Did you ever wonder why many Germans appear so self-confident, over-confident even? A study by London’s Goldsmith University suggests an explanation. The paper titled The Naked Truth essentially says that nudism boosts confidence.
And we are a country of nudies. Or at least we used to be, because our Freikörperkultur (free body culture, FKK) is in decline. Germans au naturel may become extinct.
I see you sigh in relief. Claudia Schiffer once said: “I’m not against nudity. I’m German”, but you must have come across more German anatomic parts than you hoped for on European beaches. And Claudia’s weren’t among them.
Now German nudist clubs are running out of members. This summer, the Bavarian paper Augsburger Allgemeine asked: “Is society becoming ever more prudish?”
Because much as the Lonely Planet guide promises you’ll find “hundreds of naked sunbathers” in the Englischer Garten (the central park of Munich), tourists will be disappointed to find it “completely infested by textilists”, as nacktbaden.de complains. The website meticulously lists every official German nudist beach and spa in the country – still in their hundreds, but going down.
I’m worried, because, without being a nudie myself, I would dearly miss the viral videos of wild boar on the run with beach bags in the summer, chased by the bags’ naked owners.
Our embrace of nudism reaches back into the 19th-century life reform movement (the same spirit now keeps its followers from getting vaccinated), a German counterculture to industrial modernity.
In addition to physical exercise, alternative medicine, simpler living and the abstinence from meat, alcohol and nicotine, the most revolutionary aspect of this naturalistic philosophy was: FKK, explicitly non-sexualised nudity, naked swimming, naked gymnastics, naked Wanderlust.
The movement reached its peak during the Weimar Republic, when a bourgeois elite met in private nudist clubs. In 1924, sports teacher Adolf Koch (no relative of mine) founded the Berlin Körperkulturschule, which hosted the first “International Congress on Nudity” in 1929.
When the Nazis came to power, they burnt Koch’s books and closed his schools. Nazi ideology, despite arian body cult, viewed nudism as immoral but later softened public restrictions. Post-war, official FKK beaches and camping grounds were created.
With a friend, my mum, who spent her teenage years in Canada and the US (where bikinis were banned on beaches), visited the island of Sylt in the North Sea upon her return to Germany in the early 1960s. They had loosely arranged to meet two male acquaintances – who greeted them with a kiss on the hand, stark naked, at “Buhne 16” (a spur now called Nackedonia). This first confrontation with public nudity left such a lasting impression that she giggles about it to this day.
No wonder foreigners, Asians and Americans in particular, are often shocked to find German saunas nude-by-default (swimwear is banned, only towels to sit on are a must). Or to stumble across naked sunbathers when taking a stroll through Tiergarten (the capital’s version of Hyde Park).
Nudies populate the whole country, but to a greater extent the former GDR territory. Scientists wonder whether a socialist shortage of fashionable bathing suits spurred nudism in the East. Or whether it was because East Germans had so little freedom in general they at least freed themselves of clothes.
Originally, the East Berlin regime banned public nudity (the culture secretary pleaded: “save the eyes of the nation”). But the intellectual elite and art community successfully lobbied to disrobe.
The nudie recession in the East is particularly frustrating for well-known East German politician Gregor Gysi (former head of the post-GDR socialist party), who chose Playboy magazine to share his concerns a few years ago. He also blamed what he saw as the guilty party: “West German men with a pornographic gaze”.
There is resistance though, maybe even a new Kulturkampf. Recent cases of bare breasts being banned at public pools and parks (Berlin police told a harmless French expat: “Put on a bra or leave!”) caused great media coverage and public protests, demanding “equal breasts for all” and “Nippel Résistance!” Because, in times of gender equality: if men go topless, why can’t women? So in future we could at least see more semi-nudity permitted in public swimming baths.
The (bare) bottom line is: FKK is all about body positivity, never mind the aesthetics.