Nein to nudity


„It's a really intense feeling of nature that everyone should experience,” the Berlin retiree said while sunbathing in the altogether on the dunes at Magrafenheide, Germany. „But who knows for how much longer. We're a dying breed.” Seventeen years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the cultural divide between former East Germans and West Germans is being laid bare at beach resorts. Bikinis, maillots and trunks have become the norm on as many as two-fifths of beaches previously used by nudists since Germany reunified in 1990, the DFK German Naturist Federation estimated.

Naturism was once associated with the communist East, where it was viewed by authorities as a normal extension of socialism and by dissenters as an expression of the freedom enjoyed by their compatriots in the West. Now adherents to the practice known as „free body culture,” abbreviated to FKK in German, blame prudish westerners for demanding that they cover up. Some people swim nude year-round. „We may get scared away one day” by westerners, said Ursula Kroeger an engineer who grew up by the Baltic Sea in the city of Rostock. „If someone doesn't want to do it, that's fine. But they shouldn't try to stop those that do.” Baltic resorts have added new hotels and restaurants, renovated boardwalks and cleaned up water pollution. That led to a surge in western tourists, with visitors to the Baltic coast jumping to 5.06 million last year from 1.98 million in 1992, according to the statistical office for the state of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania.

Property prices in Germany's Baltic region have risen 25% since 1995, more than the national average, according to a study by the GEWOS Institute for Urban, Regional and Housing Research in Hamburg. „When people with money holiday in freshly renovated resorts, the last thing they want are naked bodies on their doorstep,” said Wolfgang Weinreich, head of the International Naturist Federation. As many as 12 million Germans, almost one in seven in Europe's most populous country, visit a nudist beach at least once a year, according to Weinreich's organization, which is based in Belgium and has 385,000 members. Germany's passion for public nakedness can be traced back more than a century. The first known organized club for nudists opened near the western port city of Hamburg in 1903 and gained in prominence in the 1920s. The Nazis initially put a stop to naturism, though in July 1942, during World War II, SS chief Heinrich Himmler signed into law a regulation that allowed naked swimming if done discreetly.

After the war, naturism didn't gain popularity in the capitalist west as it did in East Germany, where it took on more social significance. By the 1960s, it had become a mass movement, said historian Hans Bergemann, who in 2000 organized a touring exhibition in Germany on the FKK movement. „FKK became so popular that in principle no one noticed whether people were naked or dressed,” Weinreich said of people's casual attitude toward nudists. FKK wasn't officially allowed in East Germany but was tolerated, said Kurt Fischer, head of the DFK German Naturist Federation. Nudism was an expression of the desire for freedom, he said. „In the West, going naked was a personal decision,” Fischer said. „But in the East, it was a way of life.”

So much so that the six-week-old DDR Museum in Berlin, which documents life in the former East Germany, has two displays on FKK, something that leaves many westerners scratching their heads. „It's a mystery to me what people find so great about FKK,” said Anne-Katrin Bauer a bank clerk from western Berlin vacationing in Rostock. „I find it more of a
disturbance.” Hans-Juergen Walther a builder from the western city of Karlsruhe, said he finds it „out of order” when people lounge nude by the beach promenade. „If they want to go naked, they should go where there's no one else,” Walther said as he strolled along the seafront at Warnemuende, also in Rostock. And that, according to easterners, is paradoxical coming from people who used to embody the idea of freedom. Gudrun Krah donning a bathing suit under protest, bemoaned the loss of a beach life that was more liberal in the communist era, saying yesterday's mixture of nude and clothed bathers on a beach „robs it of some of the panache.” While Krah said West Germans are responsible, Wagner is less willing to assign blame, even as his cherished pastime goes the way of East German entitlements such as cheap housing and full employment that have been lost. „I just want to continue to go naked into the sunset,” said Wagner, before wading into the Baltic and disappearing under the dappled surface. (Bloomberg)
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