GDR Gymnastics and Sport Festival: Sport, Pomp and Politics

The images above are taken from what was known as the “Sport Show”, a key element of 8 gymnastics and sport festivals held in the GDR between 1954 and 1987. For readers today, I imagine that these images recall first and foremost the so-called “Mass Games” which have been presented by the North Korean regime in the recent past. These events feature a cast of thousands performing carefully synchronized, highly choreographed displays of gymnastics, acting and music in honour of the hermit kingdom’s “Dear” and “Great” leaders.

While North Korea may be the country most closely associated with “Mass Games” today, it is interesting to note that this artistic medium has roots which extend back to early 19th century Germany and that its traditions were, as the photos above attest, continued on the GDR as well.

To get a sense of what “Mass Games” looked like in the East German context, check out this video below which features clips from the 1977 and 1987 GDR Gymnastics and Sport Festivals in Leipzig. As an added bonus, you’ll get to hear / read the recollections of a participant in one of these Sport Shows; her words give a clear insight into what role the festivals played in the propagation of the GDR’s official ideology.

Excerpt of 2009 film by Anna Hoetjes

The Historical Roots of “Mass Games”

The origins of “Mass Games” can be found in Prussia’s catastrophic defeat at the hands of Napoleon’s France in 1806. In the aftermath of this traumatic defeat (for many Germans at least!), Friedrich Ludwig Jahn, a school teacher in rural Prussia, was inspired to begin a movement which sought to spur on Germany’s physical, moral and political regeneration through group gymnastics. While Jahn was a proud Prussian who served in the campaigns against Napoleon, he was also early supporter of the unification of the many, independent German states that existed at that time. Jahn made no distinction between his political aims and his commitment to physical well-being, indeed he saw an intrinsic link between the physical, moral and social well being of the German people. As his gymnastics’ movement took off, the connection between his nationalist views and a culture of physical activity became firmly established in the minds of many Germany and, it can be argued that manifestations of this idea persisted within German political culture through to the end of the GDR-era.

Mass Games in the GDR
Bundesarchiv Bild 183-66400-0142 Zentralbild/Zastrom 15.8.1959 III. Deutsches Turn- und Sportfest in Leipzig Im Leipziger Wohnbezirk Süd fand ein wahres Fest des Volkssportes statt, als am Sonnabend, dem 15.8.59 die Leipziger Bevölkerung dieses Bezirkes mit Walter Ulbricht und seiner Gattin, dem 1. Sekretär der Bezirksleitung Leipzig der SED, Paul Fröhlich, und dem Präsident des Deutschen Turn- und Sportbundes, Rudi Reichert, am Massensport teilnahmen. UBz.: Erste Reihe dritter von links Walter Ulbricht

East German leader Walter Ulbricht (in dress shirt and tie) takes part in a group stretch at the 2nd German Gymnastics and Sport Festival in Leipzig in 1959 (Bundesarchiv Bild 183-66400-0142)

“Mass Games” were introduced to East Germany in 1954 and they were initially presented as a continuation of the vibrant workers’ sport movement that had flourished in Germany from the end of the 19th c. until the Nazi’s rise to power in 1933. During those years, working class sporting groups were commonplace and frequently organized large-scale competitions among themselves. The introduction of the “Mass Games” to the GDR during these early years of the state’s existence was part of an effort to reanimate these workers’ sporting traditions as a way of creating a distinctly socialist sporting culture.

While sport was at the centre of the festival, this being Cold War Germany, politics were never too far behind. Indeed the name “German Gymnastics and Sport Festival” is telling, as it betrays the East’s allegiance to Soviet foreign policy which continued to claim a peaceful, unified Germany as one of its goals. The festival ran under this name four times between 1954 and 1963 and during these years, the claim to pan-German relevance was underscored by the participation of competitors from West Germany.

In 1969, the festival underwent what today would be called a “rebranding”, receiving the new name “GDR Gymnastics and Sport Festival”. This change coincided with the GDR authorities’ efforts to establish “the workers’ and peasants’ state” as its own entity, clearly distinct from West Germany. It also came at a time when the GDR had begun to establish itself as a sporting power on the world stage and from here on, the festival became a key platform for presenting official state ideology and an element in the East German regime’s attempts to parlay GDR athletes’ sporting success into increased legitimacy, both at home and abroad.

Cover of a multi-lingual booklet produced to promote the 8th GDR Gymnastics and Sport Festival from 1987.

Cover of a multi-lingual booklet produced to promote the 8th GDR Gymnastics and Sport Festival from 1987.

A clear indication of the ideological role that the festival played for GDR is found in a booklet produced by the East German Sport Association after the last festival held in Leipzig in 1987. This argues that the event “proved once again that the GDR wholeheartedly supports the Olympic ideal” and that “hundreds of thousands of athletes and visitors declared their support for their socialist fatherland, for the Socialist Unity Party of Germany’s policy in the interests of peace and the well-being of the people.” (pg. 3, Fest des DDR-Sports:. Deutscher Turn- und Sportbund: Dresden, 1987). Further evidence of the way East German leaders used the festival to reinforce official state ideology are found in photos documenting athletes laying wreaths at graves of “antifascist resistance fighters” (official antifascism), a tattoo of the National People’s Army (peace through strength) and the consecration of sport club flags (co-opting of religious rites, see my earlier piece on the Socialist Confirmation).

The GDR's ruling caste (including Minister for State Security Erich Mielke at far left in front row) enjoy the Sport Show.

A thousand shades of beige: The GDR’s ruling caste (including Minister for State Security Erich Mielke at far left in front row) enjoy the Sport Show.

Youth Sport at the Festival: Spartakiade

For the last three iterations of the festival, event organizers integrated the GDR’s biannunal, youth sporting championships, the Spartakiade, into the program. This event brought together more than 10,000 of the country’s most promising young athletes to compete for the GDR’s national championships. As one former participant told me, every effort was made to replicate the experience of a large-scale international competition in order to better prepare the next generation of sporting heroes for all that awaited them:

“Competitors would get [their] District team track suit and athlete I.D.,  just like at a big time competition . . . And at the competition
itself both the athletes and the officials had to take an oath, there was even a Spartakiade flame that burned for the length of the
games. They copied practically everything [from the Olympics].” (interview with K. Striepecke, April 2014)


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: