Last week’s news that women were granted the right to swim and sunbathe topless in Berlin’s swimming pools speaks to Germany’s liberal stance on public nudity, which has endured for more than a century.
I first encountered it not in East Germany, which is what it is often associated with, but in the West German city of Cologne. The Balinese spa I ventured into was contemporary, immaculately clean, and had a soothing, zen vibe. It was the kind of swanky spa sanctuary you’ll find anywhere in the world, with one exception: everyone strutted around in their birthday suits with an intimidating lack of confidence, like it was the most natural thing in the world. Which, as I soon found out, is the case in Germany.
Naturism – commonly abbreviated by the acronym FKK and translated as Naturism – has a long and well-established history in the country. It began at the end of the 19th century as part of life reform, a kind of quasi-hippie ensemble of lifestyle trends to improve health, some of which were impressively ahead of their time: raw and organic food, alternative medicine, hydrotherapy, abstinence from alcohol , tobacco, vaccines… and public nudity.
The movement made rapid progress throughout the country: in 1898 the first naturist association was founded in Essen; In 1920, a dedicated nudist beach was set up on the northern German island of Sylt; In 1926, the aptly named Adolf Koch opened a nude school in Berlin, which promoted nude sports in addition to sexual hygiene. The Nazis, of course, frowned on all this, but after the war it reappeared in East and West.
In 1949 the German Association for Freikörperkultur (DFK), which still exists today as part of the German Olympic Sports Confederation, was founded in Hanover, the Free Body Movement, and took the more socialist, class-leveling aspects of nudity (also championed by Koch) fully on board and promoted nudity culture beyond the beaches and volleyball parks and to the movies, with nude scenes appearing in East German films even before Hollywood. It has often been observed that the clothing available in East Germany may also have played a role in people’s willingness to discard it.
The trend continued after reunification. There are hundreds of naturist clubs and beach areas across the country; There are five nudist beaches on Germany’s largest Baltic Sea island of Rügen alone. The English Garden in Munich has two major naturist areas, and there are organizations dedicated to related activities such as nude jogging (nude jogging) and nude hiking (nude hiking).
In my adopted home of Berlin, public nudity is quite normal, not only in spas and saunas, but – at least in summer – on local lakes, beaches and parks. It’s fairly common to see naked people sipping along a embankment with nothing but a floppy sun hat and a blissful smile, while the Europa Center’s rooftop spa is directly visible from several surrounding hotels and office buildings. No one on either side seems to bat an eyelid.
Even for fairly open-minded British visitors, all that exposed flesh can come as a shock. After all, most of us have only experienced public nudity in school or gym changing rooms, with the noticeable difference that it is usually not mixed gender (although the changing rooms at beaches and thermal baths in Germany are often gender-specific). We’re just not used to seeing bodies up close, but the way to deal with it, I’ve found, is to keep in mind the famous German penchant for pragmatism: people generally undress because it’s easy too hot for clothes, and getting undressed in the sauna or on the beach just got easier.
It’s also important to keep in mind that the naturist culture in Germany – with the exception of the so-called naturist saunas, which deliberately and quite openly exploit the culture for sexual practices – is by definition de-sexualized, it’s much more about embracing the Nature than around nature’s embrace each other. And while you’ll see plenty of bare bodies at most spas, many aren’t necessarily nude, meaning you can keep a towel or robe wrapped around you if you wish, save for certain areas (e.g. a pool or steam room). where it is forbidden.
Another aspect worth noting is that despite last week’s swimming pool regulation, the culture seems to be going out of style among younger generations. Most of the nudists you will see are in their 50s and heavily tanned – in other words, pretty typical of the post-war 1960s generation. And official naturist clubs across the country have also reported a drop in their membership.
The social ideals of the reform movement are pretty far away after all, and in the age of smartphones and the Internet, German society is becoming more international and data protection-driven. In other words, there’s a good chance that the only sausage you’ll see on a summer visit to Germany in the future is grilled and wrapped in a soft bun.