German History

The Hitler State

Broszat Hitler State

Broszat, Martin.  The Hitler State: The Foundation and Development of the Internal Structure of the Third Reich.  Trans. John W. Hiden.  London: Longman, 1981.

Originally published in 1969, Broszat’s Der Staat Hitlers was one of the first works to take a structuralist approach to the Third Reich.  In other words, he sought to uncover the deeper forces behind the regime rather than provide a more biographical overview of the key political players.  As such, Broszat’s book is not structured like a synthesis or textbook that provides a chronological account of events.  Instead, the study is an examination of how power and authority were structured and exercised in Nazi Germany.

Broszat’s main goal is to reevaluate the view of the Nazi state as one in which it exercised complete, systematic, and standardized control over its nation.  The picture of the Third Reich that Broszat paints is one full of complex and overlapping governmental and party structures that were often competing against one another.  There was often tension between Reich ministries and the Länder organizations, between German state offices and Nazi party organs, and most often between different bureaucrats themselves.  Broszat pinpoints Hitler as the reason behind this structure in which power existed not as flowing hierarchically from the top down, but as coexisting simultaneously in different spheres.  Hitler, Broszat argues, demanded full authority in his position as Führer, but was skeptical of establishing a standardized, or rationalized, system of authority below him.  Personal loyalty to him was paramount, but beyond that, Hitler allowed for personal and organizational competition among his underlings.  This helped to assure that no significant amount of power would be collected by one office or individual outside of the Führer.

Broszat’s study focuses on the period between the seizure of power in 1933 and the preparation for war in 1939, and as he demonstrates, this is a period in which there still existed an uneasy relationship between the older conservative tradition and the radical dynamism of Nazism.  In the initial months of 1933, Nazi officials instituted a number of radical policies including purges and the construction of concentration camps.  But because the more traditional conservative forces had apprehensions about such actions – and Hitler still needed their influence, particularly with forming alliances with Germany’s heavy industry for the coming rearming mission – Hitler put a stop to the violence, thus returning to more conventional modes of governing by the end of 1933.  In 1937 and 1938, the gap between old elites and Nazi leaders widened as Nazis began ousting conservatives from the government and formulating more aggressive foreign policies in what Broszat refers to as the “second revolution” of the Nazi regime (354).

This unequal distribution of power, which was largely defined by one’s personal connection to Hitler, fueled a Darwinian competition that led to the creation of personal empires within the Third Reich (like Himmler’s death camp system).  In a functionalist vein, Broszat argues that this struggle for power forced people to develop new ways of exercising power.  With the lack of rationalized chains of command, it was left up to subordinates to figure out ways to turn Hitler’s visions into realities. In addition to allowing Hitler to stand alone above – and perhaps beyond – the system, “the “polycracy” of individual office holders…ultimately led to a proliferation of arbitrary decisions and acts of violence” (xi).  Therefore, the National Socialists did not come to the table in 1933 with the blue prints for the Holocaust as a secret goal; instead, the de-centralized and revolutionary power structure of the Nazi state led to the radicalization of goals and to extremism that murdered millions of people.

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

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Backing Hitler

Backing Hitler

Gellately, Robert.  Backing Hitler: Consent and Coercion in Nazi Germany.  Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001.


In Backing Hitler, Gellately completely reevaluates the role that the German population played in the establishment and maintenance of the Nazi dictatorship.  Moreover, he seeks to answer the problematic question of just how much the Germans knew of the Nazis’ more heinous policies.  He provocatively argues that not only did most Germans know that their country had a Secret Police and a concentration camp system, but that they supported (or at least took pride in) the government’s heavy-handed war against those “who were regarded as ‘outsiders,’ ‘asocials,’ ‘useless eaters,’ or ‘criminals’” (vii).  The Nazi regime that emerges from Gellately’s story is not one that enforced uniform terror on everyone with no regard for popular opinion; instead, we learn of a state obsessed with finding out what its “Aryan” people thought of it.  Consequently, the Third Reich was as dependent on the Volk’s consent to function as it was on forced coercion.

