Jahn set out to create an army of youngsters willing to fight for unification of the regions. The aspiration towards nationhood within the disparate German states was expressed in terms of shared
language and common folklore. He introduced the mythical idea of “Volkstum” as a crucial unifying source. The word became a rallying cry not only against French domination, but also against the archaic rule of regional dynasties and the conservative might of the Church.
The message found fertile ground amongst German patriots who were galvanized when news filtered through of Napoleon’s retreat from Russia. Jahn started enlisting students into his “free corps” to fight the French armies in a War of Liberation. The “Befreiungskriege” lasted from 1813 to 1815.
Jahn’s ambitions were at odds with those of the political leaders in Restoration Europe who were suspicious of any group that seemed to espouse liberal principles. In 1819, Metternich used the murder of the conservative journalist August von Kotzebue by the student Karl Sand in Mannheim as an excuse to clamp down on the Turnverein movement. Its apparatus was dismantled and its leaders prosecuted.
Jahn was imprisoned at Prussia’s Kolberg Fortress until 1825 and barred from teaching gymnastics after his release. The ban (known as “Turnsperre”) lasted in Prussia and most German states until the 1840s. It was not until the 1848 student-led uprisings that Jahn’s ideals seemed to be coming into fruition – but there was a historical twist.
Rebellion & Reaction
The more liberal atmosphere of the 1840s lifted the Turnverein into renewed activity. The center of the movement shifted away from Prussia to southern and western regions and its membership widened as workers and women joined the ranks. Jewish applicants were admitted too, some of them gaining notable positions of leadership in the movement’s hierarchy.
The gymnastic clubs became aligned to political organizations that called for democratic reform. As a consequence, many members were non-gymnasts. Instead, they were involved in funding libraries and reading rooms, or sponsoring lectures and political rallies. All forms of participation were driven by the demand for national unity. Symbolized in April 1848 by the creation of an all-German Gymnastic Union, its founders avowed to “work for the unity of the German people.”
By 1848, the gymnastic movement in Germany had fundamentally changed. Although Jahn was still venerated in the organization, his anti-Semitism, hatred of the French, and loyalty to the Hohenzollern dynasty left him out of step with an organization that had committed itself to political liberalism. He died in 1852, bitter and disillusioned.
Gymnasts were directly involved in the 1848 revolutions, they manned the barricades, and took part in armed conflicts. The aftermath of the uprising devastated the movement. The Reaction took revenge. Clubs were disbanded, property confiscated, and leaders jailed or exiled. Many of them migrated to Britain, the United States, and elsewhere. Most of these immigrant (known as “Forty-Eighters”) were educated, politically astute, and well-received in their host nations.
Once the drive for German unification was revived in the late 1860s, the gymnastic movement rediscovered its purpose and regained the momentum of the revolutionary era. Early idealism was
replaced by a zealous dedication to concepts of German national purity and culture. The Volkstum myth acquired a militaristic connotation which extended naturally into theories that sprang from social Darwinism. Gymnastics would become a vehicle for Nazi assumptions of racial superiority.
Battle for Gymnastics
Born in Frankfurt am Main in December 1834 into a family of engravers, Ernst Ravenstein was one of the youngsters who was brought up in this tradition of physical exertion. Having completed his studies, he moved to London in 1852 where he was employed as a cartographer at the Ministry of War. He retired in 1872 and became editor of Geographical Magazine.
Ravenstein combined his profession with a passion for sport. In 1861 he founded London’s “Deutsche Turnverein” and established the “Turnhalle” at no. 26 Pancras Road. The building – now listed as a historic landmark – was designed in 1864/5 by Edward Gruning (his parents were German immigrants). The first purpose-built gymnasium in Britain, it was funded by London’s German community.
Immigrant gymnasts shaped physical education during the Victorian era, but ultimately the British adopted a form of gymnastics that had its roots in Stockholm rather than in Berlin. The argument on the purpose of physical exercise was settled by Hungarian immigrant Mathias Roth who had moved to London in 1849. He had been a pupil of Carl August Georgii at the Royal Gymnastic Central Institute, Stockholm, who himself was a close associate of Per Henrik Ling, the pioneer of Swedish physical education.
