Monday Series: Constructing the Naked (Social) Body IV


The nudists’ efforts to create a fit and racially pure Germany were partly propelled by the strong perception of crisis and the larger Lebensreform movements. It is difficult to separate the ideological basis of nudism from its contextual relationship with the social affairs and political instability that rocked Wilelmine and Weimar Germany; at the same time, the historian needs to avoid a myopic and teleological view of nudism, one that is constructed as the precursor of the Nazi preoccupation of the Aryan ideal. In this section, my goal is to investigate how particular social and political issues of the general social body intertwined with the ideology of nudism. Additionally, by examining how the naked body was shaped and embodied by the social body, I will evaluate how the naked body could influence—if not implement—a transformation in society.

As the popularity of nudism increased during the 1920s, it also became more organized and socialist, while still embodying the central tenets of nudist philosophy. For schoolteacher Adolf Koch (1896-1970)—who later became recognized, along with Hans Surén (1885-1972)) as the founder of socialist nudity—nudity was a pedagogical activity that required an integration of a study of the body with a study of culture to create a sort of athletic intellectual.[1] Advocating open-air exercises, Koch formed several nudist schools that governed the principles of Nacktkultur. However, although the nudists argued the roots of German degeneration lay in the ills of capitalism, especially social inequalities, Koch did not regard the disenchantment of German bodies solely as a consequence of those social and economical inequalities. Toepfer argues further that Koch acknowledged Nacktkultur could not dissolve class differences, or assure nudism for a new reliable model for society.[2] This view is debatable, for Williams emphasizes that despite Koch’s views on the effort of Nacktkultur on class differences, Koch placed part of the problem of German degeneration on the workers themselves: “we should ask the questions, “Why have I become so? Are the workplace and the apartment, or my own way of life, at fault? Does not my pale, anemic complexion reflect the fact that state welfare and health insurance institutions only intervene when sickness is obvious? Does not bad or impractical nutrition also play a role? Can we fight the political and economic fight when our bodies are weakened?”[3] The important aspect for the new socialist wing of Nacktkultur, as headed by Koch, was to reform working class bodies through physical exercises and an open environment away from the ills of modern German cities.

The core of Koch’s new socialist nudism resided on the connection between physical health, the harmful consequences of industrialization, and the human drives of the workers themselves. By placing responsibility of the body upon the workers themselves, Koch aimed to transform the social inequalities through the workers’ bodies and argued that even if social inequalities do not completely disappear the least a transformation could do is remove the workers from their dismayed states. In part, the state of the working class can be viewed as a response to the housing crisis that plagued Germany since the period prior to the Great War. Cramped and unsanitary apartments in German cities often housed more than one family and were uninhabitable even by the lax standards of housing codes. Germany faced a massive housing problem as rapid urbanization brought sprawling neighborhoods; by 1929, the problem accelerated, transforming into an outraged public crisis as some estimates the apartment shortage in Berlin to be as high as 200,000 units.[4] Nudists argued these atrocious living conditions placed a heavy toll on German bodies as the cramped conditions and frustrations denied them from the natural properties of licht, luft, sonne.

The philosophy of Nacktkutur and other hygiene principles that the Lebensreform movement advocated played a tremendous role in the rebuilding of a new postwar Germany. New buildings and structures by the Weimar Republic’s most respected architects were aimed to incorporate a harmonious relationship with nature and the frenetic urban life, an approach believed to herald a new modern and dynamic German era, a stark contrast to the degenerative postwar world. Eric. D. Weitz remarks that the “destruction of the old imperial order in war and revolution unleashed the political and social imagination,”[5] which then introduced new innovations for solving some of the worst economic and political crises. In Die Auflösung der Städte…die Erde eine gut Wohnung (1919, The Dissolution of Cities: Or, the Earth as Good Dwelling), architect Bruno Taut (1880-1938) questioned the meaning of happiness within the dismal state of German society: “What is happiness? To this question Tolstoy gives the answer: Happiness is living in and with nature. So we city dwellers today are all unhappy. For the enjoyment of nature is happiness just as little as the enjoyment of art is happiness; happiness is achieved only by living in nature.”[6] An architect with utopian longings, Taut incorporated much of the idealism of Nacktkultur and the wider Lebensreform into his architectural designs and writings. His writings of 1917-1921 carried a wild utopian flair and were interconnected with the construction of his designs during 1923-1930. However, after he was made chief architect of a housing cooperation (GEHAG) Taut kept most of his wild utopian fantasies in check, and incorporated properties of licht, luft, sonne into his residential developments.