Central to Gellately’s argument is the observation that “Hitler wanted to create a dictatorship, but he also wanted the support of the people” (1).  Therefore, Nazi leaders had to keep the Aryan core of the utopian Volksgemeinschaft in mind when establishing the networks of state power.  In order to tap into the power of the people, Nazis capitalized on the widespread desire to return to a more stable, traditional German society, a society that the liberal, democratic Weimar Republic had destroyed.  The Nazis, then, did not try to hide the fact that they used violence and coercion in dealing with their enemies (portrayed as enemies of the German people).  Initially, Communists were targeted, arrested, and thrown into the new network of concentration camps.  What may be surprising to readers is the fact that these concentration camps were not kept a secret either.  The opening of the famous Dachau concentration camp in 1933, for example, was announced with front-page headlines (51). Gellately argues that even if Germans did not agree with the stories of excessive violence associated with the concentration camps, they did not protest because “most of the coercion and terror was used against…social groups for whom the people had little sympathy” (2).

Gellately traces distinct phases of consent for Hitler and Nazism.  The first phase was when the Nazi government was able to provide tangible results: a recovered economy and a drop in the crime rate (1933-1938).  The second phase began with the start of the war and lasted until 1944, and was one in which Germans increasingly consented to the implementation of “police justice,” or the ‘preventative’ use of force against even potential criminals, outside of the jurisdiction of the courts.  During this time, the concentration camp inmates became an integral part of daily life as they were marched to and from factories to work for the German war effort.

The book is most concerned with the level of popular knowledge of and consent for the Nazis’ violent and authoritarian methods.  Gellately concludes that the regime made sure its secret police wasn’t much of a secret at all.  The media was used not as a way to simply “brainwash” Germans, but to present the regime’s violence as taking a firm stance against crime and undesirables, thus forging a harmonious “racial community of the people.”  The Nazi surveillance state encouraged citizens to join the cause and denounce anyone who was an enemy of the people.  In fact, 50% of all recorded denunciations came from everyday citizens, even if the motives for these denunciations were selfish.  In conclusion, Gellately states, “On balance, the coercive practices, the repression, and persecution won far more support for the dictatorship than they lost” (259).


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

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Sexual Politics in Wilhelmine Germany


Fout, John C.  “Sexual Politics in Wilhelmine Germany: the Male Gender Crisis, Moral Purity, and Homophobia,” in Fout, John C., ed.  Forbidden History: the State, Society, and the Regulation of Sexuality in Modern Europe.  Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990.

Subject: A reevaluation of the fight between homosexual rights advocates and moral purity reformers in late Imperial Germany.

Main Points: In this chapter, Fout gives a good deal of biographical information on many of the leading homosexual rights advocates (Hirschfeld, Kraft-Ebbing, etc) as well as the emerging moral purity groups of the period.  What makes his chapter interesting is that he argues that while the medicalization of sexuality was obviously a central issue in the story of modernity and sexuality, the role played by Protestant moral purity organizers was just as, if not more, important in shaping understandings of homosexuality (at least in Germany).

This is because Fout’s main focus – and he argues that it was the purity organizers’ focus as well – is gender norms, not “sexuality” in the form of object choice determined by biology.  In this sense, “the moral purity organizations increasingly saw their role as championing the existing – and, in their minds, divinely ordained – gender order” (261).  He goes on to say that the “debate was only outwardly about the sins of sexual vice; in reality it reflected an implicit crisis in gender relations, primarily in the form of a growing concern about eroding gender boundaries on the part of a large segment of the middle-class male population as well as a part of the male working class” (262).

Fout makes clear that an important part in this history is the purity organizations’ relationships with the Protestant and Catholic churches.  These close ties with the Church allowed the organizations to speak with authority in restating the dominant sexual and gender paradigm (277).  This paradigm called for traditional, “natural” roles:  sex was procreative only, and only allowed in monogamous, heterosexual marriages.  Men were meant to be hardened and masculine, dominating over the private, weak and feminine women.  This is why homosexuals were seen as abhorrent, because they blurred gender divides.

