Posts Tagged With: dagmar herzog

Sexuality in Europe: A 20th Century History


Herzog, Dagmar.  Sexuality in Europe:  A Twentieth-Century History.  New York: Cambridge University Press, 2011.   

Subject: A thematic and chronological overview of how Europeans have viewed and understood sexuality between 1900 and 2010.

Summary & Main Arguments: 

In a display of her mastery of the topic, Herzog deftly reveals how and why the twentieth century in Europe really was the “century of sex.”  By the turn of the century, she argues, societies’ obsession with ideas about sex meant that sex, and an increasingly predominant conception of a sexuality, influenced the other aspects of society that we don’t generally think of as being connected with sex: politics and economics (as well as those areas more traditionally connected to sex: religion and morality).

The main purpose of Herzog’s book is to challenge the notion that the “history of sexuality in the 20th century” is simply a story of liberation and progress, of overcoming barriers to reach sexual liberation and legal-political equality (she is firmly convincing in this effort).  Instead, she offers a more nuanced view of this history, one that she does not deny is ultimately successful in achieving victories for women and sexual minorities (she also shows how these processes create sexual minorities).  “To tell only a narrative of gradual progress would be to misunderstand how profoundly complicated the sexual politics of the twentieth century in Europe actually were” (1).

She lays out three issues that highlight the sporadic, stop-and-go nature of the developments of how Europeans understood sexuality:  1) backlashes feature prominently in her history.  Many of the major developments in the story can be seen as a backlash to a previous movement.  For example, the sexual revolution of the 1960s and 70s is portrayed – in large part – as a backlash against the conservative tides of the 50s.  As time goes on and media and technology improve, these backlashes become more extreme, yet with shorter duration.  2) A second theme that she highlights is that the new, radical views of sexuality were not accepted by all, and they were not all perceived as utopian (even by self-identified liberals).  There were problems embedded within the new sexual norms, as well as defining what those new norms should be (or what a society without norms at all would look like).  Another problem was that people tended not to realize that sexual policies were tied to other issues like racism.  3) The third issue she brings up is that, while “sex became burdened with enormous significance” (2), it did not mean the same thing to everyone.  This ambivalence created –as well as highlighted existing – anxieties about a society in which sex was “free.”  (Fears of rape, abuse, exploitation, for example).

Apart from complicating the story of progress, the book’s other great strength is explicitly showing how sexual issues became political.  “In a constantly reconfigured combination of stimulus and regulation, prohibition and exposure, norm-expounding and obsessed detailing of deviance, liberalizing and repressive impulses together worked to make conflicts over sexual matters consequential for politics writ large” (3).

It’s impossible to highlight all of the book’s observations and points here, but I do want to mention a few that I found the most enlightening (from each chapter):

1) Between 1900-1914, sexuality was re-conceptualized, spurred by three factors: issues concerning prostitutes forced society to study the inequality of sexual responsibility among men and women.  She also shows how – through eugenics – the state succeeded in harnessing the power of fertility to reach political (and racial) goals.  Lastly, she shows how sex scandals (usually centered on homosexual acts) spread through a new print culture influenced societal beliefs of homosexuality, thus helping to define homosexuality as much as the medicalization of homosexuality.

2) World War One (by removing men from women and placing them in all male situations, also leaving more women among themselves back home – and by creating a period of instability in general), “dramatically quickened changes in the organization of understanding of sexuality that had been underway since the turn of the century” (45).  Moreover, WW Two witnessed a period of state intervention in citizens’ sexual lives that was hitherto unprecedented – by democracies as well as totalitarian regimes. Democratic countries were characterized by ambivalence: while cracking down on homosexuality, they were loosening the state’s control on contraceptives and abortion.

3) The Cold War period was one of sexual conservatism and wanting to return to a pre-war normality.  But, the seeds of a more liberal movement were already planted in steady economic growth, new consumer opportunities, and a growing understanding of “privacy.”  This formed a small place for liberal activists to get a foothold and then push for reform in the 1970s.

