A Theoretical Context
My interest in German body culture of the 1910s and 1920s arose from a lifelong curiosity about modernistic representations of the human form in
German theatre, literature, psychology, film, sexology, photography, and art, especially that produced by the expressionists. The latter group's distinctively dynamic and mysteriously distorted images of the human body urged me to explore ever more facets of German culture to understand this powerful and disturbingly modern expressivity ascribed to the human body. The Germanic way of seeing the body seemed aggressively modern, but it was not clear why. Post-1950 scholarship on modernism has not provided convincing answers, guided as it has been by the assumption that modernity implies impulses toward abstraction and a consequent estrangement from the body itself as a source or site (rather than simply a sign) of historical tensions. To construct more persuasive answers, it was necessary to recover a great mass of primary material that previous European cultural studies had either ignored altogether or treated as marginal. This mass of primary material reveals that the scale and complexity of Germanic body culture was far greater than previously supposed, even during the time it unfolded. My main concern in this book is to offer a fairly comprehensive description and interpretation of specific achievements peculiarly associated with Germanic ideas about what makes the body modern. But any comprehensive history of these achievements means accommodating a bewildering variety of contradictory goals, motives, ramifications, strategies, implications, and consequences. As a whole, German body culture was neither a unified nor a unifying force on the European cultural scene. It repeatedly and often brashly declared its intention to be such a force, but in reality it achieved almost the opposite effect: an increasingly crowded and confused cultural space in which the body consistently triumphed as a source of difference rather than sameness. This effect was a much greater achievement than what those responsible for it may have intended. The outstanding legacy of the German body culture is that it showed how modern bodies project an ambiguous historical function: bodies are modern because they create significant instabilities of perception.
German culture between 1910 and 1930 cultivated an attitude toward the body unprecedented in its modernity, intensity, and complexity. This attitude motivated the formation of body culture. But despite the body's apparent finiteness as an object of cultural development, body culture tends to encompass an ever expanding range of activities, including the performing arts, literature, the fine arts, sports, athletics, medicine, sex, sexology, fashion, advertising, labor, ergonomics, architecture, leisure activities, music, physiognomic study, and military discipline. German culture made interesting and often spectacular contributions in all these areas. However, it is useful to observe that a genuinely modern attitude toward the body entails more than a modern attitude toward the representation of the body or toward identities imposed upon the body. Much of what most people consider modern, such as fashion or machines, is external to the body; the
body itself remains a constant, even eternal mode of being, far more obedient to pressures of biology than of history. Indeed, much of German body culture may seem to fit this doctrine of modernity. But then one encounters the plenitude of evidence that indicates an ambitious attempt by the culture to physicalize modernity within the body and to view the body itself as a manifestation of modernist desire. Body culture appears as a mode of aesthetic performance that collapses conventional distinctions between mind and body, subject and object, self and world. Of course, other cultures within industrialized countries experimented with modernizing the body, especially in the realm of sports and athletic development. Germans also made prodigious contributions in these fields, but it is difficult to see how these contributions disclosed a distinctly Germanic perception of the body, for they differed little from the techniques, goals, and rhetoric of sport culture pursued by Americans, Italians, Swedes, or Russians during the interwar years. I therefore have not paid a great deal of attention in this book to German sports history, which in any case has already received monumental analysis (Ueberhorst; Diem; Pfister).
The uniquely Germanic construction of the modern body involved two large categories of performance: nudity and physical movement, particularly ideas about movement introduced by the most turbulent dance culture in history. The Germans powerfully emphasized nudity and movement as the decisive elements bestowing modernity upon the body. But the body culture was never able completely to resolve fundamental tensions between these elements, largely because the more dancelike movement became, the more difficult it was to resolve underlying tensions between the sexes. The interweaving of material on nudity, movement, and dance shows the uncertainty within the culture about whether modernity was ultimately an ecstatic condition of nudity or an ecstatic release of movement. I propose that nudism and dance were answers to questions circulating, often unconsciously, within the social reality that created the culture. The questions may be summarized as follows:
How can the body itself assume a modern identity? What are the dominant signifiers of a modern body?
What are differences between normative, ideal, and perverse bodies in a modern context?
How do the sexes differ in using their bodies to signify attitudes toward modernity?
What are relations between modern bodies and mechanized identities?
How does modernity construct a new relation between the body and metaphysical dimensions to identity, such as soul, spirit, consciousness?
What sacrifices are required to achieve a modern body?
How does a modern body function as a sign of tension between individual and social identity?