While studying these organizations more closely, Fout discovers what he argues is an underlying cause for the widespread homophobia in the late years of the German Empire.  100% of membership in these organizations was men; moreover, 70% of membership had a university education; only 4% came from the working class.  Therefore, the idea of “normality” that these organizations were campaigning for was a very specific, bourgeois notion of acceptability.

Moreover, Fout argues that it was sexism that was underlying these organizations’ homophobia and overall plans.  The “moral purity movement was in reality a male-dominated, clerical-led response to the growing presence of women of all classes in the workplace and in the public domain” (279).  The attack on homosexuality, then, was a tool in the overall attempt to keep women in the private sphere.  “The concern was to “keep men on top” literally and figuratively, and that meant the preservation of the myth of male sexual dominance and female submissiveness in all things sexual” (280).  Male homosexuals threatened this dominance by transgressing gender and sexual norms by being sexually passive.

A last interesting point:  Fout concludes that contrary to Hirschfeld and the entire sexology movement, which sought to establish an essentialist understanding of (homo)sexuality (that homosexuality was inborn and had existed throughout all of history), the moral purity movement advocated for what we would now call a social constructionist view of sexuality: that society and individuals could shape and define appropriate sexual behavior.  “While homosexuals in part may have been victims of their biological makeup, the individual’s intellectual and moral capacities made it possible to overcome the body” (288).

My Comments:  Overall, I thought this was an interesting chapter.  I hadn’t read anything in much detail about the opposition to the emerging homosexual emancipation movement in late 19th century Germany (all of the stuff I’ve read tended to be very focused on the emancipation organizers themselves).  I also thought it was important that Fout reminds us that homosexuality was only one of a number of issues that these moral purity organizations were concerned with.

But, the chapter left me with a couple of questions. Number one: where are the women?  Of course, this is a male-dominated story, but you can’t have a chapter about “sexual politics” and never mention lesbians (or never even mention that you’re not going to mention lesbians).  Did they not receive attention from these purity organizations because they weren’t seen as eroding masculinity (but what about the fact that lesbians were taking “their” women away from them and cutting men out of the picture?).

Also, I’d like to know what middle class women had to say about homosexuals – men and women.  Did they view masculine lesbians as an infringement on traditional femininity?  Or would scholars like Marcus and Vicinus say that there was no “lesbian” at this point in time – only a number of female-female relationships that were seen as acceptable?   \


For more books on modern German history or the history of sexuality, see my full list of book reviews. 

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Ian Kershaw’s Hitler Biography

Kershaw Hitler


Kershaw, Ian.  Hitler: 1889-1936, Hubris.  New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1998.  And Hitler: 1936 – 1945, Nemesis. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2000.

Ian Kershaw’s biography of Adolf Hitler has, in the last decade, come to stand as perhaps the definitive account of the Führer’s life.  This two-volume biography seeks to put Hitler in his appropriate historical context, and as such can also be seen as a history of the Third Reich rather than just a narrow biography of just Hitler himself.  Consequently, Kershaw humanizes Hitler, revealing a narcissistic man of quirks as opposed to the images of a mythical figure that have emerged, and indeed, that the Nazis themselves promulgated.

After very quickly outlining Hitler’s birth and early years, Volume 1 (1889-1936, Hubris) turns to Hitler’s time in Vienna.  He demonstrates that while Hitler retrospectively overemphasized how he had crystalized his worldview during those years, “there can be no doubting that the Vienna ‘schooling’ did indeed stamp its lasting imprint on his development” (30).  Of greater consequence was the impact on Hitler’s worldview of the First World War.  Kershaw then adds that the doctrine of Lebensraum wasn’t incorporated until years later, so that Hitler’s worldview can only be regarded as fully formed starting in the mid-1920s.

When dealing with the Nazi Machtergreifung (seizure of power), Kershaw attributes the National Socialists’ takeover more to the failure of others than to the Nazis’ own political maneuvering.  Democrats didn’t do enough to stop the eroding of the republic in the first place, and the conservatives who helped place Hitler in power seriously underestimated him.  In January 1933, Franz von Papen dismisses reservations over Hitler’s chancellorship, stating, “We’ve hired him” (421).  Such sentiments could not have been more wrong.

