Everything You Never Knew You Wanted to Know About Berlin


If you care to take a walk in Hasenheide, swiftly navigating among numerous drug-peddling regulars, thanks to whose tireless efforts the place was actually re-named Hanfheide, you will see a monument. Take the very first (eastern) entrance next to Neue Welt and walk up the hill. On its top a bearded man is standing on a rock. Below the monument dozens and dozens of stone plaques were added, bearing the names of different Turnvereine (gymnastics clubs) called to life on the man´s inspiration. For it was right here, on this spot in Hasenheide, that on the 19th of June 1811 Friedrich Ludwig Jahn initiated a gymnastics movement that was to conquer the world. It was also here that the very first outdoor gymnastics field with especially designed sports equipment was set up.


2012 is going to be an important year for Germany. The 300th birthday of Old Fritz, otherwise known as Friedrich or Frederick The Great, is going to be celebrated by the Prussian Palaces and Gardens Foundation with all due pomp and circumstance.

2011 was an important year for Neukölln and Kreuzberg: it was exactly 200 years ago that Jahn opened his Turnplatz in Hasenheide. Strangely enough, despite it being a Big Thing (what with promoting healthy life-style, community spirit and all), the pomp and circumstance came in rather moderate doses. Of course, Friedrich Ludwig Jahn known as the Father of Gymnastics, can´t possibly claim the same sort of attention as someone who conducted the Seven Years´ War and made himself damn unpopular east of the Oder by carrying out the First Partition of Poland (nothing personal, Fritz, but I do hope you burn in Hell for that). Still, he started a worldwide movement as well as made physical exercise and healthy lifestyle a matter of national importance. And there´s the rub. For Jahn the national was a tad too important and quickly mutated into “the nationalist”. Not a word gladly heard or mentioned in German history.


There is no need to analyse his whole life in order to understand why the anniversary went by without attracting much attention to its hero. Friedrich Jahn, was a university drop-out. He managed to get expelled from several different universities and almost every time the farewell had something to do with him not being able to lead a civilised discussion without using his fists as main arguments. The physical was obviously important to him…

He considered himself to be a great and true patriot whose task it was to turn others into great and true patriots as well, whether they wanted it or not. The Napoleonic wars and occupation of Germany by the French fuelled his hatred for them and everything Gallic. But not to be too one-sided he also hated everything Slavic, clerical, upper-class and/or wealthy and Jewish. We are not talking anti-judaism here but full blown anti-semitism. To a degree where he, the champion of liberalism, equality and brotherhood, would not accept Jewish converts (so in a way “former Jews”) in the ranks of his patriotic organisation regardless of their patriotism and good will.


What makes him so ambivalent and eventually not really fit for a hero is not only his  racism but also his motivation for promoting Turnen in the first place. Of course, gymnastics is about staying healthy and fit but for Jahn it was first and foremost about staying healthy and fit for the fight. He was building his own New Model Army. Those were future faithful soldiers he was doing push-ups and sit-downs with. Those were blindly obedient fighters he was teaching to climb up the trees and was playing leapfrog with. It had nothing to do with fun or being carefree. They were practising for war.

That´s why his liberal ideas cannot be taking for granted. The men doing gymnastics in Hasenheide were on one hand kept equal by, among others, being made to wear identical simple garb and told to practice barefoot (some could not afford any shoes so why should the others be wearing any?) but on the other hand there were many excluded from participating at all: too rich, too Catholic, too Jewish, too Slavic. The members of the organisations he was behind: Deutsche Bund, Urburschenschaft and others were also told to follow strict textile rules. In Deutsches Volksthum (1808), Jahn´s Opus Magnum, he prescribed the following code of dress: the men should be wearing altdeutsche Tracht (traditional old-German dress) of long and buttoned-up jacket and a Barret (a type of a cap). There was something puritan about the style he preferred. And there was something quite Cromwellian about Jahn in general.


It is understandable that a man living in an occupied country (Napoleon even took the Quadriga off Brandenburger Tor and had it shipped to Paris) develops a strong dislike of the invader. So it is possible to follow why Jahn despised the language of the French so much that he refused to use German vocabulary of French (or Latin) origin: instead of die Nation, he said das Volk; instead of Patrioten he would use the word Biedermänner.

But reforming the dictionaries was not enough for him. He went so far as to say: “The one who allows his children to learn French, sins against the Holy Ghost. However, the one who allows his daughters to learn French does no better as if he allowed them to learn how to be whores. Poles, the French, clerics, country squires and Jews are the source of Germany´s misery.”

Jahn´s Monument in 1908


If you put two and two together, here´s your final equation: Friedrich Ludwig Jahn was the man who popularised gymnastics by setting up a sports movement. Well done. But he was also a racist, a champion of open anti-Semitism and the man who in 1817 made a list of books to be burnt at Wartburgfest by the gathered students (supported by another controversial figure after whom a Kreuzberg street was named, Ernst Moritz Arndt). And that rings too many bells.

In 1928 the Arbeiter-Turnzeitung, a newspaper promoting popular (volkstümliche as in das Volk, another dangerous word as history was about to prove) gymnastics you could read the following praise: “If he (Jahn) lived today, he would most probably be a national socialist.” And sadly, he most probably would have.


  1. Jim Morton
    Jan 3, 2012

    Great post! I didn’t know much about Friedrich Jahn beyond the connections between the health movements at the turn of the century and Nazi ideology. Very interesting.

    • notmsparker
      Jan 3, 2012

      Thank you. Neither, in fact, did I. Some time ago I did ask myself why the place and the monument seem to be forgotten and uncared for but I thought it had something to with the pretty much unloved face of Hasenheide as such. German history seems to be full of trapdoors and labyrinths.


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