Naked Germany, Straining at the Seams

This post is part of a CityLab series on open secrets—stories about what’s hiding in plain sight.

Tourists making their initial visit to Germany sometimes do a double-take the first time they they see a naked person.

Germans think nothing of stripping to sunbathe. They do it on on beaches, by lakes, and in heavily frequented urban parks in Berlin and Munich. It’s not unheard of to see unclothed people on regular park lawns or topless on balconies. The country is one of the few places in the world where naturism occurs not just in secluded areas, but in the heart of major cities. German-style public nudity, known as Freikörperkultur (or “free body culture,” and usually shortened to FKK), dates back to the 19th century; it’s not just an activity, but a culture intended to reshape behavior.

Depending on an outsider’s personal convictions, FKK adherents can illustrate either that Germans are complete cranks, or that the country is a prudery-free paradise. But it would be a mistake to assume that Germany’s tolerance of public nudity is uncontested. In the past month, a ban on public nudity has been confirmed for a popular bathing lake in the country’s south, and anglers are campaigning to ban naked sunbathing at another lake nearby—a ban that now holds more or less across the region. Last summer saw bathers of both sexes at a clothing-optional lake in western Germany jeered by disapproving men who had apparently come to the area with harassment in mind. The head of the agency that runs Berlin’s swimming pools and numerous bathing lakes has noted that the popularity of naked swimming has plummeted in recent years, and he cites friction with the city’s less naturism-friendly tourists as a possible cause.

That doesn’t mean FKK is dying out. Instead, social and technological change is reshaping habits, and locations for public nudity are being regulated by law. Cameraphones and social media are chipping away at naturists’ sense of their own anonymity, while tourism and Germany’s growing multiculturalism are affecting popular attitudes in complex ways. But before we look at how things are changing, we need to look at how a practice that would seem relatively taboo in contemporary North America became so widely accepted in the first place.

A 1930s-era postcard from a nudist camp near Berlin. (Sludge G/Flickr)

Centuries of stripping

Germany’s acceptance of public nudity is by no means a granola-crusted, post-hippie fad. Naked bathing was once the rule across much of Europe, when people regularly bathed naked in rivers and lakes, albeit often segregated by sex. Indeed, the casualness of the way the medieval manuscript the Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry shows French peasants warming themselves before a fire suggests attitudes radically different from today’s. In Germany, nude bathing became somewhat taboo towards the end of the 18th century—but elsewhere, such as in the under-populated countryside of Scandinavia, the practice never fully died out.

The official beginning of naturism’s modern German revival, however, dates to 1898, when the first naturist association was founded in the city of Essen. Intertwined with 20th-century movements aspiring to promote public health, the idea in an age of heavy clothing and smoky urban air was primarily to help people escape from unhealthy, polluted cities. Their nakedness was a departure from everyday convention, just as their actual bodies broke with routine by leaving built-up areas to discover and bond with nature.

Rather than sexualizing the body, this naturist movement sought to free people from shame and the social inequality to which clothing often gave expression. “We are naked and we call each other Du” was the slogan of an interwar naturist magazine, its significance being that naturists addressed each other using the informal, familiar pronoun Du (equivalent to archaic English “thou”) rather than the formal, hierarchical pronoun Sie. The hope was that, in stripping, Germans would remove more than just clothes.

Nudity as liberation

A display commemorating relaxed East German attitudes to nudity from Berlin’s DDR Museum. (Theo K/Flickr)

After a brief period of repression by the Nazis, who banned naked bathing in 1941, naturism resurged after the war, especially in the wake of the almost worldwide 1960s questioning of traditional social norms. Common throughout Germany, it proved especially popular in the rigorously secular East Germany, as well as West Berlin, where an interest in naturism was a side effect of the complications of travel.

While neighboring Poles and Czechs frequently travelled to Eastern Bloc beach destinations such as Yugoslavia and Bulgaria, East Germans’ freedom of movement was relatively curtailed. It’s not always easy to feel that you’ve left office or factory life behind when you’ve only traveled 50 miles or less down the road. For people obliged to holiday on the Baltic or by inland lakes, naturism thus made it easier to draw a clear separation between relaxation and working life.

West Berliners had a somewhat similar experience. Beyond city streets, the territory also contained a forested, lake-filled fringe for citizens to escape to, but they couldn’t journey further out into secluded countryside without coming up against the Wall. Coupled with the city’s strong alternative culture, this pushed many West Berliners to treat their local parks as if they were secluded beaches and sunbathe naked.