Sharing the modernists’ arrogance, along with developmental planner Martin Wagner (1885 – 1957), in 1925 Taut constructed one of his most notable housing settlements, the Hufeisen (“horseshoe”). Configured around a pond, the Hufeisen reflected the new cultural spirit of the Weimar Republic, one which merged modernism with Lebensreform. In part, Taut demanded the dissolution of the cities to a return the nature, although arguably, he referred to the degenerating urbanization of the social body. In this spirit, Taut brought in the sense of naturism into his buildings; the Hufiesen, for instance, was designed to foster a sense of openness, to demonstrate a sense of equality and social community among its residents.[7] The openness offered the residents the restorative benefits of licht, luft, sonne, while the egalitarian designs were directed to raising the status of the working class. Additionally, Taut argued the interior sightlines into other apartments would create a social community since people would think less of their loss of privacy.[8] These ideals all reflect the foundations of the Nacktkultur movement, and in this, we can obtain a sense of how Nacktkultur was able to penetrate into the social body. This can also be reflected in the statistics: Weitz tells us overall, 2.5 million new dwellings sprung up during the early years of the Weimar Republic, housing some 9 million Germans.[9] These new dwellings, which fused an ideological mix of modernism and Lebensreform, brought “indoor plumbing, electricity and gas, and clean apartments open to the sun and greenery,” and by 1930, at least 14 percent of the entire German population lived in the new buildings.[10] Additionally, Weitz remarks that the construction plans were like a “Gesamtkunstwerk (a total artwork)—the architects provided for adequate infrastructure and playgrounds, gardens, and schools for leisure, rest, and self-development.”[11] The shift towards a new Germany had at its hearts the principles of social reform as outlined by Lebensreform and Nacktkultur.

While it seems contradictory for Nacktkultur to be connected with modernism, Weimar nudists actually accepted the new modernist reform as a way to incorporate both urbanization and naturism within their need for social reform. Organized nudists who favored the countryside were not critical of “part-time” nudists, nor were their ideologies for improving health any different; the central point was to practice the natural principles of licht, luft, sonne, which they argued was seriously at default as a consequence of urbanization. Yet by building a new Germany that was reconstructed around licht, luft, sonne, only the naked body was left as a representation of Nacktkultur. This is not to say that the embodiment of social and political ideals was no longer imposed on the naked body. Rather, Weimar nudists embodied the pluralist spirit of the period’s politics. The working class nudists who were active participants in Koch’s schools still rallied for social reform that would elevate their lower status; in doing so, they played a key role in organized nudity’s socialist movements. Within the elite and middle classes, various nudist colonies reflected the various political ideologies of the time. But that is not to say that Nacktkultur itself represented any specific political or social ideology, though its naked bodies might have represented the various forms. As Ross explains, “Nacktkultur appealed to Germans from across the political spectrum, but was itself apolitical. Indeed, one of its goals was to undo the damage caused by party politics, and then create a nationalist nudist community freed from politics altogether.”[12]

Williams, on the other hand, disagrees with the apolitical stance of Nacktkultur. Arguing Ross’ view that there were no real ideological differences between nudists from differing political positions is mistaken, Williams points out in fact, “socialist nudism developed a relatively democratic concept of improving proletarian health that differed markedly from the aims and ideologies of the nonsocialist sector.”[13] Koch, for instance, was a socialist nudist who incorporated a left-wing ideological framework in governing his schools. Within this framework, “the condition of the worker’s body and mind stemmed in part from everyday living conditions that themselves reflected social inequalities.”[14] As reflected by the earlier quote from Koch, the blame of degenerating bodies and social inequalities were partly shifted to the workers themselves. An outside force could only contribute marginally; the worker’s acceptance of their misery and unhappiness is in part the cause of their misery and unhappiness. This viewpoint would later be associated with the central premises of the Frankfurt scholars’ critical theory.

