Germany united by nudity, divided by attitude
Citizens of the former West and East Germany share many well-established customs, including naturism. But does a relaxed attitude to naked bodies mask some division over the freedom of women?
Sex in Germany, I imagine, is much the same as sex everywhere else.
It was, as we know, invented in the 60s, probably in California, and since then the techniques involved are probably pretty universal.
But attitudes to sex and sexuality and nakedness are not. And in Germany, I have to tell you that I have been surprised.
Not least when I was in the changing room of the gym to which I go.
There I was, naked from the waist down - very naked - wrestling to get a T-shirt off my head, and the T-shirt was wrestling back.
When I finally pulled the thing off, there before me was a woman - a pretty woman - in her 20s pushing her broom at my feet.
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This very real vision was the female cleaner in the male changing-room. Our eyes met. I blushed. She pushed on blithely, unconcerned.
Or when I went into the local sauna bath, which every neighbourhood has.
My German friends told me that nakedness was de rigueur, so into the cabin I went to find two young, naked women. They looked at me. I looked at the ceiling.
Germans - or at least Germans in the non-Catholic north of the country - say that the sight of the nude body is completely normal - natural, as they put it.
Why, they ask, would one wear a dirty, sweaty swimming costume? And, they say, being naked is nothing to do with sex. There is never a stir or a twitch of a sexual nature.
To which I say: hmmm.
My scepticism was shared, by the way, by both the Nazi and Communist regimes.
In East Germany, nude bathing became something of a sign of dissidence, contrary to the exhortation of the Culture Ministry to "protect the eyes of the nation".
The Nazis welcomed what Hermann Goering referred to as the "healing power of sun and air" in making a strong nation, but he did disapprove of public nudity which he called a "cultural error" that threatened female modesty.
Both regimes lost the argument. And demographics did the rest. In the rubble after World War II, there were seven million more German women than men.
And in this atmosphere, an industry grew up which was very different from that in other Western countries, one much more aimed at women.
Germany had a well-developed mail-order industry - and it had exactly the right woman to exploit it.
Beate Uhse had been a pilot in the Luftwaffe - as a woman she had not been allowed to fight but she did pilot planes to the front line.
After the war, as the daughter of a doctor, she was beset by friends who wanted to know how not to get pregnant.
My East German female friends tell me that the independence of women continued in the East of the country far more than in the West”
She started providing them with condoms and with advice on how she thought men could be kept happy. It became what is still one of Germany's most successful businesses.
All this has been described by the historian Elizabeth Heineman, who told me that because the business was mail-order, women were not inhibited from buying.
Particularly in the catholic South, they would not go into a shop but they would order from a catalogue.
Elizabeth told me that German women emerged from the war particularly independent and strong because the absence of men was so stark, but in the west of the country traditional roles were gradually re-asserted.
Not so, though, in East Germany.
Simone Schmollack writes for the Tageszeitung and a magazine - a women's magazine - called Die Magazin which was founded in 1929 and continued in East Germany throughout the years of Communism.
She told me that women in the East - and she was one - had genuine economic independence and that gave them a strength in their relations with men.
Now that the Wall is down, cultural frictions are emerging.
Here is the way she put it: "When Western men go out with Eastern women, they - the men - sometimes have problems.
"Eastern women are so cool, the Westerners think. So independent. So free with sex. But then they want them to be stay-at-home, too".
So speaks an East German woman.
With such a mix of regimes and attitudes and cataclysmic shocks to relationships, there is confusion in the unified Germany over the roles of men and women.
Nowhere more so, I think, than when a sweaty, naked Brit strays into a gym or a sauna bath.
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