Kershaw’s account highlights the emergence of the Hitler cult and the impact that this adoration had on Hitler’s own self-image.  Seeing the widespread support from the German people, Kershaw argues, gave Hitler self-confidence.  But the Hitler cult was also largely self-fashioned through political theatrics.  “He was above all a consummate actor,” Kershaw writes (280).  The adoring crowds only saw the image of the Führer that Hitler and Goebbels wanted them to see.  The political successes of the early 1930s epitomized by the reoccupation of the German Rhineland in 1936 turned Hitler’s egomania into destructive hubris.

Volume 2 (1936-1945, Nemesis) focuses on the radicalization of the Nazi regime, especially during the war years.  Central to this volume is Hitler’s role in the Holocaust.  Nemesis – and indeed, both volumes as a whole – represents a middle ground in the “intentionalist” (the Holocaust was Hitler’s intention from the start) versus “functionalist” (the Holocaust was the result of a slow but steady radicalization of policies) debate.  Kershaw demonstrates that Hitler was indeed a powerful dictator who set the overall goals for the Nazis, including his “prophecy” of 1939 that if the Jews started another world war they would be annihilated.  But Kershaw also shows that the concept of “working towards the Führer” meant that Hitler’s subordinates did not need specific orders for how to carry out their leader’s vision.  Therefore, while the how may not have been planned from the beginning, Kershaw argues that genocide was “central, not peripheral, to what had been deliberately designed as a “war of annihilation”” (461).

In conclusion, the focus of Kershaw’s books is “not upon the personality of Hitler, but squarely and directly upon the character of his power – the power of the Führer” (Vol. 1, xxvi).  In this light, he studies the structures that allowed Hitler to achieve such power.  But, this biography also shows that “without Hitler and the unique regime he headed, the creation of a program to bring about the physical extermination of the Jews in Europe would have been unthinkable” (Vol. 2, 495).

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

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What Difference Does a Husband Make?



Heineman, Elizabeth D.  What Difference Does a Husband Make?  Women and Marital Status in Nazi and Postwar Germany.  Berkley: University of California Press, 1999. 

Subject: A triangular comparison between the legal status of (un)married women in Nazi Germany, and then in West and East Germanys, and how these states used marital status to define role of women.

Main Points: Heineman shows that single women (whether they were widows, divorcees, or simply spinsters) were all defined by their status in relation to married women.  Under Nazi rule, the married woman was seen as the bearer of the German Volk, quite literally: good German mothers gave birth to good German citizens and passed on good German morals.  Unmarried women were often viewed as “asocials.”  While this is nothing particularly new, Heineman shows the extent to which the state was involved in encouraging women to marry; financial and legal incentives were implemented in an attempt to inspire women to settle down with a man.

Another of Heineman’s arguments is that an inferior view of unmarried women survived the upheaval that the loss of WWII and the subsequent occupation caused.  There was a moment in the final years of the war and the initial years of occupation in which the instability meant the state could no longer influence marital status.  But as two new Germanys were established by the Allies, the place of the state returned.

In East Germany, economic necessity along with the Communists’ favorable view of workers (including working women) meant that the state narrowed the gaps between married and single women.  Equality, including equal pay for women was established early on.  Unmarried women held almost no stigma as long as they were 1) contributing to the labor force, and 2) still raising children.

In West Germany, however, the dominance of married womanhood soon returned.  The previous 10 years when women were forced to work and take on “manly” roles because their husbands were off fighting, dying, or being taken prisoner were seen as an inconvenient, shameful necessity that had to be overcome.   This was a part of Chancellor’s Adenauer’s family politics that was meant to restore the true and “normal” family dynamic that had been disrupted by the war’s end.  Critics claimed that this Adenauer family looked too similar to Hitler’s ideal of family.  But marital status remained the main signifier of female identity, and welfare state entitlements and some legal rights were all tied to whether or not a woman was married.

