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Friedrich Ludwig Jahn

(1778—1852)


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(1778–1852)

A German Prussian gymnastics educator, the inventor of Turnen, who allied a belief in the benefits of physical exercise to a creed of collective nationalism. Widely known as Turnvater (‘father of gymastics’), Jahn had studied theology and philology (language and literature) at ten universities, a restless romantic and liberal reformer who never completed his studies, and was expelled from the University of Halle in 1803, before serving the Prussian state as an agent for the ‘nationalisation of the masses’: ‘Jahn's job was to agitate among the lower middle class, particularly among the younger generation’ (Christiane Eisenberg, ‘Charismatic Nationalist Leader: Turnvater Jahn’, in Richard Holt, J. A. Mangan and Pierre Lanfranchi, eds, European Heroes: Myth, Identity, Sport, 1996). Turnen, as a paramilitary form and method of physical exercise, was part of this brief, prompted by Prussia's experience of defeat by Napoleon Bonaparte's France: a nation could be restored and revived by forms of gymnastics designed to transmit a collective morality as well as beneficial effects upon health and strength. Jahn inaugurated the open-air gymnasium, the Turnplatz, in Berlin in 1811, after beginning teaching classes at a school in 1810; gymnastics associations (Turnverein) became established swiftly throughout the country, and Jahn was well remunerated by the state. His appeal was strongest among the rising, young middle classes, particularly students and skilled artisans. His innovations included a vaulting horse, and bars and beams, for exercise. Nationalistic pride and national restoration were emphasized as the context of and predominant themes for the physical exercisers. His associations perpetuated the motto ‘Hardy, Pious, Cheerful, Free’, and Jahn combined his liberal reformism with a nationalist political vision that anticipated German unification; for his time, he was perceived as a liberal, but a change of political climate with the ascendancy of an aristocratic regime led to his exercise groups, seen as threatening to the status quo, being closed down (or relocated indoors) by the state authorities, and he himself imprisoned for six years in 1819. An adapted model of Turnen became a core element of the popular culture and associational life of 19th-century Germany, but in forms increasingly void of Jahn's vision, based in indoor facilities and absorbing elements of military drill.

Subjects: Sport and Leisure — Literature.


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