Preferred Citation: Toepfer, Karl. Empire of Ecstasy: Nudity and Movement in German Body Culture, 1910-1935. Berkeley:  University of California Press,  c1997 1997.



German Nacktkultur, or Freikörperkultur (free body movement), refers to a network of private clubs that promoted nudism as a way of linking the modern body more closely to nature, giving it a freer presence in the great outdoors. Heinrich Pudor (Heinrich Scham, 1865–1943) supposedly coined the term Nacktkultur around 1903. His book Nacktende Mensch (1893) and the three-volume Nacktkultur (1906) established an enduring, if not accurate, link between Nacktkultur, vegetarianism, social reform, and racial hygiene (including anti-Semitism). However, Rothschuh (113) claims that Nacktkultur first appeared in Germany in the 1870s, along with the animal protection, vegetarian, and natural healing movements. Nudity was an important feature of Freikörperkultur well before World War I, and the idea of nudity as a healthful activity apparently owed something to the medical profession's efforts to combat such diseases as tuberculosis with what before the war was called Luft und Licht Therapie (air and light therapy) or Heliotherapie (cf., Dorno; Bernhard; Rollier). As late as 1922 a Munich filmmaker, Robert Reinert, released a film (Nerven ) that concluded with scenes of nude bodies in the mountains finally cured of neurasthenic ailments contracted in a decadent urban environment (OG 78).

Membership in the more than two hundred German nudist clubs seems to have appealed equally to men and women. The documentation and imagery of Freikörperkultur nudity was prodigious, perhaps because human nudity had such a complicated impact on perception that it was impossible to have enough documentation or "explanation" of it. The movement produced numerous journals, and by the late 1920s books on the subject of Nacktkultur were only slightly less numerous than all those devoted to sports


and dance.[1] Yet Nacktkultur had no unified ideology, and one finds within it all sorts of differences.

Nacktkultur was a constellation of subcultures, 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 a universal identifier in relation to the alienating pressures of modernity. The tendency to read Nacktkultur as an anti-intellectual, proto-fascistic (or, at least, conservative) response to the problems of urbanization and rationalization results from an overemphasis on two issues often associated with the phenomenon: (1) the use of racial and eugenic theory to justify nudism; and (2) the idea that "natural" nudism was antierotic and did not disturb conventional sexual morality. But Nacktkultur was actually much more complex than we might suppose from such a focus. Something deeper is at stake in critiques of Nacktkultur that seek to bestow a stable political identity on the constellation of subcultures and in the subcultures that seek to bestow a stable political identity on the naked body itself. Nacktkultur was too mysterious to project any clear political identity. Far from being anti-intellectual, it spawned a considerable philosophical discourse that ascribed deep metaphysical significance to the human body. In his insightful book Körpersinn (1927), Wolfgang Graeser gave perhaps the most direct articulation of this preoccupation with constructing a metaphysics of the body: "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. Radiant broze skin mirrors the light of the Olympian sun with the same pure sobriety as the sparkling pistons of clearly formed machines" (47). An even deeper thinker, Martin Heidegger, made a relevant contribution to theories on the metaphysics of the body when, in his masterwork Sein und Zeit (1927), he linked the mysterious concept of "unveiling" simultaneously to the construction of truth and to the manifestation of being itself (51–61). Nacktkultur consistently presented itself as a sign of modernity and an aspect of modernism rather than as a reaction against both.

[1] Nacktkultur journals of the 1920s included: Asa; Amarosa; Barberina; Eos; Figaro; Das Freibad; Freie Körperkultur; Freikörperkultur und Lebensreform; Die Freude; Geist und Körper; Kraft und Schönheit; Körperbildung Nacktkultur; Lachendes Leben; Leben und Sonne; Die Lebensreform; Der Leib; Lichtfreude; Licht Luft Leben; Licht-Land; Der Mensch von Morgen; Nacktsport; Die neue Sphinx; Die neue Zeit; Orplid; Pelagius; Die Schönheit; Skarabaus; Soma; Sonne ins Leben. Andritzky and Rautenberg (97) present a list of from the late 1920s of nearly two hundred Nacktkultur societies in cities throughout Germany.


