Why Germany's nudist culture remains refreshing

Naked facts: Germany's nudism movement

A 'free body': Germany's nudist culture

It's a part of German culture, just like techno music and "Spargelzeit," the asparagus season. Even though the practice of Freikörperkultur (FKK), which translates as "free body culture," is dwindling among the younger generations of Germans, you'll still find lots of FKK areas on beaches as well as nude culture enthusiasts in spas — and even parks.

Naked facts: Germany's nudism movement

The healthy hobby

By the late 19th century, many Germans believed it was healthy to strip off and bathe "textile free" at one of the country's many lakes. At the time there was a move away from polluted industrialized cities to nature in pursuit of good health. Some people also enjoyed hiking or doing exercise in the nude. This picture dates back to 1933 and shows two women at Lake Chiemsee in Bavaria.

Naked facts: Germany's nudism movement

A culture promoted in film

Increasing health through free movement in nature was an ethos featured in the 1925 film Wege zu Kraft und Schönheit (Ways to Strength and Beauty). Starring controversial German actor and filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl, it was one of the country's most popular educational films of the silent era. It contained scenes of physical exercise such as dance and bathing.

Naked facts: Germany's nudism movement

FKK and the Nazis

Leni Riefenstahl later became Hitler's favorite filmmaker, and glorified the Aryan athletic physique in her two-part film Olympia, based on the 1936 Olympic Games held in Berlin. While the Nazis initially banned FKK, nude swimming was once again allowed in 1942, if done discreetly in remote areas. Many promoters of the FKK movement were however leftists.

Naked facts: Germany's nudism movement

A strong tradition in the former GDR

While FKK in the GDR was initially promoted by avant-gardists in the 1950s, it became widespread and tolerated by the 70s. As life in the GDR was so tightly controlled in other ways, bathing nude could be seen as a rare liberty — and people made full use of it. In this picture from 1986, dozens of nudists bask in the sun at Müggelsee, a lake in the suburbs of East Berlin.

Naked facts: Germany's nudism movement

FKK on the Baltic coast

FKK was also particularly strong on Baltic Sea beaches. However, the practice didn't spread to the Polish side of the coast. After Poland joined the EU, it became easier to walk from one country to the other's beach, but nudism was a cause of tensions between the localities on both sides of the German-Polish border.

Naked facts: Germany's nudism movement

Getting into the FKK spirit

At this beach in Leipzig in 1980, nudists hang out together on a hot day. The FKK spirit is about celebrating the body and being free from clothes. According to FKK enthusiasts, the practice is not connected to sex; it's about freeing yourself from social constraints. And it's certainly one way to make sure that you don't get any pesky tan lines from wearing a swimsuit.

Naked facts: Germany's nudism movement

Not only in the east: Munich's designated spots

While public nudity is generally forbidden Munich, there are various specific areas where FKK is allowed, for example in the English Garden and along the Isar River, including the Flaucher beach area, a popular destination for nudists, as this picture on a hot day from 2002 shows. FKK areas usually have a clear sign, and people chilling there do not want to be seen as a tourist attraction.

Naked facts: Germany's nudism movement

Berlin's park life

The practice is not as strong as it used to be, but some parks still have a certain FKK tradition — so you might come across more flesh than you were expecting on an afternoon walk. While public nudity is illegal, sunbathing naked is tolerated in different Berlin parks, such as the Mauerpark, Volkspark Friedrichshain (picture, from 1999) and Tiergarten — as long as it's not disturbing anyone.

Naked facts: Germany's nudism movement

A passion for millions of Germans

Angela Merkel was famously taking a sauna the night the Berlin Wall came down; it was her Thursday ritual. Figures show that around 30 million people in Germany visit the country's 2,300 saunas regularly. The majority of spas are open to both genders and require users to be textile-free. Remember: these public saunas are different to so-called FKK saunas or clubs, which are used as brothels.

Naked facts: Germany's nudism movement

Bare all in the wild

It may not be for everyone, but if you really want to get in touch with nature you could try going for a hike — au naturel. Deep in Germany's Harz mountain region is where you'll find an 18 kilometer naked hiking route. Stretching from the town of Dankerode to the Wippertal reservoir and back, the route welcomes FKK aficionados. Just watch out for nettles!

From lakes to saunas and parks: Is Germany's nudist culture, known as FKK, dying out or still making waves? It's still strong enough to inspire a change of attitude for Berlin-based expats.

At first glance it seems like a regular beach scene: Children running in and out the water, sandwiches being passed around families and couples sunning themselves.

But on closer inspection most people at Krumme Lanke, a lake in the south west of Berlin have something in common.

They aren't wearing a scrap of clothing. And it's a non-event. No one cares and no one is surprised. There's nothing sexy about it. It's 25C; it's a very hot spring day and there's really no need for clothing if you don't feel like wearing it.

Three letters allowing everyone to get naked: FKK

Germany has a tolerance of and, in some cases, a fondness for being "textile free." Whether it's one of the country's hundreds of spas and wellness resorts, parks or lakes, many citizens here are known for having no qualms about taking their clothes off.

Read more: Where to get naked in Germany

In certain parts of Germany, this is still a normal scene today

This is the country of FKK — Freikörperkultur — an informal movement that translates to free body culture.

But with bans on public nudity and the popularity of naked swimming in decline in Germany, advocates of nudist culture fear FKK is on it's way out.

A declining tradition?

East Berlin-born Gregor Gysi, president of the European Left, spoke out last year on the decline of FKK and called for more designated areas for nudists.

Gregor Gysi, a key politician of The Left party, at the opening of a photo exhibition in 2017

The politician said that according to a sex researcher it was the "pornographic gaze" of Westerners after reunification in Germany that destroyed the pleasure of nude bathing that had always been more widespread in East Germany.

