Account for differences in the development of physical education in Britain and Germany in the nineteenth century

Essay 2004 15 Pages

Health - Sport - Sport History


‘If your wish is to increase the intelligence of your pupil, then you must strengthen the forces which rule it. Train his body constantly; make him robust and healthy so that he will be wise and sensible’

[Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Emile oder über die Erziehung, Stuttgart: Reclam, 1970]1

According to Michael KRÜGER, ROUSSEAU’s novel Emile, which was published 1762, had a considerable impact on the development of physical education in the nineteenth century – particularly in Germany.2 But, regarding the quotation above, it does certainly mirror the mind of education prevailing in many European nations in the nineteenth century. In accordance with the maxim ‘ Mens sana in corpore sana’ evolved a new ethic of physical culture in Europe. Thus, the education of the body and the training of the senses became indispensable elements of educational concepts at this time. Which ideas and circumstances shaped the increasing importance of physical education? How did physical education concepts implemented in different countries?

Comparing the physical educational concepts of Germany and Britain, this paper examines the development of physical culture in the nineteenth century. The compatibility of ROUSSEAU’s quotation to both notions assumes that there might be a common ground for each physical education approach. Enormous social, economical and political development affected whole Europe according to the Enlightment and influenced the physical culture – but in different nations to a different extent. Hence, I focus on the differences in the development of physical education.

Due to political circumstances Turnen3 became predominant in Germany. In accordance to physical education in schools and associations (Vereine) I refer to the influence of the Turner -Movement in particular. Therefore, I argue how the Turner not only asserted a specific form of physical exercises but also how it also evoked an ideology of community and national spirit.

Britain, in contrast, is regarded as the birthplace of modern sport and athleticism.4 The moral climate of the Victorian Era as well as the increasing predominance of commercial competition underlies this development. Public schools played a crucial role in the shaping and disemination of concepts of modern sport. Thererfore, I focus on the influence of public schools in particular.

The development of Turnen in Germany

At the end of the eighteenth century concepts for physical education developed above all from the Philanthropists, who provided the German elite education in the eighteenth century.5 The Philanthropists shared ROUSSEAU’s concept of educating the ‘whole indivi- dual’ (den ganzen Menschen) through physical, sensual and intellectual experiences. Their aim was to ‘create’ healthy, capable, virtuous citizens.6

The scholar Johann Christoph Friedrich GUTSMUTHS (1759 – 1839) in particular marked the roots of German physical education. In his book Gymnastik für die Jugend (1793) he compiled the contemporary knowledge on physical education and advanced the theory and practice of gymnastics. His compilation contains not only a large collection of exercises including climbing, running, jumping and swimming, but also games and play. Moreover, he underpinned the need for physical activities with the humanistic ideas. Henceforth, he became the most important mentor for both in following generations.

GUTSMUTHS` concept had a great influence on Friedrich Ludwig JAHN (1778 – 1852). The Berlin teacher is generally regarded as the ‘father of Turnen’ (Turnvater Jahn ). ‘Jahn invented the term Turnen in order to place these exercises within the Germanistic tradition and also to create a technical term for a new form of physical culture.’7 In the book Die deutsche Turnkunst (1816) Jahn and his co-author Eiselen refer to the ideals of the pilanthropistic education:

‘Die Turnkunst soll die verlorengegangene Gleichmäßigkeit der menschlichen Bildung wieder herstellen, der bloß einseitigen Vergeistigung die wahre Leibhaftigkeit zuordnen, der Überfeinerung in der

wiedergewonnenen Männlichkeit das notwendigen Gegengewicht geben und im jugendlichen Zusammenleben den ganzen Menschen umfassen und ergreifen.’ 8

Balance between body and mind was the key in JAHN’s education concept, whose romantic ideals applied to the prevailing beliefs in Germany at this time.

In addition, Turnen was set up ‘as part of a drive toward a ‘nationalist’ education’.9 There is not enough space to give a detailed account of the social, economic and political circumstances that had an influence on the ideology of the Turner Movement. But the following has to be borne in mind: at the beginning of the nineteenth century Germany was fragmented into separate kingdoms and duchies. While in other nations like Britain or France a new social order was established by citizens, the feudal regime still remained in Germany. Moreover, Germany was occupied by the French army under NAPOLEON I. Hence, many nationalistic forces fought to liberate the nation from French hegemony and to overthrow the feudal order in order to create a liberal nation governed by citizens. Related to this circumstances is the fact that the focus of Turnen firstly was on military exercises. In fact, JAHN’s training included different kinds of ‘war games’ to prepare the pupil for the potential combat for the liberation of the nation. Therefore PFISTER notes: ‘The body was not supposed to be exercised for its own sake or because of some abstract achievement but in the view of its military usefulness’10 This assumption fundamentally differs from other physical education concepts at this time. Certainly, adherents of sport in Britain also underpin their attitude by certain ideas about manliness and ‘struggle of life’ but the explicit military orientation of the German Turner was unique.11

At the beginning the concept of Turnen arose from very practical ideas. JAHN considered games as the best ways to keeping discipline and to strengthen pupils at the same time. But his system was not geared comparing performance but rather to join a community and subordinate in a group of like-minded people.12 In more recent studies in sport history JAHN’s concept is regarded as ‘boisterous’ and less structured.13


1 Translation of the quotation found in: Gertrud Pfister, Cultural Confrontations: German Turnen, Swedish Gymnastics and English Sport, in Culture, Sport, Society, Vol.6 (2003).

2 Michael Krüger, Einführung in die Geschichte der Leibeserziehung und des Sports, Leibeserziehung im 19. Jahrhundert : Turnen fürs Vaterland (Band II) 1993, p. 25.

3 Because of the difficulty find a adequate English term for Turnen, I keep the German term and its derivative forms up in the following text.

4 I use both terms without distinction between both.

5 Allen Guttmann, Games and Empire. Modern Sports and Cultural Imperialism. New York, 1994.

6 Krüger ibid. 34

7 Pfister, ibid., p. 65.

8 quoted in Hansgeorg Kling, Traditionen und Symbole: http://www.saarl-turnerbund.de/dtbkultur/vkutrad.htm

9 Pfister, ibid., p.65.

10 ibid., p 66

11 ibid.

12 see Krüger ibid.

13 i.a. Guttmann, ibid. 142, Krüger ibid.


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University of Aberdeen – Department of Cultural History
Account Britain Germany Sport History



Title: Account for differences in the development of physical education in Britain and Germany in the nineteenth century