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History of the Gymnastics Movement in 19th Century Europe

Korean Minjok Leadership Academy
International Program
Do, Ha Young
Term Paper, AP European History Class, November 2008

Table of Contents

I. Introduction
II. Background of Nationalist Sports
III. Gymnastics Movements Around Europe
III.1 The German Gymnastics Movement : Turnbewegung
III.1.1 Background
III.1.2 Friedrich Ludwig Jahn and the Turnverein
III.1.3 Turnsperre
III.1.4 Changes after Turnsperre
III.1.5 Social Influences and Consequences
III.2 The Sokols
III.2.1 Who Were the Sokols?
III.2.2 Sokol Activities
III.2.3 Sokol and Czech Nationalism
IV. Short Comparison between the Turnverein and the Sokol
V. Conclusion

I. Introduction
            Gymnastics is a sport originating from the ancient Greeks; the word comes from gymnos, a Greek word meaning 'naked' (1). The gymnastics movement, commencing from the 1800s as a social movement, inherited the conduction of this ancient Greek sport.
            This paper aims to explain the history of the gymnastics movement, as taken place in the 19th century. It will investigate what caused the gymnastics movement, its specific functions and activities, what classes or groups were involved in this movement and why, and its consequences.

II. Background of Nationalist Sports
            Nationalism is the ideology in which one believes in, focuses on, and often fights for the values and rights of one's country. (2) Popular mostly in account of the French Revolution in the late 18th century, it was the trend in 19th century Europe, and many countries were with nationalists who struggled for goals of each country.
            Nationalism was frequently expressed in form of sports, for there were complaints that nationalist movements were often too violent. Solidarity was an important factor to all nationalists of various European countries, and violence exercised among nationalists of different countries was intolerable. There were various attempts to sublimate this violence into fair and healthy competition, such as the Olympics, by pacifists like Pierre de Coubertin. Sports representing each country were developed and established.
            One of these Nationalist sport movements was the gymnastics movement. Unlike other nationalist sports, its purpose was mainly to prepare young men for war in advance. It was raised among multifold European countries, but the most renowned in later ages are the gymnastic movements of the Slavic and German ethnicities. In this paper, I will shed light on two particulars, the Turners and the Sokols.

III Gymnastic Movements Around Europe

III.1 The German Gymnastics Movement : Turnbewegung

III.1.1 Background
            It was in the time of Napoleon when the German gymnastics movement arrived. German nationalists felt humiliated by the hegemony of Napoleon over their land. Restoration of national spirits and patriotism was the German nationalists' goal, and gymnastics was the medium chosen by some.

III.1.2 Friedrich Ludwig Jahn and the Turnverein
            Friedrich Ludwig Jahn (1778-1852) (3) was a gymnastics teacher at the Gymnasium zum Grauen Kloster and at the Plamann School (4). He, like other German nationalists, felt a need to restore the spirits of Germans by physical activity, specifically gymnastics.
            Following his predecessor in the development of gymnastics, Johann Friedrich GutsMuths (1759-1839) (5), Jahn contributed greatly in creating some apparatus used to assist gymnastics such as the high bar and the parallel bar. (6)
            Jahn is also held responsible for the establishment of Turnbewegung, a German patriotic gymnastic movement. Gymnastik is the German word for gymnastics, but Jahn coined the term Turnen, which was a word used by the Teutons, an old Germanic tribe, meaning ¡®doing gymnastics'. Other terms relating to gymnastics was named after the word turnen, such as turner as a gymnast, Turnverein as a gymnastic organization, turnplatz as a gymnasium, and so on. (7) Turnbewegung is also a term invented by Jahn in that way, and means 'gymnastics movement', for 'bewegung' in German means movement.
            The national crisis at that time was regarded as the Napoleonic dominance in Germany, and so Turnbewegung was also aimed at bringing Germans to awareness about this issue and training youths both physically and mentally in resistance to the French. Jahn believed in physical activity related to German nationalism, not education. He shunned formality in his training, and rather preferred wild, free movements which were sometimes violent and war-like. Weapon training, scouting exercises, and team games such as 'Räuber und Bürger Spiel (Brigand and Citizen)', 'Räuber und Soldaten Spiel (Brigand and Soldier)' were the essential activities he overlooked. (8) This approach to physical activity was very popular, and especially so among the middle class young students.
            Exactly how effective was this movement was proven in the Battle of the Nations where Prussia and Austria defeat Napoleon's army on its way back from Russia when numerous German Turners enrolled in the Prussian army (1813). (9) After this triumph, the concept was more widely spread, and in 1815, there were approximately 150 more institutions resembling the Turnplatz (gymnasium) (10)

