Wednesday, January 16, 2013

FKK in the DDR (and beyond)

Naked kicker (foosball), anyone?
FKK, or Freikörperkultur (literally 'free body culture'), is a century-old German institution, and it has a very simple philosophy: 'nudity is normal'. Revel in it – in public, in a park, in the water, on a bicycle. Let your bits swing freely when you're sunbathing, sitting in the sauna, swatting a birdie around with some friends, reading a book, or grilling up a juicy bratwurst. So where does this German (and to some extent, European) openness to nudity really come from? I think a quick look at the difference between the U.S. and Europe is a good starting point...

Americans are prudes – at least from the perspective of the Germans and the Europeans. I think my favorite example of this on the continental scale is the fact that American children are vigilantly shielded from exposed nipples and buttocks, sexual innuendo, and the like, but are free to (or implicitly allowed to) bathe themselves in blood, guts, and torture in films and games. Now, the last thing I want to do here is start a debate about guns and violence – it's like arguing with somebody over the existence of god. This article is all about the nudity, folks.

But so the point is, Americans view being naked as something fiercely private, while violence is and was historically a part of everyday (and public) life. I have a hunch that this contrast with Europe can be traced all the way back to America's prudish, Protestant roots, which were combined with an often lawless, vigilante-type justice as the U.S. expanded into an ever-westward-moving frontier with no discernable governmental structures. I've read many theories about Europe's relative lack of a culture of violence (a sort of counter-movement to the long history of wars, the fact that violence was exclusively the instrument of the nation rather than a part of individual volition, etc.); but I think the rise of FKK – in the sense of nudity being a completely normal thing, even in public – could perhaps be connected to Europe's secularization, which is often accompanied or replaced by a certain naturalism.

Two East-Berliners enjoying a little naked time.
In any case, the concept of FKK as a movement ('nudism') really could only come about as a nudity taboo emerged in 18th century Europe. Indeed, when society or the powers that be tell you you can't do something, it only serves to strengthen your resolve. The German FKK movement begins in earnest around the turn of the 20th century, and seems to be at its strongest when it's forbidden or verpönt (frowned upon).

A very quick aside: the birth of the FKK movement in Germany coincided with a nudism movement in the U.S., which never really blossomed into the mass movement seen in Germany.

So in 1954, GDR culture minister Johannes R. Becher declared: 'Schont den Augen der Nation!' (Spare the eyes of the nation!') as he closed down over 50 designated nude bathing spots throughout the country. Too many wrinkles, too much hair, too many body parts where they shouldn't necessarily be, too get the idea. So FKK continued to gain popularity in the East after this declaration, to the point that it became one of the major defining aspects of East German culture. By the time the Wall came down, the Wessi (West German) was amused, and sometimes apalled, by the Ossi's (East German) penchant for not just sunbathing naked, but playing sports and hanging out in the nude. A 'Höschenkrieg' ('War of the Knickers') ensued on Baltic Sea beaches as the knicker-ful Wessis encountered the knicker-less Ossis. But why so popular in the East?? According to an article from NDR, some have blamed the lack of stylish bathing attire, some say Ossis were trying to carve out a bit of freedom in an otherwise oppressive regime. I'll let you decide, but I personally think that without the official ban in 1954, there is no mass movement.
FKK-themed clothing: so itchy, you'll
instantly want to disrobe. (Photo:

Anyway, this 'Knicker War' has in fact had a strong and long-term detrimental effect on the FKK movement in general. The ranks today are dwindling and aging (check out this video in German – at your own risk – interviewing real live FKK-enthusiasts), and I think we can all see that the latter isn't doing any favors for the former. I mean, let's just say, purely hypothetically, that a 26-year-old American male were to arrive at an Austrian FKK beach in Austria's Salzkammergut for a little skinny dip, in hopes of curing his societally conditioned prudishness, only to find he is the sole swimmer/sunbather/reader/badminton player born after the Berlin Wall was built. Suffice it to say that even if said wrinkly nudists were the hippest, friendliest 55-plussers around, I still wouldn't have felt compelled to return, much less visit the official website and pay to membership fee.

The Sternfahrt: an event for cycling awareness,
or a perfect opportunity for an FKK demonstration?

I had one more recent first-hand encounter with the FKKers that underscores the continuing marginalization of a once-proud mass movement. I spontaneously decided to take part in the largest group cycling event in the world, called the Sternfahrt ('Star Ride'), in 2010 in Berlin. Some 150,000 people meet at 19 different starting points and converge on the Brandenburg Gate, where beer-drinking, sausage-eating, and chaos ensue. The point is to raise awareness for cyclists, despite the fact that Berlin, along with Copenhagen, already has one of the best bike infrastructures in the world. Anyway, I had big designs on the 90-mile Frankfurt/Oder starting point, but had had a long night and slept through the starting time, so Potsdam it was. Little did I know, this meant that I would get a little 'show' (see photo), as about 150 FKKers decided they would hijack the bike demonstration to raise awareness about FKK. A group of some 7,000 clothed bikers were physically blocked by the Polizei for 45 minutes while the FKKers debated with the police about the legitimacy of 'free'-riding. 'Das hier ist eine Familienveranstaltung' ('this is a family event'), said the police. Words were exchanged as meticulously uniformed officers conversed seriously with naked bikers in baseball caps. The FKKers finally relented, dressed (I have no idea where they had the clothes stashed because I didn't see any panniers), and on we rode, family-friendly, toward the Brandenburg Gate.

In the end, I think FKK as a movement will more or less die out with the current generation, but the underlying perspective of Europeans toward sex and nudity remains worlds 'ahead' of the U.S. I at least like to think that I'm not nearly as prude as I was when I first set foot in Germany and had my first FKK experience.