Callisthenics at the 1946 SATUS-Verbandsfest in Basel (detail). Swiss Social Archives F 9028-008

Sport as a class struggle

“Sport” as a one-size-fits-all concept has never existed; it is too heavily influenced by societal factors and social milieu. For example, there used to be a strong sports movement for workers.

Christian Koller

Christian Koller

Historian, titular professor at the University of Zurich and Director of the Swiss Social Archives since 2014.

“Not sport for the sake of sport, not sport as an individual rivalry with glory and prizes for the record-breakers, not sport for the amusement and thrills of a sensation-seeking audience, and least of all, sport as a business – working class sport will be none of these. No! The sport of the working classes that are pushing up from the lowlands of the capitalist class society to the shining heights of free humanity is mental and physical training and preparation of the people whose task is to build the new society and carry their culture with a healthy mind and strong shoulders.” These lines from the Arbeiter-Turn- und Sportzeitung, the workers’ gymnastic and sports magazine, of 1928 created a highly visible link between sport and socialist politics.

Working class sport and “bourgeois” sport as a sign of social division

The emergence of Switzerland’s workers’ sport movement dates back to the end of the 19th century. With increasing political and social polarisation after the turn of the century, and especially after the national strike of 1918, the workers’ sport movement drew a firm line between itself and “bourgeois” sport and deepened its ties to the Social Democratic Party and the trade unions. In addition to the workers’ gymnastics clubs and the workers’ rifle associations, new sports organisations sprang into being: the Naturfreunde (Friends of Nature), which specialised in hiking and mountaineering, in 1905, the “Solidarity” workers’ cycling association in 1916, and in 1922 the workers’ chess federation and the Swiss Workers’ Gymnastics and Sports Association (SATUS). Separate competitions were now held in various disciplines. From 1920 there was a workers’ football championship, and from 1933 there were annual Swiss workers’ ski races.
Club flag of the Arbeiterradfahrer, the workers’ cycling association, of Klus-Balsthal.
Club flag of the Arbeiterradfahrer, the workers’ cycling association, of Klus-Balsthal. Swiss Social Archives Sozarch_F_5016-Oa-0001b
The workers’ sports organisations were critical of the close links “bourgeois” sport had to army and paramilitary organisations – the Federal Gymnastics Club and the Swiss Alpine Club (SAC) were key pillars of anti-socialist vigilante groups – and of the trends towards commercialisation and professionalisation, which were very apparent in areas such as football and cycling. This criticism of the army led to federal subsidies being temporarily withdrawn from SATUS in 1933 following a campaign by the Vaterländischer Verband, a right-wing vigilante, lobby and police informer organisation.
The big Easter ski camp organised by the Naturfreunde in Zermatt in 1941 caused quite a stir.
The big Easter ski camp organised by the Naturfreunde in Zermatt in 1941 caused quite a stir. Swiss Social Archives Sozarch_F_5043-Fb-004
The socialist orientation of the workers’ sports organisations was reflected in the imagery of club emblems, in providing auxiliary services during election campaigns and strikes, and in attendance at May Day demonstrations. It was also apparent in the specific practice of their sports. Firstly, the workers’ sport movement sought to give workers access to disciplines, such as skiing, that had hitherto been reserved for society’s upper echelons; secondly, it was focused on a specifically “socialist” sport practice. For example, SATUS countered the physical exercises of “bourgeois” gymnastics, which were perceived as militaristic, with rhythmic gymnastic movements whose purpose was to give a freer, more open sensation of one’s body. The workers’ cyclists went on rides and did collective bicycle acrobatics, but strictly refused to engage in racing. Another feature of the movement was a commitment to the emancipation of women: the proportion of women in SATUS remained well below 50% – between 1925 and 1945, the figure increased from 7.6% to just under 21% – but it was relatively high compared to other sports organisations, and grew steadily. As a token of equality, as early as the 1920s both sexes wore trousers and vests.
Gym shorts as a symbol of equality: gymnasts at the SATUS Wiedikon in the 1930s.
Gym shorts as a symbol of equality: gymnasts at the SATUS Wiedikon in the 1930s. Swiss Social Archives Sozarch_F_5091-Fe-012
Proud specimens of working-class masculinity: the men’s squad of the Wiedikon workers’ gymnastics club in 1923.
Proud specimens of working-class masculinity: the men’s squad of the Wiedikon workers’ gymnastics club in 1923. Swiss Social Archives Sozarch_F_5091-Fe-005

