The enduring influence of Richard Ungewitter's 'Nakedness' on nudist thought and culture
Die Nackheit, written in 1906 by Richard Ungewitter, is considered the foundational text for the nudist movement as we know it today. Despite its importance, this book was never translated completely into English until 2004 by Tessa Wilson, when it was published independently through Cec Cinder’s Ultraviolet Press under the translated title, Nakedness: In an Historical, Hygienic, Moral and Artistic Light. It’s a slim volume, with the book itself only 83 pages, preceded by a lengthy intro written by Cinder, which takes up a substantial 55 pages.
Richard Ungewitter, born in 1868, was, at the time of writing Nakedness, a salesman of fire extinguishing equipment, a job which required lots of travel and plenty of time spent outdoors, the latter being the only part of the job he enjoyed. By the time he sat down to write this pioneering book, he had already written pamphlets on diet and nutrition, and even a small one about nudism, none of which seem to have gained any real traction.
He was a vegetarian, had quit smoking and drinking around the turn of the century, inspired largely by the growing Lebensreform movement (life reform, a return to a more natural way of living in response to industrialization) in his homeland, and saw that not only was nudity the ultimate end of clothing reform, but the central idea upon which his ideas about diet and exercise could be built. He quit his job to write Nakedness.
Knowing the dangers of public prosecution, that no publisher would dare touch such a “dangerous” book, Ungewitter chose to publish it himself in his hometown of Stuttgart. He certainly wasn't the first to have these ideas, nor the first to write and publish them. The ideas behind nudism just hadn't been organized in this way before, and with all of the social change occurring within Lebensreform, the timing of Ungewitter’s publication couldn't have been better when it came to finding a receptive audience.
Before getting into the book proper, there’s Cec Cinder’s lengthy, heavily researched introduction. If you’ve ever read (or tried to read, which seems to be the case for a lot of folks) his enormous, exhaustive book, the Nudist Idea, you’ll have an idea of what to expect.
In his introduction, Cinder writes about Ungewitter’s notable intellectual influences who inspired him to write Nakedness, Ernst Haeckel and Wilhelm Bölsche, and also attempts to get ahead of certain things that Ungewitter gets wrong in his book pertaining to human evolution and when and how our early ancestors lost their fur and began to adopt clothing. At one point, there is a footnote in this intro that nearly takes up an entire page, all about a potential ancestor that beat homo erectus out of Africa. I was actually quite amused by this, having developed a taste for Cinder’s intense writing style thanks to the Nudist Idea.
Things do get a little problematic, however, when Cinder starts to address Ungewitter’s well-known anti-Semitism. Cinder’s intentions are good, but when he starts talking about immigration issues here in the United States and concerns with overpopulation (an argument used frequently in eugenics), one has to remember his own age and the political climate in 2004. It’s frustrating and not all that necessary here, considering the content of Nakedness itself.
Some of Cinder’s editorial notes feel like putting the cart before the horse, too: I would’ve preferred the corrections to be after the book or in the footnotes as opposed to trying to remember everything up-front before even diving in.
Die Nackheit in the modern context
Despite having little more than a high school education, one can tell from reading Nakedness that Ungewitter was well-read and quite intellectual, with many parts of the book being well-researched. Occasionally, his writing feels a little flowery, but surprisingly, it never feels difficult or ponderous to read, despite its age. This could be a credit to Wilson’s translation as well. It never feels quite as dated as expected, and it’s easy to imagine how radical it was upon first being printed. It’s especially incredible how religion is never really mentioned, while sex is discussed quite frankly!
At the same time, while this was daring and pioneering in the early 20th century, very little of what Ungewitter expresses feels fresh or new, with many of his ideas being familiar and having been expanded upon in the 117 years that have passed since its publication. It is certainly more focused on physical health than anything else, but there’s also a focus on art and physical beauty.
While Ungewitter’s racism is only briefly present in one phrase late in the book, he does spend quite some time talking about how weak modern man is, how pitiful and ugly in appearance. You can understand where he’s coming from, but the constant shaming of people’s bodies, especially after so much talk about shame being taught by moralists and used to keep our bodies hidden, is really unfortunate and thankfully (mostly) outdated in the nudist community at this point.
While the focus on health and fitness within nudism has receded over time, we are thankfully quite a ways past judging people for how they look. The lack of any real discussion of mental health is also notable, but psychology as a true field of study was still quite new in the early 20th century and has only in recent decades become a more important topic of discussion.
The original German printings of Nakedness contained over 50 illustrations, none of which are reprinted in this translation. Instead, this copy contains cartoon illustrations by Bili Turner. These are not replacements for the missing illustrations, but cartoon images of nudists of different shapes, ages, and sizes enjoying themselves with a touch of humor to some panels. They’re not really to my taste, personally, and I don’t feel like they add much to the book, but their inclusion is by no means detrimental either. Still, the lack of those original illustrations is unfortunate, but there are descriptions of some of them in the footnotes when Ungewitter references them in the text.
Ungewitter’s rise and fall
Nakedness was a success, with more than ninety thousand copies printed and distributed to Germans all over the world. This popularity made Ungewitter good money, but also brought legal problems, culminating in a Royal Upper State Court case against him led by unions of men's morals like the Cologne Men's Association for the Raising of Morality. The money he made helped pay for some excellent legal defense, but the prolonged case drained his funds, and it seems Ungewitter struggled financially for the rest of his long life after this. The nudists never forgot him though, and he received financial assistance from the American Sunbathing Association after World War II, during which his home was bombed and all of his research and historical materials were lost.
Ungewitter published other books on nudism: Nakedness: A Critical Study, Nakedness and Culture, Nakedness and Ascension, and finally Nakedness and Morality. As far as I know, none of these have received an English translation and I currently can't find any real information about them.
Even in his own time, Ungewitter and his intense views on diet and abstaining from tea, coffee, tobacco, and alcohol were a little too much for others. His own organization, the Loyal Union for Ascending Life, reached about two thousand members total at its peak. Despite being one of the first nudist organizations in Germany, they were outpaced rather quickly. The organization’s numbers were absorbed by the Nacktlogen (Naked Lodges), but both were dissolved after the first World War, being replaced by multiple Freikörperkultur (free body culture) groups, whose publications Ungewitter declined to write for.
According to Wikipedia, Ungewitter’s move towards eugenics (which are hinted at in Nakedness but would apparently appear more prominently in later books) was also a reason for the drop in membership within the Loyal Union.
Worth the read?
So, is Nakedness worth reading in 2024? I think so. It’s historically significant, with its original publication in the spring of 1906 considered the true beginning of the nudist movement, and there is plenty here worth revisiting from a modern standpoint. It’s a breezy, thoughtful read, and it’s good to remember the origins of modern nudism and that which was important to people in the beginning. 🪐