III.1.3 Turnsperre
            The Prussian government became suspicious with the Turners when they founded their own clubs (Turnverein), arranged meetings, made their own rules, and basically went out of control with their democratic conventions. After the murder of a conservative journalist by a young student in 1819 (11), the German Confederation of Metternich banned the Turners in 2 January 1820. (12) Subsequently, Jahn was imprisoned from 1819 to 1825 for 6 years, and was banned of any work related to gymnastics afterwards.(13) This period of stagnation in the activities of the Turners was called the Turnsperre by Jahn.

III.1.4 Changes after Turnsperre
            In the 1840s, the advent of a more liberal period brought the Turnverein out of the darkness. In contrary to the Turnverein before the Turnsperre, many craft workers and Jewish members also joined. This was a shift of the Turnverein from the anti-Semitism of the times when Jahn was active as the leader. Also, in the 40s, the non-gymnast membership of Turnverein recorded almost half; these members composed the "Friends of Turnen," and drifted away from gymnastics to non-gymnastic activities. The Friends of Turnen was a liberal organization, often participating in activities such as funding libraries, volunteering as policemen or firemen, and giving training sessions to children and women. (14)

III.1.5 Social Influences and Consequences
            In 1848, a series of revolutions took place in the German states. It seems logical that the Turnverein was involved, given its radical attributes. Turnverein leaders such as Gustav Struve of Baden, Otto Heubner of Dresden, and Augest Sch?rtner of Hanau. (15) The revolution ended as a devastation for the German gymnastic movement; many of the Turnvereins were disbanded, and executives were put into jail. The reaction of the Turners was to turn away from political matters to physical activities once again.
            The long-term influences of the Turnbewegung includes developing an institution in which young individuals had the opportunity to prepare for military skills, to recognize nationalist views and the German identity, and express liberal political views en masse. John G. Dixon wrote in 1986, "[Jahn's] impact on history is thus confined, in effect, to the years 1811-1819. In this short time he created a movement on a broad social basis, using physical education as a means for the attainment of constitutional reform." (16) Many scholars also assert that the acts of the Turners also triggered the state formation of Germany. (17)

III.2 The Sokols

III.2.1 Who Were the Sokols ?
            The Sokols - meaning 'falcon' - were part of the various European gymnastic movements. Founded in Prague, the Sokol is a youth and gymnastics organization with its origins in the Czech ethnicity, 1862. Primarily alike to the fitness center of today, Sokol also proffered to youths the views of one of the founders, Tyrs. Although it was many times mentioned as an institution that surpasses politics, it still played an important role in Czech nationalism. The nature of Sokol was much inherited from that of Turnverein in Germany; the timing in which Sokol appeared also asserts that Sokol was like a Slavic descendant of the Turnverein.
            Sokol is known as a movement of the middle class.(18) In Prague, Sokol leaders were usually politicians and members were usually from the petit bourgeois and working classes. Many had memberships to both the Young Czechs party and Sokol simultaneously.
            About fifteen thousand men and women were involved in this movement, and they would gather in the Slet to perform gymnastics and drills. The Slet - meaning 'flocking of birds' (19) - was like an assembly or gymnastics festival for the Sokols, and was first held in 1882. However, unlike Turnverein, the Sokols are not known to have vigorously participated in politics, as it was an organization officially "above politics," and participated more eagerly in physical training.

