Monday Series: Constructing the (Naked) Social Body

I wrote this paper for a course on the Philosophy of Nudity at IHPST, directed by Professor Paul Thompson. I truly enjoyed the course, particularly how it introduced me to different perspectives of nudity and nudism as cultural artifacts.

German Nudist Magazine, 1920s

“Nudity is a form of dress.”
John Berger, Ways of Seeing (1972)


The historiography of German Nacktkultur, Freikörperkultur,[1] and Lebensreform is largely restricted to scholarship in German texts and primary sources housed in archives.[2] The recent growing body of secondary literature in English owes largely to the works of Karl Toepfer’s Empire of Ecstasy (1997), Michael Hau’s The Cult of Health and Beauty in Germany (1999), Chad Ross’ Naked Germany: Race, Health, and Nation (2005), and John Alexander Williams’ Turning to Nature in Germany (2007). Instead of singling out the nudist movement as the act of simply shedding clothes and frolicking in the countryside in full bloom of the cosmopolitan climate of Wilhelminine and Weimar cultures, these authors have shown how nudism was already a part of the larger turn-of-the-century life reform movements prior to the popular emerge of postwar Freikörperkultur (“free body movement”). They argue the emergence and popularization of life reform movements and body culture during the 1920s was an intense reaction to postwar economic instability, widespread political violence, and social degeneration. Worried about the degenerative state of the German race and culture, supporters of the life reform movement conceived various theories and practices to restore the health of the nation. Popular hygienic culture, dietetic regimes, physical exercises, nudism, and natural therapy were all advocated as serious attempts to reconcile and unite the fractured Volk. As Ross explains, it was believed that “Germany would not be capable of a return to greatness through intellectual feats…but rather through physical ones the requisites for which were the strong, healthy bodies that body culture created.”[3] In order to heal and reform the social body, it was necessary to heal and reform the individual body.

Turn-of-the-century nudism (Nacktkultur) emerged out of the need to counteract deteriorating effects of industrialization and urbanization upon the individual body. Nacktkultur was placed which was placed within the larger context of life reform movements (Lebensreform) of the new body-conscious society. It was constructed as a utopian ideology imbued with the power to reinvigorate and regenerate the larger the social body and German Volk by first healing the individual body. According to Ross, “[w]hile it would be disingenuous to argue that nudism existed independently and ignorantly of broader social forces, it did see itself as a means to escape the internecine and self-destructive nature of political struggle by preaching an ideology of the nation, national wholeness and racial purity rooted in the individual person and, literally, in the person’s body.”[4] Nudists argued the decay and degeneration of German bodies was the result of rapid urbanization, which brought with it disease, poverty, and capitalism. They worried about the effects urbanization had on individual bodies, particularly threats of socialism among the working classes, the moral decline of the middle classes, and the deterioration of the entire German racial body.[5]  A large part of the degeneration, nudists argued, was due to the result of living outside the word of nature, which deprived the individual body from the natural powers of air and sun. A return to nature and the stripping of clothes would restore the negative effects of industrialization.

For some of the life reformers, nudism provided an ideological basis for cultivating an egalitarian Volksgemenishaft (“people’s community”)[6] that would connect the chaotic forces at play within the social body into a unified and strengthened whole. They argued nudism and its ideology of licht, luft, sonne served to counteract the efforts of the medical profession, whose clinical gaze reduced the individual body to a biological mechanism and robbed the patient’s subjective experience of illness and disease. Medicalization robbed the individual body from a harmonious balance between body, mind, and spirit, which nudists argued was vital for health. Alternative healer Louis Kuhne (1844-1907) for example, argued that there were no separate disease entities, but rather a single disease that manifested itself in changing external symptoms brought upon by the accumulation of alien substances (Fremdstoffe) in the body.[7] Influenced by the long tradition of homeopathy (Naturheil), Nudists insisted on a holistic approach towards disease, illness, and treatment.[8] The nude body was “an unbreakable, unified whole that lived as a part of a larger natural whole.”[9] Along with other proponents of the life reform movement, nudists also addressed the importance of maintaining individual health, especially in light of the devastating effects of debilitating illness such as tuberculosis or sexually transmitted diseases such as syphilis.

