Monday Series: Constructing the Naked (Social) Body V


The Transparent Man stands upon a platform, looking upwards to the sky, his arm erected towards the air, as if he’s immersing himself in the light of the sun. He was first unveiled to the public in 1930, a proud recognition of the German hygiene movements. In his transparency, the Transparent Man signifies the progressive advancement of German bacteriology, anatomy, and general medicine; his vivid blood vessels traces the complicated and interwoven paths of the German cultural revivals and political ideologies, the frustrations and progressions of the elite and working classes, and the hope of a nation to resurrect itself to its former glory. In his openness, he also bears the mark of Nacktkultur, never hidden or exposed. Through his muscles, he shows his Herculean spirit, never forgotten, never ignored. He would teach his fellow Germans the necessity of proper hygiene rituals, and he would come to symbolize with growing pride, the advancement of German culture and exhibitions. Then the Nazis would come and tear the German nation again; but the Transparent Man will still remain, his arms proudly raised to the sky, basking into the ideology of licht, luft, sonne.


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.

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.

Monday Series: Constructing the (Naked) Social Body II


Before continuing with my examination of the ideology of Nacktkultur and its respective relationships with the social body, I will first briefly outline what constitutes as a history of the body. Scholarship based upon the works of Foucault has emphasized the role of the body as a vehicle of social inquiry. According to Foucault, the historical specificity of the body and its history can only be learned through the notion that individual bodies are not separate entities, but rather products of construction existing in relation to a conceptual system. For Foucault, these complicated conceptual (and political) systems resided within clinics, jails, and asylums. The birth of the clinic, for example, seized the body with a medial gaze that penetrated inquisitively into the body, turning it to a discrete object of medicine. Reduced to its medical and biological realms, the body was expelled from history; it could only be understood within the social systems that govern it.

Arguably, the body then can only be understood as a socially constructed object for discourse. Building upon Foucault, historians have examined the diverse cultural variations of the body’s manifestation and attributions: sleep, food, sexuality, disease, age, and death, have all become topics of discourse.[1]  Discussing the role of the social body for historical analysis, Catherine Burroughs and Jeffery Ehrenreich question the historical ramifications for the body becoming socially constructed: “For if a body can be reshaped to accommodate a particular society, it can also be partly wrestled from that society’s control by an individual who has achieved enough power to redesign it according to his own desires.”[2] The symbolic body, as an object of historical discourse, literally embodies the values, prejudices, beliefs, and ideologies of its societies; additionally, it shifts, transforms, and mutates in reflection to the social and cultural meanings of historical periods.[3] The cult of Nacktkultur exemplifies this statement; viewed as a means to reconstruct the weakened German bodies, its power as a life reform movement transformed during the 1920s.

The body is thus overburdened with meanings. As a “source of amazement and pride, a symbol of human strength, ability and endurance,”[4] it embodies the hopes, fears, and expectations of its society. In its natural state, it serves as an antidote to problems of urbanization and industrial modernity.[5] Despite the Judeo-Christian tradition of associating nakedness with shame, Nacktkultur placed nakedness as an effort to recreate an Edenic state within the thrust of modern civilization.[6] The naked German body of the 1920s was a social body, with intense political significances, carrying multiple dimensions of identity and construction. Nakedness was not viewed as a separate force from the civilization, some form of savageness or incivility, but rather as a means for recovering one’s humanity lost within the symptoms of decay and cultural pessimism of postwar Germany. To most nudist Germans, the naked body became subjugated as a metaphor for reform, although as Heikki Lempa explains, “[t]here is no universal history of the body, no codification of science and practices that were applied to and applicable to each and everyone equally. The body is that of an individual who is a member of a social class, and that body is the carrier of the signifiers of that class.”[7]

