Monthly Archives: July 2013

Hidden from History


Duberman, Martin, Martha Vicinus, and George Chauncey, Jr., eds.  Hidden from History: Reclaiming the Gay & Lesbian Past.  New York: Meridian, 1989. 

Subject:  An anthology of 29 essays on gay and lesbian history, from the ancient world to the post-World War II era.

Summary & Main Points from the Introduction:  The introduction is actually a helpful, if brief, historiographical essay on the main trends of the study of homosexuality in the past 150 years.  I don’t want to summarize it all here, but I do want to point out the two developments that the editors believe have led to an “unprecedented outpouring” of work done on gay and lesbian history since the 1970s.  First has been the success of a lesbian and gay movement in creating a more tolerant climate in which scholarship could be done.  They also note that activists – like Jonathan Katz – were among the first to do this research.  The second development has been a change in the notions of what constitutes acceptable topics for researchers.  LGBT topics and sexuality and gender have been “approved” as part of a larger movement that made social history acceptable.

After scholars began reclaiming (or “finding”) the “gays and lesbians” in the past, they started focusing on specific themes: the oppression of homosexuality through politics, morals, and through pathologization.  Some scholars, though, began focusing on the oppressed subcultures themselves and the way that they resisted oppression.

The introduction then summarizes the impact of social constructionism on our understanding of (homo)sexuality, though Carole Vance warned against the “oversimplified and undifferentiated use of the theory,” insisting that just because the modern homosexual or “gay” person didn’t exist in the past, we should not deduce that no type of identity based around homosexual acts ever existed.  In other words, “Most recent work argues that the homosexual role, as we currently think of it, developed only in the modern period, but it also establishes that the modern role is not the only homosexual role possible” (9).

The most interesting part of the introduction – and the most helpful for me in my research – is when the editors discuss the “unusually” close relationship between professional historians, gay rights activism, and a collective identity.   “The gay and lesbian communities have increasingly recognized that some of the most important issues facing, agitating, and sometimes dividing them today, personally and collectively, are best addressed historically” (11).  Because their past has been ignored or denied, gay people’s “hunger for knowledge of their past is strong.  Having struggled to create a public presence for themselves in the world today, they seek to reclaim their historical presence.  For many, gay history helps constitute the gay community by giving it a tradition, helps women and men validate and understand who they are by showing them who they have been” (12).

Selection of essays from the book:

Robert Padgug, “Sexual Matters:  Rethinking Sexuality in History”

Denying that the categories of sexual behavior currently familiar to us (hetero/homosexual) are predetermined and universal, Padgug argues that our sexuality is neither a fixed essence nor even, necessarily, an individual’s innermost realit. To the contrary, human sexuality, unlike animal sexuality, is never more than a “set of potentialities,” rich and ever-varying, tied above all to whatever is currently viewed as social reality.  Just as social reality changes radically through time, so do the sexual categories that reflect it.

Vivien W. Ng, “Homosexuality and the State in Late Imperial China”

In the seventeenth century, China experienced a burst of public interest in male homosexuality.  Confucian scholars made references to it in their jottings, and novelists and playwrights celebrated it in their works.  This open discussion of homosexuality led to a conservative backlash by the new Manchu rulers of the new Qing dynasty.  Responding to the widespread perception that homosexuality had become “rampant” in China, the Qing government, in 1740, decreed that consensual sodomy between adults was a punishable offense.  Ng’s essay first establishes the social milieu of seventeenth-century China, then explores descriptions of homosexual love in literature and the relations of such descriptions to Confucian ideology, and finally, analyzes the response o Chinese officialdom.

Randolph Trumbach, “The Birth of the Queen:  Sodomy and the Emergence o Gender Equality in Modern Culture, 1660-1750”

Trumbach argues that a major shift occurred in the conventions governing male homosexual relations in Europe’s large cities around 1700.  Whereas before then, many citizens of cities such as London accepted the existence of adult male “rakes” who had sex with both women and boys, after 1700 they were increasingly likely to think of homosexual behavior as the forbidden activity of a deviant, effeminate minority of adult males.  Groups of such men actually appeared about then, and were best known because of raids on the “molly houses” where they gathered.  Trumbach argues that their emergence should be understood in the context of a growing gender equality between men and women (equality in the new, heterosexual norm, with the deviant being “the other.”)

