Almost 100 years after it was altered, the city's monument to a prominent German could be restored

Friedrich Ludwig Jahn was father of gymnastics

CINCINNATI -- One hundred years ago, the United States was at war with Germany.

In the U.S., bitter distrust of Germans was brewing. Cincinnati had strong ties to Germany with its large German population. The city was known for its German industries, and the symbol of the city, the "Genius of Water" on Fountain Square, was cast in Munich.

Yet even in Cincinnati, anti-German hysteria gripped our community. As an Ohio Historic Marker plaque in Findlay Market recounts:

"In Cincinnati, German teachers were dismissed from public schools. German professors were censored. German collections and publications were removed from circulation at the Public Library, businesses with German names had their names 'Americanized' and by police order, only English language public meetings could be held."

Cincinnati enforced these policies at the expense of preserving its German heritage and culture. As the city eradicated all traces of German influence, pieces of history were lost for almost a century. One of those pieces sits on top of the hill at Inwood Park: The Jahn monument.

The front of the Jahn monument.

In 1911, the Jahn monument in Inwood Park on Vine Street was established to honor Friedrich Ludwig Jahn, the father of gymnastics. Its granite face is carved with an oak tree and features a likeness of Jahn. The back of the monument is bare except for a strange rectangular niche. As the Cincinnati Enquirer wrote Oct. 23, 1911:

"One of the greatest German demonstrations in Cincinnati in a long while marked the dedication of the Jahn memorial stone in Inwood Park yesterday afternoon. Germans of this city and vicinity have reason to be proud of this magnificent tribute, the first of its kind in the United States. …Between 8,000 and 10,000 persons were present at the impressive dedication and unveiling of the monument."

One hundred years earlier, Jahn established the first gymnastics field or playground in Berlin. He was also responsible for founding the influential and progressive group known as the Turner Society. Initially meant to be an undercover militia group while Napoleon conquered Europe, the Turner Society developed into a group focused on physical fitness as well as intellectual pursuits.

German immigrants flooded Cincinnati after fleeing a failed attempt at German unification in 1848. The same year, a group of those immigrants -- nicknamed "48ers" -- established their own Turner Society in Over-the-Rhine, with headquarters on Walnut Street. Their motto, "a sound body and a sound mind," meant that their headquarters consisted of a gymnasium, lecture halls and library.

Don Heinrich Tolzmann, president of the German-American League and local expert on Cincinnati's German history, said the Turner Society was responsible for many progressive social changes in the city.

"When these 48ers came here, people like the Turners, one of the first things they noticed was that this was a slave country," Tolzmann said. "When Lincoln issued his call for volunteers in April of 1861, the Turners enlisted en masse and became the 9th Ohio Union regiment. It was an all-Turner regiment."

The Turners supported social progress in a number of other ways. They supported a 40-hour work week -- unheard of in the 19th century. They advocated for free textbooks in public schools. They were also responsible for establishing the first physical education programs in Cincinnati and throughout the country.

"The Turners protested that children were not physically fit," Tolzmann said. "You take it for granted now that you have gym class. Prior to the Turners, gym class wasn't there."

Despite everything that the Turners contributed to the city, the Jahn monument became a victim of anti-German hysteria in 1918.

The empty back side of the Jahn monument.

"There was a movement to remove the monument in its entirety," Tolzmann said. "The park board took it up and voted not to remove it."

However, as a compromise, the park board began to discuss removing the plaque embedded in the back of the monument. On October 9, 1918, the Cincinnati Enquirer wrote:

"Park Commissioners at their meeting tomorrow will discuss the advisability of removing the tablet in Inwood Park dedicated to Frederick [sic] Ludwig Jahn, 'father of the playground movement,' because of its suggestion of German propaganda."

The original plaque on the back of the monument read:

"Turnvater Friedrich Ludwig Jahn, Born in Germany, August 11, 1778. Died October 15, 1852. Friedrich Ludwig Jahn, German patriot and teacher, opened, in May 1811, the first open gymnastic field in the Hasenheide near Berlin. Prompted by patriotic motives to instill the youth of the land a sublime national spirit and to endow their bodies with physical strength and endurance for national defense, he created a new system of physical education and became the father of gymnastic fields and playgrounds the world over. His work encircled the globe -- a blessing to all civilized nations. For the United States, Jahn's system of the physical culture emanated from the Germans of Cincinnati, who erected this stone in his memory in the year 1911."

The plaque was removed, leaving an empty rectangle where it once told Jahn's story. Now Tolzmann and other German-American advocates think that the Jahn monument's plaque should be replaced.

"The German American Citizens' League would like to see the park board replace that plaque that was taken down during a time of anti-German prejudice and hatred," Tolzmann said. "The war is over."

Wade Walcutt, the new park board director, seems open to the idea of replacing the plaque.

"History is important to this community and we have strong German roots," Walcutt said. "If there's an opportunity to work with another organization, we're certainly open to that."

Recently, other decisions made at the height of anti-German hysteria have been reversed. In Over-the-Rhine, German street names were anglicized as well. Almost a century later, German-American advocates and progressive politicians are rectifying the effects of anti-German prejudice.

Two weeks ago, Councilman Chris Seelbach, along with representatives from various German heritage societies, announced that three streets would be reverting to their original German names and nine streets would have their original names added as honorifics.

Jon Harmon, the legislative and policy director for Councilman Seelbach's office, said that the anti-German hysteria was embarrassing and said the street names were changed because of fear.

"All throughout history we've seen big groups of people get blamed for the actions of a few," Harmon said. "This is what we saw during World War I and this is what we see today."

Harmon agreed that replacing the Jahn monument plaque seemed to be in line with Councilman Seelbach's policy goals.

"It sounds like it fits entirely into the idea that this was an embarrassing decision that probably needs to be corrected," Harmon said.

Tolzmann said he hopes this important piece of Cincinnati history can be restored soon.

"It's been 100 years," Tolzmann said. "This would really right the wrong of the past and honor the German heritage which has contributed so much to this area."

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