Niels Bukh and Danish gymnastics - a dangerous political combination


By Hans Bonde
Knowledge bank: Professor of sports history, Hans Bonde, gives a brief introduction to the fascinating history of the Danish gymnastics pedagogue Niels Bukh. He revolutionized male aesthetics, became a symbol of Danishness and was dangerously close to the Nazis during the 1930's. 

The story of Niels Bukh weaves itself into several important, historical fields. Without going into details here, Bukh was a historically central figure in the following fields:

1) Male aesthetics,

2) gymnastics pedagogics,

3) national identity and

4) politics

A revolution in male aesthetics
Niels Bukh (1880-1950) created the perhaps biggest revolution of male aesthetics in the twentieth century in Denmark.

In the small village of Ollerup in the southern part of Funen Island, Bukh established an impressive physical training college in the year 1920. Here he developed the male forms of touching and the clothing fashion in the countryside in a way that appears rather close to the acceptable borderline, even compared to traditionally heterosexual, male aesthetics today.

This was conceived as being rather spicy at that time, particularly in the countryside. Bukh had his young, muscular and sweaty rural lads appear with a naked torso and in so tight leotards that almost nothing was left to imagination. The male gymnasts performed "gracious" movements and touched one another to an unprecedented degree which was balanced by the fact that the rest of the expression was clearly "masculine", characterized by a powerful and dynamic body language.

At the same time, he modernized gymnastics through the frantic tempo of his male gymnastics. Thus, the rural gymnastics was placed at the forefront in the process of modernization, suitable to a modern growth-society. Social principles in the offing, not only in the cities, but also in a rural economy under budding industrialization and increasingly being integrated into the international market economy.

Without a doubt, Bukh can be characterized as the most epoch-making Danish gymnastics pedagogue of all time with a great appeal at the international level. His concept for stretching exercises still today play a big role within the international gymnastics and fitness culture.

Furthermore, many of his choreographies can be found again, for example in DGI the socalled world team of rural, Danish gymnastics.

Gymnasts as a symbol of the Danish nation
Through his "world trip" in 1931, Niels Bukh fortified his reputation as one of the great sons of the Danish nation, both home and abroad, something the Danish foreign service was well aware of and for which it supported him, regardless of the colour of the government.

Bukh contributed to globalization, even before this term had been invented. There were, of course, many ways to feel like a Danish patriot, however, national identity more and more came to include pictures of erect, equilibristic gymnasts of both sexes carrying the Danish flag, although his position as a national symbol became somewhat controversial in the course of time.

With his boys and girls Bukh became known as a representative of the Danish concept of "folkelighed" (sport for all) despite the fact that his exhibition teams in reality formed a gymnastics elite. After the "world trip" in 1931, his gymnasts gave a performance in the Danish Parliament as the only sport team ever.

Buhk's impact on Japan
Niels Bukh utilized his gymnastic-pedagogical and national fame to politicize almost everywhere he set foot in the world not least in Japan and Germany. In 1931 Niels Bukh made his decisive breakthrough on a tour to Danzig, the Sovjet Union, China, Korea, Japan and the USA.

It was a dramatic year for many of the countries he visited. Japanese militarists began by annexing Manchuria, rich in raw material, an imperialistic expansion in Asia which eventually lead to the attack on Pearl Harbour and thereby to the USA entering the second world war.

The troupe was received by the most highly ranked representatives of the Japanese occupation forces in Manchuria and Korea and became part of the Japanese propaganda in these regions. The fact that Bukh's gymnasts could hold an exhibition in the main city of Manchuria, Shenyang, shortly before the invasion, may have been a small pawn in the attempt of Japanese military to convince the Chinese that everything was well.

The long exhibition tour in Japan became a triumphal procession for Niels Bukh and may also have served as a focus point for a people seeking brotherhood in the midst of a fear of war and war mongering.

Although the troupe initially had been invited by non-militaristic, Christian groups, the exibition tour became a welcome opportunity for the Japanese militarists to advertise the exchange of culture with a small, peaceful nation from the other side of the globe simultaneously with the start of the war in Manchuria.

The occurence of the Bukh-gymnastics in school-gymnastics in Japanese schools during the period 1930 1940 can be seen in connection with the fact that the regime considered it to be an effective form of gymnastics for the militarization in progress.

The reason Niels Bukhs team gymnastics received such a tribute is probably due to the collective cultivation of the Japanese people as one big, harmonic "state family". During the period 1930 1940 the strongly nationalistic, Japanese authorities had a clearly negative attitude towards foreign sport, like for instance the widespread game of baseball. However, this aversion did not concern sports from a small, friendly country with no part in the great powers' political struggle in Asia.

