I've splurged a bit and joined a very fancy gym here in Berlin - largely because it's the only chain to have locations I can use in both of my cities. The location here in Berlin is actually half gym and half wellness center, with four saunas, two hamams, a hot tub, an ice bath, a roof deck, and several rooms for "intense relaxation" (which as far as I can tell just means 'sleeping').
Yesterday while I was there there was a bit of a ruckus when a young Polish man became angry that he and his girlfriend were not being allowed into the wellness area with their bathing suits on. Like in any German gym, the wellness area is a 'nacktzone' - nudity obligatory. The young man started shouting angrily in English, "Why do Germans have to be naked all the time?"
Germans take their nudity very seriously. Here in Berlin it's almost an unavoidable fact of life, with naked people strewn around Tiergarten and along the lakes. In fact the love for nudity is a phenomenon I've observed across the Germanic world, from Trondheim to Vienna. It seems to follow the Latin-Germanic divide. For instance, I belonged to a Dutch gym chain in Belgium. Bathing suits were strictly required in the mixed-gender sauna areas at the locations in French-speaking Brussels. But at the locations in Dutch-speaking Holland and Flanders, bathing suits were prohibited in the sauna/hamam.
I remember one of the more amusing things I witnessed early on in my career covering the EU was at an informal meeting of energy and environment ministers in Åre, Sweden, during the Swedish EU presidency of 2009.
After the day's meetings the journalists and the ministers were taken to the top of a famous waterfall in the region, for an evening dinner reception. The group of journalists was led up the mountain path first, and as we got closer we could see that there was a naked person sitting on a rock at the top of the falls. Knowing how much the Swedes treasure their naked time, I figured it was just a random bather (who I felt sorry for as he was about to find himself surrounded by photo-snapping journalists!). But as we got closer I could see he was actually wearing a pagan wreath around his head and playing a fiddle. And he was on full-frontal display. Our guide gave a sly smirk and said this was a character from Swedish folklore who played the fiddle at water falls naked and made lustful women dive into the water and drown. It was actually a demonstration set up by the Swedish presidency for the visiting ministers!
The countries hosting the EU presidency often feature important elements of their culture to showcase to visiting journalists and ministers, and apparently nudity is so important for Swedes that they wanted to give a demonstration. The highlight of the trip was watching the ministers come upon the naked fiddler one by one. We could pretty much gage where they were from based on their reaction. The German, Austrian and Danish ministers acted like it was the most normal thing in the world. Ed Milliband, at the time the UK's environment minister, turned a bright shade of red and started giggling nervously. The Eastern Europeans looked offended, and the Southern Europeans looked confused. The visiting dignitary from South Africa, who was there to speak to EU ministers about the perspective of the developing world, almost fell over laughing.
FKK all the waySo why this semi-religious attachment to nudity in the Germanic lands? It all goes back to the Freikörperkultur movement (free body culture, or FKK) in Germany and Scandinavia starting in the 17th century.
The movement began as a backlash to developing mores around nudity over the previous century. It looked to ancient Greek bathing practices as inspiration, reacting against the sexualisation of the naked body and the view of nudity as a source of shame. The Nazi regime tried to eliminate FKK in the 1930s but to no avail - it had already become an integral part of German culture. FKK only strengthened after the war. Today there are few restrictions on public nudity in Germany and FKK is celebrated in song and verse. I think I've heard the 1983 song "Rock n' Roll am FKK" about 100 times in German bars over the years.
So why did this movement develop in Northern Europe rather than in areas with colder climes? One might be tempted to attribute it to Protestantism because of the geography, given that the Catholic countries of Eastern and Southern Europe have an aversion to nudity. But there is probably no correlation because FKK is as popular in the Catholic areas of Germany (not to mention Austria and Switzerland) as it is in the Protestant parts. This theory is also belied by the very different attitude toward nudity amongst their protestant cousins in Britain and America.
Personally I think it actually has something to do with the cold weather. I've found that harsh winters make people more grateful when warm weather comes around (for example, I witnessed more of an enthusiasm for summer in Chicago than in New York). Perhaps these Germans and Scandinavians are so tired of bundling up all winter that when summer comes around they just want to strip everything off.
I suppose the obvious question arising from all of this is what I make of FKK as an American (and a former Catholic!). I must admit at first I found it pretty shocking and uncomfortable. I remember during a ski trip in Austria in 2008, some American friends and I went to a spa. When we tried to enter the sauna area in bathing suits, we were harshly scolded by the Austrian attendant and told we had to be naked. I decided to outsmart them by sneakily wearing my bathing suit under my towel. They were none the wiser. But later while I was briefly living in Switzerland, I decided to let it go. It was either be nude in the wellness area of my gym, or stay out of it. After awhile it just started to feel normal.
So while I don't have any particular enthusiasm for nudity now, my attitude has become 'when in Rome, do as the Romans do'. When I'm in Belgium or the UK, bathing suit it is. But when I'm in Germanic lands, I'll respect their culture. And really, that's what this Polish guy in the gym should have done. There's no reason to get so hung up about it!