When I was a kid, my father always used to sunbathe nude in our garden at weekends. In public pools, children of all ages were allowed to run around naked all the time.
Even now I’m comfortable with getting naked in the sauna or gym changing room. Maybe it’s because I’m German.
Nudism is traditionally popular in Germany, a country considered buttoned up and conservative compared with, let’s say, Italy.
In Germany, nudism is known as Freikoerperkultur (FKK), Free Body Culture. When you travel there, you’ll see that baring all is normal in saunas, swimming pools, the park and on the beach.
Summer in the parks of Berlin and Munich brings the chance of encountering a middle-aged, bronzed German wearing only a hat and the BILD-Zeitung, Germany’s favorite tabloid.
Forget sausages and beer, the sign of true German-ness is publicly disrobing with absolutely zero self-consciousness. For me, it’s often just quicker and easier to do a clean strip at the pool or sauna than frantically trying to hide the bits that everyone else is already displaying without batting an eyelid.
Divided by the Iron Curtain, united by nudity
Germany’s passion for clotheslessness finds its origins in late-19th-century health drives when stripping off was seen as part of a route to fitness and sunbathing a possible cure for TB and rheumatism.
In 1920, while the rest of Europe was still getting feverish over the sight an exposed ankle, Germany established its first nude beach on the island of Sylt. Barely a decade later, the Berlin School of Nudism, founded to encourage mixed sex open-air exercises, hosted the first international nudity congress.
The Nazi era brought mixed fortunes for nudism, its ongoing popularity tempered by a moral clampdown. Laws passed in 1933 limited mixed-sex nudism as “a reaction to the increased immorality of the Weimar state.” More restrictions followed amid claims the scene was a “breeding ground for Marxists and homosexuals.”
Nevertheless, it remained popular, enjoying support among members of the paramilitary SS.
Rules were softened in 1942 but still subject to Nazi prejudices that predictably focused on Jews and other “undesirables.” But war didn’t dampen Germany’s enthusiasm for stripping off, even when the country was divided by the Iron Curtain.
After the war, nudism was equally popular in both German states. Even as the country was being split asunder in 1949, some in the West were busy founding the Association for Free Body Culture – an organization that today is part of the German Olympic Sport Federation and the largest member of the International Naturist Federation.
Nudism was particularly popular in East Germany, or German Democratic Republic as it was known. It was secretly considered a form of escape from the uniforms, marches and conformity of the communist state.
East Germans were free to practice nudism and did so wherever possible: at lakes, sea beaches and large FKK camping grounds. There was also, of course, an official socialist institution with a long, uninspiring name.
The “Proletarische Freikoerperkulturbewegung” or Proletarian Free Body Movement had 60,000 members.
Nude scenes in GDR movies appeared long before the first naked people appeared in Hollywood films. The fondness for getting naked on both sides of the Iron Curtain also led to some curious incidents.
GDR border guards were tasked with training their binoculars on the FKK beach just over the border to observe the behavior of naked capitalists.
Even German Chancellor Angela Merkel was said to have practiced nudism during her youth in the GDR – although it’s not been confirmed whether recently unearthed photos purporting to show her swimming and walking naked with friends are the real deal.
When West Germans started to holiday all over Europe, they brought their penchant for letting it all hang out with them. Nude resorts began opening in France in the 1950s, followed by increasingly popular FKK ventures in Yugoslavia and on the Baltic Sea.
In the beginning beach culture was mostly intermixed and nudity was widely tolerated – perhaps the reason why topless sunbathing is still acceptable on most beaches around the Mediterranean. Vacationing at the large nudist resort of Cap d’Agde in France became popular for Germans when it opened in the 1960s.
Today Germans are typically the most commonly seen nationality at European nude beaches. Back home, there are many nudist camping areas to be found along Germany’s coast and along the lake shores of the former GDR.
That said, it’s not permitted to strip everywhere. Walking around naked in public areas where most other people are dressed counts as a minor breach of the law. Prosecutions can follow if another citizen is offended, but few ever are.
Where to bare it all
Today, there are about 600,000 Germans registered in more than 300 private nudist/FKK clubs and a further 14 affiliated clubs in Austria.
Members visit these clubs to sunbathe nude or indulge in a spot of nacktjoggen or nacktwandern – naked jogging or rambling through the countryside wearing only backpacks, boots or running shoes.
A list of FKK clubs is available on the German-language homepage of the German Federation of Naturist Clubs (warning: images of nudes all over). The heartland of public nakedness also still has a plethora of designated FKK beaches and nudist zones in public parks and on beaches.
The English Garden in Munich has two large FKK areas on the banks of the Eisbach creek.
Berlin public parks have FKK areas: the famous Mauerpark in Prenzlauer Berg, the Volkspark Friedrichshain and the Tiergarten, and it’s permitted to get naked on all Berlin’s public bathing beaches, such as at Wannsee or the Mueggelsee.
Along the German coastline, the nudity ground zero of Sylt Island is still going strong. Sylt’s Kampen beach might now be a popular destination for the rich and famous – but in Germany, they too love getting their clothes off.
For those who like to put some distance between themselves and the next naked bather, Germany’s largest Baltic island, Ruegen, has no fewer than five FKK beaches. A full list of public nude bathing areas is available in German at nacktbaden.de.
How to get naked in Germany
The easiest way to bare it all in Deutschland is to visit one of the aforementioned public FKK areas.
As these are mostly located in areas with a mixed dressed/undressed crowd, there’s no problem with partially disrobing until you feel comfortable. There are no changing rooms, so undressing takes place in public – but again, not one German is going to be offended by this.
Most FKK beaches on the coast will also have signs indicating textile-free zones. After passing these signs, visitors will need to disrobe immediately to avoid being reprimanded by the lifeguards who also enforce the rules.
Private FKK clubs welcome new members and offer trial memberships for beginners. The days of bare-it-all Germany, however, seem to be in decline.
Most young people are fine with sunbathing topless in parks and pools, and like me have no qualms whatsoever with undressing for the sauna. But the ideals of the German nudist movement are slowly dying away.
FKK clubs have complained about shedding members, in east Germany especially, since the Berlin Wall came down. Maybe in today’s Germany there’s no longer a need for demonstrating liberty and freedom by shedding our clothes.
Marcel Krueger is a German writer and translator based in Dublin and Berlin. He mostly writes about history, travel and beer – or all three combined.