4) While the media perpetuated the tenets of the 1960s/70s sexual revolution, promoting free love and using sex to sell, it also exposed the conservative nature of the laws still on the books in these countries.  This allowed the minority of activists to initiate activism.

5) This chapter has the most information and can be daunting:  Due to the explosion of the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the early 1980s, there was initially a conservative backlash.  However, Herzog argues that the very real threat to society’s health forced Europe to grow more comfortable with confronting issues of sexuality (and sexual acts themselves).  This leads to an appreciation of human sexual diversity and the privacy of one’s “bedroom,” (though we see an increased government participation in sexuality through safe sex campaigns).  Perhaps most interesting is her handling of European Islam.  As Islam spread in Europe, traditionally conservative parties, beginning in the mid 1990s, took up sexually liberal stances (on abortion and homosexuality, for example) in order to se themselves apart from the “sexually oppressive” Muslims.  Gay and lesbian Muslims were able to use the LGBT-friendly space in Europe to redefine what Islam meant for them.

My comments: This is an excellent book.  It’s well written, and packed full of information – all into 220 pages.  It’s dense in info, but still accessible and can easily be used for undergrads because while explaining different views of sexuality, she avoids the theoretical jargon.  My one complaint is that she doesn’t look at east Europeans until they become nominally “European” – until after the fall of Communism, and in some cases, until their admittance into the EU.

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

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

Sex After Fascism by Dagmar Herzog

Sex After Fascism

Herzog, Dagmar.  Sex after Fascism: Memory & Morality in Twentieth-Century Germany.  Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005.

Subject: A provocative revaluation of German sexuality from the Nazis to East & West Germany that particularly challenges our understanding of sexuality under the Nazi regime.

Main Points:  Herzog’s most provocative argument is that our view of the Nazi regime being one that completely repressed all sexuality (and thus constituting a break in the liberalizing trajectory of the late 19th and early 20th centuries) is based on a misunderstanding of history.  In fact, she argues that in many regards, some liberalizing tendencies continued or even intensified after Adolf Hitler took office (5).  “Although Nazism has been misremembered as sexually repressive for everyone, what Nazism actually did was to redefine who could have sex with whom” (18).  The defining factor in the Nazi understanding of proper and good sexuality was race.  Good Aryan men and women could have (and in some cases, encouraged to have) lustful, pleasure-filled sex (marital and extramarital) as long as it was with each other, and as long as it was heterosexual sex.  Sex with Jews and homosexuals (and other non-Aryans) was repressed because it damaged the racial purity of the Volk.

Herzog argues that by offering its supporters a more liberated stance on sexuality (within its racial bounds), Nazism was essentially buying support.  Citizens could be grateful to their regime’s morality that allowed them to indulge in sex, while also doing their patriotic duty by providing children for the cause.

Herzog also spends a lot of time dealing with Nazi views of homosexuality.  Her work is incredibly fascinating.  The dominant understanding of homosexuality at the time came from the work of sexologists, who, in Germany, were led by the homosexual Jew Magnus Hirschfeld.  According to Hirschfeld, homosexuality was an inborn trait and so, homosexuals should not be punished for something they couldn’t help.  Herzog argues that it was probably no coincidence that the sexological experts of the Third Reich came up with an understanding of homosexuality that opposed Hirschfeld’s theories (in other words, Nazis came up with a non-essentialist, non-Jewish understanding).  Instead, SS leaders like Heinrich Himmler came to an understanding in which most men were, during the years of puberty, mostly bisexual; therefore men were only “homosexual” either for a short phase, or if they had been seduced into homosexuality by another homosexual.  Therefore there were different levels or types of homosexuals: 1) “real” (they admitted that some men were just born as homosexuals and thus hopelessly lost to the heterosexual cause; luckily, they guessed that only 2% of Germany’s homosexuals were “real” and incurable);  2) temporary and curable: these were men who had “accidentally” (or through weakness) taken the homosexual phase too far, but who could still be cured.

But then, the post-war era is important in Herzog’s book (indeed, the title is “After Fascism”).  She claims that in the few years directly following the collapse of Nazi Germany, women and men alike (but particularly women) continued to experience a more liberal sexual atmosphere.  This was simply because there was no powerful state to police sexuality or enforce any mores.

