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Volksgemeinschaft at Play

Volksgemeinschaft at Play
Volksgemeinschaft at Play

“Don’t you fancy joining […] and being as young and happy as you once were?”

teases a 1935 article in a KdF magazine, before going on to promise: “In the fresh air and sun,

your body will stretch out and enjoy its freedom. […] You will be strong and happy, healthy and powerful […] and you will be rewarded with a new and enriched attitude towards life.”1 These fine promises advertised a sports course offered by KdF’s Sports Department.2 The department was responsible for arranging sports and games for the German population and as such was one part of a large network of Nazi sport organizations, a network that grew out of the regime’s obsession with strong and healthy bodies.3 The early activities of KdF’s Sports Department focused on calisthenics, swimming, and track-and-field, but soon other kind of sports were integrated into the program so that, by 1936, a KdF propaganda brochure Some of the arguments made in this chapter can also be found in Julia Timpe, “‘Männer und Frauen bei fröhlichem Spiel’: Ziele, Gestaltung und Aneignungsversuche von KdF-Betriebssport,” in Sport und Nationalsozialismus, ed. Frank Becker and Ralf Schäfer (Göttingen: Wallstein, 2016). I have also related some ideas presented in the following to institutional practices in the Third Reich in an article I wrote with Elissa Mailänder, Alexandra Oeser, and Will Rall, to be published in the forthcoming volume Ruptures in the Everyday: Views of Modern Germany from the Ground, edited by Andrew Bergerson and Leonard Schmieding.

could boast that there was practically no kind of sport that the leisure organization did not offer.4 It ran so-called “open classes,” which met on a regular basis, often weekly, and which everybody could join at any time.5 In addition, KdF arranged special sports events, such as seasonal Sports Days and the so-called Sportappelle [Sports Musters] for German factory workers. The organization also came to dominate the arena of company sports when it launched what it called Factory Sports Communities all over Germany.6 These enabled industrial workers to participate in sports programs that were offered on or near the grounds of their work places. The head of KdF’s Sports Department was Reichssportführer [Reich Sports Leader] Hans von Tschammer und Osten,7 who also led the centralized German sports association of the Third Reich, the Deutscher Reichsbund für Leibesübungen [DRL, the German League for Physical Exercise].8 The DRL was a product of Nazi Gleichschaltung practices, the measures undertaken by Hitler’s government in the first stage of its rule to gain control over all areas of the political, economic, and social life of Germany. The Nazis were especially ruthless and comprehensive in their attacks against their political opponents. When striking at Germany’s socialist parties and their organizations, the Nazis also dissolved German workers’ sports associations—such as the Arbeiter-Turn- und Sportbund (the Workers’ Gymnastics and Sports Federation, or the ATSB) and the Kampfgemeinschaft für Rote Sporteinheit [the Fighting Community for Red Sport Unity, often referred to as Rotsport, or Red Sport]—as well as individual workers’ sports clubs; leading functionaries of these associations were persecuted and sent to concentration camps or murdered.9 These workers’ sports clubs had been important sites for the working-class movement since the nineteenth century. They were founded as counterparts to late-Imperial Germany’s nationalistically orientated bourgeois gymnastic associations, which often barred workers from membership, and they grew into a crucial part of both the Communist and Social Democratic milieus in Germany.10 Thus, the closure of these clubs greatly weakened leftist opposition to the Nazi regime. At the same time however, in shutting down these clubs, the regime had also opened a potentially dangerous void: Where would all of these former worker-athletes go? What would they do in their free time? While in itself the dissolving of workers’ sports clubs closed down potential sites of working-class opposition to the Nazi regime, the danger, from the regime’s point of view, was that this might only be a temporary effect. The Nazis were aware of the risk that the former participants in these clubs could, as an alternative, start underground.

activities.

