Monday Series: Constructing the Naked (Social) Body III


Nacktkultur emerged out of the larger Lebensreform movements of the late 1890s, which sought to improve urban-industrial societies by aiming to expose, and return, the body to a more natural way of living. The popularity of Lebensreform resided in its holistic interpretation of living, one which sought to unite the shattered units of body, mind, and spirit of the modern era. However, as Williams tells us, it is important to recognize that Lebensreform was not a rejection of the modern world, but rather an ideology for an alternative path for society, albeit one which sought to incorporate naturalistic ideas within the modern framework of society.[1] Lebensreform appealed for a more health-conscious society, by linking between Nacktkultur, vegetarianism, and racial hygiene as a means for social reform.[2] Emphasis was placed for a more rational lifestyle that stressed self-discipline and moderation in light of the excesses observed within the aristocracy and middle-classes.

As a key aspect of health reform, Nacktkultur emerged within numerous papers and pamphlet publications during the 1900s. What Ross refers as the “Independent Phase” (1890s-1918), early Nacktkultur is characterized primarily by the growth of small communal colonies propagated by the ideas of several individual men. Though Heinrich Pudor (1865-1943) of Leipzig and Richard Ungewitter (1868-1958) of Stuttgart both independently created the concept of a “naked culture,” Ungewitter was far more successful in publishing, and is largely recognized as the father of Nacktkultur. In Die Nacktheit (1905), Ungewitter first outlined how nudity was the projection of a human identity free from capitalism and socialism, two forces he declared responsible for corrupting the German racial body.[3] Promoting communal nudity as a sign of racial purity, Ungewitter used the aesthetic norms of Greek antiquity to propagate the health-mindedness of the Lebensreform; he insistence the regeneration of the German race relied upon a biological morality which emphasized marriages based on eugenic and not social criteria. He repeatedly stressed the importance of nudity as a form of racial hygiene. Nackt (1909), Kultur und Nacktheit (1911), Nacktheit und Kultur (1913), Nacktheit und Aufsteig (1919), and Nacktheit und Moral (1925) all continued to promote Ungewitter’s ideas of a utopian society without clothes, social distinctions, or deliberating illnesses. Ungewitter’s nudist club, Loge des aufsteigenden Lebens (“Lodge of Rising Life,” later “Loyalty Club for Rising Life) was founded in 1907 and would remain a vital presence in the nudist world for years.[4]

Like other nudist writers, Ungewitter argued that it was in the state of nudity where all social masks of necessity were removed and everyone’s true character was revealed. He stressed not only health and aesthetic benefits of nudity, but also its notions of racial hygiene and purity—what he considered to be vital for the survival of the German race.  Marriage prospects could be deceived by claims of status and health, as morbid and degenerate bodies ravaged with disease and illness could be hidden underneath layers of clothing and revealed only in the marriage bedchamber. With the naked body, Ungewitter argued there was no room for deception, as everyone was exposed to their natural selves; proper marriage choices could thus be implemented on grounds of health and racial purity, instead by the morally-depraving influences of wealth and status. Ungewitter also emphasized the inclusion of women in Nacktkultur, giving them a central role for preserving the German race. Industrialization and the rising luxury of modernization were believed to lead to women whose fertility was threatened and whose bodies were polluted, leading to future offspring with “weakness, pre-disposition to tuberculosis and epilepsy, feeble-mindedness and idiocy, as well as perversity and criminality.”[5] It was thus necessary to reform and beautify the female body to ancient Greek standards.

