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The Cult of Health and Beauty in Germany

A Social History, 1890-1930

From the 1890s to the 1930s, a growing number of Germans began to scrutinize and discipline their bodies in a utopian search for perfect health and beauty. Some became vegetarians, nudists, or bodybuilders, while others turned to alternative medicine or eugenics. In The Cult of Health and Beauty in Germany, Michael Hau demonstrates why so many men and women were drawn to these life reform movements and examines their tremendous impact on German society and medicine.

Hau argues that the obsession with personal health and fitness was often rooted in anxieties over professional and economic success, as well as fears that modern industrialized civilization was causing Germany and its people to degenerate. He also examines how different social groups gave different meanings to the same hygienic practices and aesthetic ideals. What results is a penetrating look at class formation in pre-Nazi Germany that will interest historians of Europe and medicine and scholars of culture and gender.

296 pages | 48 b/w illustrations | 6 x 9 | © 2003

Biological Sciences: Anatomy

Gender and Sexuality

History of Science


Sociology: Medical Sociology, Social Change, Social Movements, Political Sociology

Women's Studies


“The presentation is . . . buttressed by an extensive apparatus of annotation and bibliography that assists in making this book a first-rate addition to the literature on the social and cultural, as well as medical, history of modern Germany.”

Michael Bississ | History

“Hau’s is an intelligent and persuasive book. . . . Its combination of nuanced social historical analysis with cultural historical methods and approaches represents exemplary historical scholarship; his fascinating material and his synthesis of aesthetic and medical approaches to the body adds much needed complexity to the history of life reform, hygiene, and responses to modernity in Wilhelmine and Weimar Germany.”

H-Net review | H-Net review

“This informed, nuanced, and richly detailed study of the life reform movement and alternative medicine in Wilhelmine and Weimar Germany makes important contributions to broader debates about modernity, class, gender, and race in German society and culture.”

German History

“Much of Hau’s narrative will resonate with a generation today driven by the cult of fitness as exhibited in postmodern gyms, TV ads, and health advice books. Are we to look to the late nineteenth century in order to grasp the underlying meaning of this diosposition?”  

Jessica C. E. Gienow-Hecht, | Journal of Social History

“Hau’s approach is sophisticated and original; it offers important insights; and like most really exciting books, this one raises more questions than it answers. It will be appreciated as a particularly important and fruitful beginning by students of the history of medicine, the body, eugenics and racial thought, “life reform,” and popular culture.”

Edward Ross Dickinson | Central European History

“Hau applies a sophisticated interpretive lens to a particularly illuminating region of German social and cultural history.”

Kevin Repp | Journal of Modern History

Table of Contents

List of Illustrations
1 Life Reform as Bürgerliche Kultur
2 Popular Hygienic Culture, Class, and Aesthetic Norms
3 Gender and Aesthetic Norms in Popular Hygienic Culture
4 Racial Aesthetics
5 Models of Holistic Constitutionalism in Regular Medicine and Natural Therapy
6 The Constitutional Convergence: Life Reform, the "Crisis of Medicine," and Weimar Hygiene Exhibitions
7 Constitutional Typologies: Weimar Racial Science and Medicine
8 Weimar Leisure Culture: Freikörperkultur and the Quest for Authenticity and Volksgemeinschaft

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