Sitting fully dressed in his backyard, pro-nudist council member Thomas Held, 54, acknowledged that the interest in his fight against swimming trunks was “very strange.”
“I think there are so many more important things,” he added.
As elsewhere in Europe where coronavirus outbreaks have been brought under control, the snapback in Germany to familiar routines and more trivial problems has been rapid — for some, jarringly so.
Four months ago, few Germans expected Summer 2020 to look anything like normal. Chancellor Angela Merkel was warning that 70 percent of the population — 58 million people — could become infected. She said the country was facing its greatest crisis since World War II.
Germany is now experiencing what may be its sharpest economic contraction since the war, and it has reported more than 9,000 coronavirus deaths. Still, it has so far been spared the worst of the pandemic and its fallout.
“Us humans, we don’t care too much about what’s happening 6,000 kilometers away,” said psychologist Andreas Mojzisch of the University of Hildesheim. “Most Germans don’t know anyone personally who has been infected.”
He added that the quick easing of restrictions by German federal states has contributed to a feeling that “the crisis is over.”
Health Minister Jens Spahn has warned against complacency, emphasizing, “The virus is still there.” A ban on large gatherings remains in effect, face masks are required in shops and on public transportation, and people are supposed to maintain 1.5 meters — about five feet — of distance. But most other virus-related constraints have been relaxed. The streets of Berlin and the beer gardens of Bavaria look much as they did before the pandemic.
The same rush to reclaim normal is evident elsewhere in Europe.
After the Czech government lifted most of its coronavirus measures, Prague approved what was advertised as the “city’s largest dinner party ever.” Thousands congregated on Charles Bridge on June 30, sharing food and saying “farewell” to the coronavirus crisis.
In neighboring Poland, a fierce presidential election campaign attracted thousands to rallies in recent weeks. The two candidates, incumbent President Andrzej Duda and Warsaw mayor Rafal Trzaskowski, both offered handshakes to their supporters.
Health experts and psychologists note this more relaxed behavior is rational, to a degree. The threat of the virus in Europe has receded, at least for now, and the loosening of restrictions hasn’t brought the sort of resurgence people feared.
Mojzisch, the psychologist, compared the eagerness among many in countries where case loads have declined to the initial phase after a diet. A person may, for instance, refrain from sugar for a few months, “but at some point the desire to return to normality grows. I think we see that in a lot of people in Europe right now.”
It’s a somewhat different phenomenon than the willful defiance in the United States, where some public officials and private individuals are ignoring the threat of the virus, even as it continues to spread at an alarming pace in many states.
But in both the United States and Europe, the behavior of people emerging from months of closures may reflect a mix of frustration with the restraints imposed on public life and a desire to shed the unease that has accompanied the pandemic.
“It affects everyone, it heightens the stress level, because nobody knows what’s next,” Held said.
By his own account, his opposition to the ban on nude swimming and his resistance to coronavirus-related restrictions are part of the same fight. Both are “about freedom, which has to be defended against the government.”
Nude swimming has long been socially acceptable in other parts of eastern Germany and in Lychen, a town of about 3,000 people nestled between glassy lakes.
“Whoever wants to swim naked swims naked. And those who don’t, do not,” said vacation home landlord Martin Hansen, 60, who opposes the ban.
But in May, after it became apparent that the first wave of the coronavirus had largely bypassed the region, the Lychen town council turned its attention from social distancing restrictions to bathing rules. To some council members, naked fellow residents swimming, doing yoga and playing volleyball had been a growing annoyance. The mayor and council moved to ban all nude activity at popular public bathing spots.
The outrage that followed included an anonymous letter to the mayor, threatening to poison the town’s lakes if nudist swimming rights were infringed upon. The police announced an investigation. TV crews and newspaper journalists descended on Lychen.
The ban has since been invalidated because of a formal mistake but is expected to be reinstated.
Mayor Karola Gundlach declined an interview request from The Washington Post, citing the excessive media coverage and adding, “It does not help if people from around the world send me emails and tell me or the town what to do, what is right and wrong.”
Rainer Greifeneder, a social psychology professor at the University of Basel, said a broader loss of freedoms during the pandemic was key to understanding how Lychen’s nude swimming dispute escalated.
Critics of the swimming ban have argued that the rule was rushed through the town council at a time when there was little room for a debate over the increasingly serious infringements on their freedoms.
“This perceived injustice was likely too much given the strain people experience due to corona anyhow,” Greifeneder said.
Meanwhile, some in Lychen have watched in disbelief as the dispute spiraled into a national story.
“Humanity is at a crossroads,” Hansen theorized. But the problems the world should really care about, such as climate change, “are so big that they’re impossible to grasp.”
He mused further: “Of course, it destroys the vibe if you hear that the world is going down the drain.” In comparison, nude swimming controversies may be easier for people to handle.