The Politics of Physical Culture and German Nationalism: Turnen versus English Sports and French Olympism, 1871-1914

By Merkel, Udo | German Politics and Society, Summer 2003 | Go to article overview
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The Politics of Physical Culture and German Nationalism: Turnen versus English Sports and French Olympism, 1871-1914


Merkel, Udo, German Politics and Society


The 2002 Soccer World Cup in Japan took place during the final phase of the national election campaign for the German Bundestag and managed to temporarily unite Chancellor Gerhard Schroder (SPD) and his conservative challenger, Edmund Stoiber. (1) Both were keen to demonstrate repeatedly that they were so interested in the progress of the German team that they simultaneously interrupted or left meetings to follow televised matches. Domestically, they support very different soccer clubs. Stoiber is on the board of directors of the richest German club, Bayern Munich, whose past successes, wealth and arrogance, numerous scandals, and boardroom policies of hire-and-fire have divided the German soccer nation: they either hate or adore the team. Schroder is a keen fan and honorary member of Borussia Dortmund, which is closely associated with the industrial working class in the Ruhr area. It is the only team on par with Munich; despite its wealth, the management policies of the club appear modest and considerate; the club continuously celebrates its proletarian traditions and emphasizes its obligations to the local community. Stoiber's election manifesto did not even mention sport, whereas the SPD's political agenda for sport focused upon a wide variety of issues ranging from welfare, leisure, physical education, and health to doping, television coverage, facilities, and hosting international events. (2)

Despite Schroder's genuine interest in soccer, it will be the responsibility of his interior minister, Otto Schilly, to develop sport policies, to provide funding for facilities and top-level athletes, to encourage participation, and to consider a legal framework for punishing the use of performance enhancing drugs, among other issues. (3) This allocation of sport to the Home Office in Germany has a long tradition stretching back to the beginning of the twentieth century.

On 14 February 1914, the German parliament, in which the Social Democrats formed the largest fraction due to the electoral support of about one-third of the German population, decided to fully support the 1916 Olympic Games, which had been awarded to Berlin. (4) This decision, made after a long and heated debate, meant that the German state committed itself to provide the funding and many other forms of support for the forthcoming Berlin Olympics. Furthermore, the exclusive responsibility for top-level sport in Germany was allocated to the Home Office. (5) Never before had a central government so openly demonstrated its will to fund the national representation of the state through top-level sport on an international stage.

For many commentators the love-hate relationship between sport and international politics commenced with the 1936 Nazi-staged Olympics in Berlin. (6) However, a peek into German history clearly shows that sport was already deeply involved in and an integral part of international rivalries and the struggle for political and cultural hegemony in Europe long before that. Kruger shows convincingly that "Germany was a pioneer in using sports for national representation and investing government money in the performance of its athletes." (7) He presents a fascinating story full of rich historical details about the origins of state funding of sport in Germany without, however, linking it to the wider context of international relations, German foreign policy, and debates about the role of sport in civil society.

This paper intends to analyze the relationship between physical culture, nationalism (8) and international politics from 1871 to the outbreak of World War I. Without a sound understanding of the contributions the Turnbewegung (gymnastics movement) made to the German unification process, it will be difficult to account for the subsequent events. I will then focus on the international aspects of the political history of sport, which are clearly displayed in the debates about the concepts of "English sport and athleticism" and "French Olympism.

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