chapter  1
20 Pages

Culture of the Body

The roots of modern physical culture lay in the early nineteenth century when defeat at the hands of Napoleon Bonaparte inspired a movement in exercise and fi tness in the German states. At the same time the Scandinavian nations also developed an interest in gymnastics, borne out of the Age of Enlightenment’s concern with rationality and order. In Germany Friedrich Ludwig Jahn was responsible for pioneering the Turnen gymnastics, exercises that were not “geared towards competition, but to personal improvement, skills . . . like climbing, fencing . . . swimming, horseback riding”.1 As Michael Anton Budd notes in his work on physical culture, the more important long-term role of German gymnastics “was found in its emphasis on bodily beauty, tightly connected to physical prowess”.2 These aspects of bodily beauty and physical prowess were particularly salient in Germany, Italy, and the Soviet Union in the 1920s and 1930s as the political regimes of these countries attributed even greater symbolism and signifi cance to the physical body. In the nineteenth century these and other countries had been inspired by gymnastics, and soon physical culture as a means of responding to problems associated with industrialization and urbanization had become part of a larger desire to improve personal hygiene, diet, and clothing. In Germany groups such as the Lebensreform and Wandervogel surfaced as a reaction to modernization and its unhealthy associations with poor sanitation, materialism, and other negative manifestations.3 Similar movements emerged in other countries. In the 1860s in Britain, for instance, an organization known as the New Athleticism aimed to utilize the positive eff ects of sport, with its objectives of “instilling character and bridging class diff erences, [and] emphasis on teamwork, manliness and modesty”.4 The National Physical Recreation Society was another endeavour that drew inspiration from the German gymnastics movement and it “formed crucial links between old-style rational recreation, military concerns and the coming wave of commercial fi tness”.5 Towards the close of the century the desire to improve one’s health and physical strength through sport and exercise had grown steadily. As this chapter shows, the origins of Soviet physical culture could be traced back to nineteenth-century developments in Europe and linked to parallel developments in other countries.