Thursday, June 6, 2013

Are birthday suits better than bathing suits?~ Reflections on East German nudism

When the kindergarten beach trip pictures were finally posted, I became hysterical...with laughter.  All the important body parts were, of course, covered and protected from the sun: every child was sporting a hat and sunglasses. The bathing suits I had packed for my children came back clean and neatly folded. A discussion with the teachers would not have helped. "What for?" would have been the response. Birthday suits are better than bathing suits! Still, I was left with the question of how to instill in my children a sense of modesty and propriety in a culture that clearly had very different values surrounding this topic.

The FKK (Freikörperkultur, or free body culture, i.e. nudist movement) has become a hallmark of East German culture. Nudism has always existed in Germany, both in the East and the West, and was appropriated by radical representatives of various movements to signalize a return back to nature. The far right made use of it as an expression of Germanic nature worship and the far left saw it as a socialist equalizer. For East Germans, it became  a key way to express one of very few freedoms in an oppressive system of government.
The Nazi German regime had banned nudist expressions in 1933 in reaction to the socialists' propagandist view of nudism which was to "toughen the socialist body in preparation for the conflict with capitalists."  Since East Germans have always viewed themselves as avowed anti-fascists, recovering this ancient right/rite was part of fashioning the new emergent GDR culture and identity. Ahrenshoop, a Baltic Sea resort, housed an elite movement of East German authors, politicians and artists that  began celebrating nudism as freedom from social and political constraint. In some places nudists apparently became rather unpredictable, painting their naked bodies, dancing wildly around bonfires on the beach at so-called Neptune celebrations which led the local authorities to place a ban on the FKK movement on August 16th, 1954. One has to wonder whether the reason behind the ban had more to do with atheistic authorities' desire to snuff out the Pagan religion underscoring these festivals rather than nudity itself.

Still, protest letters flooded government mailboxes. One such letter came from actress, Traute Richter, who wrote an ideologically impassioned plea to the president Otto Grotewohl about the arrest of FKK people on Rügen. She claimed that the FKK movement had "triumphed over bourgeois capitalistic and religious prejudice" and that "only in capitalistic America did one have to aid one's sick mind by stuffing the body into gaudy swimming attire, that, on the one hand served as erotic stimulus and on the other hand made considerable profits for the textile industry."
Because of the amount of protest and popular support,  the FKK ban did not alter the practice. The ban almost seemed hypocritical since so many high ranking political figures were involved at the Ahrenshoop resort movement. The East German government simply turned a blind eye to the continuing naked activities until it became so common place that no one dared question it anymore. A lax view of nudity was purposefully cultivated in East German day care centers and schools. Children were potty-trained together in neat rows. Dressing and undressing together was a normal part of the pre- and post-nap routine. When the weather got warm, children were encouraged to strip naked and play in the water. This sort of desensitizing and normalizing of nudity led many children to bypass the natural developmental stage of middle childhood during which experiencing shame and desiring privacy typically occur. But even in the GDR, nudism was not an easy pill for everyone to swallow. A self-proclaimed FKK-dissident, Lutz Thormann, writes. "I tried to resist taking everything off, but after I realized how pointless it was, having been undressed more or less voluntarily, I took out the bathing suit which I had secretly packed in my suitcase, but this too was confiscated and put away. Now the naked facts were irrevocably established. Every Baltic Sea vacation began with this small humiliation. I spent most of the next two weeks cowering face-down on my towel behind the windscreen. If I ever dared to go down to the water, I made sure all the girls my age  were far away enough not to see me."  
Thormann was not the only one who had an issue with the FKK. In 1989 after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the issue came up again when West German tourists were shocked at the state of the Baltic Sea beaches and filed complaints with local authorities. The media called it the Höschenkrieg, or panty war. Eventually, it was decided that FKK beaches would have to be clearly marked for the sake of prude tourists who might not want to stumble accidentally upon a nudist colony. Germans socialized in the GDR cannot understand the big hoopla surrounding the issue of nudism. This shows the extent to which it had become a normal part of the East German experience.
Potty-training in an East German daycare center