By no means were early Nacktkultur groups solely focused on the propagation of the German race and health reforms. Nacktkultur groups of the early 1900s were mostly right-wing individuals who resented the growing modernization of liberalism and capitalism. They believed modernization only brought with it a mass of social ills and political crises that did nothing more than threaten survival of the German race by deteriorating the workers’ bodies and fattening the luxury bodies of the rich. Furthermore, Williams explains that although “proponents of naturism were deeply concerned with the consequences of industrialization and urbanization, their main concern was not with pollution, natural diversity, or sustainability but with social and cultural crisis.”[6] Signifying communal unity was the best means for overcoming the rapid degeneration of German bodies, for by stripping off societal layers, individuals were able to reflect the ultimate image of individuality and self-discipline. [7] In light of their right-wing ideology, it was also important for early Nacktkultur clubs to remain family-oriented, presenting a de-eroticization of the naked body. A large part of the emphasis on family was a response to social criticisms of nudist clubs, which were believed to be morally repugnant and sexually perverted with both genders frolicking together.  Responding to the critics, Ungewitter wrote, “the culture of the nude [body]…is the necessary precondition for the true culture of all mankind[8] If the nude body was vital for the social body, it was necessary for nudist clubs to remain as “normal” as possible.

Eduard Thöny: Nacktkultur, 1926

Matthew Jefferies has criticized the tendency of historians to oversimplify the relationship between Lebensreform and its criticisms of modernity. He argues that historiographical development of Wilhelmine Lebensreform (and of course, Nacktkultur) needs to be viewed in a wider context, one which accounts for the various social, economic, and political responses to historical developments. As he explains, the

collapse of the Soviet model, and growing unease about the social and ecological costs of globalization, have led many to seek more sustainable and ethical patterns of life that may not pose a serious threat to capitlaism’s worldwide pre-eminence but might help to ameliorate its worst effects…It is no longer easy to caricature the Wilhelmine Lebensreformer as “casualties” of modernization or “enemies of progress,” when such ideas are anchored in today’s social and political mainstream.[9]

Jefferies is correct in the importance of recognizing Lebensreform and Nacktkultur’s role within the wider context, especially since many of the nudists and nudist colonies were active participants within social and political issues. It might be impossible to ignore wider social and political issues when discussing Nacktkultur’s shaping of its ideology, a point well raised by Ross, who argues that just as there were various political opinions existing in society, so there were different political opinions existing within nudist colonies. Like Ross, Toepfer agrees Nacktkultur had no unified ideology. “Nacktkultur was a constellation of subcultures,” Toepfer writes, “each of them pursuing values that were not always or even usually common to the constellation as a whole. Indeed, one might even say that, for each subculture, the naked body functioned as a sign of ideological difference rather than as universal identifier in relation to the alienating pressures of modernity.”[10]

The central tenets of Nacktkultur philosophy revolved around the curative and restorative benefits of licht, luft, sonne. During the Wilhelmine Republic, this philosophy was portrayed as an acknowledgement of the difficulties “of achieving reform through the political system,”[11] and the ideology of Nacktkultur was thus shaped so the naked body could possess characteristics for nationalist transformation through a proper expression of physical exercise and dietetics. A healthy body was the epitome of a healthy social body, and nudists insisted this healthy body could only be properly represented by the naked body. By reorienting the German people through nature, and creating new means to overcome the crises and reform their society, nudists sought to construct communal societies that exemplified the central tenets of Nacktkultur philosophy. As Ross has outlined in his meticulous study, these communal societies were mostly ideological, attempting to construct a proper sectarian movement based on various ideologies of wholeness, social and political unity. Nacktkultur was to belong to the people as a civic duty essential for regenerating the German race; as a practical means for transforming the German nation one body at a time, Nacktkultur hoped to penetrate German society at a popular level, which would then become widespread and hopefully lead to social and political reform.[12]