Between proletarian internationalism and spiritual defence (Geistige Landesverteidigung)

In line with their avowed spirit of proletarian internationalism and reconciliation of peoples, the workers’ sports organisations were also active on the international stage. There were international matches in workers’ football; at the beginning of each game the “Internationale” was played instead of the teams’ national anthems. In 1925, 1931 and 1937 Workers’ Olympiads were held, featuring summer and winter games; in addition to sporting competitions, these Olympiads included cultural events and mass demonstrations aimed at furthering the cause of peace and democracy.
Swiss delegation to the 1931 Workers’ Olympiad in “Red Vienna”, the biggest international sporting event of its time.
Swiss delegation to the 1931 Workers’ Olympiad in “Red Vienna”, the biggest international sporting event of its time. Swiss Social Archives Sozarch_F_5046-Fd-014
At the same time, the split within the international workers’ movement since the Russian Revolution was having an impact in sport as well. As a counter-organisation to the Socialist Workers’ Sports International, which was launched in Lucerne in 1920 and had a leaning towards social democracy, in 1921 the Communists founded Red Sport International in Moscow. In 1930, after a number of communist-dominated clubs were expelled from SATUS, the “Kampfgemeinschaft für Rote Sporteinheit” (Action Group for Red Sport Unity) was formed. The Kampfgemeinschaft organised what were known as “Landesspartakiades”; the group also staged its own football championship and maintained active contacts with the Soviet Union. In the late 1930s, in the face of the National Socialist threat, the workers’ sport movement achieved a rapprochement with “bourgeois” sport. In 1935, SATUS acknowledged the need for military national defence, subsequently joined the Schweizerische Landesverband für Leibesübungen (Switzerland’s national association for physical exercise), and took part in the 1939 national exhibition in Zurich, which was a high point in spiritual national defence.
SATUS Basel gymnastics display in June 1944. As part of the policy of “spiritual defence”, the female gymnasts now wore skirts again instead of trousers.
SATUS Basel gymnastics display in June 1944. As part of the policy of “spiritual defence”, the female gymnasts now wore skirts again instead of trousers. Swiss National Museum

Loss of relevance in the economic upturn

After World War II, the workers’ sports organisations initially saw further increases in membership. However, as class conflicts eased in the phase of rapid economic growth and the welfare state expanded during the first two decades after the war, ideological sports associations began to appear increasingly outdated. There was now more collaboration, such as between SATUS football and the lower leagues of the Swiss Football Association, or the Naturfreunde and the SAC. At the turn of the millennium, the Workers’ Chess Federation and the workers’ rifle association merged with their respective “bourgeois” counterparts, while SATUS and the workers’ cycling association declared themselves politically neutral and adopted the new labels “SATUS – der Sportverband” (the sports association) and “ATB – Verband für Sport-Freizeit-Verkehr” (association for sport and recreational cycling) with no reference to “workers” in the names of the associations. The Naturfreunde retained a certain political direction, but the group was now more environmentally focused. Today, the (former) workers’ sports organisations that are still in existence have membership numbers that are roughly the same as they were in the 1930s.
When the Grasshoppers came from Basel and women paid less for admission: final of the Swiss Workers’ Football Championship in 1973.
When the Grasshoppers came from Basel and women paid less for admission: final of the Swiss Workers’ Football Championship in 1973. Swiss Social Archives Sozarch_F_Pd-0887

Swiss Sports History

This text was produced in collaboration with Swiss Sports History, the portal for the history of sports in Switzerland. The portal focuses on education in schools and information for the media, researchers and the general public. Find out more at sportshistory.ch

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