Berlin is many cities at once, all in progress. Caitlin Kraemer knows many of these cities, but the one she is interested in from an intellectual perspective is Berlin the Swimming City. As a citizen-swimmer, she has focussed on a particular case of citizens’ action, of the Flussbad, of the flow-baths, an ambitious project to put swimming water at the very heart of Berlin. Imagine! Imagine. If they could do something like this in London. They could do something like this in London. Could they do something like this in London? A protected stretch of ecologically-cleansed river water the size of seven Olympic swimming pools right opposite the Houses of Parliament in London, right next to the London Eye, for example? Impossible, they might say in London. ‘Possible!’ they say in Berlin. It is happening. There are well-advanced plans to transform the Spree Canal in central Berlin, in Mitte, by opening it up to open water swimming, right at the Museum Island, with steps into the water right in front of the cathedral, at the end of the Lustgarten. Imagine!
Caitlin Kraemer knows lot about this project, this transformation. To describe Caitlin – she is a Master’s student at the Centre for Metropolitan Studies at the Technical University of Berlin. Her background is in Cultural Studies and Art History, which she studied at Humboldt University, also in Berlin. Her work is focused on large cities and their urban cultures and environmental histories. She is also a swimmer. Her thesis is on city-river-relationships, focusing on her own beloved Berlin, and I found out about her work through a research article she wrote on ‘Swimming in the City’. Berlin is an amazing city with so many places to swim in open water already, but remarkably little opportunity to swim right in the heart of the city. I mentioned swimming in Berlin to a friend quite recently and they said ‘I go to Berlin, but I didn’t realise you could swim there’ – you have to go to the surrounding areas and do a little divining for open water. In this podcast I talk with her about swimming in and around Berlin, how open water (swimming and walking next to, and kayaking and sailing on) is in the DNA, from the past, right now, and with the Berlin Flussbad, into the future.
Berlin has a long swimming history with historic swimming places. Wannsee with its kilometer of white beach of Baltic sand is the best-known open water resort, going way-back. There is the Havel River around Potsdam, and many, many lakes. The event in open water swimming history in Berlin took place in 1907, when the State of Prussia (of which Berlin was capital) put into law permission to swim almost anywhere – rivers, lakes and the ocean. Before then, there were outdoor floating baths along the Spree River, for hygiene and cleanliness of the growing working classes of the city in the nineteenth century. Prussia was one of the great political powers of the nineteenth century and at the turn of the twentieth century incorporated most of northern Germany as far as Cologne in the west, beyond Hamburg and Kiel in the north, and stretching east, across present-day northern Poland into present-day Kaliningrad, the little isolated territory of Russia, bordering Lithuania. I would like to imagine that this legislation shaped the outdoor swimming cultures of present-day Germany, Poland, and perhaps even Russia, but especially of Berlin.
The new law allowed the people of Berlin to swim in their open waters pretty well freely, something that continues in most places in this city to the present day. The Strandbad Wannsee opened in the early twentieth century to mark this swimming-turn, and it was incredibly popular as a place of recreation and a place of respite. In 1924, the Strandbad Wannsee facilities were up-graded, and the beach was opened up to winter swimming, a tradition that continues. During both major wars of the twentieth century, everyday folk would go to Wannsee to wash off, if temporarily, the mental and physical stresses that living through war affects everyone, everywhere, that suffers it. After the war, Wannsee was again an open water playground. A song from 1951, Conny Froboess’s ‘Pack die Badehose ein’ – literally 'Pack your swimming togs’, says it all. In the Corona-winter of 2020-2021, Wannsee was again a place where people came to wash off the everyday stresses of living through the pandemic, as and when they could.
In summer the people of Berlin flock to the water, especially to Wannsee and Schlachtensee (the latter especially because it’s very easy access by public transport). Schlachtensee is my go-to swimming lake when I am in Berlin – easy to get to by S-Bahn, beautifully wooded, with many small, small beaches, a track all the way around, a kilometer to the end from the centre to the left, and 1.2 kilometers to the right, with a dog-leg, and a cafe at the end. The beaches may fill up, but there is always space enough to get changed and launch into the water in either direction. And as in many lakes in Germany, people in boats are well aware of swimmers, and the relationship between swimmer and boater I have found to be an easy one.
There are popular places and more hidden places, plenty of swimming water for everyone. Winter swimming is strong too. I met, at Lake Bled in 2020, a winter swimming groups who call themselves the Berlin Brandenberg Bears. This last winter in Berlin was crazy for winter swimming, so many people doing it. Much as in the UK, people were taking it up as a response to the domestic confinement that came with COVID-19 restrictions. According to Caitlin, it was a good winter for winter swimming, which is to say that there were many weeks of air temperature well below zero Celsius. So many opportunities to break the ice, cut through it, to get the rush of happiness hormones that have helped people get through winter’s short days, grey skies and severely-restrictive lock-downs, which were only (to some extent) eased in Germany in May 2021.
The Flussbad Berlin is a vision of how to make a city more ‘for the people’– blue and green spaces and places to bathe in, with the eyes or with the body – to walk or cycle through open country and forest and by water, or to be physically immersed in water. Caitlin likes the instrumental abstract songs of Tommy Guerrero, and I can hear them, running as a sound track to her cycling to a swimming spot, perhaps one of her favourites, Krumme Lanke, or Schlachtensee, and then swimming. Making swimming possible, right in the heart of a city, is somehow civilising. And cities should be civilised places. Please listen to the podcast with Caitlin Kraemer – a very nice conversation with a young person doing something very important. If you are an open water swimmer, I am sure you will find many parallels with your own experiences, even if you have never been to Berlin or swum there.
Listen to the podcast here
Article by Caitlin Kraemer ‘Swimming in the City’
Music links – Conny Froboess ‘Pack die Badehose ein’
Jaye Jayle - 'The River Spree'
Tommy Guerrero - 'Sun Rays Like Stilts'