Confusion about the political identity of Nacktkultur therefore may derive from an excessive inclination to regard abstraction as a controlling sign of modernist aesthetics. Perceptions and images of human bodies are apparently the source of the most powerful and disturbing emotions people can experience. Perhaps this relation to perception is due to the fact that bodies (their flesh, at any rate) for the most part remain hidden by clothes. Similarly, the flesh itself hides an intricate and mysterious field of invisible activities whose material identity no microscope can yet reveal, activities we designate by such terms as "emotion," "desire," "drive," "consciousness," "memory," "mind," "soul," and "the unconscious." The invisibility of these activities is itself evidence of a dark, formless, or metaphysical dimension to the body. But if we associate modern identity with an antimetaphysical belief system that achieves its strongest expression through antifigural abstraction, then we do not need to see the body itself as a relevant sign of modern identity: all that matters is a modern mind. By pushing representation and performance toward ever greater intensities of abstraction, much of modernist culture attempted to demystify the body and liberate people from the deep—hence, dark—controls over perception emanating from the body or its image. "No more nudes," demanded the futurists, for they understood well that memory structures emotion, and nothing stirs emotion so profoundly as the sight of the naked body. Thus, the liberation of people from memory, from the past, depended on their being freed from the emotions they attach to the body (Chipp 293). Much of modernist cultural history until recently has avoided dealing with strands of modernism that focus perception on the body rather than away from it, perhaps because modern identity seems less difficult to achieve or comprehend when it is aligned with a constant idea of the body that lies beyond the grasp of those conditions of perception and signification that make identity modern. Nacktkultur projected an ambiguous political identity because it treated the body as a double sign: on the one hand, it presented nudity as a return to an eternal primeval; on the other hand, it regarded modern identity as an unprecedented condition of nakedness.

Because male nude bodies were so conspicuously absent in the evolution of nude dance yet so pervasive in the realm of Nacktkultur, the unhelpful possibility emerges of a gendered partition resulting from the contradictory political values assumed by the double sign of the body, with nude female bodies in dance signifying an emancipatory energy and nude male and female bodies in Nacktkultur representing a conservative notion of the unveiling that is the basis of a modern identity. But the relation between Nackttanz and Nacktkultur was so complex that an adequate explanation for the absence of nude male bodies in nude dance must also explain the relation between nudity and the erotic.


Hans Surén

Perhaps the most popular promoters of Nacktkultur , at least among men, were Adolf Koch (1894–1970) and Hans Surén (1885–1972), both of whom were Berliners. Nacktkultur was an invention of the big city, with Berlin providing by far the largest number of club members, and it is obvious that the phenomenon had little interest for people who lived in the countryside or were attached to volkisch cultural values. Surén's book Der Mensch und die Sonne (1924) was so popular it ran through sixty-eight editions (250,000 copies) in its first year of publication. Surén became a Nazi in May 1933 and made changes in subsequent editions to accommodate Nazi ideology; apparently the book remained in print until the end of World War II.

Though the numerous photographs of nude bodies no doubt enhanced the appeal of the book, the main attraction was the radiant mythic apparatus Surén constructed to justify a new culture based on "naked living." From Surén's perspective, it was necessary to detach nudity from the association with sickness it had acquired through its use in Luft und Licht Therapie and from its stigmatization by anxiety-ridden forces of "prudery" that were poisoning modern civilization. Open nudity, for Surén, was a sign of health, strength, and beauty; the text implied that people do not "open" their nudity to the world unless their bodies possess all three qualities. Of course, we now know that healthy bodies are not necessarily beautiful, and beautiful bodies are not necessarily healthy; healthy bodies are not necessarily strong, nor are strong bodies necessarily healthy; bodies are not necessarily beautiful because they are strong, and strong bodies are only occasionally beautiful. Such complexities, however, did not trouble Surén, who saw nudity as the key to achieving a convergence of health, strength, and beauty. As long as people remained remote from their own bodies, as long as they were unable to see their own bodies, they could not possibly enjoy health, strength, or beauty. The urge to be naked, he believed, lies dormant within us, yet it is as strong as the urge to feel the light of the sun.

