Despite all the bare bodies you see at Berlin lakes, Germany’s age-old tradition of public nudity is losing ground fast. As membership in nudist clubs dwindles and chagrined East Berliners reach for their towels, we attempt to find out the naked truth: are the days of FKK numbered?
There’s still plenty of sun shining on the wide expanse of unkempt lawn gently sloping down towards Teufelssee, and throngs of Berliners are enjoying the balmy evening breeze or venturing into the pleasantly warm water. Roughly half of the swimmers and sunbathers, young and old alike, whether families with kids or groups of strapping gay men, are not wearing anything but their own skin. Nestled in the huge Grunewald forest, the small, oval-shaped lake is a well-known clothing-optional hangout, favoured by enthusiasts of FKK – Freikörperkultur, or “free body culture” – for its mixed crowds and relaxed atmosphere, not to mention the beautiful surroundings.
To non-Germans, it sometimes seems like the city’s beaches and parks are teeming with naked bodies. Home-grown Berliners would disagree. The scale of nudity today pales in comparison with how normal it used to be, especially for East Berliners and their fellow GDR citizens, to bare all. “Whenever it was warm enough, we would strip off in our garden at home or, needless to say, at the beach,” Juliane* recalls. By the time Juliane was born, in Pankow, in the early 1970s, her native East Germany had dropped all pretence at cracking down on skinny-dipping after a decade of prohibition had backfired. Nacktbaden had become the norm in the Socialist state, on lake shores or at the Baltic seaside. “Heck, when my first boyfriend met my mother, we were at the Ostsee, all naked!”
But over the years, acceptance of nakedness has declined, or its perceived meaning has changed. The former die-hard skinny-dipper recounts too many instances of “unwanted stares” at the beach causing her to go away or to “put on that damn soaked, cold bikini full of sand that ruins one’s suntan” and remembers with nostalgia the bygone world of non-sexual, naked freedom on East German beaches. The pretty fortysomething now resignedly takes to wearing a bikini at the lake “every time I feel uncomfortable”. Even in the sauna, where nudism remains the etiquette in Berlin, she feels it’s not the same anymore: “I go to the sauna to relax, definitely not to pick up men, as some nowadays seem to believe,” she fumes.
Naked roots: Intellectuals, Nazis and Ossis
The origins of Germany’s tradition of nudism are less than straightforward. Some of the early pioneers of FKK were avant-garde intellectuals in the late 19th century who wanted to challenge the uptight Victorian morals of mainstream society. Other proponents advocated a more natural, healthier lifestyle, at a time when the syphilis-ridden working classes lived in cramped, squalid conditions.
Such were the views held by Adolf Koch, Berlin’s most prominent FKK founding figure. In 1919, Koch, a physician and schoolteacher from Kreuzberg, initiated private gymnastics lessons attended by naked teenage girls and boys, under their parents’ supervision. The teacher aimed at promoting “reverence and respect for the naked body of the other sex” and quite radically contended that “nudity by itself has no sexual connotations”.
Similarly, the Wandervogel, or “wandering bird” youth movement, founded in 1895 by Hermann Hoffman and Karl Fischer near Berlin, encouraged school pupils of both sexes to swim and hike naked as a way to commune with nature. Meanwhile, alternative healers like Adolf Just advocated nude air baths and sunbathing as a treatment for disease. So popular did the natural sanatoria become that by 1913, there were 885 clubs with 148,000 members in Germany. Nudism went on to become a huge element in the left-wing scene: the Proletarian Naturist Movement had at least 60,000 members, far more than in the right-wing naturist associations.
But some roots of naturism are more dubious. Early proponents of the superiority of the Volk didn’t hesitate to make the ethical leap from fostering healthy, natural bodies to eugenicism. Many of the first FKK societies in Wilhelminian Germany and the Weimar Republic embraced the then-popular myths of völkisch German nationalism, and viewed nakedness as a means to transform Germans physically, spiritually, and racially, into better individuals, a better race and a better nation. Body culture was believed to be capable of purifying the “German race” by slowly weeding out the weak and undesirable. And so the Third Reich ended up supporting nudism, if rather half-heartedly and under strict conditions.
FKK re-emerged from the ruins of the war just as divided as Germany and its capital were. In West Berlin, as in the rest of the country, naturist clubs became increasingly widespread, attracting thousands of members clamouring for the freedom to do sports in the nude altogether, without any further political implications. Meanwhile, private clubs and Nacktbaden were banned by the more prudish East German government. But as early as the 1950s, nudism became a popular means of protest. State authorities bowed to national discontent and embraced FKK to the extent that it soon became an East German stereotype. In later decades, it was not uncommon for Ossi teenagers to be introduced to their friends’ parents in the buff on the beach, or for entire school classes to merrily strip naked and enjoy a collective swim–along with their equally bottomless teachers, as recounted by Juliane.
Dwindling, aging naturists
“Nineteen-eighty-nine changed everything for us, for better or for worse,” Karin Siebert sighs resignedly. The septuagenarian became an FKK enthusiast upon moving to West Berlin from her native Bavaria 45 years ago. Siebert now chairs VfK Berlin Südwest e.V., the capital’s largest naturist circle, founded in the southern neighbourhood of Lichterfelde in 1922. The club boasts large indoor and outdoor facilities, including a heated pool, and around 1200 members – down from 1700 before German reunification.
While the Wall still stood, West Berliners were trapped in their enclave and clubs like VfK were a welcome escape from urban grit. After the Wende, all of a sudden, they were able take advantage of many more options for outdoor fun a stone’s throw from home. “The real problem, though, was not our dwindling membership, but rather, its rapid ageing. We aren’t interested in becoming a retirement home,” Siebert trills in her distinctive southern dialect.