Consequently, the Nazis were eager to fill this newly opened void with their own sports offerings, and the founding of KdF Sports Department, especially its activities in German factories, must be seen in this context. Using sports to incorporate these workers into the envisioned Nazi Volksgemeinschaft was one way the leisure organization sought to contribute to the building and fortification of this community; another facet of this goal was an interest in physicality and corresponding efforts to improve Germans’ bodily strength through sports and exercise. Both were connected to KdF’s other main objective in the realm of sport, producing joy for Germans and improving the quality of their everyday life. KdF’s implementation of these goals will be the focus of this chapter, which will also explore how the organization (either willfully or unconsciously) opened up spaces for opposition-minded individuals and groups in the areas of sports. If we are to believe statistics published by KdF, its sport activities met with growing enthusiasm from the German population: participation numbers rose from 630,000 in 1934 to 3.5 million in 1935, and then almost 6 million in the first half of 1936.11 In 1937, the leisure organization spoke publicly of over 6.5 million people taking part in KdF sports nationwide; a different report even claimed over 9.5 million participants attending over 500,000 different sports events.12 German Jews, however, could not join this ever-growing network of KdF sports programs. They had been officially excluded since 1935, in line with the Nuremberg Laws.13 And KdF’s antisemitism went further: trainers working for KdF were not allowed to teach “non-Aryans” outside the programs of the leisure organization, either in private or within the setting of another club.14 KdF’s sports organizers even spatially segregated its programs from Jews, as a photograph from 1935 illustrates: It displays a group of people in front of a sport field, where a SA-man holds up a sign announcing that KdF sports activities were ceasing on this specific field, as it was also accessible to Jews.15 Inevitably, the beginning of World War II affected KdF’s sports activities, but it did not bring them to an end. Reich Sports Leader von Tschammer und Osten described in letters to his former employees and sport instructors, who were now soldiers at the front, how sports remained part of everyday life in wartime Germany. In the summer of 1940 he wrote that the Reichssportfeld, the large sports and recreational area around the 1936 Berlin Olympic Stadium, had “turned into a paradise for Berliners who.

seek here strength and relaxation in their free time.

” On every weekday evening, von Tschammer und Osten reported, “old and young, fat and slim are doing sports on all fields, on all tracks and in the pools,” and adds: “It is hard to believe that it’s war when one sees this.”16 In 1940, KdF still arranged approximately 257,000 courses, which were attended by over 7 million people.17 In the following year, the organization’s statistics listed 2.3 million participants in KdF sports courses and over 9.4 million people taking part in Factory Sport events.18 The number of KdF Factory Sports Communities also grew during the war, reaching 21,000 in 1941. Special sports events for German workers also continued during the war, sometimes even seeing higher participation numbers than in the pre-war years.19 But the war certainly limited KdF’s efforts to produce joy through sports. Longer work hours left workers with little time and strength to do sports, notwithstanding the insistence of KdF and sports functionaries that in such circumstances its exercise programs were especially useful.20 In addition, sports facilities were increasingly hard to secure. In October 1940, a Factory Sports Attendant at the Hermann-Göring Werke in Berlin felt the need to rejoice because: “We have a sports hall! It cost us a lot of effort before this came finally true, because several gyms, which we were to have ‘as sure as death,’ were transformed very recently into barracks rooms.”21 A few months earlier, the same company had had to postpone a planned bowling competition due to the ongoing threat of enemy bombing.22 And in September 1943, the same Factory Sports Attendant was forced to cancel the event “Sports Day of Good Will,” since its venue, a sports field near Berlin’s Olympic Stadium, had been damaged the night before by enemy bombs, leaving the field unusable.23 Of course, such practical difficulties are not surprising during a war.24 In the face of such difficulties, the visible persistence of KdF and its sports attendants is noteworthy.25 Despite all obstacles, KdF Factory Sports endured the longest of all the leisure organization’s activities in Germany, and continued even after September 1, 1944, when a cessation of all other cultural activities had been ordered.26 Healthy Bodies, Happy People KdF created enjoyable and accessible opportunities for frequent and intensive exercise in order to improve, among other goals, Germans’ health and strength. The aim of the Sports Department was to reach as many people.

