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Monday, April 29, 2013

Why Soldiers March

"Perhaps the quirkiest expression of the insurrectionary idea was the Turnbewegung, or gymnasts’ movement, founded by Friedrich Ludwig Jahn in 1811 in the Hasenheide park in what is now the Berlin suburb of Neukölln. The aim of the movement was to train young men for a coming war against the French. The objective was not to train paramilitaries, but to evolve specifically civilian forms of bodily prowess and patriotic commitment in preparation for a struggle in which the people as a whole would be pitted against the enemy. The gymnasts were not ‘soldiers’, a term that Jahn despised for its mercenary associations (‘Sold’ is the German word for wage), hut citizen-fighters whose participation in the struggle was entirely voluntary, because it was motivated by love for the fatherland. Gymnasts did not ‘march’, Iahn pointed out in The Art of German Gymnastics, the official catechism of the early movement, because marching killed the autonomous will and was intended to degrade the individual to the mere tool of a higher authority. Instead they ‘walked’, swinging their legs in a flowing, natural motion, as befitted free men. The art of the gymnast, Jahn wrote, ‘is an enduring site [eine bleibende Stätte] for the building of fresh sociable virtues [ .. . ] of a sense of decency and law and [of feeling for] cheerful obedience without prejudice to freedom of movement and high-spirited independence’.’

In order to facilitate this freedom of movement, Jahn developed a special costume, whose loose jacket and wide-legged trousers of grey unbleached linen were designed to accommodate and encourage the free forms of bodily movement so prized by the gymnasts. Here again, there was an antimilitary dimension: ‘The light and austere, unpretentious and thoroughly functional linen costume of the gymnast,’ Jahn wrote, ‘is unsuited to [. . .] braids, aiguillettes, armbands, dress swords and gauntlets on the leaders of processions etc. The earnest spirit of the fighter (Wehrmannsernst) is thereby transformed into idle play.” Coupled with this hostility to the hierarchical order of the traditional military was an implicit egalitarianism. Jahn’s followers were encouraged to address each other as ‘du’, and their distinctive costume helped to dissolve harriers of status by removing the outward signs of social difference.” The gymnasts were even known to sing songs proclaiming that all members were ‘equal in estate and rank’ (‘Au Rang und Stand sind alle gleich'). Jahn's outdoor displays, in wnicn young men swung, twirled and twisted on raised bars that were the prototypes of today’s gymnastic equipment, attracted huge crowds. Here was a clear demonstration of how patriotism could provide the key to a reconceptualizarion of political culture as rooted in voluntary allegiances rather than hierarchical structures of authority."

--- Iron Kingdom: The Rise And Downfall of Prussia, 1600-1947 / Christopher M. Clark
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