Heineman concludes that 1945 was a lost opportunity for German feminism because that moment of instability could have been seized to put forth a new understanding of female identity, one that was not tied to marriage with a man.  Instead, traditional roles were reinstituted in West Germany.

My Comments:  This book doesn’t really deal with sexuality itself, but instead focuses more in gender.  But I picked it to read because the Adenauer era of family politics was an incredibly important stage in the development of the history of homosexuality in Germany.  During this time, the monogamous, heterosexual married life was reinstituted as the norm, and homosexual movements were forced to come up with a new image for themselves to get a chance of dialogue with policy makers.  Conservative, masculine, “respectable” homosexuality replaced the flamboyant “fairy” image.

Also, I think another important point from this book is in showing how concerned the state was with gender and sexuality.  It attempted to (and in many cases was successful) control the definition of “woman” by dictating that women should be married.  By passing laws, or restricting benefits, the state meant to control womanhood and manhood.  But this book shows that the female population was divided in one way that the males were not: marital status.


For more books on modern German history or the history of sexuality, see my full list of book reviews. 

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The Institutionalization of Homosexual Panic in the Third Reich


Pink Triangle

Giles, Geoffrey J.  “The Institutionalization of Homosexual Panic in the Third Reich,” in Gellately, Robert and Nathan Stoltzfus, eds.  Social Outsiders in Nazi Germany.  Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001.


Subject:  An article about how the Nazi regime defined and persecuted homosexuality in Germany between 1933 and 1945.


Main Points:  Giles is, in my opinion, the preeminent US scholar of the Nazi persecution of homosexuals, and his work is always based on meticulous scrutiny of German primary sources.  This article is no different.  Giles breaks this article into 6 subsections:

  1. “Hitler’s Indifference and Himmler’s Homophobia” – In this section, Giles shows that homophobia was not one of Hitler’s obsessions. Instead, he remained rather indifferent to homosexuality (even against allegations that there were homosexuals in the highest of Nazi ranks), focusing instead on the consolidation of power and the elimination of the “Jewish question.”  Heinrich Himmler, the head of the SS, was indeed homophobic, Giles argues, possibly stemming from an incident in his youth.  After the purge of high-ranking Nazi homosexuals in June 1934, Giles argues that Hitler hyped up homosexuality as the excuse for the purge to assuage his guilt at having a long-time loyal supporter murdered (Ernst Röhm).
  2. “The Dimensions of Homophobia” – This section explores four different dimensions to the Nazis’ anti-homosexual policies.  First, there was a cultural side to these policies: outrage at nudist or homosexual organizations, publications, and nightclubs.  Second, ideological opposition to homosexuality complemented cultural hostility.  Ideological opposition includes the definition of “manliness” and how homosexuality was essentially a defilement of manhood.  Though, there was a fine line to balance, because it was believed by most German (not just Nazis) leaders at the time that homoeroticism could actually strengthen the bonds between men (238), though the preferred term for this bond was “comradeship.”  Homosexual acts were a perversion and violation of the close-knithomosocial world of many of the Nazis’ “men leagues.”  Third, was the political dimension of Nazi homophobia.  It was believed by many that homosexuals would band together by a sense of loyalty to one another that superseded loyalty to the state and party.  As a result, if homosexuals were allowed into leadership positions, they would only offer promotions and new positions to fellow homosexuals, until a series of gay cliques ran the Nazi party, and thus, Germany.  And lastly, there was a social dimension to the Nazi policies against homosexuals.  Giles explains this dimension in terms of population control.  “The German population had suffered a serious bloodletting in the First World War,” he writes (239).  So, any challenge to a growing birth rate was a threat to the German people and nation, which is why abortion and homosexuality were policed by the same bureaucratic office.
  3. “Definitions of Homosexuality” – This section was most interesting, but one of the shortest unfortunately.  Here, Giles shows how there was no clear definition of what homosexuality actually constituted.  Most homosexuals at the time went by the original definition of Paragraph 175 (anti-sodomy law), which labeled only anal penetration as “unnaturally indecent.”  So, mutual masturbation, caressing, and even kissing were not necessarily considered homosexual at all – by those doing the caressing or by those enforcing the law.  In fact, Giles gives evidence that suggest such male-male sexual acts (like mutual masturbation) were fairly common in the homosocial world of the military and labor service and was viewed as normal, healthy men letting out some sexual frustration in the absence of women.  Therefore, when the definition of indecency in Paragraph 175 was purposefully generalized in 1935, there was a lot of outcry from all sides when men who by no means considered themselves “homosexual” were being arrested and permanently labeled as such.
  4. “Modes of Persecution” – Explores the different types of punishment that “175’ers” faced.  Himmler believed that sexologists were wrong about homosexuality being inborn – at least for the most part.  He felt that 98% of “homosexuals” were actually men who had been seduced by “true” homosexuals.  That is why, most men prosecuted under 175 were sentenced to a time of hard labor, or a stint in a concentration camp for reeducation.  This was meant to get them back on the right track.  A harsher punishment was reserved for “true” homosexuals (pedophiles and rapists):  castration or a life sentence in a concentration camp.
  5. “Denunciation” – This section shows that most arrests of homosexuals were made because of denunciations by fellow citizens.  Beyond some anecdotes, this section is not particularly enlightening, except in reiterating the common confusion about what actually constituted a “homosexual” act.
  6. “Wartime Radicalization” – Giles concludes by showing in this section how there was a radicalization of the Nazis’ persecution of homosexuals during once the Second World War broke out, reaching 168 convictions under Paragraph 175 per month during the war years.  But, Giles curiously doesn’t really make a conclusion as to why this radicalization happened.  I can only conclude that it probably had more to do with a fear of needing to shore up manhood and reproductive goals during wartime.


