Body beyond Weimar: Germany’s Athletic Legacy
In a 1928 essay, the commentator Willy Meisl imagined himself looking back on contemporary German society from the vantage point of the year 4000. “It was sports that cleared the way for the emancipation of the woman,” Meisl wrote, in mock retrospection. “It made her more similar to man and also enabled her to make man more similar to her, until ultimately they met on that middle ground where humankind truly becomes one.”1 More than any other single group in German society, Meisl argued, athletes had done the work of bringing the sexes closer together in the 1920s. By appropriating the tactics, competitiveness, and training habits of the men’s sports, female athletes had gone beyond simply promoting a new feminine ideal. They had claimed masculine ideals for women and thereby sparked a fundamental reassessment of the similarities and differences between the two sexes.
Meisl gave the female athlete a great deal of credit for having created a new man, too, arguing that sports “enabled her to make man more similar to her.” Indeed, male athletes—whether prompted by female counterparts, by the demands of a new society, or by their own individual initiative—reshaped what it meant to be a man after the First World War. The Wilhelmine gender order, after all, had applied to men and women alike. Although only those men who openly displayed non-normative behavior received the crushing sanctions of their peers, all men felt the constraints of society’s physical and emotional expectations. Male athletes in the 1920s challenged some of these constraints. They emancipated men from many of the cultural conventions that had circumscribed male behavior for generations just as surely as female athletes had emancipated women. When the male tennis player cultivated an aesthetic game rather than an aggressive one, or when the male boxer consciously marketed himself as an erotic object, he blurred the distinction between male characteristics and female ones to the same degree as the female tennis player who attacked the net or the female boxer who sent her opponent to the canvas.