as possible rather than necessarily to promote individual athletic excellence; this goal was expressed in the somewhat egalitarian motto, “It is not about how far somebody jumps  – but that he jumps.”27 Healthier and stronger Germans would be more productive, and thus benefit the German state and its Nazi government, and so for KdF “sports and games were of decisive importance […] for the day-by-day struggle for the existence and the productive capacity of a nation.”28 Indeed, although KdF tended to emphasize the fun side of sport, participation in sports could also be considered a German’s “duty to his people.” In the Third Reich29 workers, especially, were expected to improve their bodily strength. In May 1939 a KdF sports brochure stated that, just as the peasant had no right to let his farm run to seed but had instead the duty to contribute to the feeding of his people, the worker had “no right to let his body deteriorate but rather [had] the responsibility to maintain his body as a power source of productivity.”30 Although I would like to emphasize that the general assumption behind KdF’s sports was that they should be relatively non-competitive and thus made them more fun, this sense of fun also made them more attractive and so a more effective way to advance general health and overall productivity. This is encapsulated in a message that was printed in each of the organization’s annual Sports Tickets, the document required for participation in KdF’s sports program. The words in the inside cover of this passport-like booklet were a message from Robert Ley, who, in his capacity as head of KdF, affirmed that “It is not our goal to raise matadors; we only want to have healthy and happy people in the factories. For, having a healthy people is 90% of the solution of the whole social question.”31 This message outlines a role for KdF sports that is instrumentally interested in nurturing a society of healthy, productive factory workers, but also concerned with creating happiness for people in that society, each aspect feeding another. This concern to advance Germans’ health is also discernible in visual depictions of KdF’s sports activities, especially when considered side-byside with more familiar imagery from mass demonstrations mounted by the Nazis, for example, those taking place at the annual Nazi Party Rally in Nuremberg. These were often also sports performances, images of which typically portray large groups of people exercising in strict synchronous formation to enact a perfect choreography32 which, according to Boaz Neumann, “organized and integrated the assembly of individual bodies into a single organic body.”33 By contrast, pictures of KdF’s sports classes are often starkly different—even though many of these, too, were intended.

for propagandistic purposes.34 Thus, an image of a KdF class that was published in the magazine Arbeitertum in 1937 shows a group of “ordinary people” doing sports, or more precisely, a stretching exercise. These men and women are not homogeneously dressed, and they are certainly not creating a geometrically perfect formation and do not perform completely in sync. Where the choreographed performances in Nuremberg produced images of geometrically perfect ranks of athletes, this picture seems to emphasize that the group is almost shambolic. The same contrast is apparent in a second photograph that accompanies the same article. This is a picture of an older, balding man with a small belly carrying three medicine balls. If the Nuremburg images contain the archetype of the strong, healthy Aryan, this somewhat portly individual is almost its antithesis.35 Of course, publishing this picture was quite deliberate on the part of KdF and the magazine Arbeitertum. It was an important goal of KdF to improve Germans’ health, and so tellingly, this article’s title was “Krieg gegen den Bauch” [“War Against the Belly”] and the text clarified that KdF’s sports courses targeted “the less well-built, the fat and buckled ones, the older ones,” with its activities being “an effective remedy against the flabbiness and stiffness of bodies and a medicine for lung, heart and metabolism.”36 The goal was to motivate “ordinary” Germans who did not usually involve themselves with sports. Thus, the sports and exercises were intended to be as easy as possible and not to require any great athletic skill, so that anybody could join immediately “and also see what he [could] still achieve.” The Arbeitertum images show active sports participants who seem to be a friendly, relaxed group rather than a forbidding cadre. The message is clearly that people who might be interested in a KdF sports class should encouraged to try a class. Then, once having been to a class, they would enjoy coming back because of the “liveliness and diversion” offered by KdF sports.37 The message from Ley printed on every KdF Sports Ticket urged that a healthy population was 90 percent of the solution to the social question, but for Ley and KdF, the activities of the Sports Department went beyond physical health: These activities were not “only a means to keep the body healthy and fresh” but had “a deeper sense than mere physical exercise” because KdF’s sports also set out to further the “mentally and spiritually healthy interior development” of participants, so as to “transform Germans’ free time into a source of strength through recreation that produces joy.”38 This statement points to a holistic approach, to an attempt to strengthen and harmonize both body and soul; the mentioned “joy production” was clearly a major characteristic of KdF’s.