My Comments:  This article was helpful in gaining some statistics as well as showing that, even though Hirschfeld was German and writing during this time, the medical discourse of a total and separate “homosexual” hadn’t taken hold in larger parts of the public and military yet.  The result was that men who had been placed in a homosocial environment, where even homoerotic bonds were somewhat encouraged, were taking part in what we’d today label “homosexual” acts without ever considering themselves homosexual, or even abnormal.  This is just more evidence for the socially constructed nature of (homo)sexuality.

For more book reviews on modern German history or the history of sexuality, see my full list of book reviews. 

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Hitler & the Collapse of Weimar Germany



Broszat, Martin.  Hitler and the Collapse of Weimar Germany. Trans. V. R. Berghahn. Leamington Spa: Berg, 1987.

This is a thin, but important book of political history.  In it, Broszat traces the complex political trends of the Weimar era, as well as the intricate deals forged by Germany’s leading politicians and economic elite at the time.  Though this is primarily a political history, Broszat does offer some glances into larger socio-cultural developments during the 1920s and 1930s.  He hints at what Detlev Peukert takes as the central issue of his own book: the effects of modernization and the rise of mass culture on German politics.  Ultimately, Broszat sees this new, mass culture as the key to the Nazis’ success in gaining control of the German government in 1933.

Broszat opens his book with a brief history of the National Socialist German Workers Party (NSDAP or Nazi Party) and shows that it was only one among many right wing, nationalist parties.  “What marked [Hitler] out among the speakers of the political Right was the way in which he put his message across” (2).  This point epitomizes Broszat’s larger argument that it was not Nazism’s message itself that made it unique or successful, but instead the manner in which the message was expressed and distributed.  NSDAP leadership – and Hitler in particular – recognized that the masses could not be ignored in any new political system.  Consequently, the Nazis saw the masses as a source of power that should be tapped into through modern technology and political aesthetics.  In this light, the National Socialists were a truly modern political party, not the culmination of an older German character.  “Nazi ideology was almost totally a product of mass culture and political semi-illiteracy which proliferated since the late nineteenth century” (38).

After demonstrating that National Socialism was a modern creation, Broszat lays out the conditions that allowed for the rise of the Nazi Party.  National Socialism emerged in Germany after the First World War during a period of worldwide economic recession and against the background of a general crisis of modernity and civilization” (37).  The SPD-led Weimar Coalition enjoyed success only during times of material improvement or stability (53); otherwise, it was attacked from all sides: the Communists on the Left and conservative nationalists like the Nazis on the Right.  The election of Paul von Hindenburg as Reich President in 1925 was a “symptom of backward looking tendencies,” Broszat claims (67).