For Ross, the earlier oppositions to socialism and the various political attachments nudists held on to was not serious enough to cause a rift in the ideology of Nacktkultur.[15] Rather, in their quest to build a naked state, nudists were willing to cast political differences aside and commit to the general principles of Nacktkultur and a unified Volksgemeinschaft. This of course, was not easily transferrable to the social body, which feared the various socialist and communist associations of nudists would attach to general society and disturb the peace. The 1920s saw a lax attitude towards nudists and their clubs, and nudists seldom faced harassment from police or politicians. By the late 1920s, public attitudes shifted, a likely result from two main factors: the campaigns to improve public morality from excess, and the various political rifts and instability. The morality campaigns were spearheaded by the churches who opposed to the growing culture of sex, movement, and body of the “Roaring Twenties” that integrated itself in Germany. The naked body was a symbol for the excessive freedom observed that disregarded health in favor of more erotic ends—naked cabarets, publications, and dance all seemed to foster an ill-begotten morality that drastically needed public intervention. Despite the nudist’s insistence that their leagues and clubs portrayed a family-friendly, de-eroticization of the naked body, the moral movements were mainly concerned with the influence naked bodies had on the youth, who were easily susceptible to excesses of sin and perverse perceptions of sexuality. However, Ross makes it clear that these public campaigns were not focused on public or semi-public nakedness of nudists, but rather on publications that presented a more pornographic image of the naked body.[16] There was a growing concern that naked or suggestive images contributed to the decline of moral standards—not the naked body itself. However, the church efforts to counteract nudism largely failed, since “nudism was itself an exercise in morality, not immorality.”[17]

The various political rifts and instability also contributed to concerns about the naked body. Prior to an initial ban on nudism in 1933 in the Third Reich, nudists were suspected as threatening tools that invoked socialist and communist ideologies towards the social body. This concern accelerated during Nazi Germany and the obsessive pursuit of communists and communist cells, but was limited during the 1920s, if at all during the Wilhelmine era. Or, as Jefferies describes, nudists favored a “third” way between communism and capitalism, a framework that could include anything from “a broadly progressive German Fabianism to a volkisch protofascism, but always with a pronounced tendency to seek individual, aesthetic, or cultural answers to what were essentially social, economic, or political questions.”[18] As I have shown, nudists and Nacktkultur did not simply embody the social crises or political ideologies of their period; their naked bodies also transformed key ideas and elements within the social body. Their ideas carried into new ideologies of social reform. Nudists were therefore not politically irrelevant or ideologically deconstructed, a point clearly regarded by the Nazis, and beyond the scope of this paper.


[1] Toepfer, Empire of Ecstasy, 35.

[2] Toepfer, Empire of Ecstasy, 36.

 [3] Koch, quoted in Williams, Turning to Nature, 35.

[4] A. Kaes, M. Jay and E.  Dimendberg, The Weimar Republic Sourcebook (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995), 454.

 [5] E.D. Weitz, Weimar Germany: Promise and Tragedy (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2007), 2.

[6] B. Taut, Die Auflösung der Städte…die Erde eine gut Wohnung (1919), in The Weimar Republic Sourcebook, eds. A. Kaes, M. Jay, and E. Dimenderg (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995), 456.

[7] Weitz, Weimar Germany, 179.

 [8] Weitz, Weimar Germany, 181.

[9] Weitz, Weimar Germany, 176.

[10] Weitz, Weimar Germany, 176.

 [11] Weitz, Weimar Germany, 177.

 [12] Ross, Naked Germany, 58.

 [13] Williams, Turning to Nature, 32.

[14] Williams, Turning to Nature, 36.

 [15] Ross, Naked Germany, 59.

[16] Ross, Naked Germany, 45.

[17] Ross, Naked Germany, 49.

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

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