Nacktkultur, Körperkultur, and dance never gave coherent answers to any of these questions. Rather, the answers became fragmented into a widening domain of competing ideas, personalities, and institutional gestures. I use the term "empire" to designate the scale of this diversity and will to power (or appropriative energy) defining the complexity of the body culture.
Chapter titles identify themes or theoretical categories, such as "Aesthetic Nudity" or "Group Dancing"; each chapter comprises subsections mostly devoted to personalities whose achievements made a difference in the manifestation of the abstract category. The motive for this method of organization is to show how the notion of a modern body provoked numerous categories of difference that achieved their strongest expression through the formation of intensely different personalities. Even by the standards of the Germanic body culture itself, the ultimate value of the modern body lay in its power to designate a distinct personality that established the authority of difference over unity. The emancipatory goals of the culture, its strategies for redefining conditions of freedom, focused on amplifying the power of nudity or movement to promote difference and accommodate further differences.
Related to the use of the word "empire" is my inclination to speak of "Germanic" rather than "German" body culture. I make this distinction because it is necessary to view the body culture as a phenomenon that extended beyond the national borders of Germany. Body culture had serious export value for Germany, and numerous personalities with international careers developed German ideas abroad. Moreover, many people who contributed significantly to the body culture in Germany did not originally come from Germany. The body culture was "German" insofar as distinct personalities regarded Germany as somehow decisive in shaping their ideas and careers, but it did not exist only and entirely in Germany. I therefore make occasional excursions to other countries in following the achievements of several personalities. Indeed, in an earlier draft of this book I included a large section that examined the dissemination of Germanic body culture throughout Europe, the United States, and Japan. However, this section became so large that I have decided to make a separate project of it.
In our time, the following question inevitably arises: to what extent was the body culture responsible for the advent of the Third Reich? The question seems especially significant because of the deep-rooted presumption of the "irrationality" of early German body culture, a prejudice William H. McNeill summarizes very succinctly: "Since World War II, repugnance against Hitlerism has discredited rhythmic muscular expression of political and other sorts of ideological attachment throughout the western world.
Distrust of visceral responses to such exercises prevails" (McNeill 151). In this book, however, I gather a large amount of evidence to show the difficulty of constructing a decisive correlation between particular attitudes toward the modern body and impulses toward fascism or totalitarian beliefs. Some forms of body culture that we might consider irrational failed altogether to interest the Nazis; moreover, the body culture pervasively attempted to anchor itself in theoretical discourse precisely to overcome the widespread suspicion that any aesthetic or pleasurable preoccupation with the body was irrational.
As a manifestation of modernity, the body culture was, like romantic music or precision tool machinery, accessible to a wide spectrum of political positions. Several personalities discussed in this book became ardent supporters of the Nazi cause, and I have tried wherever possible to give an accurate account of how all the personalities of that time responded to the Nazi cultural program. But the mere fact that several people enthusiastic about Weimar body culture also became enthusiastic about National Socialism does not mean that some deep, inherent connection between body culture and Nazism needs to be explained. Arguing as much is like arguing that because Hitler was a vegetarian, a deep connection exists between vegetarianism and Nazism. The evidence presented here suggests that those who embraced Nazism and those who did not acted for uniquely personal reasons rather than because body culture somehow predisposed them to follow one direction or another. People embraced body culture for equally personal reasons rooted in powerful, individuating desires rather than in self-sacrificing devotion to abstract concepts such as nation, state, or class. If anything, body culture strengthened the authority of personalities and individuality and thus dramatized with auspicious and even audacious viscerality the importance of placing the political within the personal.
Related to the question of whether the body culture was "responsible" for Nazism is the more difficult problem of defining the context for the body culture. What caused body culture to emerge? I have avoided the tendency of some cultural histories to cast cultural phenomena as virtually mechanistic responses to large-scale political or social events such as the Great War, the revolution, the catastrophic inflation, or the Great Depression. The body culture did not remain indifferent to such events, but the advantage of gathering evidence from throughout the period between 1910 and 1930 is that it allows us to evaluate body culture in relation to events that might seem to distinguish, for example, Weimar culture from Wilhelmine culture. The evidence indicates a remarkable firmness of purpose across the period; the aims of German body culture in 1914 were fairly consistent with the aims of 1929, and one can observe in it a determination not to let big events undermine its emancipatory ambitions. Yet much of the body culture seems to have entered a period of decline in the early 1930s. The Nazis did
express aggressive hostility toward it, but they cannot be entirely blamed for a decline that set in before they assumed power. It was a decline marked more by theoretical stagnation than by diminishing membership rosters.