In his well-attended Institution for the Cure of Disease by Swedish Gymnastics at no. 48 Wimpole Street, Marylebone, Roth promoted Ling’s concept of therapeutic exercise. In 1909, the London
School Board issued a Syllabus of Physical Training which was based entirely on the Swedish system of gymnastics. The curriculum was still in use in the years immediately after the Second World War.
Roth developed the concept of scientific physical education, advocating the teaching of physiology and educational gymnastics. The Swedish gymnastics model offered an alternative to the German military version of strengthening the muscles.
After the 1848 disaster, many of Jahn’s followers moved to America as political refugees, bringing Turnerism with them. The first Turnverein was founded in 1848 by Friedrich Hecker in Cincinnati which had President Howard Taft as a member (Hecker would serve as a brigade commander in the Union Army during the Civil War). Half a century later, the nation counted 317 Turner clubs with 40,000 members. Several chapters were listed in New York.
The New York Turn Verein was founded by thirty-six German refugees in June 1850 at Stubenbord’s Restaurant on 48th Beekman Street, Manhattan. Its first President and co-founder was Sigismund Kaufmann, a Jewish lawyer and friend of Abraham Lincoln. The organization was granted its corporate charter by the New York State Legislature in March 1857.
The club served as an athletic and sociopolitical gathering based upon Friedrich Ludwig Jahn’s original ideals. German being its exclusive language, the society functioned as a cultural sanctuary, preserving traditional customs and celebrations. At the same time, integration was encouraged by the sponsorship of English language and citizenship classes. Developing a sense of American identity was high on the agenda of aims.
Opened in 1859, the club’s first permanent home was a former Quaker church located on Orchard Street, Lower East Side. It was from there that the 20th Infantry Regiment of the Union Army, known as the Turner Rifles (as its soldiers were drawn mostly from New York’s “Kleindeutschland” neighbourhood), marched off to join the Civil War in June 1861. The Rifles were in action at the bloody Battle of Antietam.
In 1897 the New York Turn Verein acquired a property on the corner of Lexington Avenue and 85th Street, in the heart of Yorkville. The four story Turn Verein Hall was dedicated a year later. It housed bowling alleys on the lower level, meeting and classrooms on the second floor, a large ballroom and stage on the third floor, and the gymnasium on the fourth. The ground floor tenant was Hans Jaeger’s, one of the city’s best-known German restaurants. The Hall survived until 1984 when it was sold to developers and demolished.
Jahn’s legacy was ambiguous. He expressed a desire for democratic reform and social justice, but he also realized that his ideal of unification demanded military discipline and the need for an ideology that would glue various geographical factions into a single political unit.
The liberal spirit of the 1840s was crushed in the aftermath of 1848 and exiled to Britain and the United States. The revived tendency towards German unification in the late 1860s was typified by increasing belligerence and racial indoctrination. In London and other European capitals, gymnasts turned away from Germany and “Turnvater Jahn” was soon forgotten.
The American experience was different. The Forty-Eighters brought with them a dedication to democracy and justice that was exemplified in the quest to abolish slavery, in the call for equal rights for women, and in a drive for educational reform. Although “socialist” in name, their opinions didn’t deviate much from American capitalism and political thought.
The First and Second World Wars brought intense moral and emotional conflicts for the movement and its membership declined. Twice in a single generation of immigrants, America was at war with Germany. In December 1939, the ‘Turnerbund’ was officially renamed American Turners in order to eliminate any misconceived connections between themselves and Nazi ideology.
After the German surrender, English became the predominant language of the Verein and its membership opened up to gymnasts without a German background. In 1983 the New York Turn Verein merged with the Mount Vernon Turners and changed its name to American Turners New York.
The Turners shaped American gymnastics, both as a competitive sport and in the school curriculum. Moreover, they raised the issue of fitness to a political level by asserting that support of physical exercise promotes national well-being. In an era when medical care became increasingly important (and costly), they turned Public Health Economics into an academic sub-discipline.
Illustrations, from above: 3,000 Turners at the Federal Gymnastics Festival in Milwaukee, 1893; Friedrich Ludwig Jahn (Francis Countway Library of Medicine); 1978 German postage stamp commemorating Friedrich Ludwig Jahn; “The Battle of Antietam,” lithograph published by Kurz & Allison (Chicago, 1878); and a U.S. postage stamp commemorating the 100th anniversary of the American Turners, 1848-1948.