Germany’s naked truth

German socialists saw nudism as a weapon of class struggle. George Hull investigates how nudist movements grew out of the crowded, dirty cities of the late 19th century before being co-opted by the Nazis in their quest for racial purity

A scene from the German film 'Ways to Strength and Beauty', 1925. (Ullstein Bild via Getty Images)

This article was first published in the September 2012 issue of BBC History Magazine 

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There can’t be many sources of genuine culture shock left for a Brit travelling in western Europe. In Germany there is at least one: stumbling upon naked people in the most unlikely places.

On a hot summer day, it isn’t just at nudist beaches on the Baltic coast or in designated zones beside bathing lakes inland that naked sunbathers are to be found. Take a lunch-hour stroll in Frankfurt’s Grüneburgpark or Munich’s Englischer Garten and there they’ll be, a stone’s throw from the traffic and bustle of the city centre, nonchalantly applying their sun cream. Visit a German sauna in winter and, likely as not, you’ll be asked to remove your towel. Go for a dip in the Berlin municipal baths and you may discover it’s naked swimming day.

Beyond noting that the Germans are decidedly comfortable with nudity, the British tourist might be tempted to see in this phenomenon the legacy of an atavistic Romanticism or even the reactionary ‘folkish’ currents in German culture on which the kitsch paganism sponsored by the Nazis drew. This wouldn’t be entirely wrong, but it is only part of the truth. For one thing, far and away the most successful organised nudist movement in German history stemmed from the progressive left. For another, one of the first things the Nazis did upon being elected into office was to ban nudism.

The colourful history of nudism in Germany encompasses the best and worst aspects of this complex nation.

The final quarter of the 19th century was for Germany a time of swift industrialisation and mass internal migration. During the Second Empire (1871–1918) half of all Germans left their place of birth for the city. This vast influx to the new urban centres, mostly in west Germany, gave rise to a burgeoning civil society made up of diverse neighbourhood associations, social and political subcultures and organised movements, in which new arrivals sought to carve a niche for themselves. It also gave rise to crowded, damp and unhealthy living conditions for the majority.

Many of the associations and subcultures grew up precisely as a response to these substandard living conditions, which they saw as creating a public health crisis. The ‘life reform’ groups experimented with a variety of measures to confront the perceived crisis, ranging from vegetarianism, abstinence from alcohol and nicotine, natural healing and Buddhism to the building of rural communes and ‘garden cities’. Some of them embraced what the Swiss physician Arnold Rikli called ‘Lichtluftbäder’ (‘light and air baths’) – naked sunbathing – as an effective natural therapy.

Classical inspiration

Karl Diefenbach was the first life reformer to advocate nudity not just as a therapy but as a way of life. A strict vegetarian, he moved with his family to live in an abandoned quarry not far from Munich, naked, or wearing just a hair tunic in winter. In 1888 he was taken to court for being naked in public with his son. Undertaking his own defence, he persuaded the jury to acquit him. Diefenbach was an influential painter, for whom the summit of beauty was represented by the nude sculptures of ancient Greece. In his mind the benefits of nudity from a life-reform perspective coincided with an ideal he felt had been attained in ancient Greece, but which modern Europeans fell sadly short of: a perfect harmony between body and mind.

In urban artistic circles secret societies with a handful of members began growing up and strove to realise precisely this ideal. The members of Deutsch-Hellas, for example, went out into the woods and photographed one another naked in the poses of discus hurlers and Greek goddesses. Otherwise they held ‘beauty evenings’ in town, where they would pose nude as living statues or watch visiting celebrities such as Olga Desmond dance naked. They published their photos and musings in the magazine Die Schönheit (Beauty).

Diefenbach’s most famous pupil, Hugo Höppener, known as ‘Fidus’, took his inspiration from an idealised version of, not the Greek, but the German past. The Roman historian Tacitus had written of the German tribes that had fought the imperial legions fiercely – and often with success – in mixed ranks of men and women, all fully nude. It was these naked warrior ancestors of the German people whom Fidus depicted as an ideal Nordic type in his popular etchings, which blended the erotic with the esoteric and were published in nudist magazines.

As the years went on Fidus also wrote articles calling for a new disciplined German culture founded on pure racial descent from these Teutonic warriors. This resonated with people who had themselves concluded that the current public health crisis was a symptom of racial degeneration.

