I was 20 years old the first time I experienced the joys of FKK, Freikörperkultur – German nudism, basically. My East German roommate Alex asked me if I was prudish like an Englishwoman or relaxed like a German, and if I’d like to go with him to an FKK beach. I’d never heard of FKK, and replied, unknowingly, that I was fairly relaxed. We then drove out to the Ostsee with his granny, cousin and younger sister. His sister whipped her knickers off as soon as we parked and literally cartwheeled her way onto the sandy shore. Alex and his granny unpacked the picnic stuff, then they started playing frisbee. Naked. If I was playing frisbee with my nana naked, I dunno, I wouldn’t have… lunged as much as Alex did. I watched him hopping about, his willy dangling there in the sunshine, and I realised that I was, actually, prudish like an Englishwoman.
“Would your sister have still been doing all her gymnastics if your dad had come along?” I asked a few days afterwards. “Like, he might have seen her… Muschi?”
Alex looked at me as if I was mentally disturbed, which I guess, in his book, I was.
“What difference does it make if it’s your dad or your mum or your gran or your brother?” He asked, shrugging. “It’s just a body. There’s nothing shameful about it.”
Some 20 years have passed since I arrived in the country, a naive, innocent, yet slightly sex-mad Essex girl with a very cheeky – and very, very British – attitude towards willies, boobies, balls and vulvas. And I have grown more and more used to getting naked in public, so much so that now I find the act of packing a swimsuit into my bag vaguely annoying. But in recent years, people keep on telling me that FKK is dying out. Is it really? I decided to throw my bikini in the Restmüll and find out!
Taking the plunge
“I was nervous the first time,” says Jenny, who is the only other British person I meet at the Brandenburg spa Kristalltherme Ludwigsfelde, just a few kilometres outside of Berlin and surprisingly easy to get to – just hop on the RE4 at Südkreuz, hop off at Ludwigsfelde and follow the signs. Jenny has been living in Berlin for 20 years now, has two kids and is a more or less passionate naked swimmer. “I’d been skinnydipping in England – I mean, that’s basically just illicit FKK, right? And then when I arrived in Germany, I met my husband – he’s as East German as they come. We went to FKK lakes and beaches all over Germany. But I don’t know why, it feels different inside a swimming pool! You feel more exposed! It really did take a bit of getting used to, but now I prefer swimming this way.”
It can feel awkward for prudish Brits, embarrassed Americans, or shy Syrians – but once you get used to it, there are some definite advantages to swimming naked. “It’s healthier, actually,” says Irma, a 65-year-old East German pensioner from Neu-Brandenburg, who thinks FKK is so normal, it’s weird I even think it’s worth interviewing her about. We’re in the Süßwasserbecken, one of the Kristalltherme’s four indoor swimming pools. The water is far warmer than at public pools – 28° at the chilliest. Ludwigsfelde Kristalltherme isn’t ‘cool’ like Vabali or Liquidrom are. The vibes are more Rentner than hipster. But it is cute, old-school and very relaxing. “Yeast infections,” Irma adds knowingly. I nod. Not having to change in and out of sopping wet, yeast-hospitable bikini bottoms is indeed one of the advantages of FKK.
The first FKK club in Germany was founded in Essen in 1898, but Berlin was also an FKK hotspot around the beginning of the 20th century. For naturalism supporters back then, being naked was liberating. German fashion at the turn of the century was restricting and stifling – ridding yourself of such garments couldn’t help but be a political message – but also, without people’s clothes on, it was harder to tell which social class they belonged to.
There was also a slightly more sinister element to the FKK craze. The motto was “nackt und deutsch” – naked and German – with an emphasis on health, being hardy and strong, vegetarianism and eschewing alcohol and tobacco. During the Third Reich, free body culture was promoted and encouraged. An FKK organisation in Hitler times, the Bund für Leibeszucht (association for body breeding!), promoted the practice as a way of making racial, health and moral improvements to the German population. And, although nowadays we might think of the Weimar era as wild and debauched, swimming naked was banned in the first German republic – with some exceptions, like every punk’s favourite island destination Sylt.