While Lempa’s statement is true in the sense that the Germans did not view a single, universal history of the body, nudists aimed to construct a universal history, one which would represent the struggles between individual and state. In doing so, they aimed to reform society by first removing signifiers of social distinctions and reforming their bodies and disillusioned minds.  Nudists argued stripping their layers of clothing would reveal the universal and naked humanity underneath, which would cultivate an attitude towards equality that was absent in a society marked with social distinctions of class and wealth. By erasing titles and other forms of social distinctions, Nacktkultur suspended class inequalities as both the educated middle class and members of the working class would realize that material possessions were important. Nudity would be seen as a “certificate of authenticity,” as Germans “would not be reminded anymore of their own poverty and would forget the sorrows of everyday life. Envy based on social distinctions would vanish, and the German people would be welded into a “brotherly whole.””[8] Even the health of the proletariat—whose only real capital was their bodies—could raise consciousness for need for social equality.[9] 

Additionally, Nacktkultur presented an alternative view of the history of the body, one which celebrated nakedness as the highest and purest manifestation of German culture and beauty.[10]  From the late eighteenth-century onwards, life reformers emphasized the importance of a form of health and beauty that rejected the luxuries and refinements of the wealthy classes and stressed a return to the aesthetics of nature. For these life reformers, this return meant an expression of aesthetic ideals based on bodily norms of Greek antiquity. The history of the German body in this sense is traced to the representations of the ideal Hercules and Venus that embodied masculine and feminine ideals of strength, beauty, and perfection of the race. As Hau explains, “through the control of their bodies, [the life reformers] hoped to regain the fitness that would enable them to succeed again in the perceived struggle for survival,”[11] counteracting against images of the fat and bloated “beer philistine” which represented the weak and decaying bodies of the German race. Any deviance from the “timeless aesthetic norms of Greek antiquity” exposed signs of degeneracy of bodies, which in turn threatened the survival of the German race and manifested itself in serious diseases. Since beauty was accepted as an organic expression of a healthy and harmonious relationship of body, spirit and mind, life reformers urged for a body-consciousness that implemented aestheticized concepts of health.[12] “Normalcy was the precondition for beauty,” Hau explains, “while ugliness was the most important signs of degeneracy, a warning sign by nature which conveyed the message: ‘Do not love this person, because united with her you will worsen the race.’”[13]

The history of Nacktkultur is then the history of the German (naked) body. Disillusioned with social and political uncertainty, and faced with a strong perception of crisis, turn-of-the-century nudists found themselves politically charged and anxious for social reform. The perceptions of Nacktkultur were shot with political ideologies, and as Williams outlines, the more controversial ideologies of Nacktkultur spilled over to the social body, sparking loud debates and moral panics.[14] In the next section, I will narrate the origins of Nacktkultur and its ideologies. I will then discuss how, as a symbol of society, the naked body was able to penetrate and transform the ideologies of the social body.


[1] U. LInke, German Bodies: Race and Representation After Hitler (New York: Routledge, 1999), 3.

[2] C. Burroughs and J.D. Ehrenreich, Reading the Social Body (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1993), 4.

[3] C. Ross, Naked Germany: Health, Race, and the Nation (Oxford: Berg Publishers, 2005), 4.

[4] Ross, Naked Germany, 5.

[5] Williams, Turning to Nature, 3.

[6] A. Masquelier, Dirt, Undress, and Difference: Critical Perspectives on the Body’s Surface (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2000), 2.

[7] H. Lempa, Beyond the Gymnasium: Educating the Middle-Class Bodies in Classical Germany (London: Lexington Books, 2007), 6.

[8] Hau, The Cult of Health and Beauty, 196.

[9] Williams, Turning to Nature, 24. See also, G. Stollberg, “Health and Illness in German Workers’ Autobiographies from the Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Centuries,” Social History of Medicine 6.2 (1993): 261-276.

[10] Ross, Building a Better Body, 13.

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

[12] Hau, The Cult of Health and Beauty, 33.

[13] M. Hau, “Gender and Aesthetic Norms in Popular Hygienic Culture in Germany from 1900 to 1914,” Social History of Medicine 12.2 (1999): 275.

[14] Williams, Turning to Nature, 2.

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.