- Performance Anxiety: Sport and Work in Germany from the Empire to Nazism by Michael Hau
The outsized role of sport and physical exercise in modern life has been with us for only a little more than a century. Industrialized nations embraced sport and gymnastic training in the late nineteenth century as a means to combat a perceived degeneration of bodily prowess, character, willpower, and, not least, martial spirit. The Olympic movement, launched in the 1890s, remains a potent emblem of the international character of modern sport. But the cultures and institutions of sport and physical fitness varied significantly between countries. [End Page 213] Michael Hau, a historian at Monash University in Australia, provides a probing, deeply researched investigation of German efforts to promote sport and physical fitness from the late Wilhelmine Empire through the Weimar Republic and the Nazi era (1890–1945). German elites – professors, military officers, business people, and political leaders – promoted sport to improve the health and productivity of the nation, redoubling their efforts after the humiliating defeat in World War I in the Weimar Republic and under the Nazis.
The Germans' approach to sport and fitness was distinctive in many respects, perhaps mostly importantly because they integrated sport more thoroughly in institutions of governance, education, research, and defence. Michael Hau's excellent book hones in on some of the unique features of this approach, particularly the focus on sport as a means of improving performance in the workplace and the military. This book engages mainstream sports historiography tangentially; the emphasis throughout is not on sport per se but, rather, on sports as a means to an end – "performance through sport, rather than in sport" (emphasis added). Since the nineteenth century, German sports culture has been wedded to the sciences, especially the physiological methods of measuring performance. As Hau shows, much of the German approach has hinged on the multivalent German word for performance (Leistung), which can mean accomplishment in any human activity – a task well done – as well as the measurable power of a machine or energy output and, in human terms, productivity and efficiency in the workplace. It was precisely the overlap between the wider, everyday use of the term performance and its technical meaning in science and industry that enabled German elites to promote sport as a key pillar of modern "biopolitics," the array of social and political initiatives that sought to improve the health, productivity, and efficiency of the population. German sport culture swam in the same stream as early twentieth-century eugenics and racial hygiene, although it did not directly involve the hereditarian aims of strictly eugenical thought and institutions.
Hau describes several converging points of origin for German performance culture. While the initial efforts to instill performance culture in the turn-of-the-century Wilhelmine Empire were motivated by a perceived degeneration among the population, and, especially, among military recruits, it was the devastation of the population in World War I, both on the battlefield and through the starvation of the civilian population, that led German elites to double down on institutions and public propaganda in the Weimar Republic. "Sport is the practical physician at the sick bed of the German people," wrote Konrad Adenauer, the future West German chancellor in 1927. Germans were heavy promoters of the global rise of mass sport in the 1920s, and the public enthusiastically embraced sports as participants and spectators. But some socialists and communists remained hostile, viewing sports culture as an opiate for the masses, a deliberate means of controlling the workforce and distracting them from the class struggle. Many proponents of performance culture did see it as a way to re-educate the sensibilities of workers and encourage them to embrace meritocracy. Sport and gymnastics [End Page 214] were also promoted as a form of community and nation building in the Weimar Republic. Under the Nazis, these efforts were redoubled with the aim of making every racially valuable people's comrade a productive citizen or soldier willing to sacrifice for the good of the nation.