A lifestyle formula

While the living conditions of urban workers undoubtedly caused sickness and death, overall the second half of the 19th century had seen life expectancy and quality of life for most Germans increase to unprecedented heights. People who would once have been worried about survival were, by the turn of the century, more concerned with success. A new middle class was emerging, made up of those who had not received a classical education at a ‘gymnasium’ (selective, academically focused schools). Such people would probably not have read Tacitus and would spend little, if any, time thinking about ancient Greece. Die Schönheit would leave them cold.

They were impressed, however, by life reformers such as Richard Ungewitter, who had made a success of themselves against the odds and were offering a lifestyle formula that would give anyone who followed it an edge on the competition. Ungewitter’s bestselling autobiography told how a combination of veganism and nudism had allowed him to overcome his natural frailty and become a strong, successful man, able to “hike for 10 to 14 hours” and “perform daily the most strenuous mental work”.

Ungewitter performed nude gymnastics every day and worked naked at his desk, standing up, as proved by plentiful photographic illustrations in his numerous books.

On his epic hikes, Ungewitter became increasingly preoccupied with the health of the German race, which, he thought, had been “poisoned” by Jews, Africans and other “inferior racial riffraff”. Nudism was the answer to this problem, in his opinion, because in their naked state superior breeding partners would recognise one another straightaway and genetically inferior types would not be able to disguise themselves. The challenge, he thought, was to overcome the hypocritical prudery of Wilhelmine Germany of the late 19th and early 20th century.

He is at his most sympathetic when pointing out that the elaborate dress worn by bourgeois women, putatively out of natural modesty, was not just cumbersome and physically deforming but positively calculated to ratchet up sexual desire by exaggerating the bust and bottom. He suggested a law be passed prohibiting tight corsets on penalty of flogging.

Ungewitter’s nudist colleague, the former pastor and mystic Heinrich Pudor went one better. (His name, the Latin word for ‘a sense of modesty or shame’ was adopted to make a point.) For a start, he encouraged nudists to hiss at corset-wearers in the street and call them ‘whores’. What he thought was really needed, however, was a revival of the ancient German punishment for unchaste behaviour: being sunk alive in a bog. But then, for Pudor, more was at stake. As he explained in volume 3 of his book, Nacktkultur, if people started living naked this would ultimately allow humans to become immortal.

A lake in the March of Brandenburg, Motzener See, within easy reach of Berlin, became a centre for the naked scene after the First World War. On the east bank there gathered bourgeois nudist groups of the Ungewitter/Pudor persuasion. South of these were Freisonnland, founded by Fedor Fuchs as a dedicated area for naked sport, and Charly Strässer’s Birkenheide, a naked area exclusively for young people – measured, as he used to stress, “not in years, but in vitality”.

Strässer himself had been involved in the Wandervögel (literally ‘hiking birds’) before the war – a camping and hill walking youth group bearing some resemblance to the Boy Scouts and Girl Guides, except that it was a rebellious movement with no adult supervision.

It was the spirit of the Wandervögel (who recognised themselves in Fidus’s etchings of youthful Nordic warriors) that Strässer tried to recreate in Birkenheide. The boys and girls who met there to swim naked and play ball had nothing but scorn for the prissy vegetarian moralism and ‘light and air baths’ of the bourgeois groups further along the lakeside.

They also had little to do with the rapidly growing League of Free Men, a nudist group founded by Adolf Koch that met on Motzener’s north-east bank. Whereas Charly Strässer’s group was formed largely of rich kids from west Berlin, the League of Free Men comprised workers from the squalid housing blocks in the city’s eastern half.

A fitter proletariat

Koch had started as an elementary school teacher in Berlin where he encountered first-hand the worst effects of industrialisation and urbanisation on the young. Like many life reformers before him, he thought that sunlight and gymnastics were needed to improve the health of the workers, but he realised these on their own would not be enough. What was needed, in his opinion, was for the growing proletarian class to take collective action, removing the societal causes of poverty and disadvantage. But for this to happen, he thought, individual proletarians would need to become fitter, better-informed and more rational – particularly in their approach to sex and reproduction.