Shrinking and ageing membership is an issue almost all of Berlin’s naturist clubs are grappling with. According to Berlin’s FKK regional federation, the capital’s six mostly family-oriented nudist sports circles and their three counterparts in neighbouring Brandenburg lost a quarter of their total members in the last 10 years. But federation chairman Christian Utecht is quick to point out that sports clubs and all manners of Vereine in general are haemorrhaging members. “It’s an increasingly dominant trait in German society nowadays: people are more mobile and less prone to committing to organisations like they used to,” he comments.
In Kreuzberg, the growing disaffection for organised naturism is about to claim its first prominent casualty: the Familien-Sport-Verein Adolf Koch will soon cease to exist in its current form, narrowly missing the 100-year mark. Things have been going downhill for a while at the historical “family” sports club, where the median age is now well above 60.
“Just last year, six of our members passed away,” club chairman Wolfgang Rosenke bemoans while he supervises a rather small indoor pool near Kottbusser Tor. Officially, Berlin’s self-proclaimed oldest FKK circle will not disappear, but “merge” with fellow doyenne society Neusonnlandbund, established in 1920. “But the name Adolf Koch will soon be gone, and that’s a real shame,” Rosenke laments as he waves a couple of grannies goodbye.
Of course, there is much more skinny-dipping going on in Berlin than at nudist clubs, but some clues hint that Nacktschwimmen is losing ground across the general population. The state-run Berliner Bäder-Betriebe (BBB), which manages 26 indoor swimming pools and just as many outdoor pools and lakeside beach facilities in Berlin, has slashed most of its naked swimming time slots in recent years, due to sinking demand. Stadtbad Neukölln now hosts only one public weekly nudist session, down from three a couple of years ago. Public FKK swimming hours have been cancelled in Wilmersdorf and Charlottenburg altogether.
“We have only so many pools that we share between clubs, schools and the general public, so we have to manage our offer to adequately meet demand,” BBB marketing manager Rainer Wilkens explains, highlighting that niche sectors like aqua-gym for pregnant women or swimming sessions for transgender people need to be equally catered for.
Even within the safe confines of FKK facilities, nudity is much less of a given than in the old days. Siebert is pretty happy to see the end of naked tennis or volleyball in her Verein, if anything “for aesthetic reasons”. On the northwestern edge of the city, sitting outside the bar of the Saunafreunde Familiensportverein on the shore of the little-known Heiligensee, Andy Weisse and his friends bemusedly comment that “just a few years ago, we all would’ve been sitting butt-naked here, answering your questions”.
The jolly 53-year-old basically grew up in this compound, which the nudist club has been leasing since the 1950s. The roughly 100 wooden cabins, built under tall trees and separated by lush gardens are still in demand, but nothing like before. “We used to have long waiting lists,” Weisse remembers. But despite the idyllic setting, Saunafreunde has lost a whopping two-thirds of its members in some 30 years, down to roughly 700 (more than half of them kids).
Gays to the rescue
FKK may be in a bit of a bind, but it’s not going away any time soon. Karin Siebert’s club has managed to stem the downward spiral by offering swimming lessons for kids (albeit with mandatory swimwear) and special discounts, thus luring young families back into the fold. “It can get quite loud with children playing and shrieking and running around, but I love it: we’re alive again!”
It’s not just families that enjoy sports with no clothes on. Over at Kreuzberg FSV Adolf Koch, as Wolfgang Rosenke grumbles on about his dying swimming club, a throng of noticeably younger men, wearing just goggles and the odd fin, are swimming or simply chatting in small groups in the water beside him. This is the Fin For Fun Sportverein, a newcomer in the ageing nudist sports scene that has been coming here for swimming and volleyball sessions. Why don’t the two groups join forces?
“Well, as you can see, they’re mostly gay, whereas Neusonnlandbund is a family club with a long history, just like us,” Rosenke explains matter-of-factly. He points to the now male-only gang that remains in the pool. “We have nothing against Schwulen; look, we swim naked with them every week. But the prospect of forming one joint club together didn’t go down well with some of our elderly members,” he presses on, mentioning reports of “misbehaviour” in the changing rooms.
This snub might sound somewhat surprising to some, since Fin For Fun boasts precisely what many clubs desperately need: a much younger and growing membership, which increased fourfold to some 80 naked swimming enthusiasts in the past six years. But Jürgen Krüll, who has been at the helm of the gay-friendly club since 2009, shrugs his shoulders.
“Astonishingly, the FKK scene is quite conservative,” he says. “They focus heavily on the family thing, and some of us don’t fit right in.” Roberto*, a regular of West Berlin’s nudist scene for several decades and a founding member of Fin For Fun, complains that “traditional clubs have far too many rules, they’re too rigid. We’re much more easygoing.” And maybe it’s the age of the swimmers that plays a role, but at first sight, there does seem to be a little bit of flirting going on in the pool and in the locker room.
“The perception of nudity has become more sexualised than it used to be, and we’re adapting to it,” says Saunafreunde chairman Oliver Schäfer. Though his club’s membership is a shadow of its former self, the situation is far from critical: Schäfer says young people have started to join again and the mood is actually quite relaxed. “Maybe we should drop the Familien in the name. That’s counter-productive. There’s a huge potential out there: gays, transgender people, people with alternative lifestyles. We don’t want to scare them away,” his friend Weisse argues. Even ancient traditions need to keep up with the times.