Liberation in the DDR
Expats living in Germany, especially in Berlin, always think of FKK as a German thing. “I think Germans are just more comfortable being naked,” says an American mother, Tina, whom I meet at Plötzensee. Tina has a six-year-old son and although, after 10 years in Berlin, she has gotten used to seeing naked people out the corner of her eye, she feels more relaxed swimming in places where you are allowed to (or even expected to!) keep your Badehose on.
However, when you ask German people about it, FKK is seen as very much “an Eastie thing”. That’s according to Steffi, a 40-year-old from Baden-Württemberg who has been living in Berlin for 20 years. “People are so free here. It’s not like this everywhere in Germany! At home in Baden-Württemberg, you even wear your bikini in the sauna – like in the UK or the US. I got in trouble once, when I was home for the holidays. My mum was so embarrassed – she said to me, ‘You’re not in East Germany now!’”
FKK and DDR go together like strawberries and cream, or maybe, I guess, like naked sunbathing and sunburnt willies. Although people think the DDR government encouraged FKK, they actually disproved of it at first. In summer 1954, they banned naked swimming, with Culture Minister Johannes R. Becher calling on people to “Protect the eyes of the nation!”
In the 1950s, FKK was, in East Germany at least, a hobby for the elite. Intellectuals – artists, writers and film directors often gathered for nudie bathing at the artist colony Ahrenshoop, a posh holiday resort (well, posh for Eastie times). And when, in 1954, it was announced that swimming in the buff was officially banned, the intellectual Germans did what intellectual Germans do best – they complained. A lot. And signed open letters. The DDR government gave in, and the artists’ bikinis and trunks stayed off. It took a bit longer for ordinary citizens to convince the authorities that naked swimming should be allowed. As of 1956, though, the DDR allowed nudie swimmers – but only on beaches which declared themselves as such.
And from the 1970s onwards, FKK just got more and more popular with East Germans. Beaches, campsites, swimming pools: it isn’t a big stretch of the imagination to wonder if the freedom of being naked felt all the more liberating for people living under a restrictive regime.
And what about the current situation in Germany for FKK fans? One difference between the German FKK and British or American nudism is that whereas in Anglo countries, we restrict our stripping off to beaches, in Germany we permit naked bodies at lakes, spas, saunas, swimming pools – and ordinary parks.
One of those parks is Hasenheide. It’s not an official FKK sunbathing spot, but it’s very much tolerated. Most of the people who come here to get their bits out in the sun are not East German at all – just free and easy international Berliners, or German kids born after the fall of the Wall, or West Germans who moved to Berlin to become spoken word artists/drag performers/barkeepers. I talk to Christoph, a bartender by night and a nudist by day.
What is so appealing about FKK sunbathing? I ask. “Hmm!” he says. “I dunno. I like being naked, I like being in the park. I have a lot of free time and getting naked in Hasenheide i something you can do without planning anything. You don’t even need to bring a bottle of beer because this guy comes by on a bike and sells it! You often see queer people you know and can have a nice chit-chat with them. And… there’s sex in the bushes, too. I’m a simple person, I guess. I’m happy enough with a bit of sun, sex, beer and a nice chat. That’s all I need in life, really!”
Nude sunbathing at certain public parks might still be popular, but many East Germans worry that FKK is dying out – and they blame prudish West Germans and anxious expats for killing off their favourite hobby. In fact, now that the naked-friendly spa at Europacenter closed down, there aren’t all that many places to get your bits out while swimming. Vabali and Liquidrom, for example, very much like people to keep their swimming cossies on when in the pool. Kristalltherme Ludwigsfelde might be one of the only such places left within easy distance of Berlin.
Ahne, a legendary punk spoken-word artist who has lived his whole life in Prenzlauer Berg, certainly thinks naked swimming is on its way out. “In DDR times, at least in the 1980s, I didn’t know any beach or meadow where people weren’t lying about naked – or jumping into the water nude! Until the fall of the Wall, people used to sunbathe naked in Weinbergspark. Not anymore.”
And why don’t people sunbathe naked in Weinbergspark anymore? “Well,” Ahne says. “After the Wall fell, all these West Germans came to have a look and, you know, they were salivating over the nude sunbathers. Not very pleasant. Okay,” he concedes, “maybe they weren’t all prude voyeurs, but a lot of them.”
I tell Ahne about how I have a 17-year-old and a four-year-old. I sleep naked in bed with my little one, have baths with him, we go to Ludwigsfelde spa together and all the naked lakes. But I can’t imagine getting naked in front of my teen. Or him being naked in front of me. Wasn’t it embarrassing for East German teenagers, ever? “It would have been a bit embarrassing for me, when I was 13 or 14 years old, to see someone I knew naked – or for them to see me,” Ahne says. “But once I hit 19, 20, I didn’t have a problem with it anymore. Like, the more normal it is for you, the less weird it seems, if that makes sense?”
The Radio 1 columnist Lea Streisand, who grew up in East Berlin and was 10 when the Wall fell, agrees with Ahne. She explains that during late DDR times, the beaches where you were allowed to wear clothes were the ones with the special notices up. “That’s what it was like back then,” she says. “FKK was just normal.” Maybe it’s not as “normal” anymore, but many lakes in Berlin, whether in the East or the West, have, at the very least, a small section where you can swim naked. Outside of Berlin, once you get to deepest darkest Brandenburg, there are actually many Thermenbäder which insist you have to swim naked.
East German writer Franziska Hauser even thinks FKK has been regaining popularity in recent years: “I went to Flughafensee and everyone was naked! And more and more young women are fighting for the right to be topless in public, just like men are. I actually think it’s a bit more like DDR times again right now. Being naked is no longer shameful; young women no longer feel pressured to wear bras. It’s quite encouraging, really.”
So, just remember this, everyone: one way to save money in these inflation crazy times is to not waste any on swimming trunks!
NAKED IN BERLIN YOUR FKK GUIDE
- Hasenheide: Hasenheide isn’t an official FKK place, but nude sunbathing – as well as, sources say, some cruising – has been accepted and tolerated at the Liegewiese for years now. Popular with expats, tourists, and, of course, Germans.
- Tiergarten: The western park also has a Liegewiese that serves as an unofficial FKK sunbathing and cruising spot, similar to Hasenheide but patronised mainly by gay men. (Watch out for the Ordnungsamt, though.)
- Flughafensee: This artificial lake in Reinickendorf used to seem a bit proley in the olden days, what with the planes flying over your head every two minutes. But since the airport closed, Flughafensee got posh. Lovely nature, good-quality water – and the official FKK beach is laid-back, chilled-out and friendly. A good lake to pop to for a quick after-work bathe!
- Teufelssee: Surrounded by nature in the middle of leafy Grunewald, this FKK-friendly lake is the place for some hipster Berlin romance. Just watch out for wild boars stealing your belongings, as in the viral photo seen round the world. Also no dogs allowed (they’d probably scare off the boars!)
- Plötzensee: This lakeside Freibad has everything you need for a great day out with your kids. There’s a sandy beach, so it feels like you’re at the seaside: yummy Pommes, lovely cocktails, changing rooms – everything you need for an easy lake day. The main, family-friendly beach area is for covered-up folks, but there’s a nice little FKK section. Müggelsee: There’s loads to do at Berlin’s biggest lake – water sports, restaurants, cafés… and the westside of the Strandbad is where you find the FKK area. German Berliners are kind of fanatic about this place – they either only go to Müggelsee or they never come here. But definitely check it out; the water’s clean and people are friendly.
- Kristalltherme Ludwigsfelde: If they hear you speaking English in the queue here, they warn you that things are about to get nay-ked! Prudes can come on Wednesdays or Sundays before 17:30 – then you’re allowed to keep your knickers on (but you can, of course, take them off if you want). It’s a lot more expensive than going to a public swimming pool – €25.50 for a three-hour ticket and €41 for a day pass – but worth it for the nicer ambience and the warmer, saltier water. The Pommes are really bad though.
- Tonsee Campsite: Just south of Berlin, a few kilometres from Königs Wusterhausen, is Brandenburg’s biggest FKK campsite. Between two beautiful, clear lakes you’ll find a tent and camper area with all the necessary amenities and spots for sunbathing, beach volleyball and, of course, swimming.
- Sylt: Be a real punk this summer and use your €9-ticket to get to Sylt, where a third of the beaches are nudie-rudie ones! The best is definitely the Samoa beach, where you can rent one of those German basket things and use the public showers.