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  • “Turnvater” Jahn und sein patriotisches Umfeld. Briefe und Dokumente 1806 – 1812
  • Swantje Scharenberg
Bartmuß, H.-J., E. Kunze, J. Ulfkotte, eds. “Turnvater” Jahn und sein patriotisches Umfeld. Briefe und Dokumente 1806 – 1812 (Jahn: The “Father of Gymnastics” and His Patriotic Environment, Letters and Documents 1806 – 1812 ) (Köln, Ger.:: Böhlau-Verlag). Pp. 276. €37,90

Friedrich Ludwig Jahn is today still recognized in the statutes of the Deutscher Turner-Bund (DTB, German Gymnastic Federation) as the Turnvater (‘turn father’), or the inventor of the sports “turnen.” Even if from a sports historian point of view this last phrase is contradictory, for the DTB the roots and the tradition is important, not the terminological discourse.

In 2011, when the second centennial of the “Hasenheide” is celebrated, there is another opportunity to discuss Jahn’s role in the development of German Turnen and German society. A Jahn biography has not yet been written. This book, available since 2008 in German, provides us with valuable material concerning Jahn’s public involvement in society at the beginning of the nineteenth century. The editors, Hans-Joachim Bartmuß and Josef Ulfkotte, carried on with the ambitious work of Eberhard Kunze (who passed away during the project) and brought it to an end, supported by the “Friedrich-Ludwig-Jahn-Society.”

Two files in particular, found in the State Archive of Prussian Cultural Heritage containing letters to Jahn and another group of letters from Jahn and others to C.F.W. Feuerstein, all written between 1806 and 1811, help to enlighten the so-called “dark years” of Jahńs life. This period of life of the young enthusiastic patriot was marked by a long time studying [End Page 493] at university and his early Berlin years, when the “Turnplatz” (gymnasium) was built on the “Hasenheide.”

Readers might ask themselves whether it is appropriate to read through private correspondence not written for publication. However, the explanatory text introducing each of the nine chapters and the fifteen pages of research notes urge us to start scanning the documents and result in an outstanding piece of political micro-history. The broad insights we obtain by reading the documents—made easy to understand thanks to explanations in the footnotes—are simply, for this reviewer, astonishing. We get clues to the networks Jahn was involved in, the important ways of communicating, as well as to the importance of public opinion. The role of the family and (secret) bonding was quite different from today. When Jahn contacted one person, he was integrated into a whole family, was invited into their home and got to know the friends of the family across different generations. For the editors it must have been the hardest part to find out what the abbreviations in his letters meant and then to put people into their correct places. Reading the introductory remarks to each chapter you find little biographical notes—e.g., the full name of the person, his/her birth town, the profession of his/her father, place and subject of his/her studies and his/her career—of people only perhaps mentioned once (as you can see in the index of people at the end of the book). The book is like a puzzle, and you sense the ambition of the editors to paint the picture of these years as exactly as possible.

Initially thirty-five letters written to Jahn between 1806 and 1811 let you dive into the period, the language, and the topical issues of the time. In the second chapter letters to C.F.W. Feuerstein, a fellow member of Jahn’s of the “Unitisten” order, stand at the center. The main focus of the 276 page book rests on the “Deutsches Volksthum”—written by Jahn—and the reception to it. Other chapters take notice of the invention of public “Turnen,” and Jahn and his friends as agents against Napoleon. His two doctorates— honoris causa—are worth a special section. Even a review of young Jahńs activities in the eyes of the people during the Restoration is documented in the final chapter.

Obviously, Jahn and his deeds have been interpreted—freely, from early onwards, as you can read in the introduction...


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