While the election of Hindenburg symbolized a shift to the Right in Weimar mentality, the Republic was not destroyed until Chancellor Brüning was forced to resign in May 1932.  The new chancellor led a coup against Prussia, trying to separate its government from the Reich’s, and the SPD did nothing to protest, thus paving the way for an authoritarian, nationalistic government (120, 146).  The rest of the book is dedicated to revealing the political maneuvering that led to Papen’s ousting, Schleicher’s short chancellorship, and finally Hitler’s appointment as Reich Chancellor in January 1933.

Throughout the book, Broszat reveals how the NSDAP was able to gather followers.  Nazism “seemed to offer a strong determined leadership, a pseudo-democratic mobilization of the masses and their participation in the promised national revival; it looked like a ‘third way’ between democracy and the state authoritarianism of the olden days. Herein lay the lure of Nazism” (94).  As the NSDAP gained more success, its more radical messages were toned down, thus appealing to a wider audience among the working class, bourgeoisie, and old elite.  The old conservative elites lacked this mass appeal and that is why they compromised and agreed to place the Nazis in power, hoping they could keep Hitler and his party on a short leash.

To see more books on the history of modern Germany, see my full list of book reviews. 

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Nationalism & Sexuality

Mosse Nationalism

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.

My Comments:

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. 

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Lustmord: Sexual Murder in Weimar Germany


Tatar, Maria.  Lustmord: Sexual Murder in Weimar Germany.  Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1995.

In her short but dense book, Tatar examines the role of Lustmord (sexual murder) in Germany during the Weimar period.  She reveals that violent murders of women took a central place in this era.  The media chronicled – in often grizzly detail – the acts of serial killers and the subsequent trials of the murders.  Tatar goes beyond actual murders to show that the mutilated bodies of women cropped up as the subjects of many works of art in several genres: canvases, novels, and on the screen.  What can we make of all this violence? What does it mean that the victims were always women?  These are the questions that Tatar tackles in her provocative work.

First, Tatar focuses on a number of real-life serial murderers that dominated the German headlines in the 1920s.  The cases of Fritz Haarmann, Wilhelm Grossmann, Karl Denke, and Peter Kürten reveal how the media and public reacted to the existence of such violent murderers (whose victims were always women or children).  Tatar explains the public’s frenzied reaction to the murders and the simultaneous “pathologization” of criminality (56). “The population at large was thus seen as duplicating the psychosis of the murderer, partaking of his sexualized frenzy in its desperate attempt to defuse the general sense of anxiety by finding scapegoats” (46).  The press contributed to this frenzy by boosting the “toxic” effect of killer and giving them the attention they wanted.  Moreover, the attention provided incentive for copy-cat killers (47).

Tatar’s analysis of particular novels, paintings, and movies is interesting, particularly for someone interested in art or cultural history of the Weimar Republic.  But what I find more interesting, convincing, and ultimately useful is her discussion of perpetrators and victims.  One of the main threads throughout the book is her claim that in cases of real or fictional Lustmord, the perpetrator (artist/murderer) often transitions into victim by the end. This is only understandable within the larger context of modern German culture.  Tatar argues that a flux of hostile female images in art “gives vivid testimony to an unprecedented dread of female sexuality and its homicidal power” (10).  World War One had destroyed the traditional social order: it redrew national boundaries, destroyed the earth in the trenches, maimed bodies, and also transformed mores.  Men, Tatar argues, saw the emancipation of women, as a devastating event.  There was a short step from the sexual empowerment of the femme fatale to her overstepping her bounds and destabilizing society (11).  Therefore, portraying women as the causes of social disorder allowed for her murder to become an act of self-defense or sacrifice.  “The murderous agent takes on the role of victim, who has sacrificed his life by killing” (172).  This act of turning the aggressor into victim through sacrifice (Tatar notes that in German Opfer means both victim and sacrifice) was also used in the racial demonization of the Jews in Nazi Germany.  In both cases, repression and projection operate in such a way as to turn the target of murderous violence into a peril of monstrous proportions, one that threatens to sap the lifeblood of the “victims” and thereby authorizes a form of unrestrained retaliatory violence marked by frenzied excess” (152).