Perhaps the second most controversial claim of Herzog’s book comes in her explanation for the conservative turn in the 1950s.  Whereas most historians (and indeed contemporaries from the 50s) depict the time as a reassertion of traditional family values in an attempt to regain stability, Herzog sees it as something a little more dubious.  Once the Allies took over the western German zones, they were skeptical of reestablishing governmental and even civil institutions (for fear of former Nazi participation).  So, instead they turned to the churches, who were willing to take a leadership role and hide their questionable (at best) history with the Nazi regime.  Herzog argues that church leaders between 1933-1945 seemed to be more worried with the Nazis’ obsession with the body than with their blatant and violent anti-Semitism.  Instead of more thoroughly confronting why the church did not do more to resist the Nazis, church leaders in the 1950s railed against the “licentious” and perverse sexual mores of the Nazis.  The reassertion of conservative values then – by state, society, and church – was an attempt to separate themselves from the Nazi period.  Directly relevant for my own research is the effect on Paragraph 175.  Policy makers actually adopted the Nazi understanding of homosexuality, in which all men were potentially bisexual (and thus all men were susceptible to homosexuality) so the Nazi version of the law against homosexuality had to be kept on the books to protect “good” healthy German sexuality.

This shift then has profound effects on how we see the sexual liberation movement that started in the late 1960s.  The 1968ers had a profound misunderstanding of where the conservative and repressive sexual mores originated.  Thinking that they were products of the Nazi regime that their submissive parents’ generation didn’t (or wouldn’t) throw off, the 1968 activists viewed their calls for sexual liberation as anti-fascist.  Then the typical Nazi, SS murder came to be viewed as sexually repressed, steeped in traditional family values (things the 1950s had presented as ideal).  Many on the New Left claimed that the Holocaust wouldn’t have been possible if the Germans hadn’t been so sexually repressed.  Ultimately, Herzog concludes that the New Left had a “profoundly distorted understanding of the national past” (183).

Herzog also studies East Germany, and shows that while the socialist leaders were officially against homosexuality, they did not police against it with as much vigor as the West did.  In fact, after 1957, police and judges were ordered to no longer persecute men caught in consensual acts.  East Germany seemed to carry on with the idea that a less repressive stance on sexuality would win support.  Therefore East Germany’s stance on sexuality created “a crucial free space [for homosexuals] in this otherwise profoundly unfree society” (188).

By the 1980s, liberalization and commercialization had bannalized sex and West Germans abandoned the belief of the 1968ers that sex was an “earth-shaking force” that could reshape the world (254).  Once the Wall came down and Germany was unified, profound shifts happened again.  Sex shops, pornography, and consumerism flooded into the East.  The exaggeration of pornography made the average East German feel inadequate about their body, and many began to complain about the new “pressure to achieve” in their sex lives (218) that hadn’t existed under the control of the socialist government.

My Comments: This is a fascinating and important book for contextualizing my own research.  It shows the power of collective (and national) memory, and her argument that different groups jumped on sexual morality & family values as a way to put off confronting the Holocaust is convincing.  She hints that it’s no coincidence that it the 1970s is both when the radical 1968 sexual liberation activists began to lament its demise and the moment when scholars, politicians, and others began studying the Holocaust in earnest.  I think her book also shows how studying sexuality is important by revealing how the Nazis’ anti-Semitism was inextricably bound to sexuality.  In Nazi Germany, “it was both the anti-sex and the pro-sex arguments that together reinforced an utterly hallucinatory – but indisputably consequential – anti-Semitism” (262).

Ultimately, she reveals that while the sexual liberation movement was based on a misunderstanding of their nation’s history, it led to liberalizing views of sexuality nonetheless.  But she ends with word to scholars: “That it was ultimately a false version of history that produced conditions for progressive and humane social change is something historians may wish to meditate on further” (265).

Categories: Book Review, German History, Sexuality & Gender | Tags: , , , | 1 Comment

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