Swimming in the outdoor pool: “There is a merciless opening”

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Of: Peter Riesbeck


Spray then am I? For some, however, the way you lie down is the truly beautiful thing about a visit to the pool. © dpa

The bathing season has begun: historian Matthias Oloew in an interview with FR about swimming culture in Germany.

Frankfurt – At the start of the pool season, a conversation with historian Matthias Oloew about the old “shower or swim” discussion and why the outdoor pool is still a world of its own.

Mr. Oloew, the first modern bathhouse in Germany was opened in Magdeburg in 1830. How did the revival of public baths come about?

It was pure necessity. In the course of industrialization and growing cities, the question of better sanitation has arisen, even in Germany. It was about creating healthy living conditions. Today we call these services of general interest. Municipalities were already responsible for this then. They should ensure healthy living conditions in cities, through sewers, covered markets, schools, but also a system of public toilets. The Baths of Caracalla were discovered in Rome in the mid-19th century. All of Europe marveled at the result obtained in antiquity. Not only from a technical point of view, but also from a hydrological point of view. Large swimming pools in which people of both sexes moved. It was sensational.

Two schools are formed. Hamburg doctor Oscar Lassar advocates the public restroom as a cleaning facility with the maxim “one bathroom per week”. Architect Josef Stübben supports swimming with movement, even for pleasure. What characterizes the debate?

Lassar was mainly concerned with hygiene. For him, the Volksbad was a shower. His credo: the bathroom must be structurally simple in order to be widely used. At the Berlin Hygiene Exhibition in 1882, he presented a corrugated sheet construction that 10,000 people used to shower within two weeks. A great success for him. The architect and urban planner Josef Stübben, on the other hand, believed that the bathroom should not be done only for duty, but should be enjoyed. Stübben was also of the opinion that bathing in a swimming pool as a shared experience was an essential part of the attractiveness of the public bath.

So: the pool as a place not only for cleaning, but also as a place to see and be seen?

Yes, and this is how the swimming pool was born, architecturally large and also more efficient. Several people enter a pool at the same time, unlike the Lassar bathtub, it does not have to be washed after each shower. This also largely invalidated Lassar’s saying that the shower room was the real public toilet because it was the cheapest.

However, there are reservations in the empire against too old permissiveness. Why?

Immorality and late Roman decadence were feared. The misconception prevailed that the unbridled use of the baths had led to the fall of Rome. The pioneers of the German Empire, proclaimed in 1871 – many of them nationalists – wanted to protect themselves from such a fate through bathing discipline and the not too luxurious architecture of the public baths.

They also see swimming as a mirror of society. At that time, shower rooms not only separated men and women, but also had first, second and third class tickets, such as the Prussian right to vote. To what extent was the public toilet a reflection of Wilhelminian class society?

The pioneer and the historian

The dermatologist Oscar Lassar (1849-1907) was born in Hamburg as the son of a merchant and from an early age advocated a public spa culture. As a dermatologist, he invented an eczema zinc paste, which is still used in medicine today.

Matthias Oloew, 53, studied history, political science and journalism at the FU in Berlin. The journalist has been the spokesperson for the Berlin thermal baths since 2009. In his PhD he has been involved in the history of the thermal baths. rp

You have to make a distinction: in the case of cleaning toilets, that is, showers or toilets, very often there were subdivisions into classes. This was also done to attract wealthy clients who were willing to pay more for the spa and thus make a significant contribution to financing the spa. From the very beginning, however, 19th-century pool pioneers saw the pool as a tool to soften class barriers in Wilhelminian Germany. Although there were also individual public toilets in Germany that provided first and second class swimming pools – for example Frankfurt am Main or Hanover – this was not the standard, unlike in England. Interestingly, public restrooms have always been seen as proof of class segregation.

Oscar Lassar in 1901.
Oscar Lassar in 1901. © Imago Images

The turning point comes at the Wannsee in Berlin. On May 8, 1907, the first family swimming pool in Germany opened there. You talk about a day of liberation in the history of German spas. What is meant by liberation?

Instead of the expected handful of nature kids, thousands followed the lure of the free bathroom. Libero meant: men and women bathed together and in public. That too was unheard of. And all the hustle and bustle could be observed by dressed walkers from the shore. This was completely new and truly revolutionary. E: Admission was free. Later, this family pool became more and more popular, not only in Prussia.

The next step of emancipation took place after 1918 in the Weimar Republic. Pool specialist Georg Bennecke praises the pools of the time as “the most social and liberal structure”. There “there is true freedom when the guest, private counselor or worker, leaves the cell to undress only in a bathing suit”. To what extent is the swimming pool a place of equality?

Everyone had the same rights in the pool. State symbols didn’t matter. Not only were women and men equal under the new constitution, there were also more and more spas abolishing gender segregation. Other countries like the Netherlands and Austria have shown that the family bathroom attracts more people. That is why they followed suit in Germany. And then there is the 50-meter swimming pool. The separate men’s and women’s pools have been combined into one pool. It was more right for the sport. And men and women swam together. Nice too.

To return to the swimming pool as a mirror of society: the sociologist Andreas Reckwitz proclaims the “society of singularities”, his colleague Gerhard Schulze speaks of a “society of experience”. Does individualization foster the trend towards fun pools?

In the pool of pure fun, yes. But this did not become the task of the municipal bathing system. After all, exercise in the water is sport. And exercising in the water is the healthiest thing you can do. This applies to all age groups.

Author John von Düffel, a self-confessed swimmer, says: “A lake is a biotope, the outdoor pool is a sociotope.”

That’s right. Biotope refers to the feeling of being alone in a lake with the element of water. An outdoor swimming pool has a different character. Nowhere else can you see people as well as in an outdoor swimming pool. There is a merciless opening there.

(Interview: Peter Riesbeck)

In the meantime, the visit to Frankfurt’s outdoor swimming pool is guaranteed: the city takes ownership away from the investor and thus guarantees the permanent conservation of the outdoor swimming pool in the Unterliederbach district.

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