The 1920s saw an increase in the popularity of Nacktkultur, which then eventually became categorized as a movement in its own right in the late-1920s, early-1930s as Frekörperkultur. As historian Michael Hau explains, “[n]udism exemplified the struggle of many people to come to terms with their difficult postwar situation.”[10] Faced with a difficult economic situation and a fragmented society, Weimar nudists found themselves without control over many aspects of their lives. Turning to nudism and the philosophy of naturism gave them a realm of control of not only their leisure time, but also their bodies, minds, and souls. During the Golden Years of the Weimar Republic, which owed much to the leadership under Gustav Statesmann (1875-1929) and his economic reforms, a massive cultural revival brought forth the Nacktkultur movement. This body culture embraced the ideology that personal fulfillment could not be found from material wealth (most of which was lost during the war and hyperinflation), but from within the German soul. Composer Wolfgang Graeser (1906-28), well-known for his re-discovery of Bach’s Die Kunst der Fuge, was an active proponent in Freikörperkultur and wrote a survey of the history and synthesis of bodily movements in Körpersinn (1927).[11] Graeser accepted the new romantic metaphysics of the body, one which sought to present an optimistic image of the body in stark contrast to the pessimistic image of death and destruction of postwar Germany. In Körpersinn, he captures the dual image of his society: “The dark, chaotic side of Western technocracy has damned the body, branded it with hell and sin. But in the luminous side, the body stands anew in unconcealed clarity. Exposed and naked is our thinking. Now we comprehend the body, uncaged and without veiling insinuations.”[12] By reforming the individual body and rendering it naked and anew, Nacktkultur promised to reconcile the political and social problems facing German society.

Nacktkultur transformed the relationship between individual bodies and the larger social body. As the English historiography of German nudism has outlined, the concepts of Nacktkultur includes more than just a philosophy of exercise, dietetics, health, and naturism; it also refers to the naked body’s representation of the larger social body—that is, the meanings of health, politics, and beauty which were inadvertently embodied upon the naked body. In this series, I build upon the works of Toepfer, Hau, Ross and Williams, by examining how social ideas and issues served to construct the meaning of Nacktkultur during the 1920s in comparison to its right-wing ideology during the 1900s.  In particular, I evaluate how the naked body functioned as a sign of tension between individual and social identity: if the body is a socially constructed object for discourse, how did the body turn around and implement its ideologies upon the larger social body?


[1] A note on terms: In this paper I follow Chad Ross’s careful historical distinctions of Nacktkultur and Freikörperkultur. Ross points out that despite a number of spellings and terms for nudism, and the various reasons for its name-changes, Nacktkultur was not discarded in favour of Freikörperkultur until the 1930s. Since I will not be discussing this period, I will be using the term Nacktkultur in reference to the nudists’ ideology in order to avoid any confusions of multiple-terminology meanings (except of course, where direct quotes use Freikörperkultur).

[2] There are also accounts of English-speaking individuals who have experienced German nudism first-hand and compiled their experiences in books to encourage the same developments in their home countries. For example, see Maurice Parmalee, Nudism in Modern Life: The New Gymnosophy (London, 1929).

[3] C.Ross, Building a Better Body: Nudism, Society, Race and the German Nation, 1890-1950. PhD dissertation, University of Missouri-Columbia (2003), 90; see also: J.A. Williams, Turning to Nature in Germany: Hiking, Nudism, and Conservation, 1900-1940 (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2007).

[4] Ross, Building a Better Body, 623.

[5] Ross, Building a Better Body, 9.

[6] M. Hau, The Cult of Health and Beauty in Germany: A Social History, 1890-1930 (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2003), 8.

[7] Hau, The Cult of Health and Beauty, 111.

[8] Ross, Building a Better Body, 20.

[9] Ross, Building a Better Body, 20.

[10] Hau, The Cult of Health and Beauty, 187.

[11] S.Tunnicliffe, “Wolfgang Graeser (1906-28): A Forgotten Genius,” Musical Times 141.1870 (Spring 2000): 42-44.

[12] English translation in K. Toepfer, Empire of Ecstasy: Nudity and Movement in German Body Culture, 1910-1935 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997), 31.

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