There’s a clear thread running through this. Nudity, the reasoning goes, is socially desirable because it entails a stripping away of artifice. A key principle of Freikörperkultur is that nakedness is intended to have a leveling social effect, lessening rather than heightening the body’s function as an object for display. In other words, naturism is about withdrawing from scrutiny, rather than encouraging it. This blog piece by Vietnam-born writer Thi Yenhan Truing published this month neatly encapsulates the different attitude:

“[Personally] I can’t relax while naked around other people, except during sex because there are only two of you. It’s also fine for medical examinations, because it’s necessary. But for you Germans, it’s completely the other way round. The more naked people around the better, because you truly lose yourselves, so to speak, when in a naked mass.”

Naturism in the age of global networks

Over the past 15 years, membership in naturist associations has dwindled, and bans have thinned out the number of places where nudity is permitted. The rise of cameraphones and social media networks means that naturists are more likely to fear for their anonymity. This anonymity was never formally preserved in the past, either—but before smartphones, the larger size and obvious function of cameras made it harder to stealthily take snapshots, let alone distribute them.

Meanwhile, some German naturist enthusiasts accuse North American norms of contributing to dipping membership, especially through Facebook’s policies about what users can share. Photos of naked people are systematically barred on the network, meaning that naturists’ photos are routinely blocked. This has pushed naturism into the shadows somewhat, and also makes it difficult for naturist associations and events to promote themselves. “Facebook limits naturists in their freedom of expression,” complained the President of the International Naturist Federation in 2015 to a German-language tech magazine:

“We are being marginalized. From the point of view of the Naturist Federation, Facebook has long since become a kind of “public space.” Their theory is strengthened by the fact that things that people write or publish on Facebook can lead to their being fired…It is often enough to post a photo of a woman’s back of women or a men on an air mattress and your account will be blocked or you’ll get a request from Facebook to stop posting that kind of picture.”

Meanwhile, migration and tourism have made Germany a far less homogenous place, leaving some German naturists anxious that not everyone knows the rules—both written and unwritten.

Legally, public nudity is not an offense in Germany, but people can be sanctioned for “harassment of the general public” over complaints or provocations, such as walking down the street naked outside of a special naturist event. This is left up to local authorities’ discretion, but beyond Bavaria, where rules about where nudity is and isn’t permissible were largely thrashed out in 2013, people tend to play it by ear. Germany’s fondness for bylaws clarifying what public spaces should be used for helps avoid conflicts. German parks often have clearly demarcated spaces for different activities. Nudity in an area set aside for sports would be unacceptable, but would be far more tolerated in a designated Liegewiese—a “lying down meadow” that parks often signpost as places for sunbathing.

The problem with unwritten laws, however, is that they work on the assumption that everyone has got the same (non-existent) memo. Increasingly, it seems that that’s something Germans no longer feel they can rely on. Munich, for example, may have certain places where nudity is tolerated, but that doesn’t stop tourists treating the whole thing as a free show. I have personally witnessed American tourists in the city’s Englischer Garten whoop with delight as they snap as many close-up photos of naked sunbathers as they can. This means that, in the more-frequented areas where naturism is permitted, the few unclothed sunbathers who remain are a somewhat different breed: exhibitionists who actively enjoy the attention.

A Munich park host to gaggles of sunbathers. (Joe Goldberg/Flickr)

If, like most Germans, you’ve grown up around naturism, the unwritten rules are easy enough to suss out. A Berlin resident summed them up in a conversation with CityLab:

“You shouldn’t stare at any people with no clothes on and, if you are going into a zone that is clearly marked for naturism [typically part of a beach or the grounds of open air swimming pool, rather than part of a park] you should be prepared to take off your clothes or stay away.”

Enforcing those written and unwritten rules can become more complex when people have different, culturally specific expectations. In Berlin, for example, people have been complaining that costume-wearing bathers “from a migration background” have been entering the no-clothes section of the beach at Wannsee, making their naked counterparts uncomfortable. This happened to a British friend of mine living in Berlin who preferred not to give his name:

“I was sitting with friends in the naked area at the lakeside when a genuinely stressed-sounding security guard in uniform and boots marched over and ordered me to undress or leave. I saw his point, to be fair, but the whole experience was so the opposite of relaxing that I’d think twice about ever going back.”

Of course, German-born citizens are not inherently immune to staring. An Afro-Belgian friend living in Germany once told me she shunned naturist areas because, her fellow bathers—who were predominantly white—would take the opportunity to scrutinize her more closely than she’d like. Again, there’s a sense that the perceived freedom naturism aspires to foster is partly based on a sense of homogeneity among those who practice it.

Even for those who don’t want to partake themselves, it would be a pity to see naturism die out in dense urban areas. It’s a testament to Germany’s careful balance between extreme orderliness and citizens’ personal freedom, even as the city centers continue to change.