James D. Steakley, “Iconography of a Scandal:  Political Cartoons and the Eulenburg Affair in Wilhelmin Germany”

From 1907 to 1909, Imperial Germany was rocked by a series of courts-martial concerned with homosexual conduct in the army as well as five courtroom trials that turned on the homosexuality of prominent members of Kaiser Wilhelm II’s entourage and cabinet.  National honor was palpably at stake in the Eulenburg Affair, as it had come to be known.  While it was unfolding, the scandal led to an unprecedentedly detailed discussion homosexual practices in the German and even foreign press, including a wealth of (anti-)gay images in political cartoons.  These representations provide vivid insights into the nation’s values, anxieties, and cultural norms, revealing that homophobia was yoked with anti-Semitism and antifeminism as part of a broader antimodernist backlash that ultimately led to Germany’s entry into WWI.  Yet, at the same time, increased public awareness of homosexuality undoubtedly caused some individuals to reconceptualize their sexual activities and thus contributed to the making of modern homosexuals.

George Chauncey, Jr., “Christian Brotherhood or Sexual Perversion?  Homosexual Identities and the Construction of Sexual Boundaries in the World War I Era”

Using evidence generated by a navy investigation of homosexuality at the Newport Naval Training Station in 1919-1920, Chauncey reconstructs the social organization and self-understanding of homosexually active sailors.  Newport’s sexual culture was surprisingly different from our own, and Chauncey shows how large numbers of sailors were able to have sex with men identified as “queers” without its affecting their image of themselves as “normal” men.  This is due to a highly developed and varied gay subculture in which multiple identities (queer, fairy, trade, etc) could allow some men – usually playing the dominant and masculine roll – could have sex men (of another category) without becoming “a homosexual” themselves.  Also striking is his analysis of the relative insignificance of medical discourse in shaping homosexual identities, the class differences in sexual ideology, and the diversity of sexual cultures.

Erwin Haeberle, “Swastika, Pink Traingle, and Yellow Star:  the Destruction of Sexology and the Persecution of Homosexuals in Nazi Germany”

This one is particularly central to my own research, though it wasn’t particularly enlightening.  Haeberle shows how several forms of discrimination culminated in Magnus Hirschfeld: he was Jewish, homosexual, and a socialist.  His work in sexology put yet another target on his back, because Haeberle argues that sexology was focused primarily on critiquing the prevailing sexual attitudes and traditional assumptions about sex (while the Nazis were trying to re-implement traditional roles).  His discussion of the actual persecution of homosexuals is rather accurate – though he admits that activists and early historians who didn’t have access to Third Reich records produced an exaggerated narrative.  Yet, he also falls in the trap of taking the Nazis at their word.  He presents statements from the Party about their views on homosexuality, without actually examining what was happening on the ground.  So, while this is a good start for this research, it needs to be taken further (which is what I intend to do!)

John D’Emilio, “Gay Politics and Community in San Francisco since World War II

In this essay, he picks up a tradition of community history by focusing on San Francisco, a city especially identified with the gay experience.  He explains how San Fran became a “gay space” – one reason being men and women discharged from the military for homosexuality did not want to return home to face the stigma, so they stayed and helped contribute to a forming community.  He adds that the repression of the postwar decade heightened consciousness of belonging to a group.  D’Emilio makes it clear that the emergence of San Francisco as a gay space, and eventually as a hotbed of gay activism can only be understood in lieu of larger social changes at the time.  San Francisco was home to other radical movement, like the beat/hippies, as well as a literary tradition that questioned traditional moral values.  Gays and lesbians felt more at home in this liberal atmosphere.  As the community grew, the consciousness of community led to political activism, and the activists borrowed from the women’s lib, black power, and civil rights movements.  Backlash from the New Right provided the stimulus of the potential of the politically active gays and lesbians (which were just a minority of the gay and lesbian community) into a force with real power.

My Comments:

Overall, I think it’s a helpful book, and there definitely needed to be an anthology of gay and lesbian history by 1990.  The introduction is helpful in tracing the major trends in the field, and each of the essays raise important questions about essentialism vs. constructionism and the relationship between medical knowledge, sexuality, and politics.

Unfortunately, this is a very male-dominated book.  It was also a very Western book.  It would have been greatly improved if there was more work dedicated to the unique lesbian experience, as well as the multiple different ways in which same-sex desire has been understood in non-Western societies.