sports programs. The Sports Department’s activities were meant to entertain Germans as much as to boost their fitness. Of course, both of these ambitions went hand in hand, and even though the goal was to engage as many participants as possible, KdF propaganda still very much emphasized the “fun” element. Sport classes run by the organization had names such as Fröhliche Gymnastik und Spiele [Happy Calisthenics and Games].39 In fact, it is astonishing how often the words “Freude,” “fröhlich,” or “froh” (“joy,” “happy,” or “cheerful”) appear in propaganda writing about KdF’s sports activities. “Men and women happily at play – this is typical KdFoperation” reads a caption to photographs in a KdF sports brochure from 1936, showing a group of men and women sitting next to each other on a lawn, smiling and laughing, some of them with either their legs or their arms held high, engaged in a game involving a medicine ball.40 In the same brochure, Ley summarizes the Sports Department’s task as the transformation of “the after-work-time of the German worker through happy physical exercises into a source of happiness and healthy life force.”41 As it is pointed out in writings on the leisure organization, KdF sports classes were conducted as “funny, and playful exercise courses”42 and were often accompanied by music—because “with music, everything is going to be even more beautiful.”43 Thus, KdF classes were purposefully informal and consciously set a tone that was diametrically opposed to that prevailing in classes of established sport clubs prior to the Nazi era.44 Sport historian Hajo Bennett sees a “mood of light-heartedness and cheerfulness” in KdF sports and even observes that a “rediscovery of play seems to occur.”45 And KdF sports brochures do seem to highlight playfulness, emphasizing how much laughter was part of its programs and providing detailed instructions for games that should be integrated into the exercise hours; many of them variations of playing tag or other children’s games.46 Writings on KdF’s sports events were typically richly embellished with photographs, photographs that also tend to illustrate participation in a KdF sports class as playful and enjoyable. For example, a 1935 article entitled “A happy KdF Sports Hour” depicts a group of men sitting in a line on a sports field, who are clearly entertained by the ballgame they are playing.47 The central message here is undoubtedly that “doing sports is fun.” A very similar mood, if even more pronounced, is conveyed by a photograph from a KdF sports event entitled “Cheerful Calisthenics on the Shores of the Wannsee”48 (Fig. 2.1). It depicts men and women taking part in a game that resembles a conga line acted out in the water; they are visibly having a lot of fun.

single individual but on the collective, not on peak performances by gifted individuals but on as many healthy participants as possible. Thus, KdF sports served to entice each individual German to do at least some sort of exercise—an effort that the Nazis hoped would eventually strengthen the entire German Volkskörper: Doing sports would not only benefit the individual, but also directly contribute to “the strength and health of the [German] nation[,]helping to make its future secure.” In this logic, each individual’s value to the community was enhanced by sports, as “[the] individual, whose body, mind, and spirit are harmoniously developed, will never be a burden on the community, but will always be a useful member of all the interests [sic] which serve the community.”50 Such rhetoric from writings on behalf of KdF shows that, for the leisure organization, doing sports had an importance beyond the individual (body) and the Sports Department’s activities were believed to function for the sake of the community and to assist in development of the overall strength of the German Volksgemeinschaft, both physically and spiritually. Nonetheless, if we compare the previously discussed photographs of the portly, balding man with his medicine balls or the Wannsee conga line to those of the Nuremburg mass exercises, KdF Sports, consistent with the organization’s focus on fun and “joy production,” seem much more oriented towards the “community” of the Volksgemeinschaft, compared to a different vision of the Volkskörper presented in the Nuremburg images. This is not to say that KdF’s interest in the Volksgemeinschaft and the Volkskörper is somehow relatively benign. The opposite is very clear in the racial component of KdF’s approach to sport. Importantly, for the Nazis sport was a specific means to achieving “recovery, fortification, the breeding of our race, a deeply-stalwart German Volk.”51 In KdF’s sports, the link to “breeding” is especially apparent in the Sports Department’s activities for women and for Germany’s rural population. Women had initially been excluded from KdF’s sports activities; when the Sports Department started its work, many of its programs catered exclusively for men. This gradually changed, however, and all classes were also opened to women. Furthermore, KdF also offered classes specifically for women, emphasizing that for working women in particular, physical exercises were important “as the female body is more likely and more disadvantageously subject to physical damage through work than men.” Exercise was portrayed as a national duty of all girls and women, a duty in order to stay healthy, strong, and productive, both as workers and (future) mothers.52 By 1936, women made up the majority of participants in KdF Sports classes.53.