The weakness of early Nacktkultur, however, is that they were mainly ideological and not structural: nudist colonies disbanded just as quickly as they were built.[13] This was to change after the Great War, in which Germany saw a rapid and massive popularization of Nacktkultur and organized nudist colonies. Why did there occur a sudden shift in popularization of Nacktkultur? How did the naked body become valuable as an agent of societal reform? Ross acknowledges that even nudists themselves were unable to explain the rapid growth of Nacktkultur,[14] but within the wider historical context of postwar Germany, it is plausible to derive several explanations. For the most part, the revival of Nacktkultur during the 1920s was aimed to overcome a fractured Volk, destructed and broken from the tumultuous consequences of war. By restoring the shattered body to nature, nudists argued exposure to the healing powers of sun and air would not only revive the body, but also the shattered minds and souls haunted by death and destruction. Secondly, as Hau outlines, the “economic and social status of many Germans had suffered considerably in the course of war, revolution, and inflation, and for some people physical culture provided a way to express social distinction in absence of this status.”[15] For many individuals, the body was a sign of sincerity and authenticity, and wealth and social status were unimportant “among people who were committed to the same leisure activities.”[16] Thirdly, while a vague sense of cultural pessimism and dislocation deepened in postwar Germany, there also emerged a massive cultural revival, one which took full bloom to the liberalist ideologies of the period. A vital response to sexual repression, prudery and shame, nudists brought forth an image of the free body untied and unshackled from the moral constraints of its society. Fourthly, Nacktkultur was a response to the pluralistic atmosphere of the Weimar republic, and its various economic crises, political upheavals, and threats of revolution that shook the stability of society. Nudists believed the crises of their time, unresolved by their leaders, could thus only be solved within nature. As Toepfer explains, “the ultimate value of the modern body lay in its power to designate a distinct personality that established the authority of difference over unity.”[17] Finally, the popularity of Nacktkultur could have simply stemmed with its attractiveness as a holistic approach to living, a practice that may have carried over from turn-of-the-century Lebensreform. Eventually revitalized as Freikorperkultur in the late 1920s, Nacktkultur embodied a “potent combination of Darwinism, völkisch nationalism, and natural therapy, all deeply rooted in racial theory, and designed to transform Germany into a nudist, racial utopia.”[18] A massive surge in publication spread Nacktkultur’s philosophy.

Despite its origins and attractiveness as a movement for social reform, how influential was Nacktkultur and the naked body in Weimar Germany? While the 1920s nudist colonies failed to establish an umbrella organization,[19] many of them embodied the pluralistic social and political ideologies of Weimar Germany; in doing so, they constructed multiple meanings of the naked body, which in turn, represented the multiple meanings of the social body.


[1] Williams, Turning to Nature, 12.

[2] Toepfer, Empire of Ecstasy, 30.

[3] Toepfer, Empire of Ecstasy, 37.

 [4] Ross, Naked Germany, 17.

 5] Richard Ungewitter, Kultur und Nacktheit: Eine Forederung (Verlag Richard Ungewitter, 1911), 50, quoted in Ross, Naked Germany, 121.

 [6] Williams, Turning to Nature, 2.

 [7] Toepfer, Empire of Ecstasy, 35.

 [8] Richard Ungewitter, Die Nacktheit in entwicklungsgeschichtlicher, gesundheitlicher, moralischer und künstlerischer Beleuchtung(Stuttgart: Ungewitter, 1920), 96, quoted in Hau, The Cult of Health and Beauty, 46 (emphasis in original).

 [9] M. Jeffries, “Lebensreform: A Middle-Class Antidote to Wilhelminism?” In Wilhelminism and its Legacies: German Modernities, Imeperialism, and the Meanings of Reform, 1890-1930. Eds. Geoff Eley and James Retallack. New York: Berghahn Books, 2003, 92.

 [10] Toepfer, Empire of Ecstasy, 31.

 [11] Jefferies, “Lebensreform: A Middle-Class Antidote to Wilhelminism?” 93.

 [12] Ross, Naked Germany, 16.

 [13] Ross, Naked Germany, 20.

 [14] Ross, Naked Germany, 20.

[15] Hau, The Cult of Health and Beauty, 8.

 [16] Hau, The Cult of Health and Beauty, 8.

 [17] Toepfer, Empire of Ecstasy, 8.

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

[19] Ross, Naked Germany, 25.

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