For more books on the history of sexuality, see my list of reviews, HERE. 

Categories: Book Review, History, Sexuality & Gender | Tags: , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Reshaping the German Right



Eley, Geoff.  Reshaping the German Right: Radical Nationalism and Political Change after Bismarck.  New Haven: Yale University Press, 1980.

In this work, Eley takes on the main trend of historiography about the German Empire (1871-1918).  The Kaiserreich was conventionally portrayed as a society in which a pre-industrial elite controlled revolutions from above and pushed Germany onto an authoritarian Sonderweg.  Eley claims that this is too simplistic and argues that the landed elite were actually reacting to radical impulses from below.

By 1890, the maturation of Germany’s capitalism brought about economic and social changes that, in turn, made the Mittelstand (petty bourgeoisie) realize that they were being completely left out of the political structure.  Political parties, particularly the National Liberal Party, which claimed to be on the side of the Mittelstand, failed to actually fit their interests.   The Mittelstand viewed the National Liberal’s continued use of Honoratiorenpolitik (‘politics by the notables’) as outdated.  Moreover, this is what kept members of the Mittelstand out of the political structure (184).  So, they formed nationale Verbände, or nationalist pressure groups, such as the Navy League and the Pan-German League, to essentially take matters into their own hands outside of the existing political structure.  These radical Verbände emphasized militant nationalism and imperialism and were highly critical of the government.  Both the Navy League and the Agrarian League stood for “a transformation of political style” that stemmed from “the self-activation of subaltern groups and the unprecedented demagogic campaigns they waged against the authorities during the 1890s, invariably against the counsels and sometimes the vigorous opposition of older-style Conservatives” (218).  This tension between the Old and New Right led to a ideological showdown that would define the position of the Right for decades.

In the face of this attack by the “new Right,” the “old Right” could have instituted systems of self-reform in the areas of traditional hereditary rights and control of the government, economy, and military.  But it instead decided to accommodate nationalist groups beginning in 1911.  The result was an alliance between the new big industry and the old agricultural elite, an alliance colored with a strain of radical nationalism.  This new alliance, or “New Right Cartel” was brought closer together by the fear of the Left, which had won considerable gains in 1912.   This new cartel downplayed conservative party lines and was also forced to take a critical stance against the imperial government.

The main difference between the old and new Rights was their respective stance towards the government.  The New Right was critical of Chancellor von Bethmann Hollweg’s imperial government, and the Old Right followed suit in order to keep the boundaries between Left and Right as clear as possible.  According to Eley, this represented a radicalization of the right.

In this light, radical nationalism was no longer an ideological weapon wielded by the imperial and aristocratic elite to forge uniformity support of the government; instead, nationalism was a “grass roots” movement that was largely anti-governmental.

If I understood his argument correctly, it seems like Eley is trying to explain the connections between the Second and Third Reichs in new ways.  Instead of seeing the connection between Imperial & Nazi Germany as any persistent influence of a militaristic, imperial elite, Eley posits this larger, structural radicalization and nationalization of the Right as laying the groundwork for the Nazi seizure of power in 1933.

For more books on modern German History, see my list of reviews HERE.

Categories: Book Review, German History, History | Tags: , , | Leave a comment

“Sapphistries” by Leila Rupp



Rupp, Leila.  Sapphistries: A Global History of Love between Women.  New York, New York University Press, 2009.

Subject: Sapphistries is an impressive survey that covers a global history of love, desire, and sex between women from the beginning of time to the present.

Author’s Main Argument(s): From the beginning, Rupp acknowledges the inherent challenges in writing a history with such a large temporal and geographic scope (the entire world throughout all time!).  Yet, she claims that by using a global scope, we may discern patterns of how female same-sex desire, love, and sex have been viewed by outsiders and by the women involved in those acts.  Finding these patterns does not mean, however, that Rupp is looking for an “essential lesbian” that has existed throughout time.   In fact, Rupp doesn’t use the term lesbian because it’s broad and downplays the differences among women, “especially when the concept and identity of lesbian is available and women choose not to embrace it, as occurs in many parts of the world” (3).  She chooses the word Sapphistries (and Sapphric) because they have a longer and more widespread history than lesbian.  Moreover, her term embraces all the diverse manifestations of women and “social males” with women’s bodies who desired, loved, made love to, formed relationships with, and married other women (1).