III.2.2 History and Timeline of the Sokol
            At the beginning, Sokol worked to coin the nation's own exercise terminology in Czech. At first, the government authorities of Austria and Hungary were wary on watching on this organization. However, the reputation of Sokol kept growth and soon it was regarded by the general public as the "Czech national army" (20)
            In 1866, the Austro-Prussian War took place. Sokol members were often employed as public event guards, and this occupation called for military training. This military training was then taught at the Sokol, and this militaristic streak continued for the duration of its history.
            Many internal disputes also took place between the 1860s and the 1870s. The conflicts especially culminated in the 1870s when the two parties, the Old Czechs and the Young Czechs, struggled for the leadership of the Sokol. The conservative Old Czechs argued that Sokol, as it was officially "above politics", should restrain from political participation, while the young Czech wanted more participation in politics. The quarrels continued in various areas. Some of them include the dispute whether the informal title ty, meaning 'thou', was necessary, or whether if Sokol was a middle class instrument for enlightening the working class, or if it was an institution that was represented and defined by the working class.
            The 80s were a period in which the advent of the first union between many Sokol clubs took place in 1887. In the form of the union, the Sokol movement was able to operate in a more systematic way. As a unified organization, Sokol now centralized itself in Czech and branched out to other Slavic lands like Krak?w, Ljubljana, Zagreb, and Russia by means of missionaries.(21)
            In 1889 the World's Fair took place in Paris, France. (22) Some members of the Prague Sokol snuck away to the World's Fair to perform, although the government forbade them to do so. They won several medals in the fair, and the visit became an opportunity to win French sympathy, thus establishing a virtual ally for the future.
            In the next decade, the Sokols participated in various kinds of reforms. Training became more varied in intensity, Sokol libraries were expanded, and, most importantly, the subjects of gymnastic education and training were widened. Soon, many more programs were created for adolescents and women.
            There were two more Slets that took place after the first one in 1882; one in 1891 and one in 1895. (23) In the third Slet, the Sokol established the St. Wenceslas Day Resolutions, in which the leaders decided on emphasizing equality in gymnastics. More focus was put on whether everybody was able to do the gymnastics, rather than on competitions.

III.2.3 Sokol and Czech Nationalism
            Czechoslovakian nationalism got into stride in the 1860s; the Czechs had a myriad of ways they tried to show nationalism and patriotism. For one, they started to write in their vernacular instead of the German they conventionally used. A new school in literature arrived, and in 1861, the first newspaper dealing directly with nationalism was published. Other than nationalism in publication, the Czech aimed to assert nationalism in many other ways. Nationalism was exposed especially in culture because the working class wanted to persuade the Czech bourgeoisie by means of culture; because the Czech nobility was still with the Germans, the bourgeoisie had to be won over.
            Among these various methods to dignify and honor the nation, the Sokol struggled to promote nationalism by educating the people. This education was done both physically and academically. Tyrs, the founder of the Sokol, had said that he wanted restore spirit to Czech "by the education of body and spirit, by physical energy, by art and science, by all moral means ..." (24) He believed that in order to acquire a nation's rights, the nation should show energy and ability.
            Tyrs somewhat seems to have a perfectionist streak. It is said that Tyrs wanted the Sokol motto to be "eternal discontent" or "eternal evolution" (25) He also believed that the Sokols should toil until they have "reached such a degree of perfection as to fear no comparison with the foreigner." (26) For Tyrs, gymnastics was a method in which one could repeatedly cultivate one's physicality and intellect. He praised gymnastics so much as to say that "In a word, gymnastics as conceived by the Sokols are of a higher order; they are a factor in our outlook on life, an artistic and moral expressino of the human soul, a joyous cry of mass enthusiasm." (26a) The Sokol movement also taught the Czech about values such as democracy and equality, besides uplifting their general health.
            The Sokol also had a role in the unification of Czechoslovakia. With the spread of the Sokol movement throughout Czechoslovakia, all the people assimilated with the democratic values, patriotism, and a national spirit that the movement proffered. Unification in spirit can be said to have helped the unification of the land.
            The way that the Sokol mainly contributed to the development of nationalism in Czech was the elevation of its national spirit. Many nationalists had tried to express patriotism by searching for certain identity that Czech had. This identity was what the Sokol endeavored to discover and offer to these cultural nationalists.