Although KdF sports were initially restricted to men, their expansion to include women is highlighted in the organization’s brochures, which contain many pictures showing men and women doing sports side by side. These co-ed sports activities helped in yet another way to support the idea of an undivided, harmonious Volksgemeinschaft. Despite such ostensible equality, KdF’s approach towards sports remained strongly gendered, something that is closely connected to the previously mentioned racial element.54 KdF’s worries about women’s health—which it sought to enhance through its exercises—often stemmed directly from, or was at least related to, a greater concern for the health of the women’s offspring. Very often, when presenting the sports activities to young women, the Sports Department made sure it identified some of the young women as mothers.55 In advertisement photographs, women were shown with their young children. “Where mothers play with their children, a happy and strong race [Geschlecht] will grow”56 reads the caption of one such image. A 1938 publication called for exercises for women “since only strong women can bear strong children.

”57 During the war, the organization began to offer special classes for toddlers and their mothers.58 All this points to the Sports Department’s predominant concern in regard to its female participants: The mother, or mother-to-be, was KdF’s target audience, not the woman per se.59 This concern with offspring was even more pronounced in KdF’s sports activities in the countryside. Here, the Sports Department initiated the foundation of so-called Dorfsportgemeinschaften [Village Sport Communities].60 The name of these initiatives suggests they closely resembled KdF’s sports in German factories—its Factory Sports Communities—but in fact, the leisure organization’s programming in rural areas was deliberately different from its offerings in the urban context. In the villages, there was a strong focus on what were referred to as “völkisch gymnastic exercises.”61 These völkische Leibesübungen mainly included sports activities that already had a tradition in the villages, such as ball games, bowling, horse riding, or wrestling.62 KdF encouraged villagers to practice these sports together, hoping that this would promote their sense of community and local patriotism; for the same reason, the organization also set up competitions between neighboring villages.63 For KdF organizers, such events were considered especially apt “to re-awaken old traditions and to let new ones develop.”64 Local Sports Attendants were put in charge of village sports activities, and KdF lobbied for the building of more sports facilities in the countryside.65 Overall, KdF functionaries hoped that sports would help to improve the rural population’s attitude towards their life and place of residence J. TIMPE 43 and foster rural dwellers’ loyalty to their native community and region, diminishing any desires to abandon the countryside and thus halting the ongoing Landflucht [flight from the land].66 KdF also promoted sports to enhance the population’s health, and the leisure organization’s writing on this topic evinces direct links to Nazi racial thinking as well as eugenics: sports were presented as an important and “fruitful” arena for matchmaking and consequent procreation. KdF-arranged sports activities in the villages were intended to enable “individual girls and boys get to know each other, learn about their value in games, competitions and special achievements.

” Succinctly put, in a KdF brochure, “The exercises thus fulfill certain breeding prerequisites.”67 Such statements were in line with the “blood and soil” ideas that were prominently promoted by Richard Walther Darré, the Reichsbauernführer [Reich Leader of Peasants]. Darré firmly believed that sports in the countryside were necessary in order to facilitate the “breeding” of German peasants, whom he considered “a new nobility” and the racial backbone of Germany. That is, for Darré, the health and strength of the peasant was particularly crucial, for the peasant was the most archetypal of all Germans, the ultimate source of the Aryan race. In his 1935 article “We and Gymnastic Exercises,” published in Odal, his Magazine for Blood and Soil, he claimed that “the farm youth has to exercise, so that they can do justice to their task of bringing sufficient health into marriage. […] the German farm youth must exercise […] for the sake of their physical health but also for the idea of breed selection.”68 Clearly, for Darré, physical exercise was not just playing around. At least in its theoretical writings, KdF adapted his interpretation of sports and physical exercises as tools to ensure the production of racially superior German farmers. Accordingly, its sports activities in the countryside were meant to help secure the future of a traditional, village-based peasantry and thus significantly support what many Nazi thinkers considered a central foundation of the German nation’s stability and future. From the Sports Field to the Volksgemeinschaft: “Factory Sports Communities” As I have already indicated, KdF’s intention to fortify the “racial community” of all Germans was not only enacted by working towards strengthening the German Volkskörper through increased exercising. Quite literally helping realize this “community” was also an aspect of the small-scale.

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