What is a Turnverein? How do Turners fit into American History?
When I told my mother I that my latest research was a deep dive into the Turner Movement, she said “OH! Vater Jahn! Your Opa did gymnastics with the Turners!” Although Freiderich Ludwig Jahn basically invented gymnastics in Germany around 100 years before my grandfather was born he’s still spoken of with reverence by many because of his teachings- democratic reform, unification of German lands, vigorous exercise and love of liberty. These things could be achieved with gymnastics; “sound mind in a sound body” (which goes a long way to explaining why my father could do an iron cross on the rings at my elementary school…) So, who are the Turners? What is a Turnverien? How did gymnastics get so tied up with politics and revolution? How do Napoleon and Abraham Lincoln come into this? And what effect did a German Gymnastics organization have on America?
It’s much more than just the invention of the horse for gymnastics class (gosh I hated that apparatus)!
Who are the Turners?
Quick history lesson (don’t panic, there won’t be a quiz, and this background information is at the center of the story) Before Germany was GERMANY, it was the Holy Roman Empire, made up of a whole lot of little individual places under one umbrella. In 1805 Napoleon brought an end to the Holy Roman Empire (basically the land that covered current Germany, Austria, Prussia etc). Then he reorganized the hundreds of independent states and cities of Germany into 39 larger states, and something called the Confederation of the Rhine.
Think about the time period for a moment…in the last few years, the Americans fought for independence, and the French had a Revolution.
Friederich Ludwig Jahn strongly advocated for an independent unified Germany and democratic reform. As a former soldier in the Prussian Army, he felt that the Prussians and other German speaking people had been humiliated by Napoleon, so he set out to develop German national pride and strength by encouraging physical movement and high moral standards. In 1811 he set up a Turnplatz (exercise place) in Berlin called “Hasenheide”, and it was there that he trained young Germans with physical exercise, patriotic ideals and a love of liberty. The plan, prepare youth mentally and physically to overcome Napoleonic domination. Over 500 young men took part in the gymnastic exercises that he prescribed, and in just a few months… the word was spreading (I have this vision of 80s aerobics… but without tights and leggings).
Lithograph Georg Ludwig Engelbach (* 28. Februar 1817, † 4. Dezember 1894), Public domain
Around that time, a lightbulb went off in the minds of the German princes... if we work TOGETHER we can fight against invasion by France much more efficiently than if we stay separate. And they did. By 1813, they had Napoleon on the ropes, and in 1815 at Waterloo, he was sent packing (and Abba had a fabulous hit on their hands).
So, the Germans had kicked out the French, only to find themselves overseen by the Austrians and the Prussians. (Basically, they got rid of one overlord, and replaced it with another).
The Turners (who were still practicing “patriotic Gymnastics”) joined up with Burschenschaften, student fraternities pushing for democratic reform. (These aren’t like the Greek Fraternities… I’m pretty sure there were no togas, but I’m almost certain they had keggers). They set themselves apart with their long hair, long black hats sporting a rooster feather, and liberal political views (sounds like the Hippies of the 60s, but with less cool music, and the VW Bus was still 100 years in the future) The Turners did however find themselves in trouble when Carl Sand assassinated writer August von Kotzebue, who wrote an essay basically scoffing at their liberal nationalistic ideals. The resulting Turnsperre meant that the Turners and the Burschenshaften were outlawed, and the group went underground until 1842.
(I promise, I’m getting to the part where they go to America… hang in there)
The Revolution of 1848
When the Turners re-emerged in 1842, they broke into 2 camps.
1. Deutscher Turnerbund (German Turner Club)– This conservative group believed in a constitutional monarchy, and felt that this could be achieved with athletics and social reform.
2. Demokratischer Turnerbund (Democratic Turner Club) – This more radical group wanted democracy!
When the 1848 Revolution broke out, the Demokratischer Turnerbund fought for a unified democratic republic in Germany, but found themselves on the losing side.
(and here it comes)
600,000 members of the Demokratischer Turnerbund were exiled! The majority fled to America seeking liberty, social reform, human rights, the hope of democracy and “clean government”. (That’s a BIG ask)
(The DEUTSCHER TURNERBUND stayed behind. And continued to practice Gymnastics)
Stamp issued in 1948 to commemorate the 100th Anniversary of the Turners in America
The Turners Come to America
Many early Turners headed to the Ohio Valley, and the first Turner Society formed in Cleveland in 1848. And the National American Turner Organization formed in 1850. By 1855 there were 74 Turner Societies with over 4500 members (men), and the number jumped to 10,000 by 1860. At it’s peak, there were over 300 Turnverein with close to 50,000 members! The largest still in existence is the Turnverein Sacramento, established in 1854 (go California!)
