Chad Ross. Naked Germany: Health, Race, and the Nation. New York: Berg Publishers, 2005. xi + 239 pp. $26.95 (paper), ISBN 978-1-85973-866-5.
Reviewed by Jason Tebbe (Department of History, Stephen F. Austin State University)
Published on H-German (March, 2006)
Uncovering a New Body of History
At least since George L. Mosse's classic work The Crisis of German Ideology (1964), historians of Germany have seen the fin-de-siecle as a breeding ground for völkisch ideologues seeking national renewal through a rejection of modernity. Practitioners of the ever-expanding and innovative history of the body have focused on this period, seeing a new emphasis on the body amidst intensified calls for renewal. The nudist movement provides a particular case that combined interest in the body with a concern for the health of the Volk. This phenomenon has not yet received definitive historical treatment. Chad Ross provides this treatment, offering the first in-depth history in English of the German nudist movement.
Ross's history of nudism covers the period from roughly 1900 to 1950, crossing over the historical divides of the Kaiserreich, Great War, Weimar Republic and National Socialism. Ross argues that in these different political and historical contexts, nudism consistently advocated nudist practices as the means to restore health to the body, and to make Germany and the German Volk strong. Ross emphasizes the national nature of nudism as its most crucial attribute, thus associating it with the other contemporary calls for Lebensreform that sought a stronger Germany. While the reader leaves not entirely convinced of Ross's assessment of nudism's significance, the book offers an able account of the nudist movement in Germany.
Ross has chosen to organize his material thematically--a mostly successful decision that emphasizes the continuities of the nudist reform movement, and which allows the reader to see the nudist movement from a variety of perspectives. The first chapter provides a chronology of nudism, along with some analysis of the demographic make-up of nudists. In this chronological overview, Ross finds that nudism reached its peak of popularity during the Weimar Republic. He also explains that while nudists shared similar goals and practices, they would not be united under the same umbrella organization until the advent of the National Socialist state.
In the second chapter, Ross examines the opponents who attacked nudism. The Catholic Church publicly denounced nudism in the 1920s as immoral and sinful, and the Weimar state actually kept tabs on nudist organizations as possible hotbeds of subversion. Nevertheless, neither church nor state attempted to repress the nudist movement outright. In this chapter, Ross treats the relationship between the Nazi state and nudism in great detail. This subject is likely to be of greatest interest to readers. The Nazi state initially banned nudism and nudist organizations on moral grounds not so different from those articulated by religious opponents of nudism. In 1934, however, the state ended the ban on nudism, and even erected and supported the Kampfring für völkische Körperkultur (later Bund für Liebeszucht), a state-sponsored national nudist organization. Nudism and Nazism shared similar views of the body and of the need to strengthen the race, so such a move hardly seems surprising. Ross claims, though, that the Gestapo repeatedly investigated and harassed nudist groups due to suspicions that they harbored Marxists. For this reason, he likes to characterize the Nazi government's response to nudism as ³anarchic,² but in doing so misses an opportunity to greater articulate the connections between nudist and Nazi ideology. The question is raised by numerous moments of Nazi culture; one only has to think of the opening frames of Riefenstahl's Olympia, for example.
The next two chapters deal with medicine and health, respectively, and present the nudist critique of modern medicine as an institution unable to truly respond the holistic health needs of the human body. Here we see nudism as a prototypical form of what we know today as ³alternative medicine,² and for that reason this chapter is particularly interesting. The following fifth chapter concerns notions of beauty within nudism and its associations with Greek ideals. Ross argues that nudism's attempt to beautify the body and remove shame from it constituted the formation of a new national morality, one its supporters saw as more authentically German. In the sixth chapter, Ross considers the ³Nudist Woman,² who in nudist thought was supposed to gain superior and more ³natural² motherhood skills through nudist activities. Consistent with contemporary notions of German nationalism, nudist mothers served to perpetuate the nation and strengthen the race. The book ends with a chapter concerning sex and race, detailing how nudists saw the naked body as the tool to inculcate a more ³natural sexuality² in Germans, and to make German bodies stronger.
As a reworked dissertation, Ross's work contains both the advantages and faults of the genre. While it is succinct and tightly organized, at times it evinces a lack of polish, as well as a narrowness that misses the opportunity to connect nudism with wider movements in German culture and society. The ability to trace the nudist movement over several key historical milestones is a great strength of the book, though the synchronic nature of the narrative smoothes out differences between pre- and postwar Germany that might be more important than Ross acknowledges. Also, like other work concerning discourses of decadence and degeneration, it grants anxiety too great a role in cultural affairs. During the fin-de-siecle Europeans may have worried about degeneration, but they also attended the many optimistic World's Fairs of the period. As Stefan Zweig's famous memoir attests, progress seemed unlimited in the ³World of Security² on the eve of the Great War, a sentiment many historians today fail to account for.
Of course, Ross's work shares these oversights with those of a much larger historiography on degeneracy, so it is unfair to single him out as a unique offender. Regardless of a narrow view of early twentieth century culture, one still accepts nudism's rise as emblematic of the time. Despite a few drawbacks, Naked Germany manages to ably shed light on an under-examined aspect of twentieth-century German culture through its thematic and varied study of the nudist movement.
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Jason Tebbe. Review of Ross, Chad, Naked Germany: Health, Race, and the Nation.
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