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Beer, Bratwurst And Brackets: Grains Of German Skating History

Illustration from Zindel's 1825 book "Der Eislauf"

Almost every book you will find that discuss figure skating's history seems to follow a certain trajectory: bone skates, Jackson Haines, Sonja Henie, John Curry, the Battle Of The Carmen's and the Battle Of The Brian's, Nancy and Tonya and the rest. Much of the information you'll glean from many of the more periphery of these trips back in time focuses largely on skating's development of the sport in North America. As for European countries, the development of skating in Great Britain, France, Scandinavia, Austria and Holland are often touched on but the early history of skating in one country that has developed champion after champion throughout figure skating's history that's often neglected is Germany. That's where we'll focus our attention today. Grab yourself a beer and a bratwurst and get ready to head back in our time machine to Bavaria.

Friedrich Gottlieb Klopstock and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

It is generally believed that the pastime of ice skating made its way to both France and Germany prior to the eighteenth century. However, it wasn't until late in the eighteenth century that the pastime became a passion. The historical ISU publication "Seventy-five years of European and world’s championships in figure skating" explains that in those early days "much credit is due to the gymnasts, who tried to do away with the prejudice against skating." But these elusive gymnasts weren't the only ones advocating for the growth of skating in Germany.

Two famed German writers by the names of Friedrich Gottlieb Klopstock and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe met on the ice and developed a close bond and shared passion for skating as a result. Nigel Brown's authoritative 1959 book "Ice-Skating: A History" explains that "Klopstock was one of the first who enjoyed it as a pastime. He became an expert skater and wrote an ode to skating. He encountered another poet on the ice, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, who also became proficient in the art. When they met, they did not discourse on verse but on skating - 'the poetry of the motion'. Klopstock found cerility of action its greatest charm. He discussed its fascination with Goethe and spoke of the merits of a long Friesland skate as being the most suitable for speeding. Goethe on the other hand wore high grooved skates and enjoyed circling and turning. He was an artistic skater, a figure-skater of the eighteenth century. He grew passionately fond of skating, and found in this exercise such pleasure that he would forget his everyday worries. The hours he passed on the ice were never wasted, for he found in this exercise, this complete abandon, these 'aimless movements', as he put it, an awakening of noble thoughts. He owned that the hours passed in this way, seemingly lost and futile, aided the most rapid development of his poetic projects. This can be no exaggeration for his passion for skating was so great, that when dusk fell he could not always tear himself away from the ice, and under the moonlight he circled on, deep in thought, and morning often broke with the poet still tracing the many figures of his imagination. Goethe was also aware of the practical benefits that skating offered. In 'Aus Meinem Leben' he refers to skating as 'an exercise which brings us into contact with the freshest childhood, summoning the youth to the full enjoyment of his suppleness, and is fitting to keep off a stagnant old age.'" Klopstock's odes "Der Eislauf", "Braga" and "The Art Thialfs" and Goethe's poem "Winter" all serve as testaments to their passion for the ice.

Brown further tells us that by 1788, the popularity of skating in Germany "was expanding, though somewhat behind England. Long curves and spirals on the outside edge were the main features then practiced. Smaller figures and poses appear to have been treated contemptuously and termed 'artificialities'. However there must have been some inventive forces at work in search of new movements, for in that year the first important publication on skating was printed." The publication Brown refers to was written by a man named Gerhard Ulrich Anton Vieth. If you're wondering who Vieth was, he was actually a prominent German mathematics teacher who lobbied both for educational reforms and for the development of physical education. He learned to skate in Liepzig. Prior to the publication of his book, he gave a lengthy lecture on skating to friends in Dessau. His twenty six page discourse was first published in "Neue Litteratur und Volkerkunde" in Leipzig in 1789. The following year, it was reprinted in Vienna as "Über das Schlittschuhfahren". Vieth's writings offered the first mention of the forward outside loop three as well as descriptions of the four edges, the spread eagle and detailed instructions on carving the alphabet on the ice.

Frontispiece from Aloys Maier's 1814 book. Photo courtesy Bayerische StaatsBibliothek.

