Why Does Germany Love Being Naked?

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When you mention German nudes, Dürer’s portraits of Rubenesque women lounging au natural rather than naked hiking comes to mind. But to many in Teutonic speaking countries, the idea of Germans and nudity is synonymous. It’s a common idea that the very origin of nudism comes from Germany, ushered in as part of the 19th century movement of FKK (Freikoerperkultur) — free body culture. Nudity seems to be so ingrained in German popular culture that recently there have been plans to start an all-nude German hotel. (Prior to that a German airline had begun to book passengers for the first ever clothing-optional flights. This idea was later scrapped due to a public outcry). Though nudity is accepted and embraced by German culture, neighboring countries seem to take offense to the sight of these bare European bottoms.

A new cold war was recently in the news between Baltic-Sea nude German swimmers and their Polish beachmates, who bemoaned an unforeseen consequence to the opening of borders in the past few years to the Schengen Agreement. It seems that the vacationing Poles were especial displeased to this behavior which they saw as decadent and bordering on sacrilegious. The take of one 28-year-old swimmer: “It’s horrible. We would never bathe naked — we are Catholic.”

Another neighboring country less than thrilled to be bombarded with nude tourists is Switzerland, which recently banned non-clothed hiking in its scenic Alps. Austria is also seeking to implement a similar plan, which raises the question, what is it about the German psyche which seeks public nudity? Why have their neighboring countries, which often share a language and political viewpoints, not embraced similar views on the human body?

Some say that the German appetite for naturalism is a way to voice subtle political dissent. According to a source at the Goethe Institute, the original concept of FKK was born out of a longing to be free “from religious strictures that teach you to be ashamed of your body…without clothes no-one is a factory slave, everyone is equal… It was a primitive kind of Socialism which was why the bureaucratic communists of East Germany…hated it so much. They understood that when their citizens stripped off, they were shedding the system.”

The Brucke art movement, a Pre-World War I group of German Expressionists, were also avid nudists — using the freeing of their bodies to also free their art. These artists in turn were the first creatives to be banned under the Nazi regime — seen as part of the “decay” of authority and German power. During the Nazi era, the concept of nude sunbathing to fortify one’s soul was dismissed as frivolous, which perhaps may be the reason it enjoyed such popularity in the postwar period — especially in East Berlin, where for many it was seen as the one public activity the government had no authority over.

Though it’s been twenty years since the Berlin Wall fell, when walking around the city you still get the sense that Germans want to rebel against the enforced conformity they, more so than almost any other country in the region, were under for most of the 20th century. Perhaps by being nude in such a public way Germans aren’t just expressing their need to be open and free, but also a way of showing the world they are now able to do so. While Russia had Glasnost and “the great thaw,” maybe Germany is choosing a more literal path of enlightening and laying bare its past.