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.
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.
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
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.
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