Mosse, George L. Nationalism & Sexuality: Respectability and Abnormal Sexuality in Modern Europe. New York: Howard Fertig, Inc., 1985.
Subject: An exploration of the transformations of bourgeois respectability in 19th and 20th century Germany & England and the ways in which these transformations interacted with nationalism and race.
Main Arguments: Mosse’s main argument is that bourgeois respectability and nationalism shaped attitudes toward sex, and these sexual attitudes contributed powerfully to militant nationalism and even the rise of fascism. While the subtitle of his book refers to all of modern Europe, he focuses mainly on Germany and to a lesser extent on England (with a few references to France and Italy). He justifies this by stating that in Germany “we witness the ultimate consequences of trying to direct and control human sexuality: the concerted effort under National Socialism to regenerate respectability” (2).
Though he doesn’t really give us a glimpse of what came before this new mode of respectability (sexual “normality”), he claims that the cause of this transformation was religion, and Protestant religious revivals in particular: German Pietism in Germany, that encouraged Germans to observe a silent obedience to a higher power, and Evangelism in England, that encouraged its followers to get involved with politics. What emerged out of this transformation was a new sense of respectability, which defined “decent and correct” behavior, as well as the proper attitude one should have toward that behavior. The supposed “natural” distinctions between men and women were highlighted, creating and enforcing public/private spheres.
These new understandings were harnessed by nationalists to promote nationalistic goals. Sex was meant for “normal” reproduction, and anything outside of that norm was ostracized as not only unnatural, but unpatriotic and damaging to the nation as well. In other words, patriotism was equated with sexual normality, and “unnatural” sex, with national decline and racial corruption.
“Outsiders” – or those who did not fit into the realm of respectability, such as homosexuals – were attacked as enemies of the state. The same can be said for Jews, who were accused of using sex as a weapon to undermine the nation’s health through racial and moral pollution.
He has an interesting chapter on the ways the state imposed its control over the friendships of its citizens. Whereas the Enlightenment had emphasized the individual’s right to cultivate relationships – even erotic ones with members of the same sex – nationalism dictated that individuals should only have non-erotic friendships with members of the same sex, and erotic relationships would be saved for husbands and wives (and again, for only reproductive purposes to create future generations for the state). The challenge, however, was to keep homosocial relationships from turning into homosexuals ones, because, the state encouraged deep and even passionate bonds among its male citizens. In fact, these powerful male friendships were prerequisite of masculinity. The state wanted men who felt a deep sense of camaraderie with one another, which bolstered the solidarity and power of nationalism. In this sense, these homosocial relationships always bordered on homoerotic (because of the passion of the friendship); but this also bothered the nationalists because that passionate characteristic always ran the risk of developing into a homosexual bond. (He also makes the claim that in Germany, the “ideals of personal friendship were most clearly articulated” because the Germans hoped these bonds would act as “a surrogate for lost national unity” – – which I think is a gross over generalization (67).
The Nazis are seen as the logical endpoint for these developments; so instead of being viewed as an abhorrent misuse of sexuality and nationalism, I get the feeling that Mosse sees these developments as leading almost inevitably towards such abhorrent uses. National Socialism promised to harness and enforce respectability to re-forge the nation in the face of the chaos of modernity. While men run and protect the nation with physical force (monuments of nude men are erected throughout Germany, displaying the ideal masculinity and the “return” to the natural body), women (who are ultimately inferior) have the duty of literally reproducing the racially and morally pure nation.
I think this must have been a good and maybe even controversial book back in 1985, but it’s dated now. The way he presents the material is as if there is some un-named “they” who are concocting these new ideas and powers. There’s no sense of interplay between culture, politics, and ideas. The result is that the people in the book have absolutely no agency, and are just pawns of the powerful nation-builders.
For more books on German history or the history of sexuality, see my full list of book reviews here.