Rupp concludes that very different societies shaped erotic relationships between women in quite similar ways.  The patterns that Rupp’s work reveals are: 1) the role of female masculinity, and 2) the eroticization of friendship.  These patterns, of course, do not overshadow the historically specific differences of how these societies viewed and reacted to relationships between women, but she cautions that we should not let these particularities blind us to the similarities.

The ways that love between women has been understood is 1) a woman who desires other women is masculine, and her body marks her different from other women, that she hates and is deprived of men.  The ways in which women-loving women have understood themselves are characterized by two relationships:  masculine-feminine attraction, in which “gender difference is eroticized,” and erotic friendships, in which sameness shapes desire (7).

In pointing out these patterns, Rupp says that the story of female homosexuality takes a different path than male homosexuality (particular the story portrayed by David Halperin). Male homosexual relationships tended to be understood in terms of relationships of difference: differentiated by age, by gender, or by class and race.  A lot of the history of male homosexuality revolves around the right of a superior man to penetrate his inferiors (the negative association of homosexuality was reserved for the male who was penetrated by another man).  Rupp argues that these relationships of differentiation are not central to the history of female homosexuality, because nondifferentiated relationships seem to be much more common.

Another goal of Rupp’s book is to decenter a Western-dominated story of progress and to present a complex understanding of the ways that local and global identities interact in the contemporary world (8).  In doing so, she questions the narrative of triumphal progress in which gays and lesbians ultimately win social acceptance and political rights.  She claims that a global perspective shows that the emergence of gays and lesbians into and gaining acceptance by the public at large is not significant everywhere.

The actual evidence and stories that she tells throughout the book are not only interesting, but they’re convincing (with perhaps the first chapter being the exception).  She talks about how women in the ancient world were seen as less important than men, and that could perhaps explain why what they did with one another was of no interest or consequence (40).  She also talks about spaces that were conducive for women to express desire (erotic and non-erotic) for each other, and surprisingly enough, these were often religious or political spaces, such as Christian nunneries, Ottoman harems, and Chines polygamous households.  Even more interesting is her chapter on “In Plain Sight,” in which she studies the ways in which different cultures have directly confronted and understood love between women, and the complex nature of gender itself.  Beginning in 1500, she argues, there is evidence of European women actually gender crossing and living as men.  She also devoted a lot of time (rightfully so) to Indian cultures that opposed a binary view of gender by creating a special place for people who did not fit into the “man” or “woman” category.  Hijras (eunuchs) enjoy important roles in social and religious rituals.  Native Americans cultures also defied the binary view of gender by recognizing a third gender, or a “two-spirit,” which was a person who exhibited characteristics of both genders, or loved someone of the same gender (81).

Beginning in 1600, women-loving women were able to come out of isolation and form communities, due to urbanization and capitalization (this fits within the lager historiography of homosexual community building).

My Comments: 

I could get carried away with all of the interesting examples and narratives that she provides throughout the book.  It was a pleasure to read, and I hope to be able to sit down and read it more thoroughly one day.  It’s a great survey, and while the global aspect may overlook some details, the pros greatly outweigh the cons in my opinion.  I like comparative works, and reading examples from non-Western societies was refreshing.  The main thing that I got out of this book is how male and female homosexuality took different courses in their development.

For more books on the history of sexuality, see my list of reviews, here.

Categories: Book Review, History, Sexuality & Gender | Tags: , , , | Leave a comment

The Alternative Culture (Lidtke)


Lidtke, Vernon L.  The Alternative Culture: Socialist Labor in Imperial Germany.  New York:  Oxford University Press, 1985. 

This book is about the creation and maintenance of a Socialist sub-culture in the German Kaiserreich (1871-1918).  As such, it is a work of cultural history that highlights the importance of symbols, festivals, and other events in the formation of a Social Democrat identity.  Lidtke’s book argues that the Social Democratic labor movement “presented German society with a radical alternative to existing norms and arrangements” (7).  This ‘alternative culture’ was not radical in that it wanted to overthrow the imperial government in a swift revolution.  Instead, it was radical in the sense that it “embodied in its principles a conception of production, social relations, and political institutions that rejected existing structures, practices, and values at almost every point” (7).

