Notes from an author: Timothy Phillips on the Iron Curtain

Timothy Phillips traces the path of the Iron Curtain to the German coast, where East met West on the curious, Cold War frontier of a nudist beach.

By Timothy Phillips
Published 23 Jan 2023, 07:00 GMT
Timothy Phillips is the author of The Curtain and the Wall: A Modern Journey Along Europe’s Cold ...

Timothy Phillips is the author of The Curtain and the Wall: A Modern Journey Along Europe’s Cold War Border.

Photograph by Timothy Phillips

If you find yourself in Travemünde, the port and resort of Lübeck on the north German coast, take the boat across the River Trave to the Priwall peninsula. The journey only lasts a couple of minutes and when I did it this past summer, I walked the entire length of this narrow sliver of land to reach a nudist beach, where bathers used to hang their towels out to dry on the Iron Curtain.

Lübeck is famous as the medieval capital of the Hanseatic League, but for much of the 20th century, it played a different role as West Germany’s outpost on the Baltic Sea, with East Germany uneasily alongside it.

The Cold War brought many negative phenomena to Europe, but its most visible manifestation was always Germany’s division, especially the watchtowers and high fences that the communist German Democratic Republic (GDR) erected on its side of the frontier and, after 1961, the concrete wall with which it encircled West Berlin. 

A couple of years ago, I travelled the length of the former Iron Curtain, from the top of Norway all the way to Azerbaijan. The Priwall peninsula was one of the most memorable places I discovered. On a map, it looks pretty obvious where a border should run — the natural place would be the estuary of the River Trave. But right at the point where the Trave meets the sea, the Priwall peninsula on the river’s eastern bank ended up in West Germany. This was for longstanding historical reasons, but it meant that, from the 1940s until the 1980s, the north-eastern tip of West Germany was a tiny peninsula, just over a mile in length and half a mile wide, stuck to the GDR, and with no land connection to the rest of its own country. 

My first thought was that Priwall must have been heavily militarised in the Cold War, but it wasn’t. Instead, it hosted a cluster of holiday cottages. And then, in 1975, Travemünde council gave it a nudist beach. The choice of location, right up against the Iron Curtain, was deliberate, offering a way to spare the blushes of clothed holidaymakers by putting the amenity in a place without passers-by. 

Signs at the start of the nudist section warned tourists that naturists lay ahead. Then, at the end of the beach, a low chain-link fence and further signs warned naturists themselves that they were standing at the most dangerous border in the world. ‘Halt, hier Grenze!’ [Stop: border!].

On my first visit to the peninsula, in 2019, a cold wind blew and the beach was blanketed with sea mist. If there were any nudist bathers, they were invisible to me. I suspect everyone in the vicinity was well wrapped-up.

“I was tempted to contrast the free-spirited West German nudists with the cruel guards on the Eastern border, but reality was more complicated.”

by Timothy Phillips

This year’s trip could not have been more different. In a heatwave, the beach had plenty of people enjoying the sun and running down for occasional swims. Groups helped each other apply sun lotion to sensitive areas and then people mostly lay around reading books or dozing. The beach was far from full, the average age was high. 

Notoriously, the GDR was a state whose citizens were not free. That chain-link fence on Priwall beach belonged to West Germany, but beyond it were enormously greater installations owned by the GDR. Their main aim was to prevent GDR citizens from escaping. In archive photographs, you can see the East German beach looked like the edge of a maximum-security prison. 

I was tempted to contrast the free-spirited West German nudists with the cruel guards on the Eastern border, but reality was more complicated. The nudists were relegated to the outermost reaches of their state because of Western prudishness. Meanwhile, in the GDR, naturism, surprisingly, flourished. Attempts to ban it in the 1950s were swiftly reversed after mass disobedience. Unlike West Germans, Easterners stripped off anywhere they liked on beaches and at beauty spots. To underline the paradox, a 1975 article in West Germany’s Der Spiegel magazine reported that Priwall bathers had watched in amazement one afternoon when three GDR troopers came down from their watchtower, stripped off and skinny-dipped on their side of the Baltic.

I had a dip on the day of my visit, too, before crossing the old borderline into what had been East Germany. It’s hard to imagine all the man-made infrastructure that once blighted the landscape. When I dressed, I walked over the dunes to the road, where I found a large granite boulder placed at the exact point where the thoroughfare had once been blocked. On the boulder were carved the words ‘Nie wieder geteilt’. Never again divided.

Timothy Phillips is the author of The Curtain and the Wall: A Modern Journey Along Europe’s Cold War Border, published by Granta Books, £20.

Discover more stories from our Notes from an author series

Published in the Jan/Feb 2023 issue of  National Geographic Traveller (UK) 

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