Chapter 14 Controlling Masses, Unfolding Individual Potentials, and Enabling Cooperative Participation

Physical Education in Germany and the Nordic Countries

In: Exploring Textbooks and Cultural Change in Nordic Education 1536–2020

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In both the Nordic countries and Germany, the school subject physical education (PE) was introduced in the middle of the nineteenth century. PE was closely linked to states’ interests in forming future soldiers and obedient citizens (; , pp. 64–69; ; ). For the Nordic countries, Swedish Ling gymnastics became a dominant movement system. Ling gymnastics stressed collective, synchronised movements commanded by a centrally positioned gymnastics instructor. After World War I, both in Germany and the Nordic countries, “reform” pedagogy emerged, a major aim of which was to unfold children’s individual innate potentials. Reform pedagogy was a clear break with military drill and training in schools. In the Interwar Years, new movement systems, such as rhythmic gymnastics and a reformed version of Ling gymnastics, introduced dynamical exercises. Sports entered schools as a grassroots movement leveraged for different political goals: building a nation, a democratic society and a totalitarian state. These new movement forms came with differentiated teachers’ roles – from commanding masses to unfolding individual potentials and enabling cooperative participation.

In my chapter, I will depict the changes of the PE curriculum in Norway, Denmark, Sweden, and Germany in the Interwar Years. I added Germany to the list of Nordic countries because of both its closeness and difference: Educators in the Nordic countries were well-informed about reform pedagogical ideas and reform schools in Germany and adapted many of their ideas to the Nordic context. The movement traditions were distinctively different, however.

Here, I will focus on the following questions:

  1. Who is “in charge of” and controls bodily movements: the trainer or gymnastics instructor or the community of performers?
  2. What were the major goals of state-authorised PE curricula: to form diligent community members, foster active citizenship, or develop independent individuals?


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