For a lot of readers, the German expression “Leibesübungen“ certainly is unknown. “Leibesübungen“ can be translated with “physical exercises“. The “Leibesübungen“ have a lot in common with the school subject PE but there are also major differences. A very big difference is the ideology associated with the “Leibesübungen“.
In the early 20th century, the subject served one purpose: The goal was a perfect body.
The ideal of a perfect body is closely connected to the idea of eugenics. The point is to improve humanity concerning its physical and mental abilities.
Genes are an important factor: It’s essential to stimulate “positive genes“ and to stop “negative genes“ from spreading.
For the National Socialists, the subject “Leibesübungen“ had great significance:
The school subject was regarded as an area where it was particularly easy to indoctrinate adolescents.
Since the education of an indoctrinated youth was a cornerstone of Nazi ideology, the subject “Leibesübungen“ was a welcome means for the National Socialists.
Leni Riefenstahl & The Olympic Games 1936
The German director Leni Riefenstahl shot a two-part film about the Olympic Games 1936 on behalf of the NS Ministry of Propaganda: “Feast of the Nations“ and “Feast of Beauty“. The title of the second part, “Feast of Beauty“, already reveals something about the spirit of the film – in the film the human body (the “Beauty“) is staged in a sportive way (the “Feast“).
Since the 1936 Olympic Games took place three years after the National Socialists had seized power, they were already marked by the Nazi dictatorship.
The aim of the games in Berlin was a demonstration of power by the National Socialist leadership:
In the preceding Weimar Republic (1919-1933) Germany was not allowed to participate in the Olympic Games. After over a decade of absence from the Games, Germany was the host country – a fact that the National Socialist leadership used for their purpose. Consequently, Nazi propaganda could now claim that Germany was less isolated in the world and was striving for world peace.
The NS regime’s choice to let Leni Riefenstahl direct did not come out of the blue. Leni Riefenstahl’s personalty stood for the “Leibesübungen“ early on:
In the fim “Wege zu Kraft und Schönheit“ (“Paths to strength and beauty“), which can be described as an advertising film for physical exercises, Riefenstahl had one of her first appearances as an actress. The scene in which Riefenstahl appears is introduced by a text insertion: “Daily physical exercises! Without equipment! No costs“ Just a few minutes.“
Afterwards, Riefenstahl can be seen exercising her body.
After the fall of the Nazi regime in 1945, there was a small revolution in the world of physical education and sport: The theory known as “Eigenwelttheorie“ (“Own-world-theory“) understood physical education as an independent social free space besides real life.
This theory stood in contrast to the role of physical education under National Socialism: from now on, physical education was to be free from any form of politicisation – thus preventing physical education from ever being used again to subject young people to state indoctrination.
Even today, many people still see sport as a “social free space“: A workout in the morning or a visit to the gym in the evening often means a release from the draining everyday life and opens up new perspectives on life.
In conclusion, it should be noted that physical exercises still have a great influence on our everyday life today: Today, “sport“ refers to a whole family of sports that is constantly growing. It is common for many people to regard physical activity as a blessing – looking back at the history of sport, it can be said that physical activity has not always been a blessing.
Therefore, it seems all the more important to appreciate that sport days is free of ideological indoctrination, and that we can regard it as a blessing instead.
Simon von Ludwig
Cover picture: Leni Riefenstahl on a film set in 1934, Source: Wikimedia Commons