Academic journal article Nineteenth-Century Prose

Nudism, Health, and Modernity: The Natural Cure as Proposed by the German Physical Culture Movement 1900-1914

Academic journal article Nineteenth-Century Prose

Nudism, Health, and Modernity: The Natural Cure as Proposed by the German Physical Culture Movement 1900-1914

Article excerpt

To overcome degeneration the German Regeneration-Physical Culture movement called for a revival of the body in an over-intellectual German Kultur. Programs of "rational self-cultivation" and exposure of the body to fresh air and sunlight would effect a return to health and the resurrection of a long-dormant Germanic racial type. Essentially a program of positive, non-coercive racial hygiene, the movement emphasized strength and beauty as the qualities sought in regenerate Germans.


By the end of the nineteenth century the suspicion permeated Western culture that changes wrought by a century of rapid social, scientific, and economic progress might, when fully assessed, turn out to be less of a blessing than a curse. It was feared that Western civilization had embarked upon a course of accelerating decline instead of the once confidently expected steady ascent to perfection. The term used to describe this alarming reversal was "degeneration," a diagnostic label that seemed as appropriate for the condition of individuals as it was for the more widespread social and cultural malaise.

Degeneration was a complex and vague term that resisted all nineteenth-century attempts to attach to it a single definition. It cannot be clearly identified with any single ideological or political position, (1) bur it is a term loaded with moral and religious implications. The Latin root degenerare denotes a fall from ancestral or original quality, while the primary theological association has been with the Christian doctrine of the fall from grace and God's punishment of Man's disobedience by rendering him subject to disease and death.

In the mid-nineteenth century the concept of degeneracy was popularized by French psychiatrist Benedict August Morel whose work formed the foundation of late nineteenth- to early twentieth-century degeneration theory. (2) Morel understood degeneracy to be a hereditary affliction in which the degenerate strain would exhaust itself after three or four generations. A typical progression might be: First generation, alcoholism; second generation, hysteria; third generation, idiocy; fourth generation, sterility. The belief that with each generation the inherited disability became greater was an emotionally powerful one. In the light of its direct assault upon the power to reproduce, it was feared that degeneration could pose a real threat to the existence of nations within a few generations.

The call for "regeneration" arose as a rallying-cry in response. This article will examine the German Regeneration movement, founded in Berlin in the last decade of the nineteenth century by Alfred Damm, a physician from Wiesbaden, and the broader Korperkultur [physical culture] movement that, at the turn of the century, incorporated and expanded Damm's original initiative. (3) The goal of both movements was to achieve regeneration on a national scale through a physical renaissance aimed at re-establishing the equality of body and mind lost in a "onesidedly intellectual" German Kultur. (4) Damm maintained a rigid focus upon sexual behavior in the etiology of degeneration. He saw "unnatural sensuality" (all sexual activity exclusive of reproduction) as the root cause of individual degeneration, and indeed the key to the rise and fall of civilizations throughout history. The Korperkulturists, while agreeing that regeneration required the revival of a healthy sexual ethic, tended to see this as one of many important considerations, rather than as the single decisive factor upon which regeneration hinged. (5)

Strength and beauty were in fact the primary qualities championed by the Korperkultur movement, particularly as these were found expressed in a long-dormant Germanic racial ideal. The resurrection of the body from its entombment in an over-cerebral German Kultur became to a large extent the resurrection of this "original" Germanic type as construed by racial thinkers and historians. …

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