This book focuses on socialist culture rather than socialist politics, and as a result, we get a feel for what it was like “on the ground” for the members of the Social Democratic party and free trade unions.  Lidtke is careful to emphasize that even though he is talking about an alternative culture, this “social-cultural milieu” was not a single, uniform mass with a clearly defined ideology.  Instead, “diversity held its own against total uniformity” (191).  So, inside the social labor culture there was diversity and contradiction; this was an unavoidable result of the many different individuals that made up its ranks.  In order to appeal to this variety of people, the Party, unions, and voluntary associations hosted a variety of types of events.

It is in exploring these many different internal facets of this social-cultural milieu that Lidtke’s book is at its strongest.  Lidtke argues that while Party and free trade union events were at the center of fostering a larger social labor identity, other more “peripheral” events, like those hosted by voluntary Vereine, had more of a direct impact on the rank-and-file members of the SPD (21).   At these events, workers (and to a lesser extent, their wives) could socialize at taverns, the work floor, picnics, choirs, gymnastic clubs, chess clubs, public lectures, book readings, etc.  These social events shouldn’t be seen as frivolous, Litdke argues.  These were important sites of cultural negotiation where members helped construct what being a Social Democrat meant.  “Sociability, and all frivolities that implied, could not be cast aside without undermining the whole structure.  Personal attachment, familiarity, and fellowship among acquaintances created emotional bonds that were just as important for the vitality of the cultural world of the labor movement as party loyalty and ideological commitment” (74).

But this level of internal diversity had to be kept under a common umbrella of ideology, or else there wouldn’t be a movement.  In this light, larger festivals that brought all of the diverse Social clubs together fused individual experiences into a coherent whole (101).  Through Arbeiterbildung, the Party was able to help frame the larger ideological framework of the ‘alternative culture.’  The Party hosted lectures, courses, and readings for its members, but ultimately, “socialist ideas spread among workers far more effectively by word of mouth…than through individual readings” (191).  So, the Party ideologues had to be careful when presenting specific ideologies for fear of alienating some of their members.  As a result, the ideological symbols “of labor movement clubs, as with all symbols, were appropriately broad and even ambiguous.  They had to be” (74).

Lidtke’s work shows that internal diversity was not a sign of weakness, but of vitality.  While it first seems that this milieu lacked tight cohesiveness, internal diversity becomes less important when you compare it to the larger Germany society and the differences from the rest of imperial Germany become apparent.

For more books on German history, see my list of book reviews, here.

Categories: Book Review, German History, History | Tags: , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Life under Totalitarian Regimes

War on Cancer

Robert Proctor’s study of science and medicine under National Socialism and Sheila Fitzpatrick’s work on everyday life under Stalinism both offer intriguing insights into what life was like under two totalitarian regimes of the twentieth century.  Proctor grapples with the question of whether we can see anything “good” or even “progressive” coming out of the same regime that produced Josef Mengele and state-sanctioned euthanasia programs for the sick, elderly, and handicapped.  Proctor concludes that recognition of Nazi public health campaigns against cancer does not equal an endorsement of Nazi medicine; but he asserts that we must recognize that “the Nazi war on cancer was the most aggressive in the world,” even if this recognition only complicates our understanding of the Nazis’ aims (4).  Fitzpatrick, on the other hand, looks at life for “everyday” people under Stalin’s regime in Soviet Russia in an effort to define normalcy.  How did men and women adjust to a life of material shortages, surveillance, and random terror? What did daily life look like for them?  Interestingly, while Fitzpatrick attempts to study the formation of a new normal life or routine, what her book ultimately highlights is the formation of a new, normal Soviet citizen under Stalinism.

In the Nazi War on Cancer, Proctor studies Nazi leaders’ public health campaigns, focusing specifically on their attempts to prevent cancer within their sphere of influence.  He reveals that Nazi Party leaders and doctors led initiatives that helped raise awareness between the connections of environmental factors (chemicals and asbestos, for instance) and the development of cancer.  They promoted new ideal diets for the Germans, encouraging healthy eating (even going so far as forcing bakeries to sell whole wheat bread) (130), the avoidance of alcohol, and even herbal remedies that were believed to lower the risk of cancer  And it was in Nazi Germany that the connection between tobacco and lung cancer was first made (176), leading to a massive anti-smoking campaign that included banning of smoking in public places as well as strict laws on advertisement for cigarettes.  Proctor deftly presents these facts and shows that the Nazis’ efforts were more focused on prevention rather than cures, but all throughout his book (and most clearly in his prologue and concluding chapter), he explicitly grapples with why he felt compelled to write the book in the first place.  Of course it was not meant to exonerate Nazi doctors for their other, more infamous acts (even though he shows that between 1950 and 1990 German women have experienced the most drastic drop of lung cancer mortalities than any other Western nation – a result he believes could possibly be tied to Nazi anti-smoking efforts, 268). Instead, Proctor argues that acknowledging these more “socially responsible” aspects of Nazi policy gives a more complex and accurate understanding of life under Nazism.  “Both elements – the monstrous and the prosaic – are key” to understanding the realities of Nazi science and medicine (277).