IV. Short Comparison between the Turnverein and the Sokols
            The Turnverein of Germany and the Sokols of Czechoslovakia were both gymnastic organizations, which existed in the gymnastics movement. The Sokols can be said to succeed the Turnverein, but the two have their differences. For one, after Turnsperre, Turnverein had partly abandoned gymnastics as its main objective, and accepted the "Friends of Turnen" as a part of it. However, the Sokols, adhering to the statement that it was "above politics", and minimized direct participation in politics. Another difference between the Sokol and the Turnverein is that of the leaders. In the German gymnastics movement, the leader Jahn had slight involvement and participation in the Turnverein, in contrast to Tyrs, who vigorously presented the way that Sokol should go and the ideas it should pursue.
            Although these differences set them apart, the two still have similarities in that they were gymnastic organizations which more or less contributed to nationalism and that they still are in existence as physical activity associations. They are also similar in respect to the era they were active; both movements were active when their nations were in a state of utopia.

V Conclusion
            One of the trends in the 19th century was nationalism, and many means were used by nationalists to express this idea. The expression of nationalism by gymnastics is the fundamental idea of which the gymnastics movement sprouted from. The gymnastics movement, also prominent in the 19th century, was led by national associations of members that participated in gymnastics. The two representatives of European gymnastics movement are the Turnbewegung of Germany and the Sokol movement of Czech origin. The two had each their similarities and differences, but it is important to fully acknowledge that they both played a great role in achieving their nation's goals.


1.      Article : Gymnastics, from Wikipedia
2.      Article : Nationalism, from Wikipedia
3.      Article : Friedrich Ludwig Jahn, from Wikipedia
4.      Article : Friedrich Ludwig Jahn, from Wikipedia
5.      History of Gymnastics from Gymnastics247
6.      History of Gymnastics from Gymnastics247
7.      History of Gymnastics from Gymnastics247
8.      Merkel 2003
9.      Merkel 2003
10.      Merkel 2003
11.      The German Turnverein from Encyclopedia of Revolutions of 1848
12.      Merkel 2003
13.      The German Turnverein from Encyclopedia of Revolutions of 1848
14.      The German Turnverein from Encyclopedia of Revolutions of 1848
15.      The German Turnverein from Encyclopedia of Revolutions of 1848
16.      Merkel 2003
17.      Merkel 2003
18.      Stahman, 1995
19.      Article : Sokol from Wikipedia
20.      Article : Sokol from Wikipedia
21.      Article : Sokol from Wikipedia
22.      Article : Sokol from Wikipedia
23.      Article : Sokol from Wikipedia
24.      Stahman, 1995
25.      Stahman, 1995
26.      Stahman, 1995


Note : websites quoted below were visited in November 2008.
1.      Udo Merkel, 2003, The Politics of Physical Culture and German Nationalism: Turnen versus English Sports and French Olympism, 1871-1914, posted on,
2.      Holly Stahman, 1995, The Sokol Movement and the Revival of the Czech Nationalism
3.      The German Turnverein, from Encyclopedia of Revolutions of 1848,
4.      History of Gymnastics from Gymnastics247,
5.      Article : Gymnastics, from Wikipedia,
6.      Article : Nationalism, from Wikipedia,
7.      Article : Friedrich Ludwig Jahn, from Wikipedia,
8.      Article : Sokol, from Wikipedia,

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