Through this process of demonization of the Other and transformation from aggressor to victim, Tatar draws an important connection between Lustmord culture in the Weimar era to the policies of the Third Reich.  Moreover, she shows the importance of the Great War in shaping this murderous view of women (and “the other”).  In doing that, Tatar reveals that Weimar can’t be seen as a “glamorized…period of alluring decadence” between two dark periods of German history.  Instead, it is a bridge between the two world wars.

Tatar’s book is interesting and provocative, but I am left with several questions, the main one being: What about women artists in the Weimar era?  How did they feel about these Lustmord paintings?  Did they make paintings in which men’s bodies were mutilated?

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

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The Weimar Republic (Peukert)

Peukert Weimar

Peukert, Detlev J. K.  The Weimar Republic: the Crisis of Classical Modernity.  Trans. Richard Deveson.  New York: Hill and Wang, 1993.

             As a fourteen-year window of constitutional democracy between the German Empire and the Nazi Third Reich, the Weimar Republic has justifiably received much scholarly attention.  But in this study, Peukert argues that scholars have too often focused only on the tumultuous and fragile origin of the Republic and its collapse in the face of National Socialism.  “‘Weimar’ is more than a beginning and an end,” he writes (xii). The rest of his book is dedicated to exploring this Weimar Era, utilizing social history to offer insights into cultural, political, and social aspects of Weimar Germany. Peukert ultimately concludes that the downfall of the Republic should not be seen as some specific failure of German modernity, but instead a warning of the fragile nature of modernity itself.

Peukert’s entire book places him squarely in opposition to the idea of a German Sonderweg, or “special path” of modernization that led to the Nazis and the Holocaust.  To substantiate his argument, he asserts that historical conditions surrounding Weimar Germany’s modernization process, not some old elites trying to stave off modernization, are responsible for the Republic’s failure.  To begin with, the “Weimar Republic was born out of national defeat…That, rather than the severe yet ultimately tolerable terms of the peace settlement, was the root cause of the revanchist Versailles myth” that so profoundly shaped the directions Weimar’s modernization process would follow (278).  Additionally, the Weimar Republic was founded in a time of global upheaval and instability.  Upheavals in demographics led to conflicts between generations, and the sick economy could not sustain attempts to create a new order in industry (83). Moreover, the effects of the global economic crises of 1929 were felt especially hard in Germany, exposing the limits and fault of the welfare state. As times got tough, more people needed the benefits, but because times were tough, the state needed to cut its own costs.  When times were good and the state could afford to pay out, not as many people needed it.  Weimar’s critics railed against such discrepancies as indicative of a deeply flawed system (129).  All of these factors combined to create conditions that the young, fragile Republic, which was constantly in a crisis of legitimacy, simply could not overcome. “Germany’s experiment in modernity was conducted under the least propitious circumstances” (276).

This conclusion is important because it suggests that any nation going through modernization during such conditions would fail, thus meaning there was nothing particularly German about Weimar’s failure.  In fact, Peukert argues that classical modernity itself (defined as “the form of fully fledged industrialized society that has been with us from the turn of the century until the present day,” 81) was going through a crisis of its own.  “No sooner had modern ideas been put into effect than they came under attack, were revoked or began to collapse (276).   And since “crisis and modernization seemed to be going hand in hand, modernity itself became the issue” (85).

This also has implications for how we understand the rise of the Nazis and the death of the Republic.  The conservative elites were able to destroy the Weimar constitutional order, but were unable to understand or control the new masses and return to a pre-war order.  The Nazis presented themselves as a modern, dynamic party of the masses, and in 1933, “the Nazis were handed over the keys of power by the old elites” (279).  In this light, the Nazis can be seen as a last ditch effort to control the effects of modernization rather than an inevitable conclusion of German history.

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

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