- Performance Anxiety: Sport and Work in Germany from the Empire to Nazism by Michael Hau
Zoologists have known for years that the play of puppies and kittens has less to do with exuberance than with the learning of valuable skills, such as hunting prey and self-defense. Such concepts may be well established in the animal kingdom—even among individual human beings—but are perhaps less evident among societies as a whole. Play, in the form of sport, has been practiced by humans since a Greek threw the first discus, and sports histories fill library shelves across the academic world. Michael Hau has achieved something altogether new, remarkable, and brilliant in his analysis of German society from the Kaiserreich to the collapse of Nazism by investigating the unlikely relationship between the play of sport and the productivity of work, and through both the hidden recesses of societal planning.
To be sure, this is no sports history. The key to Hau's book rests in his laser-like focus on the relationship between sports and enhanced work performance. The analysis of this connection reveals deep layers of concerns, fears, hopes, and goals [End Page 629] shared by German elites about the working classes, the structure of German society, indeed even Germany's survival in the modern world in both peace and at war. At their most basic, these were the concerns about the physical health of the German people and the political health of the German nation. Hau's research reveals startling continuities across these very different regimes and circumstances in which they operated. Political and business leaders from 1890–1945 looked to sports for the antidote to the problems they perceived multiplying around them, including and especially, in increasing Germany's industrial productivity.
National performance was closely linked to individual performance. In what seems almost quaint by the standards of what would come later, elites in the Kaiserreich encouraged sports as means of countering the appeal of socialism and increasing the overall strength of the nation. Weimar sports advocates, inheriting the broken people of the lost world war, sought the careful and controlled recovery of the Volk, not least as an effort to keep soaring welfare budgets under control. Under the Nazis, the promises and potential of sport were amplified to service the creation of a classless, racial community through meritocratic hard work, to increase industrial production overall and ultimately, to win World War II. At all times, and in all regimes, enhancing the performance of the workers stood at the top of the list of concerns.
Sports functioned in two ways to allay elites' anxieties and to achieve performance goals. First, sports were self-evidently healthy. Physical activity was linked to physical fitness. Elites understood that a physically fit people performed (and worked) better than an unfit one. Much more importantly, however, were the perceived psychological benefits of sport. Competitive team sports taught participants self-confidence, determination, the will and the willingness to work harder, loyalty, and community spirit—all lessons that could be transferred to the workplace. These were also precisely the values appreciated and sought by governments and industry. Thus, a workforce engaged in sports became more fit and, the theory ran, more capable of withstanding hard work—indeed, of excelling at the demands of modern factory labor while also promoting social cohesion. Over the course of Germany's history from 1914–1945, such demands only increased in number and urgency, finding perhaps their logical conclusion in the Nazi state, where the goals of building a harmonious national community and maximizing human resource productivity to win World War II became intertwined.
Perhaps the most intriguing aspects of the study are the least explained. First, sometime around the turn of the twentieth century, Germans cast off what had previously been their preferred sporting activity, gymnastics or Turnen, in favor of more competition-oriented team sports. Turnen clearly satisfied a need in 1806 and the years after, but something in German society had changed by...