"It think it's a pity because FKK has class," says Gysi, 70.

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An expat's perspective

Back at the lake a cyclist has just arrived, peeled off his bodysuit to reveal bare skin and jumped into the water. I'm not surprised at all the bums on show but it's taken some time to become accustomed to this laid-back attitude to nudity.

Why? Because I'm from Scotland, and, like other parts of the UK, there isn't the same attitude towards stripping off. To put it bluntly, if you take your clothes off in public you'd probably be accused of being a pervert. It's just not that common.

For Scotland the reluctance to go nude could be blamed on year-round terrible weather, but it's also something deeper. The British attitude to bare skin differs hugely from the continent. We're not used to seeing naked bodies unless they are highly sexualized in advertisements, music videos or porn.

So "normal" nudity in saunas or beaches can make expats giggle or feel embarrassed.

Put your cameras away: FKK beaches are not for Instagram

"In Anglo culture, people tend to have a very different relationship to the body, says Annegret Staiger, associate professor of anthropology at Clarkson University in Potsdam, New York. "Where as if you go to Germany, Bulgaria, France, Austria… it's a different story.

"In the US people are scandalized about skin and at the same time make such a hype about showing it," adds Staiger, who grew up in Stuttgart, Baden-Württemberg, before leaving to study in the US in 1987.

A counterweight to sexualized nudity

For me, the thought of baring all in public was unimaginable until I visited Berlin to take part in a journalism fellowship in 2015. Along with learning the language I was trying to embrace German culture — and quickly found out that FKK and not wearing any clothes in spa environments was part of that.

Read more: 10 expressions for traveling in Germany that you won't find in a guide book

You don't need a bathing suit to feel the heat in a sauna

It took a lot of courage but I did it. After years of feeling uncomfortable in my skin, feeling that my body was ugly or something to be hidden away, it felt empowering to lie on the wooden slats of the sauna, with the heat prickling across my skin.

I found the attitude to nudity in Germany refreshing.

I had battled body confidence issues for years and embarked on numerous diets as I struggled with my changing body shape after puberty. But here people of all shapes and sizes could take their clothes off and feel comfortable.

It was such a different concept compared to what I'd grown up with. Taking your clothes off isn't necessarily a sexual thing and it's not about looking good.

Politician Gysi agrees, saying nudism "isn't really erotic." "I see FKK as a possible counterweight to the ubiquitous sexualization in advertising, but also in society in general," he adds.

Read more: Tasty or disgusting? Sculptures of raw meat and other weird German foods

The English Garden in Munich and the Tiergarten in Berlin are two of the most famous parks in Germany with nude areas

A brief history of a movement

The country's first FKK organization was created in 1898 and the idea, connected to the pursuit of good health, quickly spread, especially around Berlin, the North Sea and the Baltic Sea.

"Even at the turn of the century there was this movement away from the cities," says Staiger. "It was part of a broader movement connected to not having the body constrained by things like corsets, and letting it breathe."

Rather than sexualizing the body, the naturist movement was about health as well as freeing people from shame, social inequality and from the unhealthy living environments in the crowded cities of early industrialization.

At the time there were dozens of magazines and films dedicated to FKK culture.

FKK was initially banned by the Nazis during the war era, but the practice soon returned. Staiger says it could be argued that the party adopted the culture in some ways through their obsession with bodies.

"By the time Hans Suren's book Mensch und Sonne (1936) and Leni Riefenstahl's propaganda film Olympia (1938) came about, nudism had become incorporated — at least to some extent — into the racial ideology of the Nazis," she says.

Leni Riefenstahl's film Olympia celebrated the aesthetics of the Aryan athletic body

FKK culture persisted after the war and, although it existed in both East and West Germany, it took on a new meaning in the East where it became a symbol for people to escape a repressive state.

"FKK culture has a long tradition in Germany," says Gysi. "Partly, it also had ties to the workers' movement. In the GDR (German Democratic Republic), FKK beaches on the Baltic Sea were the norm."

Gysi says there were no separate nude beaches — everyone, whether they chose to wear clothing or not — bathed together. "This way of dealing with nudity was lost after the country's reunification," he adds.

Read more: 10 very German passions

Not the spirit of FKK: Sex sauna clubs

Staiger says a darker side connected to FKK has emerged in recent years in the form of sauna clubs that sell sex.

"We have the issue of these sauna clubs or brothels that call themselves FKK sauna clubs, but they're hiding behind the FKK label. It's another cycle of co-optation of an idea or maybe an ideology."

These clubs, according to Staiger, "don't have the spirit of FKK," she says. "They're purely a euphemism to make it (prostitution) more acceptable."

"FKK and nudist culture was about celebrating the body unencumbered by clothes, in nature and sunlight," adds Staiger. "In FKK sauna clubs, only sex workers are naked, except for their six-inch high heels. That is not what the idea of FKK is about."

There are however still many German spas that are textile-free facilities without being brothels, such as the Vabali Spa

A culture worth protecting

So how can naturist culture get back to its roots and does it have a place in modern German life?

The way forward, Gysi says, lies with local politics — and to ignore those against it. "They (politicians) can easily declare certain areas on beaches and in spas to be FKK areas and in doing so they should not be misled by investors (who don't want nude people there)," he says.  

Gysi says nudism stands for "self-confidence and the departure from social constraints" and I have to agree.  "That's important and worth supporting," he adds.

As a non-German I feel there's something special about naturist culture.

And I like living in a country where you're likely to find pensioners in the buff, friends chilling without clothes, and naked yoga. No one cares what you look like, it's just bodies — we all have them.

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