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New Books in History
Here's a simple--or should we say simplistic?--line of political reasoning: communities are made of people; people can either be sick or healthy; communities, therefore, are sick or healthy depending on the sickness or health of their people. This logic is powerful. It explains success: "We lost the war because we, individually and therefore communally, were ill." And it explains victory: "We won the war because we, individually and there communally, were healthy." And it suggests a program for political progress: get healthy and stay that way. It's an old idea. We find it among the Greeks, the Romans, and throughout the various 19th- and early 20th-century programs for "national renewal" that swept Europe and Asia.
In his excellent book Body by Weimar: Athletes, Gender, and German Modernity (Oxford UP, 2010), Erik Jensen explores how Germans of the Weimar era were seduced by this "self-wellness = national-wellness" logic. They'd lost a war, and they couldn't understand why. They knew that German culture wasn't the problem. They believed--and with some good reason--that it was the most advanced in the world. So perhaps, they thought, the problem was some failure in themselves. They had grown weak and ill. Yes, that was it. So something had to be done about it. As Jensen shows, it was. And here's the really interesting part, at least by my lights: it wasn't done by the state. The Weimar government itself, though hardly disinterested, did not lead the campaign to make the German body well. Rather, "ordinary Germans" did. They began to play and follow sports, and to form countless clubs that played and followed sports. Sports became, well, "progressive" among the "right thinking people." Rich and poor. Men and women. Everyone played. For Germany.
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