Because nudity was a natural condition, the proper setting for its manifestation was the great outdoors. Almost all the photos in Der Mensch und die Sonne showed nude bodies in flower-speckled meadows, sun-drenched beaches, grassy flatlands, tranquil marshes, and snow-bright alpine slopes (Figure 8). Nudity was not only a daytime event for Surén but also primarily a summertime affair; despite the fact that Germany is for most of the year a cold and cloudy country, Surén did not find interesting any image of nude bodies set against clouds or even shadows. He perceived nudity above all as a matter of the body's relation to sunlight, of its power to see and be seen in a great, open space in which nothing hides the horizon. The "friendship" between sunlight and flesh motivated activities that strengthened and


beautified the body. The primary activity was gymnastics, with hiking, swimming, and noncompetitive sports (such as archery) assuming subordinate significance. Not surprisingly, Surén promoted his own gymnastic method, which stressed the use of medicine balls, weights, and throw-thrust exercises. Naked exercises achieved maximum effect when performed in groups rather than alone. Yet he separated nude gymnastics from competitive sports, which could have unhealthy consequences for the body. And though he accepted nude dancing as an agreeable component of Nacktkultur , he clearly regarded it as an activity for women. The profound freedom offered by the conjunction of nudity, sunlight, and open space depended on the perfection of self-discipline resulting from gymnastic training. Despite his emphasis on group performance, Surén saw nudity and gymnastics as modes of self-discovery and will formation. A former army officer and son of an officer, he displayed a lifelong disdain for the regimented, "command and drill" methods of discipline employed by the military, for these undermined the capacity of men to act on their own in relation to any problem of modern life.

That men were the target audience for the book was obvious from the use of male models to demonstrate all the gymnastic techniques. But the book left a deeper problem only partially resolved. Surén realized that Nacktkultur could become a sign of national strength only by involving large numbers of men. But he also realized that the involvement of men depended on the involvement of large numbers of women, so he included numerous photos of nude women and described the significance of Nacktkultur for women. This material, however, worked to assure men that Nacktkultur enhanced their attractiveness for women. Surén had to deal with the fact that erotic desires achieve fulfillment above all through some condition of nakedness, and that it is very difficult for images of group nudity to escape association with the fulfillment of an orgiastic or at least communal (rather than couple-contained) erotic desire. Therefore, he insisted that the sexes remain segregated in the performance of their nude activities, and nowhere did he include a photo of men and women naked together. But such segregation left Nacktkultur vulnerable to the insinuation that it was attractive to men with homoerotic desires. Surén reminded his readers that in earlier, Teutonic times, men and women bathed together and indeed explored opportunities to live naked together. He even introduced the possibility that labor of all sorts could become more efficient and productive by being performed naked. But this naked utopia would emerge only after the entire sphere of education itself collaborated with nudity to shape the will of every citizen from a very early age. Consequently, Surén advocated allowing children under twelve to play naked together in the streets of big cities.

However, the gender politics of Der Mensch und die Sonne apparently bothered Surén, for in his next book, Deutsche Gymnastik (1925), he presented a


much narrower vision of the ideal male body. Here he distanced himself emphatically from the "feminine" dance schools, the gymnastic schools, and the nudist movement. "My gymnastic views," he wrote, "find their origin in the terrible breakdown of our time," which lacked the self-discipline that gymnastics, far more than "mass compulsion and drill," could develop (54). Surén had been an instructor at the Army School of Physical Education, but when he introduced his gymnastic methods, the army became alarmed and dismissed him. Only when gymnastics operated "in the home," as an everyday activity accessible to anyone, he proposed, could it become a uniquely German mode of self-discipline and restoration of national strength. Surén integrated nude gymnastics with vegetarianism and a sensibly ascetic lifestyle, but most of the book consisted of numerous exercises a man could perform alone. All of the photographs showed Surén himself, lavishly bronzed and nearly nude (wearing only a tiny jock strap), before a totally uncontextualized white background, neither indoors nor out, neither in nature nor in a domestic interior. Though he devoted a chapter to praising the benefits of nudity, he did not treat nudism as an activity for signifying communal unity but rather as the ultimate image of individuality and self-discipline. The ideal male appeared alone and nude, not especially vulnerable in his nudity but not brought closer, through nudity, to other men or women.