In complicating the picture, Proctor reminds his readers that these “progressive” campaigns must be viewed in their historical context.  Yes, the Party leadership, along with the doctors who supported them, wanted to prevent cancer in their population.  But they had a very narrow definition of who belonged in the Aryan Volk, which meant that their ideas of public health were steeped in racism.  Just as Nazis wanted to purge the Volksgemeinschaft of racial enemies like Jews, they wanted to cleanse the German body of impurities like cancer.  In this vein, Hans Auler, a Berlin professor and researcher claimed, “It is fortunate for German cancer patients, and for anyone threatened by cancer, that the Third Reich has grounded itself on the maintenance of German health” (71).  Proctor then sees Nazism as “an experiment of sorts – a vast hygienic experiment designed to bring about an exclusionist sanitary utopia” (11).  In this light, “the Nazi campaign against tobacco and the ‘whole-gran bread operation’ are, in some sense, as fascist as the yellow stars and the death camps” (278).

By bringing out these connections, Proctor reminds us that the relationship between science and politics, or between science and society is much more intricate than we may think.  Science was neither a neutral subject, removed from the effects of politics and society, nor was it simply a tool of Nazi ideologues.  The

relations between “science” and “society” are more complex than is commonly imagined. Even in the microcosm of Nazi cancer research we find very different ways that science can express politics, and vice versa…Fascists were arguing over what kinds of science should be supported, and scientists were arguing over what kinds of fascism should be supported (251-252).

Nazi ideologies set some of the directions of medicinal research and public health initiatives, just as science and medicine helped shape Nazi ideology.  “Public health initiatives were pursued not just in spite of fascism, but also in consequence of fascism” (249).  By adding these nuances to our understanding of life under the National Socialist regime, we learn that “Nazism was a more subtle phenomenon than we commonly imagine, more seductive, more plausible” (7).

In Everyday Stalinism: Ordinary Life in Extraordinary Times: Soviet Russia in the 1930s, Sheila Fitzpatrick studies the emergence of what she calls Homo Sovieticus, a “social species” that developed in response to the transformation of everyday life under Joseph Stalin.  The term “Soviet” makes it into Fitzpatrick’s rhetorical classification because the Soviet state was a “central and ubiquitous presence” for individuals living in Russia during this period (3).  In this book, Fitzpatrick studies a vast range of everyday processes: obtaining goods, travelling, telling jokes, finding housing, marriage and divorce, voting, avoiding the secret police, and more.  Interestingly enough, she does not take working and the workplace into consideration, because that would mean that she could talk about only one section of society: men (but she also shows that almost ten million women joined the labor force in the 1930s, so one wonders why women could not be taken into consideration when studying the process of working under Stalin, 139).  Despite this absence, the rest of her material is enlightening.

The predominant characteristic of everyday life in Stalinist Russia during the 1930 was shortage.  Shortages of basic material goods such as clothing and food accompanied near complete absence of luxury goods, which were randomly dispersed among the new cultural elite.  Additionally, an influx of nearly 10 million peasants into Russia’s cities created gross housing shortages that the state seemed to overlook in lieu of its efforts to industrialize and modernize other sectors of society.  The ubiquity of shortage led to cultural shifts in Russian society.  New words and phrases entered the common vocabulary.  People no longer spoke of “buying” goods, but instead of “getting” them; men and women carried “just in case bags” for the unlikely chance that some product was being distributed while they were in town (40).

