There’s a shadow over sunny season in Germany. In your local Freibad (lido) you’ll still hear cheerful splashes, but angry clashes of young men seem to have become a daily routine, mostly in urban areas. They fight among each other, they also fight with pool supervisors, and they verbally and physically attack queer and Jewish people or harass women.
Teeth are lost, people are spat at, pool attendants receive death threats and lidos regularly have to be vacated by police forces. One Berlin lido, the popular Columbiabad, has just shut down completely because all the Bademeister (staff) called in sick – a signal against the violence they encounter and a cry for help. They feel abandoned by the local authorities.
And it’s not as if people were queuing up for the pool supervisor job anyway – even before the headlines on Freibad violence. Experts say that two years of not training lifeguards during the pandemic is still taking its toll. Obviously, it doesn’t help that German summer has become even more of a summer in recent years. Our climate always made for a few weeks of perfect sunshine during pool season, but there would always be the odd grey or rainy day. Time for pool attendants to relax a little. But for years now, those days have vanished. The heat goes on.
And then there’s feminism: communal pools, following complaints and lawsuits, have changed their rules to allow women to swim and sunbathe oben ohne (topless). To some, this is as provocative as men holding hands, and yet another issue the Bademeister have to deal with.
“Not sure these brawls are all that new a phenomenon,” my (more street-savvy) partner tells me. “There have always been clashes, even when we were young.”
He has a point, regarding testosterone and heat in general. I wouldn’t know specifics though. My lido was at our tennis club (you get the idea) and when Bademeister Fritz, his skin reminiscent of a well-aged leather handbag, blew the whistle, no one dared to disobey.
On the other hand, in those days one didn’t really see queerness or toplessness on display. Neither did we see videos of angry mobs in swimming shorts desperate to prove their masculinity to whomever. That may be because we didn’t have smartphones in the 1990s. Or because culture clashes have increased since then.
I still recall when I was first alerted to the lido issue, years ago, and quite casually. I visited a journalist colleague near Bonn who half-jokingly, half-concerned told me about his teenage sons. It was summer, and we were having coffee and cake on his terrace, when he said that his twins had complained that “this isn’t our Freibad anymore” – it had become too rough. They had also reproached both him and his wife for what they called a softie-upbringing, making them help in the kitchen, but leaving them helpless in a lido fistfight.
I hadn’t thought of this conversation for some time. Now, after reading news of yet another lido closure, I remember it.
The president of the Federation of German Bademeister (whose existence was unknown to me until this column) recently blamed increasing aggression, a lack of respect and – rather bluntly – “areas with a large proportion of people with Arab background”. But even Berlin-based, far-left “tageszeitung” is addressing the latest closure of Columbiabad in no uncertain terms: “One attendant after another has called in sick because the staff can’t bear the verbal assaults, the violence and threats any more, predominantly made by male youths with a migration background. This leaves thousands of families with small kids – who mostly also have a migration background – without a lido during the holidays. A minority is terrorising everyone else, that’s not on.”
In his summer press conference, even the chancellor, Olaf Scholz, had to address the state of the lidos. Admitting that he himself hadn’t been swimming in one for 40 years, he was also quick to support his home secretary, who had called for more police presence in the lidos. Police unions of course immediately replied that they had better things to do.
So, what are the new pool safety measures? In some lidos you now have to show ID to get in (and to enforce bans). Prevention programmes such as “stay cool at the pool” will be expanded, and private security beefed up. Plus there’s talk of having to book lido slots online. Given the state of digitisation in Germany, this will only take years.
In the meantime we should enlist David Hasselhoff. If 243 episodes of Baywatch don’t serve as a qualification, I don’t know what does. Bring on the Hoff and make our pools safe again, one wave at a time