The Turns of the Turnverein: Heinrich Hamann’s Gymnastic Photographs (ca. 1902)

Despite their best efforts to keep still and straight-faced, the young, uniformed bodies in Heinrich Hamann’s turn-of-the-century photographs of Hamburg’s St. Pauli gymnastics society (Turnverein) remain in motion. Girls shaping a human pyramid alternate looks of attentiveness and amusement. Boys performing handstands on parallel bars are flanked by onlookers who smile, fidget, or grimace. A series of images involving inventive uses of the pommel horse — to reenact Don Quixote, to strike tableaux vivants of Romulus and Remus, and, when paired with a bicycle, to play “Texas Yack” (Jack) — allow physical education to decay into silliness. Only the adult gymnasts in these photographs approach the gravity of purpose desired by their coach. One can see in Hamann’s photographs both the playful spontaneity of the Turnvereins’ original exercises and the rigid postures and movements that would soon help meld individuals into the fascist masses of the Nuremberg rallies and 1936 Berlin Olympics.

The Turner movement and its calisthenic equipment sprang from a man known as “the Turnvater”: Johann Friedrich Ludwig Christoph Jahn (1778–1852), a German gymnastics educator and fervent nationalist who took the rough-and-tumble turnen (romping about) of unruly schoolboys and molded it into a populist force. Beginning with simple hikes alongside his students in the Berlin countryside, Jahn developed jumping, throwing, and catching games, as well as now-familiar gymnastics exercises — often performed during patriotic commemorations — to train the undisciplined youth. “Just as the gymnasts bounced over their bars with the firm strength of their bodies”, writes Hans Kohn, “so they expected to bounce into the future Volksstaat with the firm strength of their conviction and will”. More than a set of techniques to improve individual fitness, Jahn’s refinement of Johann Christoph Friedrich GutsMuths’ earlier exercises was meant to train a new form of body politic.

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Threatened both by Napoleon’s occupation of German states during the First French Empire and by French aristocratic culture, Jahn’s pedagogy (formalized in his 1816 Die deutsche Turnkunst) was a “paradoxical combination of Bohemianism and Puritanism”, with its emphasis on the Du form and informal dress. A significant presence in the 1813 to 1815 wars of liberation, the Turnverein movement spread widely until it was banned by a Prussian cabinet order in 1820, when gyms were closed and Jahn went to prison for two years as a political subversive. A number of Turnverein disciples played a role in the 1848 revolutions, although their desire to establish a gymnastic army (Turnerschar) was never realized. Despite many Turners fleeing Germany after the failure of these uprisings and founding clubs in the United States and throughout Europe, German Turnverein — which maintained their connection to Jahn’s völkisch philosophy — had nearly 1.5 million members by World War I.

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While American Turners would work toward abolitionism during the Civil War, with each turn in Germany away from liberal principles that fed the revolutions of 1848, Jahn’s gymnastics movement became further adapted to serve martial impulses and fascist myths. “Initially imbued with the spirit of liberal nationalism, Turnen by the eve of World War I had become a conservative social movement, allied with right-wing nationalism and chauvinism”, writes Barbara J. Keys, leading some critics to cast Jahn’s ethnonationalism as a precursor to Nazism. Though it welcomed the National Socialists’ seizure of power in 1933, even the acutely nationalistic Turnerschaft was dissolved in 1936, when all German sport was taken under state control.

The St. Pauli club photographs, shot before Germany’s and the world’s twentieth-century catastrophes, capture the contradiction inherent in the organized discipline of the body. On one hand, these images of wall-bar exercises and vertiginous pole vaults honor the innocent pleasures of group sport. On the other, documentation of Frankfurt’s Turnfest — a festival uniting various Turnverein — feels retroactively infected by the spectacles of Volksgemeinschaft that were to follow.

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