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Turning to Nature in Germany: Hiking, Nudism, and Conservation, 1900–1940 (review)

From: Journal of the History of Sexuality
Volume 21, Number 2, May 2012
pp. 350-352 | 10.1353/sex.2012.0032

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Reviewed by
Turning to Nature in Germany: Hiking, Nudism, and Conservation, 1900–1940. By John Alexander Williams. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2007. Pp. 354. $55.00 (cloth).

John Alexander Williams has written a thoroughly researched book about nature and the body in Germany in the first half of the twentieth century. The book intersects with two fields of historical investigation: the history of the body, which only in the past decade has made inroads into the mainstream of German history, and the history of environmentalism and naturism, which has a palpable presence in German historiography. Unlike most scholars—including the author of this review—Williams does not see German body culture and conservation as un- or antimodern but argues that “the history of naturist ideology and practice from the turn of the century to the beginning of the Second World War reveals in microcosm some of the ways in which Germans perceived modernity, confronted their fears, and imagined ways toward a better future. . . . Their path toward that future society lay in nature” (20). In other words, the turn to nature provided a way to envision an alternative modernity to the one that dominated a newly industrialized and urbanized Germany.

To explore the ways German naturists, hikers, and environmentalists met this alternative modernity Williams attempts to capture their ideologies without losing sight of the complicated organizational changes. The strengths of the book are in the latter. For the first time we have in English a work that demonstrates how a host of groups associated with social democracy, communism, moderate bourgeois ideologies, conservatism, and radical nationalism shaped important practices of German everyday culture, practices that in many ways are still associated with a German lifestyle. In this regard, Williams’s work goes beyond the recent scholarship on German body culture in the early twentieth century.1 Yet it shares a weakness in understanding the often bewildering ideas and ideologies of nature and the body in context. [End Page 350]

The book consists of three parts. It starts with a short analysis of nudism, continues with an extensive investigation of the hiking movement, and ends with a synoptic exploration of the nature conservation movement. The two first parts, which make up over three-quarters of the text, place the book squarely in the budding research on the history of the body. In fact, nature and environment play in the first two parts such a minor role that one is tempted to ask how important they really were. Williams is here confronted with a dilemma that plagues all historical study of nature. The very notion of nature is so elusive that in the end it becomes a mere metaphor, a backdrop for a range of human activities that focus on the body and its appearance, education, and sexuality (258). As Williams points out, “the rural German landscape was not an unspoiled wilderness,” and the concept of nature it implied was in many ways touched and shaped by human hands (221).

The price and the reward for this conceptual elusiveness is Williams’s strong focus on organizational history. Williams is not shy in taking on archival sources. He carefully analyzes the complicated developments of three different nudist movements: the early Wilhelminian one, which was part of the so-called Life Reform Movement (Lebensreform), the strong working-class nudism that flourished in the Weimar Republic, and the nationalist nudism movement. Williams’s grasp of the organizational developments help him clarify important institutional ruptures and continuities. In the early years of the Nazi era, all three seem to have found their demise under an increasingly hostile regime. But Williams convincingly demonstrates how the foundations for a vibrant nudism movement in post–World War II Germany were laid after 1936, when Himmler took the movement under his wing (62–63).

The bulk of the book concentrates on hiking. Unlike nudism, which was a novelty of the 1890s, hiking had a rich and meandering history that reached deep into the eighteenth century. This history is part of the gymnastics movement (Turnen) launched in the 1810s by Friedrich Ludwig Jahn, but it had other roots, such as walking for one’s health, strolling on Sundays, and the...