The context, therefore, must extend further back into history, perhaps deep into German history, if it is to explain the Germanic uniqueness of the body culture. In earlier drafts of the book, I included extensive discussion of theoretical discourses related to bodily identity: the physiognomic research of Carus, Klages, Kretschmer, Stratz; the "characterological" theories of Prinzhorn and Utiz; the race theories of Hertz, Günther, Müller, and Lenk; the eugenic philosophies of Muckermann, Reich, the League for Sexual Reform; the prolific and often monumental messages of sexologists such as Moll, Wulffen, and Stekel. However, effective examination of these and other theorists requires another book in itself. Moreover, these theorists do not answer our primary question: what was the context for this German eruption of theory about bodily identity? I am inclined to propose that general conditions of modernity, perceived more intensely in Germany than elsewhere, urged Germans to look more intensely at the body as a projection of identity. Pure theorists tend to view the body as a hypothetical construct, a generic organism. My focus here is to show how bodily performance , through the nudity and movement of specific bodies, strengthens the projection of modern identity. Nudists, dancers, and gymnasts made more insightful contributions to theories of bodily identity than did the pure theorists. The great, unconscious, and untheorized contribution of the pure theorists was to establish the context of body culture in language itself, in a mysterious and unexplained relation between, on the one hand, properties peculiar to the German language that control perception and, on the other, the limited ability of language, as a thing without body, to make the body completely visible. The tendency of the Germans to assign a deep, metaphysical significance to the body suggests serious uncertainty about the extent to which humans can see themselves or each other on the most physical level. Language is deep inside the body, yet no one can see it. In other words, I feel the most convincing context for explaining the emergence of the Germanic body culture is cognitive , that historically unique conditions of modernity activated a cognitive condition that focused perception on the body as a source of meanings that hitherto had remained hidden (instead of being created as such by manifestations of modernity). However, it is obvious to me that humanity does not yet possess the resources or the knowledge (especially of language) to discuss how this cognitive notion of context actually works to produce cultural history. I think it is unwise to speculate further about the body culture's origins, which already seem tinged with mysticism.
Germanic body culture was largely the achievement of women who associated modernity with expanded opportunities for freedom of identity and
action. These women believed that unprecedented assertions of freedom and power for their sex depended on revised perceptions of the female body and its expressive capabilities. The desire for a modern identity in a modern body entailed a desire for unprecedented expressions of ecstatic experience resulting from a collapse of difference between inner and outer forms of being and metaphysicality. The rhetoric of modernity never detached itself from mystical metaphysics, even among the most rational advocates of the body culture. But ecstasy does not occur without the perpetration of excesses, severe instabilities and ambiguities of perception that attend any collapse of difference and subsequent effort to appropriate minds, bodies, spaces, and institutions on a national scale. Yet every excess exposes a limit or boundary designating a difference. An "excessive" number of women inhabited the body culture only if one assumes that society should have urged them to articulate female desire in some other way than the celebration of the body as an emancipatory, salvational force. But one might just as well complain that men showed greater reluctance to participate in dance or gymnastics than in nudism because society failed to urge them to focus their desires more avidly on the idea of the body as an emancipatory, salvational force. Obviously men felt that the more their bodies moved with dancelike qualities, the more their bodies assumed a feminine identity, for dance endeavors precisely to make the body the dominant sign of instability, or "viscosity," of identity. This sexual difference was at the heart of the problem in reconciling nudity and movement to produce a coherent definition of the modern body. However, this sexual difference was not unique to German culture; it is pervasive in premodern, modern, and postmodern societies. What was unique to the Germanic body culture, in both the Wilhelmine and Weimar eras, was the intensity with which it self-consciously treated modernity as a problem of sexual difference rooted in deep uncertainty about the power of the body, of a biological "destiny," to become a decisive agent of history. The vast outpouring of sexual discourse produced, from increasingly "scientific" perspectives, during the Wilhelmine and Weimar eras testifies to this gathering uncertainty about the relation between modernity and sexuality, though it failed to provide answers that might have lessened our own uncertainty about this relation.
This book focuses on the great outpouring of bodily performance that attempted to resolve the tension between biology and history by ascribing to the body—and especially the female body—an unprecedented power to give ecstatic experience a large public dimension. It hardly diminishes the achievement of the body culture to observe that it created far more uncertainty than it resolved (or than subsequent historical eras have resolved). Thus, another reason I have kept the context of the body culture fairly open is that the value of these achievements does not depend on a specific set of historical conditions, even if the conditions were necessary to produce the
achievements. Despite decades of scholarly neglect, most of what the body culture had to say about the relation between the body and modernity still seems as relevant and exciting for people throughout the world as it was for those who transmitted its message.