So Koch began keeping his class behind after school for nude gymnastics, political discussion and sex education. One fateful day a Catholic cleaning woman told her priest she’d “happened to catch sight through a keyhole” of what Koch and his pupils were up to. The priest informed the press and a scandal erupted. This experience radicalised Koch, who thought it was just one example of how vested interests like the Catholic church were preventing the self-development of the working class.

In 1924 he set up his own private School for Healthy Pedagogy and Body Culture in Berlin. By the end of the 1920s, 13 Koch schools had been established in cities around Germany for working-class people of all ages.

Members of the Koch schools performed two hours of nude gymnastics weekly, regularly took part in political discussions and received a full medical check-up every three months. American observers Frances and Mason Merrill reported as many girls as boys at Koch schools, respect between the genders and hygiene standards equal to those of “the most up-to-date hospital clinic”. Unlike any of the bourgeois nudist associations, Koch schools never barred entry to anyone because they were fat, ugly or disabled. The membership fee was also much lower than that of the bourgeois associations. Koch set it at five per cent of an adult’s yearly income, but his schools were free to children, the unemployed, pregnant women and mothers of infants.

Though the various bourgeois nudist associations published more literature and have consequently left a larger documentary trace, membership numbers at the Koch schools were far higher: so much so that his socialist nudism was by far the most popular nudist movement in German history. By 1933, 3,947 people had gone through the Berlin Koch school alone. In the early 1930s there were around 80,000 practising nudists in Germany; 20,000 belonged to the bourgeois nudist groups and the remaining 60,000 or so belonged either to Koch schools or to affiliated socialist nudist groups.

Nazi appropriation

On 3 March 1933 Hermann Göring passed a decree abolishing the “naked culture movement”, which, he said “deadens women’s natural feelings of shame and kills men’s respect for women”. The Hitler Youth was despatched to wreck the grounds of nudist clubs. Koch tried a variety of strategies to keep his schools open, including renaming them and himself joining the ill-fated SA, but in the end he was forced underground. It is rumoured that, like a Catholic priest in Elizabethan England, he travelled secretly from town to town, gathering adherents in a safe house for a session of nude gymnastics where he could.

A few nudist associations under the umbrella title, League for Body Discipline, were ultimately tolerated by the Nazi regime after an SS major, Hans Surén, won them over to it. Surén had been in charge of physical training in the German army, where he’d introduced such innovations as caber tossing and naked cross-country running. In 1924 he published a book, Man and the Sun, in which he outlined the benefits of his trademark gymnastic regimen, the mystical rewards of nudity and the advantages of oiling oneself all over when naked. The official justification for the oil was that it enabled one to withstand low temperatures when nude, but the illustrations in his book suggest it was at least partly a pretext for Surén to be photographed naked holding a spear or discus, doing an impression of a gleaming bronze statue.

Man and the Sun was reissued in 1936 – with racist additions – as Man and Sun: Aryan-Olympian Spirit, and was something of a hit in Nazi circles. By the end of the 1930s Richard Darré, Reinhard Heydrich and Rudolf Hess had all concluded that the nudism advocated by Surén was in line with Nazi thinking. In 1942 Heinrich Himmler introduced an ordinance officially permitting nude bathing. Surén’s own fortunes took a turn for the worse in the same year, however, as he was expelled from the Nazi Party for masturbating in public.

After the war Adolf Koch re-emerged and was instrumental in revitalising a liberal, denazified nudism in the new Federal Republic. But even in this changed political climate his ideas did not fit into the mainstream. His socialist emphasis on preparing the working class to claim what was theirs became an embarrassment to German nudist associations, as did his insistence that sex education should have a central place in nudism. Despite his decades of inspiring dedication to working-class nudism, he was expelled from the German Association for Free Body Culture in the early 1960s.

In any case, the era of organised German nudism was coming to an end. Himmler’s 1942 ordinance remained in force in both East and West Germany, meaning that people no longer had to join a club or enter a special enclosure to be nude outdoors. It is ironic, given the Nazis’ initial attitude towards nudism, that this law accounts in no small part for the widespread informal nudity in Germany today.

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George Hull is currently completing a PhD in the history of philosophy at UCL. He has written for The Economist, The Spectator, Left Foot Forward, Time Out and The London Magazine among others