- The American Turner Movement: A History from Its Beginnings to 2000
Generally, few folks beyond readers of American physical education history are cognizant of an early American exercise phenomenon called German Turnverein Gymnastics. In fact, when an American mentions that their research study focuses on Turners, they are frequently asked: “exactly which family named Turner are you studying?” And, indeed, very few scholars of physical education history have seen fit to study the flamboyant, politicized, ethnically unique, and, as well, important exercise expression of German-American Turners. Of the few who were enamored enough to engage in Turner research, most abandoned their efforts after one or two forays into particular chapters or events of the phenomenon. This picture, despite Annette Hofmann’s argument otherwise, has left us with but a limited historiography on the German-American Turnverein movement, especially, but not exclusively, with regard to scholarship written in English. That said, however, Annette Hofmann’s “doctoral-dissertation-turned-book” provides us with the single most important work yet produced on the subject. As such, it can be classified as a sweeping, thoroughly documented seminal effort. Given that the once distinct Turnverein phenomenon in America is practically on its deathbed, eroded and ameliorated by the steady encroachment of American cultural values, of which sport has been paramount, it could well be that Hofmann’s work is the last of its type we will see. This is a bold [End Page 327] statement, I know, but one I do not offer without reflection on my own experience as a former researcher of the subject.
As mentioned, the monograph is an extension of Hofmann’s 2001 doctoral dissertation written in German at the University of Tübingen under the direction of the distinguished German sport philosopher Ommo Gruppe. Much of Hofmann’s sustained experience in North America while researching her dissertation was associated with the scholar cohort and research resources of Indiana University, Purdue University-Indianapolis (IUPUI) as well as the greater German-American element of Indianapolis itself. Then too, a liberal financial benefactor of her book publishing project was the American Turners’ Friederich Ludwig Jahn Fund.
This is a panoramic history, one that tracks the German gymnastic movement in America from its origin in the 1820s, to its waning years in the last decade of the twentieth century. Framed within those two “narrative bookends” are: 1) discussions of the establishment of the first German-American Turnvereins in the antebellum period of American history; 2) the problematic presented to the movement by the Civil War; 3) the post-Civil War decades and the real cresting of the movement in terms of membership, number of Turnvereins in the nation, and the flowering of the German-American National Turnerbund and its flagship enterprise—the National Turnfest phenomenon; 4) the period of World War I and the origins of the movement’s decline; and finally 5) the rapid deceleration of the movement following World War II. There is an important infusion into the narrative trail laid out above, and that is a carefully executed and well-documented theoretical discussion of ethnicity with respect to German Americans. Here, Hofmann uses the theories and concepts of Richard Alba to frame her analysis of German-American “ethnic identity.”
Hoffmann’s arrival in the United States to begin research on her study of American Turners in the early 1990s coincided closely with an event that was of critical importance to her research mission. That event was a successful quest in 1993 by IUPUI authorities and other collaborators, of which I was one, in winning a National Endowment for the Humanities Grant of $118,750 for the identification, replication, and preservation of the German-American Turnverein Heritage in the United States. What this grant did was to deposit, index, and annotate a treasure trove of American Turnverein records at IUPUI. Hence, Hofmann, in a “one-stop-shopping” exercise, was able to survey materials gathered from Turnverein basements, closets, attics, and libraries located in disparate places across America. The material...