Editor's note: As Germans prepare for parliamentary elections later this month, senior correspondent Paul Ames made a 900-mile roadtrip across all 16 German states to take the measure of Europe’s most influential country. This is the last in his five-part series.
GLOWE, Germany — On a balmy summer day, the Schaabe looks like a slice of paradise.
The narrow spit of forest-covered land is fringed by a 6-mile beach of fine white sand lapped by the deep blue Baltic Sea.
Kids splash in the gentle surf, couples stroll hand-in-hand along the shore, families picnic on herring and beer, a naked guy stands in line at the ice-cream trolley.
In fact, there are naked people all over the place.
This is one of hundreds of FKK beaches across Germany that are open to followers of nudism, known here as Freikoerperkultur — Free Body Culture.
Other countries set aside remote spots for naturists to indulge in their love of stripping bare. In Germany, beaches along the Baltic coast tend to let them hang out alongside those who prefer to cover up with bermudas or bikinis.
"The beach is suitable for textile followers as well as FKK fans," says a local tourism website. "Don't be surprised if you run into nudies as you head along your way."
Naturism is big for Germans. Around 1 in 10 take a naked vacation at least once a year, according to Kurt Fischer, president of German Association for Free Body Culture.
Lately, however, nudism has been getting some additional exposure with the circulation of a photo purporting to show a young Angela Merkel and a couple of friends out for a waterside stroll in the buff.
The photo's authenticity is contested, but there’s no doubt that naturism was popular in East Germany when Merkel — who’s expected to stay on as chancellor after elections later this month — was growing up there in the 1960s and '70s.
Tolerated by the Communist authorities, stripping off became a way for East Germans to commune with nature and break with the regime’s conformity. The DDR Museum dedicated to showing daily life in East Germany in Berlin has exhibits illustrating the role nudism played there — with dioramas depicting naked sunbathing and volleyball.
Even today, naturism is more widespread in eastern resorts like Glowe, on the holiday island of Ruegen, which is part of the district Chancellor Merkel represents in parliament.
"It's famous here, so you know you are going to see naked people on the beach," says Benjamin Mueller, on vacation from Munich. "I'm not sure so many people from where I'm from would be happy with seeing the nudists, but they are more tolerant here."
Although Mueller isn’t a dedicated nudist, he and his companion decided it was more practical to have a non-textile day at the end of their vacation rather than get their swimming costumes wet and sandy before their long drive home.
In the years after Germany's reunification, some eastern Germans blamed priggish westerners for imposing restrictions on areas were nudism was allowed along the Baltic coast.
But even in western Germany, attitudes toward public nudity are more relaxed than in most countries. Polls show Germans bare all on vacation more than any other Europeans.
In relatively conservative Munich, naked sunbathers appear in parts of the city's famed Englischer Garten park on summer days, as in the Tiergarten in downtown Berlin, and green areas of other cities.
Foreign visitors are often surprised to discover that saunas in German hotels are co-ed and naked. Wearing trunks or swimsuits is considered unhygienic and prudish foreigners may be asked to take them off.
Although nudist tradition in Germany rejects any sexual connotations of nakedness, the FKK name has been hijacked by sex clubs that have sprung up since the legalization of prostitution in the country in 2002.
"Unfortunately, the word FKK was not protected by our movement," Fischer says. "Anybody can use the word for their own purpose. This has resulted in sex clubs, swinger clubs, sex orgies, prostitution — all being able to use the word FKK. For us naturists in Germany, this means we have to convince people that we are not part of this."
Germany's love of going au naturale dates back to the days of the Kaisers. In the late 19th century, when most of Europe was still shocked by the glimpse of an ankle, a back-to-nature movement growing up in Germany promoted the health benefits of running through forests and plunging into chilly lakes with nothing on.
The first nudist camp opened near Hamburg in 1903. The concept took hold and a flourishing naturist culture developed. The Nazis had an ambiguous approach, at times banning it as decadent, at others tolerating it as a celebration of the Aryan body.
Nudism took off again after World War II.
The Free Body Culture association now has around 45,000 members, but an estimated 12 million Germans get naked in public at least once a year.
"I am almost 50 years a naturist," says Fischer, the association's president. "But I'm not obsessive about nakedness at all times. For me, nudity is part of my free time and vacation planning. I'm naked in our nudist sports park, but rarely at home."
German attitudes may be changing, however: the younger generation appears less enthusiastic about baring all on the beach. Fischer says membership is declining by about 2 percent a year.
Germany's declining birth rate — and a growing immigrant population, which is generally less keen on nudism — are also blamed for the decline.
As German nudists become more likely to be gray and wrinkled, Fischer blames the growth of materialism.
"Society has changed," he says. "People are now defined by their appearance and the concept that ‘naked we are all equal’ is hardly winning out."