The acrobatic team of the Milwaukee Turners, 1866. Front row, from left to right: William Leihammer, David Wachter, George Brosius, Theo Prengel. Middle row: John Heiss, Fritz Goetz, John Goetz, Hermann Scherff, Franz Bader. Back row: Fritz Brosius, John Oherley, Gustav Leupold, Otto Wagner. Public Domain
Turners opposed all forms of oppression, and as champions of equal rights, the were firmly opposed to Slavery. Because of Vater Jahn’s principals of liberty and equality, they were the first to volunteer for the Union Army at the beginning of the Civil War (in fact 2/3 of the Turners in America signed up). Their military training and discipline helped provide leadership for the Army. Turners stood guard at President Abraham Lincoln’s Inauguration, and they made up the Honor Guard at his funeral.
After the Civil War, Turnverein programs were expanded to include younger boys, older men, and even WOMEN and girls.
The 26th Federal Gymnastics Festival at Milwaukee in 1893. Iron bar exercises by 3000 “activists.” George Brosius, leader. Public Domain
What is a Turnverein?
A Turnverein or Turner Society is a gymnastics club who promotes German culture as well as Physical culture.
In the early days, a Turnverein was a political and social center for new immigrants. They acted as a social club hosting social events, parades and musical events. But at their core, they also promoted physical fitness and exercise through their gymnastics program.
The societies grew until there were over 300 Turnverein in America. The leadership was primarily made up of professionals and teachers. German-American Turners helped integrate new immigrants to the United States. They founded libraries and reading rooms, and hosted lectures. Turners joined the newly formed Fire Brigades, and helped local police during times of unrest.
(Quick aside- In the mid 1850s, the Know-Nothing party of American nationalists formed in opposition to German, Irish and Catholic immigration. Their goal was to limit immigration and deny voting rights to foreign-born residents. The Turners worked hard against the Know-Nothings, even fought with them physically! By 1860… the Know-Nothing party ceased to exist)
Turners continued to support the American Military, but anti-German propaganda in World War I made things difficult for Germans in America. Gradually, the Turners (now mostly descendants of the 48ers and newer immigrants) although still a German club, changed the club language to English, in order to blend in and reassure their fellow countrymen that they were Americans.
In the 1930s, as the Nazis rose to power in Germany, it became more difficult to maintain a German Society in the US, so the group changed the name to American Turners. The Turners carried on as well as they could.
But what about Gymnastics? (isn’t that where we started?)
Gymnastics room in the National Gymnastics Hall at Milwaukee, ca. 1900. Second from left: George Brosius. Public Domain
The Turners and Gymnastics
American Turnverein may have been very active politically, but they never let go of the importance of physical training… Strong mind in a STRONG BODY.
Friederich Ludwig Jahn did more than start a movement, he developed a gymnastics program, and invented many of the apparatus that are still used today. Parallel bars, rings, the balance beam, the horizontal bar, and the dreaded HORSE. Physical fitness is still central to the Turner philosophy.
Milwaukee Turnhalle public Domain
In the mid-1800s, the Turners were already lobbying school boards in America to include Physical Education in the public school curriculum. And in 1855, Cincinnati Ohio became the first school system to torture children… I mean… encourage children, towards physical fitness with a gymnastic program led by Turner PE Teachers. They also developed Gymnastics programs across the US. And it grew! The early American Olympic Gymnastics Team got its start with the help of Turners.
Turnerbund and Turner Verein Today
To Find a Turnverein Near You–> American Turners
Today the Turner clubs still stand by the motto of “Strong Mind in a Strong Body“. These German Social clubs offer a number of sports, not just gymnastics. Look for a Turner club near you for a chance to participate in different athletic programs including golf, bowling, soccer, softball, volleyball, gymnastics and more.
But it’s more than just athletics. Modern Turn Verein offer a place for Germans (and non-Germans) to gather and socialize. Clubs across the country offer language classes, teach German customs and promote German culture. They host Festivals like Oktoberfest, or hold Christmas Markets. Every four years Turnerverein from across America come together for a huge festival.
And they still hold to the 4 F motto…Frisch, Fromm, Fröhlich, Frei (Lively, Pious, Merry, Free).
To Find a Turnverein Near You–> American Turners