Adolf Koch

Surén's thinking about Nacktkultur was not entirely original, for he relied on some arguments made before World War I. What was original (and popular) about his presentation was the ingenious way in which he made Nacktkultur attractive by implying that the problem of erotic desire was not a matter for Nacktkultur to solve—that problem was the responsibility of those who did not know their bodies. But Surén by no means spoke for everyone involved with Nacktkultur . Adolf Koch, for example, never placed such heavy emphasis on the connection with nature. A former schoolteacher, he saw nudity as a pedagogical activity that integrated the study of the body and the study of culture to create a kind of athletic intellectual. But because he favored the integration of the sexes in nudism, which he regarded as a necessary component of sexual hygiene, it was even less clear to what extent his approach met or neutralized the expectations raised by erotic desires. That he accepted this erotic ambiguity was evident from the beginning (Figure 9). In 1921, as a public school teacher in a proletarian section of Berlin, Koch introduced open-air nude exercises to male and female children suffering from the effects of vitamin deficiency. The state was sympathetic to his program until a woman visitor to the school made a loud public complaint against "nude dancing" in a state institution. School authorities


forbade him from doing anymore nude exercises, so he decided to form his own school in 1926 (Koch, Nacktkulturparadies , 37; Merrill 146).

Koch was unique in that he did not merely form a nudist organization; he founded a nudist school . Naked students attended classes on all sorts of subjects and participated in gymnastics, group movement exercises, nude theatricals, and outdoor activities. Unlike Surén, Koch was enthusiastic about drills and group coordination exercises (Merrill 134–148). He also aggressively recruited proletarian men and women into nudism. His success was considerable, partly because all members paid the Koch organization 5 percent of their income; if they were unemployed, as many were after 1930, the school carried them until they found a job. Meanwhile, Koch found friends among mainstream socialists, although he acknowledged that Nacktkultur alone could not dissolve class differences and was not sure that nudism was a reliable model for a new, socialist society (Koch, Nacktheit , 126). Nevertheless, by 1930 he had schools in Berlin, Breslau, Barmen-Elberfeld, Hamburg, Ludwigshafen, and Mannheim, with a total enrollment of 60,000; the same year, Koch revealed that the total enrollment in all German nudist organizations was more than 3 million. The Koch schools offered four-year teaching certificates accredited by the government.

In 1929 the Berlin school hosted the first International Congress on Nudity, with participants from twenty-three countries. In Berlin, Koch also presided over a busy publishing program and edited the nudist journal Körperbildung/Nacktkultur (1928–1932), which, unlike the majority of the ever-expanding number of nudist magazines reaching the public, stressed the idea of nudism as an indoor, classroom activity. An American documentary film, This Nude World (1932), containing English commentary by Koch's daughter, presented a mysterious image of a community, not entirely young, in which nudism not only created a powerful feeling of social unity but was the basis for an even more profound unity between intellectual development and appreciation of nature. Koch was clearly a rationalist, but he had little interest in Dalcrozian rhythmic gymnastics, for his sense of nude group dynamics was too complex for the harmony pursued by Dalcroze's metricalism. Koch wanted people to move to ideas , to pedagogical dialogues, not just music. But his thinking was too complex for the Nazis as well, for they shut down his operations in 1933.[2]

[2] Some of the most vivid descriptions of Koch's activities and of Nacktkultur in general appeared in American publications. Frances and Mason Merrill's Among the Nudists (1931) and Maurice Parmelee's Nudism in Modern Life (1927) gave enthusiastic autobiographical accounts of experiences in German nudist camps, and both books enjoyed several editions, with Parmelee's book reaching a new edition as late as 1940 after a protracted battle with puritanical censors in various states. The 1940 edition includes detailed documentation of the Supreme Court deliberations on the moral-legal decency of the book.In Germany, such puritanism on the part of official custodians of morality was unthinkable before 1935.