 The fact is, nudism did serve the ends of socialism quite well. Nudity is an equalizing factor, more so than any uniform. It reminds us we humans are all made of the same stuff. There can be no display of wealth, no accessories, no gadgets that make us feel we're worth more than our neighbor. It also shows us how we need each other in our frailty. The FKK message was that even an individual's body was not really his or her private property. It was imperative to submit the body to the rules of collective nudity that partly defined Gemeinschaft . Therefore there was pressure to conform in order to uphold the values of solidarity to the socialistic community. In that sense, nudity was not as much about sexualization as it was politicization. The utopian desire for equality is understandable after the horrors of Nazi selection and many idealist East Germans set out with the goal of establishing a tolerant and fair society when they embraced socialism. We all long to be accepted as we are, no strings attached. No yellow stars or pink triangles setting us apart for persecution. In essence, we want paradise lost to be restored. Unfortunately, this created a new form of Zwang (coercion) for individuals who had different political views than the majority. Many East German Christians embraced the FKK ideals as well. Not doing so might have been one more strike against them. Nudism provided the illusion of equality and outward conformism to the system. The GDR's social experiment with community failed because transparency and trust never developed. This was, of course, in large part due to the fact that the STASI (Staatssicherheit or secret police) had its informants everywhere, even spying on their own relatives. So the idealism of FKK nudism was utopian and it ignored some very important aspects:
First, the FKK ignores that there is a  positive expression of shame. Lutz Thormann, and surely many others too, had a proper sense of shame that the FKK collective wanted him to just get over. Shame, expressed positively doesn't mean that we want to hide because nudity is somehow dirty, rather that there are some things that are meant to be private, not public. The FKK movement purposefully blurred the lines between the private and public display of the human body to make a political statement.
Second, FKK nudity overlooks the reality of the brokenness of this world. It wants to restore freedom and transparency without dealing with the problem of sin, guilt and shame. This second form of shame is a perception of self, viewed from the vantage point of moral failure. FKK nudity clearly sought to eradicate a Judeo-Christian worldview in which God's laws are the standard for moral behavior and in which public exposure was understood to be a shameful humiliation and a reminder of man's utter helplessness apart from God.  In GDR socialism, there was no sacrifice to be paid for sin. The only sacrifice required was that of the individual's privacy and freedom on the altar of collectivity. 

The irony of the matter is that the East German FKK movement that attempted to use nudity to promote atheism actually pointed to an almost transcendental desire for the pre-Fall values found in the Bible. There, in the garden of Eden, God created man and woman naked and unashamed. There was nothing to hide nor to hide from. Interpersonal relationships were pristine, transparent and shameless. Man 's relationship to God was immediate. Shame entered the world only when objective guilt became a felt reality. As a solution, God gifted Adam and Eve with animal skins. This layer of clothing pictured the real and felt barrier between humans and God. Immediate intimacy was no longer possible. The skins also symbolized protection and promise. Protection from the elements, but also protection from themselves. The promise the skins pointed to is to a better sacrifice that would not only cover our physical shame, but most importantly cover our spiritual shame. Christ on the cross, naked, despised and alone spans the reality gap between shame and utopia. After his tortured humiliation, he was exalted and clothed in glory. He now mediates an intimate relationship with God. The guilt the world incurred toward its Maker was dealt with once and for all in his substitutionary atonement.  Atheistic socialism sought human harmony without God in the picture. But without God in the picture, there is no solution to the problem of sin, guilt and shame and no hope for a paradise restored. 

Raising children in an post-modest environment has its challenges. The naked facts are always before our eyes. We are forced to talk about issues more. There are also some positive aspects I have come to appreciate. Sometimes, we Americans can become overly concerned with what we view as a premature sexualization of our children. However, these attempts to hinder it sometimes lead to absurd situations. In the end, the attempts to hide nudity in some contexts backfire because they draw even more attention to it or make it appear "dirty." Getting uptight about mothers nursing in public (even if done discretely) or putting bikini tops on baby girls are such examples. I want my children to have a positive, natural but also guarded view of their bodies because, ultimately, their bodies have been given to them by their Creator to use for good purposes and nudity is reserved for the most intimate of human relationships in which love and commitment are prerequisites.
I have also become more relaxed over the years. Once, I picked up my son from his kindergarten class and he was sitting, nonchalantly eating his lunch in his underwear. He had spilled tea all over his clothes and the teacher had naturally hung them up on the heater to dry. As a child I had terrifying nightmares in which I suddenly realized I had gone to school in my underwear. I was relieved for my son that he would never have that nightmare!