German Turnen Gymnastics: A brief history

Posted on April 27, 2018 by Movement Health in
Postage stamp showing a Turnplatz commemorating Friedrich Jahn founder of the German Turnen Gymnastics movement

Founded by Prussian educator Friedrich Ludwig Jahn (1778-1852) in the early 1800’s, German Turnen Gymnastics began as groups of boys from a Berlin grammar school undertaking outdoor physical education under Jahn’s supervision. These classes consisted of Gymnastics plus traditional games (running, swimming, wrestling, climbing, lifting, jumping, fencing) combined with progressive German political philosophy via patriotic speeches and traditional songs. As a response to Napoleons recent presence in Prussia/Germany the name ‘Turnen’ was chosen to place the movement in a German tradition and one of the main objectives was creating a fit military ready population.

In time Jahn began to create Gymnastics apparatus for his students, such as the ‘Turnplatz’, which was a scaffolding-like structure that was affixed with ladders, poles and ropes (Pfister, 2003). Eventually ‘Turnverein’ clubs were established in the wider community; the Turnverein taught a ‘stronger’ bodyweight style of Gymnastics utilising apparatus, wands and Indian clubs. The Turnverein clubs served an important social/cultural/political purpose in liberal ‘freethinking’ German society. Turnen are credited with inventing most modern Gymnastics apparatus and Jahn is considered the ‘Father of modern Gymnastics’ (Pfister, 2009).

Turnen Gymnastics and its politics were inherently intertwined and in 1819 the reigning monarchs at the time had them banned for revolutionary activities (Pfister, 2003). In 1842 the ban was revoked, however in 1848 many Turnen members were forced to leave Germany due to some political upheaval, many migrated to the United States where they set up Turnverein clubs, thus beginning the global spread of Gymnastics (Cazers & Miller, 2000), (Pfister, 2009).

Many other European nations borrowed the Turnen concept placing it in their own national/cultural context, an example being the Czech Sokol movement (Podpečnik, 2014).

The Turnen Gymnastics System incorporated a ‘heavier’ style of Gymnastics utilising apparatus. The goals of Turnen Gymnastics was to create able-bodied citizens for the benefit of the wider community.

Learn more about German Turnen Gymnastics and the Physical Culture Movement here.

Thanks for reading, Warwick..

Cazers, G. & Miller, G.A. (2000). The German Contribution to American Physical Education: A Historical Perspective. Journal of Physical Education, Recreation & Dance 71(6), 44-48.

Pfister, G. (2003). Cultural Confrontations, German Turnen, Swedish Gymnastics and English Sport- European Diversity in Physical Activities from a Historical Perspective. Culture, Sport, Society 6(1), 61-91.

Pfister, G. (2009). The Role of German Turners in American Physical Education. The International Journal of the History of Sport 26(13), 1893–1925.

Podpečnik, J. (2014). ALL YOU NEED IS A RED SHIRT AND CAP; AND YOU ARE SOKOL! Science of Gymnastics Journal 6(3), 61 – 85.