- Body by Weimar: Athletes, Gender, and German Modernity
Eric Jensen’s book, Body by Weimar, deals with a crucial period in German history in general as well as in sports history specifically. The so-called Weimarer Republik, established after the First World War, marks the time when the first German democracy, the Weimar Republic, was built on the ashes of that war and the following revolution. The old elites were overthrown, and a new, free German society arose.
These were the political circumstances that led to a wind of change, allowing not only new kinds of sports to arise but also a new and independent feeling about the body, new individual and cultural body experiences, and body concepts. The most important dimension of this change was undoubtedly the emancipation of women through sports, physical activity, dance, and gymnastics, but also through fashion, arts, and participation in working life. Women gained the right to vote—this was the obvious political symbol of the new German society. In sports they entered male-dominated sports such as boxing, soccer, track and field, and also took part in competitive, performance and combat sports.
Jensen’s book contains three main chapters—tennis, boxing, and track and field. A clear and substantial introduction and a well-done conclusion frame the publication. In 184 pages it shows that sports, body, and physical activity in the “Roaring Twenties” and in the 1930s changed German society as a whole.
During the Third Reich, as Jensen points out, the process of modernization continued in some areas and stopped in others. For example, women’s sports was still supported by the Nazi leaders. On the one hand, girls and women could continue to participate in competitive sports, but on the other, they were reduced to motherhood and womb machines. [End Page 180]
Jensen’s study is based on a careful and extensive analysis of contemporary documents and sources. The rise and diversity of sports during this time in Germany is mirrored in the number of journals, books, articles, movies and broadcasting, etc. on sports. Jensen concentrates his study mainly on journals. They, in themselves, are already comprehensive. However, a cultural history of German sports in this period, which is what Jensen is writing, should not overlook the vast contributions made by the new media and the means of mass communication that arose during the 1920s, such as broadcasting, movies, and the cinema. They gained great significance for the common people, and it was the Nazi propagandists led by Joseph Goebbels, who used these new possibilities of mass communication for their purposes. The Berlin Olympics of 1936 showed that sports were part of this media strategy. But this goes beyond the scope of Eric Jensen’s book.
The focus on journals, mostly read by intellectual readers in the German capital of Berlin, may therefore give a one-sided picture of the cultural forms and meanings of sports during the Weimarer Republik. Sports and body culture in the 1920s and 1930s involved more than boxing, tennis, and track and field in the capital, or, rather, how these sports were socially constructed in written sources. Turnen and gymnastics for the common people in the smaller German cities and villages also belonged to this culture. They were far away from Berlin and writer Bertolt Brecht’s fondness for boxing, or the comments on women tennis players by journalists like Egon Erwin Kisch or Willy Meisl in Berlin’s press. The masses exercised in clubs (Turnvereine) and during physical education classes at schools. In any case, although Jensen pays little—maybe too little—attention to these dimensions of body culture, his social and cultural diagnosis is undoubtedly clear: body culture and sports were liberalized and democraticized in Germany during the Weimarer Republik. More people than ever watched competitive sports, took notice of and read about sports, participated in sports, and produced stories about sports in newspapers and journals.
Furthermore, tennis, boxing, and track and field are suitable examples for showing that women created a new understanding of their bodies. They became increasingly less self...