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C h a p t e r Tw o Wilhelmine Nature Natural Lifestyle and Practical Politics in the German Life-Reform Movement, 1890–1914 The Wilhelmine era saw the proliferation of popular health and hygiene reform movements that called on Germans to“get back to nature,” to live the “natural lifestyle” (naturgemäße Lebensweise), and to “celebrate nature.” What, though, did this mean? Did “getting back to nature” mean rejecting science and technology, art and culture? Was “nature” an essentially utopian category, and if so, how did this shape the way that contemporaries thought about urban space? Thomas Lekan and Thomas Zeller have shown that“Germany’s nature” was always also a cultural artifact.1 But the very concept of nature has always been profoundly historical, meaning different things at the beginning of the nineteenth century than it did in the 1850s or on the eve of the First World War. By looking at practical politics and consumer culture, this chapter explores the different ways that nature was imagined and understood in the Wilhelmine era. In organizations like the German League for Natural Lifestyle and Therapy Associations (Deutscher Bund der Vereine für naturgemäße Lebens- und Heilweise),2 but also in groups devoted to bathing, gymnastics, vegetarianism, and land reform, Germans from across the social and political spectrum claimed that nature was the key to imagining different and better futures.3 In some cases, these futures were realized. In others, they have disappeared from historical view. Historians have long been suspicious of the so-called naturist movements .4 Citing well-known cultural critics and reactionary ideologues, historians like George Mosse, Fritz Stern, and Klaus Bergmann have • • Wilhelmine Nature 41 taken calls to “get back to nature” as evidence for a widespread “disenchantment with modernity” that would ultimately destabilize Weimar parliamentary politics.5 More recently, historians who are perhaps influenced by the sociologist Pierre Bourdieu have used what I call a “compensation” model to explain the broad appeal of naturist movements .6 They suggest that Germans from a variety of class backgrounds “turned to nature” in reaction to the uncomfortable experience of modernization . This tradition has given rise to important work by Michael Hau and Michael Cowan, among others.7 At least implicitly, though, the compensation argument made so famously by Bourdieu is a teleological one. Here, naturist movements are viewed as both an essentially inadequate response to the logic of the modern and a failure to grasp the realities of an increasingly global capitalist modernity. Although historians now largely reject the claim that naturist movements laid the foundations for the Nazis and their so-called blood and soil romanticism, the questions today’s scholars have been asking remain surprisingly similar to those asked by advocates of the Sonderweg hypothesis decades ago.8 Was the Life-reform movement (Lebensreformbewegung ) progressive or reactionary, practical or utopian? Is land reform (Bodenreform) forward-looking or romantic? Are natural therapies alternative epistemologies or antiscientific populism? While a younger generation of historians has rightly emphasized the progressive elements in naturist movements, that generation has remained susceptible to the lure of familiar, but unhelpful, binaries (modern versus antimodern, progressive versus reactionary).9 The 2005 collection How Green Were the Nazis? is just one indication that nature remains a powerfully freighted category in the historical imagination.10 In the chapter that follows, I try to reframe the problem of “Wilhelmine nature” by distinguishing between different kinds of experience and different ways of imagining the future. First of all, I explore the conceptions of nature presupposed by different programs for social and economic reform, and I contrast these notions with a classically liberal view of nature. Nature figured frequently in Wilhelmine debates about individual health and social reform, and these debates offer important insights into extraparliamentary political culture. In exploring these different and sometimes competing visions, it is not 42 we lived for the body my intention to suggest that nature was either implicitly or necessarily political. Instead, I hope to show some of the ways that nature was used to make social, political, and economic claims. As popular health and hygiene advocacy groups like the German League began increasingly to engage with issues of urban transformation, they also subtly changed the ways that nature was imagined and understood: nature became a tool that could be used to build a better future. Nature figured so prominently in Wilhelmine popular and political culture not only because of the work of activists from different ideological camps. As we shall see...


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