Founded amid the nationalist enthusiasms of the War of Liberation, the German gymnastic movement, or Turnverein, had fundamentally changed by the time of the 1848 revolutions in the German lands. Although Friedrich Ludwig Jahn, the gymnasium instructor who had originated the idea of nationalist gymnastics in Berlin in 1811, 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 committed to national unification and political liberalism. While the Turnverein's ideological stance reflected the prevailing spirit of the German Vormärz, it also bespoke the peculiar circumstances of the organization's history. The German Confederation of Metternich had viewed the patriotic enthusiasms of the War of Liberation with suspicion and had banned the Turnverein following the murder of the conservative journalist August von Kotzebue by the young student Karl Sand in 1819. Turnverein practice areas had been closed, the apparatus dismantled, and the leaders prosecuted. Jahn himself had been imprisoned at the Kolberg Fortress until 1825, and barred from teaching or gymnastic work after his release. This period, which Jahn called the Turnsperre, lasted in Prussia and most German states until the 1840s.
The lifting of the Turnsperre in the more liberal atmosphere of the 1840s reawakened the Turnverein to a vigorous new life. The center of the revived movement shifted out of Prussia, which had been its heartland under Jahn's leadership, to the South and West German States, where the Turnsperre had generally been shorter and less restrictive. The membership of the new clubs was more inclusive, as the cor of students and academics which had made up the rank and file of the Turnverein in its early years was joined by a large contingent of craft workers, along with many Jewish members, often in positions of leadership. These gymnastic clubs were often closely aligned with workers' organizations and democratic clubs with whom they shared a desire for reform and a rejection of traditional hierarchies.
In contrast to the organization Jahn had founded, almost one-half of the membership on the 1840s were non-gymnasts, the so-called "Friends of Turnen," and because of this, the new clubs engaged in more non-gymnastic activities, such as funding libraries and reading rooms, and sponsoring lectures, often of a politically liberal nature. They joined the new volunteer firemen's movement, and acted as a police force during the outbreaks of social unrest which characterized the revolutionary period. They even imparted a new spirit to their gymnastic program by initiating training sessions for children and, far more radical in light of the times, for women as well. Flaunting their rebellious spirit, the gymnasts of Vormärz wore their hair long and sported large black hats decorated with a rooster feather instead of the more formal attire of the Biedermeier period.
Spread throughout the geographic area of Germany, this more diverse gymnastic movement staged larger and more elaborate gymnastic festivals, which sometimes lasted several days and always culminated with a pledge for national unity. In an effort to realize this unity on a gymnastic level, an all-German gymnastic union was formed in April 1848, shortly after revolution had swept the German Confederation. Established as a demonstration of support for the Frankfurt Parliament, the new league was immediately controversial not the least because it avowed purpose, "to work for the unity of the German people and to uplift the brotherhood and the physical and spiritual power of the people," failed to mention gymnastics. Impatient with the cautious program of the German Gymnastic Union, a group of radical clubs formed a second, rival union called the "Democratic Gymnastic Union," and further schisms followed.
Given the radicalization of the movement in the 1840s, it is not surprising that the German gymnasts were directly involved in the 1848 revolutions. Turnverein leaders won renown for their leading roles in local uprisings, among them Gustav Struve in Baden, Otto Heubner in Dresden, and August Schärttner in Hanau. One Turnverein leader who was not in the forefront of radical change was Turnvater Jahn. Elected as a representative to the Frankfurt Parliament, Jahn was given honor, but no real influence, in the revived gymnastic movement.
Although a proposal to form a "Gymnastic Army" (Turnerschar) to supplement the National Guard was never realized, gymnasts manned barricades and participated in crucial fighting during the revolutions. Early in the revolutionary period, the eighty-odd members of the Kiel Turnverein took arms against Denmark in the conflict over Schleswig-Holstein. Although soon defeated, their actions won praise from moderates in the organization who contrasted their "unpolitical" dedication to the cause of the nation with the more radical social and political programs of gymnasts in other regions. Exemplifying this latter trend were the gymnasts in the mob that murdered Prince Felix Lichnowsky and General Hans von Auerswald in Frankfurt in September 1848, during a popular protest against the armistice with Denmark, and those who fought, often in the club uniform, to defend the city of Dresden against Prussian forces in May 1849. Turnverein clubs also participated in the veneration of Robert Blum, who had been killed by counter-revolutionary forces in Vienna, by holding services in his honor, marching in memorial parades, and helping to raise money for his family.
The Turnverein as an organization was most closely associated with the uprisings in Baden, the center of the radical sentiment in southwest Germany. Gymnasts had been among the defenders of the city of Freiburg in early disturbances in the province in April 1848. In the late spring and early summer of 1849, violence erupted again and brought about some of the most prolonged fighting of the revolutionary period. After agitation for a democratic nation-state had forced the Grand Duke to flee, other German states, led by Prussia, sent in troops to crush the movement. The gymnastic organization of the Rhineland province of Hanau organized a march to Baden to defend the province. Although this force gathered around 600 men along the way, it was poorly armed and led and easily outmatched by the regular armies it encountered. About 240 survivors of this effort managed to cross into neighboring Switzerland, where they received a hero's welcome from Swiss gymnasts and students.
The aftermath of the 1848 revolutions devastated the German gymnastic movement. Clubs were disbanded, property confiscated and leaders lost to jail or exile. The various attempts to form a union of gymnastic clubs likewise fell victim to the Reaction. In these circumstances, the Turnverein turned away from politics to concentrate on its gymnastic program. It was only with the revival of the drivefor German unification in the late 1860s, that the gymnastic movement rediscovered its purpose and was able to regain he momentum of the revolutionary era.
Claire E. Nolte
Langewiesche, Dieter "'Für Volk und Vaterland kraeftig zu wirken': Zur politischen und gesellschaftlichen Rolle der Turner zwischen 1811 und 1871," In Kulturgut oder Körperkult, 22-61. Ed. Ommo Grupe. Tübingen: Attempto, 1990.
Neuendorff, Edmund Geschichte der neueren deutschen Leibesübungen vom Beginn des 18. Jahrhunderts bis zur Gegenwart III Die Zeit von 1820 bis 1860 Dresden: Limpert-Verlag, .
Neumann, Hannes Die deutsche Turnbewegung in der Revolution 1848/49 und in der amerikanischen Emigration Schorndorf: Hofmann, 1968.
Überhorst, Horst Friedrich Ludwig Jahn and His Time, 1778-1852 Trans. by Timothey Nevill. Munich: Moos, 1978.
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