In the first part of the nineteenth century, Vieth's infectious enthusiasm for the sport slowly had a ripple effect. A Salzburg author by the name of Aloys Maier penned "Das Schlittschuhlaufen" in 1814. In 1824 and 1825 came two books by Christian Siegmund Zindel. These books slowly built upon the foundation of information that Vieth offered but did not have the Germans flocking to the ice. The Napoleonic Wars also slowed the sport's advancement.

Henriette Sontag

However, it was in the period that followed when German born opera soprano Henriette Sontag defied societal conventions about females taking to the ice when she skated publicly in Germany in the 1840's. Sontag was a singer of international renown and was actually the soprano soloist in the first public performances of Beethoven's "Symphony No. 9" when she was only eighteen but at the time she was reportedly skating in Germany she would have been in her thirties. Bearing in mind society's staid views on women and sport back in those days, Sontag's social standing probably played a big role in hushing her critics. She was the wife of Count Carlo Rossi and as such, took on the noble title of Countess. You didn't mess with nobility; German nobility at that. Sadly, and of interest to all of you Michelle Kwan fans out there, Sontag's final musical performance was in the role of none other than Desdemona, fourteen days before her death in 1854 of cholera.

Anna Hübler and Heinrich Burger

In 1861, an ice skating club - Germany's first - was formed in Frankfurt. Seven years later came the Troppau Eislaufverein in the Duchy of Troppau and in 1881, the Frankfurt Skating Club was officially borne. In 1888, the Frankfurt Club joined forces with the Vienna Skating Club in Austria and the skating club in Troppau to form a joint German and Austrian Skating Union called the Deutscher und Österrreichischer Eislaufverband. The new union was responsible for the organization of the very first German Championships in Munich in 1891 as well as the first European Figure Skating Championships in Hamburg that same year - prior to the formation of the International Skating Union! Perhaps predictably, every single one of the seven competitors were either from Germany or Austria. Germany would also host the European Championships in 1893, 1900 and 1907 and the World Championships in 1904. Prior to 1910, Gilbert Fuchs and Gustav Hügel claimed five World titles between them and Anna Hübler and Heinrich Burger won the very first World pairs title in 1908.

The opening in November 1910 of one of the largest enclosed rinks in the world at the time, the Sportpalast, also played a major role in developing skating in Germany. Memim Encyclopedia tells us that "The large stone building stood at the Luther Street, the ice was sixty meters long and forty meters wide. Berlin was becoming a new sports center of the world and thanks to its convenient location between the cities of Vienna and Stockholm Figure skating also become a major intersection." That same year, Berlin played host to the both European Championships and the World women's and pairs competitions. Handily, Werner Rittberger - the inventor of the loop jump - won the silver medal behind the inventor of the salchow, Ulrich Salchow, that year at both Europeans and Worlds. Elsa Rendschmidt claimed the women's silver medal in 1910 at Worlds and Hübler and Burger won their second and final World pairs title. The following year, young Rittberger would win the men's silver medal at another World Championships in Berlin but by 1914, the Sportpalast would play host to more political congregations than skating ones with the advent of World War I.

Maxi Herber and Ernst Baier

We'll stop there in our little tour through early German skating history and wave farewell to Klopstock, Goethe, Vieth, Sontag, Rittberger and the rest for now. Although certainly lesser known than the skating histories of several other countries, the early back story of skating in a country that has produced so many greats like Katarina Witt, Gaby Seyfert, Jan Hoffmann, Anett Pötzsch, Maxi Herber and Ernst Baier, Aliona Savchenko and Robin Szolkowy and Tanja Szewczenko is an important part of skating history that we should all be acquainted with.

Skate Guard is a blog dedicated to preserving the rich, colourful and fascinating history of figure skating. Over ten years, the blog has featured over a thousand free articles covering all aspects of the sport's history, as well as four compelling in-depth features. To read the latest articles, follow the blog on FacebookTwitterPinterest and YouTube. If you enjoy Skate Guard, please show your support for this archive by ordering a copy of the figure skating reference books "The Almanac of Canadian Figure Skating", "Technical Merit: A History of Figure Skating Jumps" and "A Bibliography of Figure Skating":