Richard Ungewitter

With Richard Ungewitter (1868–1958), the relation between nudity and culture assumed an intensely reactionary expression. Ungewitter, one of the foremost spokesmen for Nacktkultur before the war, promoted communal nudity as a powerful sign of racial purity in such books as Nacktheit und Moral (1906) and Nacktheit und Kultur (1907). He saw Nacktkultur as preparation for and an extension of married life, for healthy marriage was the key to preserving racial purity. No other promoter of nudism made such an explicit and narrow connection between Nacktkultur and marriage. Of all the theorists of nudity, Ungewitter disclosed the deepest (actually fanatical) commitment to spartan, military ideals. After the war, when it seemed to him that Germany had sunk into an abysmal state of degradation, he argued that the "pure," naked body must signify an "armored spirit" in a nation deprived of military power. Though like Surén he regarded nudity as a natural condition, he was quite unique in believing that nudity could not achieve complete significance until it became a compulsory element in daily life, a duty integrated into a specifically German lifestyle that also included a vegetarian diet and communal ethic. In 1919 he edited a monumental anthology, Der Zusammenbruch: Deutschlands Wiedergeburt durch Blut und Eisen , in which he incorporated compulsory nudity into a gigantic, Nibelung-scale plan for renewing German cultural, political, and economic power.

Nudity was for Ungewitter the projection of human identity uncontaminated by capitalism and socialism, the two forces most responsible for the corruption of Aryan racial beauty. Recovery of this beauty, he argued, was a much more strenuous matter than people such as Surén or Koch would have us believe, for one must pursue nudity daily, year-round, doing nude exercises at six or so in the morning, at noon, in the late afternoon, and just before bed. The communal environment in which Aryan nudity operated was as insulated from the rest of society as a military camp. It was obvious that for Ungewitter, resident in Stuttgart, Nacktkultur could not remain confined within a club or association—it must become an

Another, perhaps even more interesting American book on German nudism was Jan Gay's On Going Naked (1932), which touchingly described a libidinous young woman's journey from a suffocatingly repressive Midwestern milieu to the ecstatic freedom of outdoor German nudism. Gay collaborated on the film This Nude World (1932). By contrast, a grotesquely misnamed pamphlet, Facts about Nudism , by Hugh Morris, published in the mid-1930s, hysterically warned Americans that Naziism was synonymous with homosexuality, vegetarianism, and nudism.


expression of a complete, purified community, as he explained at length in Nacktheit und Aufstieg (1920). Nevertheless, Ungewitter aligned his views with those defining the strange cult surrounding the Viennese journal Die Ostara , whose membership excluded all but blond males of "Aryanaristocratic" beauty. Ostara Nacktkultur strove to embody a "blond, heroic manliness," an ideal physicality manifesting a superior synthesis of science, art, and Christianity and free of all "feminine" decadence, which, for Ungewitter, was synonymous with racial impurity.[3] Nudity within this cult was not only a paramilitary activity but a cosmic political adventure involving commitment to an elaborate, fantastically reactionary program for reforming the whole of European society around an archetypal, premodern image of male identity. Ungewitter displayed a much deeper concern than Surén with the inclusion of (Aryan) women in Nacktkultur , prescribing in great detail nude activities to prepare them for the heroic role that awaited them on the journey to utopia; but that role always remained limited, by nature, to the "world of feeling and beauty," which had no connection with the "morbid" and "degenerate" proposals of feminism (Zusammenbruch , 293).

[3] For information about Ostara, see Ungewitter, Deutschlands Wiedergeburt , 408, and two pamphlets: Ostara: Nackt-und Rassenkultur im Kampf gegen Mucker-und Tschandalkultur (1912); Jörg Lanz-Liebenfels, Ostara: Einführung in der Sexual-Physik oder die Liebe als odische Energie (1913).



Preferred Citation: Toepfer, Karl. Empire of Ecstasy: Nudity and Movement in German Body Culture, 1910-1935. Berkeley:  University of California Press,  c1997 1997.