As a side benefit for the Japanese authorities, the members of the troupe made propaganda in the Danish news media for the Japanese view of the conflict to the extent they had understood what was going on.

Japan became the one country in the world, where Niels Bukh's gymnasts achieved the greatest propagation. This is still obvious in Japan today, and surprisingly enough, Danish gymnastics probably has contributed more to Japanese body-culture than Japanese martial arts have contributed to the Danish body-culture.

Bukh and the Nazi's
Following his travel to Berlin at the end of 1933, Niels Bukh radicalized his rightwing leanings through his official acceptance of a Nazi conception of his gymnastics representing some of the very best in the "Nordic-Germanic race".

Also in Denmark, Niels Bukh's national and international fame gave him a platform for politization. The dilemma of the socialdemocratic governments was on the one hand that they did not like his political profile at all, but on the other hand, that they needed him, when world exhibitions abroad were in the offing. "Danish Bukh is better than Danish bacon" as a newspaper stated already in 1930.

The Danish socialdemocrats were very much angered by hearing Bukh in 1933 praise the Germany that had destroyed the biggest workers' party in Europe and interned their comrades in their German sister party in prisons or concentration camps. Therefore they attempted to stymie Niels Bukh by exposing his homosexuality to the Danish public. However, this plan was abandoned for fear of martyrizing him in the eyes of the public opinion.

The internationally oriented German "Reich Sport Führer" supported Bukh's gymnastics. Bukh's gymnastics therefore achieved a great place in the education of youth in Nazi-Germany.

After the occupation of Denmark by Germany on April 9th 1940, the big question was whether Niels Bukh would change his attitude towards the German Nazis. However, Bukh stuck to his enthusiasm for Nazi-Germany believing that the German Wehrmacht basically prevented Europe from becoming an inferior and impoverished part of the world fighting an American and Sovjet block.

To the extent that Bukh was liable to be backed by a victorious German power, his political latitude was greater than ever before. He made plans of becoming Minister of Youth, initialising the development of "Danmarks Ungdomsforbund" (Youth League of Denmark) reaching into schools and homes, as well as a working service which could be interpreted as an attempt to gain control over as great parts of Danish youth as possible.

The goal was that his own gymnastics-division commanders and the leadership by Bukh himself were to spearhead the physical, religious and political life of the Danish youth. However, the German occupation forces never took over the political control of Denmark - as was the case in the other occupied countries, and this paradoxically turned out to be Bukh's great luck.

As it became increasingly clear that the Germans were going to lose the war, the perception of Niels Bukh changed in great parts of the Danish public. His idea of a "peace rally" in February 1943 was frozen out in the press, probably due to a correct suspicion that the setting would be determined by the expected German victory.

During the following months Bukh became more and more aware that a new definition of "Danishness" really had taken form. Being Danish and being a democrat had become inseperable, mostly because the occupation force had become synonomous with dictatorship.

Bukh's school saved by political intervention
After the liberation of Denmark, Bukh's political freedom of action was limited to what could be accomplished within the parliamentary system, which he had despised. However, this turned out to be quite a bit, despite the fact that Bukh was facing extensive problems in the form of being forced to giving shelter to German refugees at his school, lack of state subsidies and a police investigation of his cooperation with the Germans.

He now succeeded in establishing contacts to the party-political system at the highest level. Bukh had the great luck that Knud Kristensen of the farmers' party, Venstre, became prime minister in November 1945. Knud Kristensen involved himself in Bukh's problems and mobilized especially Minister of Justice Elmquist, who was responsible for the judical purge, in an attempt to help Bukh.

For the party Venstre, it seemed to be unbearable that the great flagship of the rural culture with supporters in every rural parish was now doomed. In 1948 Niels Bukh was able to celebrate the reopening of his school with an anniversary speech held by Knud Kristensen.

Despite his formidable survival ability, Niels Bukh was a broken man during his last years. In a risky attempt to win back his poition as the great son of the nation, Bukh completed a substantial travel schedule, which, together with the political resistance against him, in all probability undermined his health.

By and large, Niels Bukh was a complex figure. He developed liberating male aethestics, however, interpreting it within authoritarian and political limits. He became one of the greatest Danish national symbols of the twentieth century, but he cooperated with the Germans during the war. Niels Bukh continues to tantalize our national self-understanding more than 50 years after his death.

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