BERLIN — The middle-aged German was enjoying cooling down in the waters of a rural lake when he was approached by a woman who had a request: Would he please put on a bathing suit?
“There are children around, after all,” she said.
“Including my son, who’s also without a suit,” he replied. She splashed off, angry at the impasse, as another woman approached, nodded at the woman who was leaving, and noted, simply and using the slang term for West Germans: “Wessies. Prudes.”
It’s summer in Germany, which means nakedness abounds. In the cities, in the countryside, at lakes and beaches, in city parks, even sometimes in restaurants and certainly in yards where yard work needs doing, Germans who’ve shed their clothes are visible to all. Indoor public pools have “naked days.” There are naked mountain hiking trails. In the winter, some places offer naked sledding.
Yet while the German newspaper Die Welt once famously observed “Only naked are all Germans equal,” the reality is that 25 years after East and West Germany became a single Germany, one great divide remains: Those who spend their days naked, and those who don’t.
The divide goes to the very top. German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who grew up in the East, reportedly prefers nude bathing, though she hasn’t since becoming the world’s most powerful woman (those who have seen her swimming recently note that she appears almost embarrassed at wearing a suit, but the prospect of having nude photos appear on the front page of newspapers worldwide is a clear deterrent).
A 2014 Expedia.com survey of 11,000 people from 24 countries found nude bathing was most popular among Germans. The poll found that 28 percent of Germans said they had sunbathed naked on a beach. The numbers were similar in the very similar Austria, then dropped significantly to Norway and Spain (both 17 percent). Japan had the lowest numbers of nude bathers, 2 percent. A summary of the poll by the travel website didn’t discuss nude bathing in the United States.
Old polls from East Germany noted 80 percent of East Germans bathed nude.
It isn’t an absolute division, of course. German media were recently agog over the latest appearance of a young woman who appears occasionally wearing a Hamburg hat, takes a seat on the terrace of a trendy fish restaurant and enjoys a meal while wearing nothing but, according to the German tabloid Bild, “an erotic piercing and a red Louis Vuitton handbag.”
The kicker to this story, of course, is that no one really pays much attention to her. Bild actually followed up the story with a poll of readers asking if they’d object were she to dine naked next to them. Ninety percent said not at all.
Still, in general, the divide goes along East-West lines. The formerly Socialist “Ossies” will bare all. Maybe it’s just their attempt to stay red? And, as a rule, the formerly Westerners, “Wessies,” will shake their heads, and look for spots to vacation that are not designated Free Body Culture , German code for nude friendly.
The general notion, in fact, is that nudity can be expected anywhere during the summer heat except on public transport, where it is prohibited by law.
Recently, on the beach in the resort town of Boltenhagen on the Baltic Sea (what Germans call the Ostsee, or East Sea), a woman who gave her name as Heidi von der Berg and her age as 64 (she laughed while giving what sounds like a made-up last name, but, well, she didn’t have any ID on her at the time) was relaxing, naked, in the hot sun.
“It’s just about enjoying a bit of freedom,” she said when asked why she’d chosen only her birthday suit. “You Americans like to own guns. We Ossies like to feel the sun and the wind on our skin. Once you’ve tried it, it’s impossible not to like it.”
While she talked, her similarly attired husband smiled and nodded, seemingly unconcerned that he appeared to be developing a rather uncomfortable-looking “all over” sunburn. When this is pointed out, his wife said, “Oh that, it’s just tanning without lines. The grandkids like to brag to us about that, they never have any lines.”
She went on to note that when the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, and then Germany reunified officially in 1990, East Germans had great hopes for their future. Instead, many, and especially of her generation, found themselves fighting to retain their homes, saw their university degrees belittled, saw their experiences tainted as “socialist” and were too frequently shoved into the role of second-class citizens.
“Enjoying the sun and wind on our skin, that they couldn’t take away,” she noted. “So this we hold dear.”
Nude bathing in Germany predates the East-West division. It began in the early 20th century, during the innocence before the Holocaust, before Adolf Hitler, even before World War I.
A German doctor, Heinrich Pudor, created the modern nudist culture here. Backed by a group of public figures, he championed the notion that a combination of physical fitness, sunlight and fresh air bathing contributed to mental and psychological fitness and good health. Other doctors espoused the notion that sunlight on a nude body could help cure rickets.
Pudor was later imprisoned by the Nazis for being critical of the regime, which didn’t hurt his post-war standing among Germans desperate to bury that dark era.
After the war, however, nudity only really took off again in the east.
Regine Sylvester, a columnist for Berliner Zeitung, has called it “the only voluntary mass movement” of the old East. Everything else, the parades, the organizations, the marches, was on order. But not stripping on a hot day.
“An unorganized, all encompassing, nationwide family scene,” she wrote. “No politics, just clothes off. We are free.”
After the wall fell, West Germans began to show up at the beaches of old East Germany. Wessies were shocked to find naked Ossies of all ages everywhere. The controversy was immediate. Local Ossie officials began hearing loud and frequent complaints about “Die Wilden” or “The Savages.” It was soon lumped into popular culture with the notion that East Germans drove stinking plastic Trabi cars, and were quite happy if you’d just hand them a banana.
The Ossies saw this as an attack on their way of life. They noted western perversions — pornography, peep shows and phone sex — were far more dangerous than the simply beauty of nudity on the beach.
Signs noting “Textile” and “FKK” had been at the beaches for years, but suddenly they were strictly enforced. Bild termed the dispute “Naked War.”
The shock continues until today. There were reports this month of naked bathers in Heiligendamm on the Baltic wondering about the groups of shocked refugees and asylum seekers (mainly from Syria) who’ve taken to wandering the beaches in amazement, snapping photos with their camera phones in case friends and relatives won’t believe them.
Hannelore Meister, 61, from the former East German state of Saxony, said her reasons for being on the beach nude were less sensational, and less confrontational.
“I’m lazy,” she said. “Who has the energy to put on a swimming suit to get in the water, then change into a dry one to lie in the sand, then change back into the wet one when you want to swim again? It’s much simpler this way.”