Fitzpatrick reveals how, by the 1930s, the main function of the Soviet state transitioned from the redistribution of wealth and goods to the basic distribution of all goods to its citizens (39).  In a life plagued by shortage, not money or production, but personal connections became the currency to acquire goods.  Blat (“influence” or “pull”) “subverted the meaning of Stalin’s great economic restructuring, creating a second economy based on personal contacts and patronage parallel to the first, socialist, economy based on principles of state ownership and central planning” (65). The inefficiency of the State to distribute even the most basic of goods, despite its dogmatic emphasis on rationalized central planning, forced its citizens to become risk takers.  Shopping became a survival skill and blat undermined the state’s control on distribution; corners were cut to meet unrealistic goals in the labor force.  Ultimately, the need for goods was greater than the fear of being caught on the black market.

A life of chronic shortages became the new, “normal” everyday life for Homo Sovieticus.  Fitzpatrick’s discussion of “normal” reminds me of Marion Kaplan’s discussion of normality and “catastrophic gradualism” in Between Dignity and Despair, in which she shows that people quickly become accustomed to new normals.  But while Fitzpatrick shows that new routines were established in Stalinist everyday life, she also reveals that the people themselves did not think of their life as normal.  The hardships of life they were experiencing were understood as temporary, a transition period into a life of abundance.  This mindset reveals another aspect of life under a totalitarian regime (or one could argue under any regime): the leaders’ ability to influence its citizens’ collective memories.  She describes these collective memories as “common property,” stories that help “make sense out of the scattered data of ordinary life, providing a context, imposing a pattern that shows where one has come from and where one is going” (8).  These sets of stories helped Homo Sovieticus understand their period of transitional hardship leading to a “radiant future,” position themselves in a great modernizing crusade to overthrow the backwardness of imperial Russia, and understand themselves as preparing for the final battle with capitalism.  All of these mentalities allowed Russian citizens to see normal life as something just around the corner, worth working for; but Fitzpatrick shows that life under Stalin had indeed established new, everyday routines, a new normal that would prove to be anything but temporary.

Both Proctor and Fitzpatrick urge us to reevaluate our understandings of life under National Socialism and Stalinism.  Nazism’s apparent concern for its (narrowly defined, “racially pure”) citizenry may help explain why everyday Germans were willing to follow the movement and overlook its more radicalized aspects.  According to Fitzpatrick, most people in history accept their governments simply because they perceived that there was no other choice – and Russians under Stalin were no different (225).  The omnipresent existence of state surveillance and arbitrary terror “encouraged fatalism and passivity in the population, instilling a sense that the individual was not and could not be in control of his own fate” (219).  “Us vs. them” mentalities are important in both stories, though in different ways.  Russian citizens (“us”) identified with each other in relation to – and often against – the state (“them”), a group of men calling the shots and causing shortages from their position “up there” in the government.  The Nazi state, on the other hand, sought to create an “us” that included both state and people who were meant to serve each other.  The “them” was meant to be racio-political enemies of the German Volk.  In both cases, the party-states and citizenry saw themselves as not only modernizing, but ultimately vanquishing the troubles of modernity while capitalizing on its fruits.  This process of perceived modernization helped provide a cohesion and goal for Nazism and Stalinism, both of which promised to usher in a new era for humanity.

Books under review:

Proctor, Robert. The Nazi War on Cancer. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1999.

Fitzpatrick, Sheila.  Everyday Stalinism: Ordinary Life in Extraordinary Times: Soviet Russia in the 1930s. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Creative Commons License

Life under Totalitarian Regimes is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.


For more books on modern European history, see my full list of book reviews. 

Categories: Book Review, Modern European History, Science/Technology | Tags: , , , , , , | 1 Comment

This is All I’ve Got


Finally, the mystery is solved!

lint = dead socks

This is why I just stay at home most days…

Resist Punching People

When you give a play-by-play update of your life on Facebook…

Searching for a fuck to give

Categories: Humor | Tags: , , , | Leave a comment

Things to Think About

Jung Quote

Monsters inside us - the joker


Dante - Hottest Place in Hell

Categories: Ideas & Philosophy | Tags: , , , | Leave a comment


I haven’t been posting in a while – but I have been collecting some good stuff as I’ve come across it.  So, I just thought I’d share:


Book Store & Credit Card


Books equal perspective


Favorite Book = Child


Fight Evil - Read Books


Get Stuff Done or Read


Read Something Good


Writers are Lots of People


Blind Date with a book


Take me gandalf

Categories: Nerdgasm | Tags: , , , | Leave a comment

Blog at