Posts Tagged With: fascism

Writing European History

Mazower

Eric Hobsbawm was right when he called the twentieth century an age of extremes, and the phrase applies especially well to Europe.[1]  Starting in 1914, the continent was engulfed in total war for thirty years, followed by an unprecedented 45-year period of peace, even if it was a peace imposed by the Cold War.  How then should one tell the story of twentieth century European history?  Such a task requires one to confront questions of narratives, perspective, and themes.  Was it the gradual and haphazard, yet inevitable progress of capitalism and liberal democracy, relegating the world wars as regrettable aberrations of “true” European history?  Or do the darker moments of the twentieth century overshadow Europeans’ later achievements?  In Dark Continent, Mark Mazower portrays Europe’s twentieth century as one characterized primarily by violence, an era in which ideologies inspired entire peoples to fight to the death.  Bernard Wasserstein presents a continent continuously caught between two extremes in Barbarism and Civilization.  Lastly, Tony Judt’s book Postwar begins in 1945, but demonstrates how the previous thirty years of global war remained a defining influence on Europe after the war’s end, acting as the foundation for a new Europe committed to learning from its mistakes.

Mark Mazower’s Dark Continent: Europe’s Twentieth Century is considerably shorter than the other two books, but this can be attributed to the fact that his book is meant to be more of an extended essay than a full survey of Europe in the twentieth century. At the core of his book is the assertion that Europe’s twentieth century was defined by three competing visions for the future or Europe and ultimately the world: liberal democracy, fascism, and communism.  “Europe’s twentieth century is the story of their conflict,” he writes (xv).  Consequently, competition and violence are the heart of Mazower’s narrative.  Throughout his provocative and eloquently written book, Mazower demonstrates how all three ideologies were seeking to improve the world through the establishment of a New World Order.  “Like it or not, both fascism and communism involved real efforts to tackle the problems of mass politics, of industrialization, and social order; liberal democracy did not always have all the answers” (xii).

Another major goal of Dark Continent is to highlight the historical contingency of this European era. “Though we may like to think democracy’s victory in the Cold War proves its deep roots in Europe’s soil, history tells us otherwise” (5).  His narrative shows that fascism and communism were just as European as liberal democracy, though it is easy to retrospectively consider them anomalies of European history.  The Nazi “utopia was also a nightmarish revelation of the destructive potential in European civilization,” he writes (xiii).  What made Nazism stand out from the other European visions was the fact that it turned European imperialist mentality on other Europeans.  Consequently, Mazower argues that the Nazis’ “greatest offence against the sensibility of the continent” was treating Europeans like Africans, turning Europeans into barbarians and slaves (73).

After 1945, the forced peace of the Cold War “brought the continent the most precious commodity of all – time” (249).  Even though the emergent European Community (and later, the European Union) curtailed national sovereignty of the member states, Mazower argues that by the end of the 1990s, Europe had decided that social cohesion was of greater value than individuality (360). While Europe may have achieved a level of peace and economic prosperity, Mazower’s book does not really end with a positive note.  He concludes that “The real victor in 1989 was not democracy but capitalism” (397), and that one reason Europeans live with democracy today is “partly because it involves less commitment or intrusion into their lives than any of the alternatives” (397).  After half a century in which states took full control of the public and the private spheres, Mazower argues that Europeans have come to appreciate one of democracies “quiet virtues:” it gives people a retreat and allows for a private life (xv).  In other words, he feels that the stability of contemporary Europe comes not from dedication to an inherently peaceful ideology, but instead from Europeans’ settling on democracy because of their ideological exhaustion.

Bernard Wasserstein’s Barbarism and Civilization: a History of Europe in Our Time begins with a quote from Walter Benjamin:  “There is no document of civilization that is not simultaneously a document of barbarism” (vii).  This quotation sets the path for the rest of Wasserstein’s 850-page book; as such, readers see violence and peace occupying the same space in the story.  His book begins (like Mazower’s) in 1914, because the outbreak of World War One signals the ideological beginning of the new century.  He refers to the world of 1914 as a time of “dying empires” and “rising nation-states” (9), and expands by declaring that “Nationalism, not socialism, was the most explosive political force in much of central and eastern Europe, all the more so because it was frustrated and pent up by the authoritarian structures of the multi-national empires” (36).  Ethnicities and nation states play central roles in Wasserstein’s book.  Once the European nations were able to gain stability by the 1950s and 1960s, they had to learn how to deal with new ethnic minorities (like the Turkish workers in Germany), especially as Europe became a continent of immigration instead of emigration.  When discussing the 1991-1992 wars in Yugoslavia, Wasserstein writes, “The war brutally exposed the limitations of the European diplomatic system and its inability to resolve conflict arising from profound ethno-religious cleavages” (733).  This example – beyond revealing that Wasserstein’s book takes all of Europe into account, and not just central or western Europe – demonstrates Wasserstein’s skepticism of nation states’ ability to provide a peaceful environment for its ethnic minorities.

Barbarism and Civilization is primarily concerned with political, economic, military, and demographic developments, though he does offer glimpses into other areas (there is a four page section dedicated to sex and sexuality).  I was also surprised to see that decolonization was explicitly addressed in only eleven pages since the loss of colonies in Africa and Asia was so symbolically and economically important to the old imperial powers.  One way that Wasserstein’s account differs from Mazower’s is that Wasserstein’s focuses much more on individual actors than larger political ideologies. But by doing this, I wonder if he underestimates the power of ideas.  He refers to Hitler as a self-pitying misanthrope (397) and comments that fascist ideas were the “primitive rationalization of gangsterism” (160).  Wasserstein is right to highlight the influence that particular individuals had, but it may be easier to dismiss individuals as misanthropic than to fully give credence to the origins and power of their ideologies.

Tony Judt’s Postwar: a History of Europe since 1945, on the other hand presents a narrative based on ideologies.  His book starts in 1945 and so does not dedicate time to studying the actual events of the world wars.  Instead, the work focuses on the place the dark half of the century has held in Europeans’ minds since 1945.  World War One destroyed Old Europe and World War Two laid the foundations for a new one, he argues (6).  He quite provocatively claims that the work of Hitler and Stalin actually allowed for the post-1945 stability because theirs were projects that sought to unify and hegemonize European peoples.  Ethnic diversity only worked under multi-ethnic empires; that same diversity could not work under nation states.  “Between them, and assisted by wartime collaborators, the dictators blasted flat the demographic heath upon which the foundations of a new and less complicated continent were then laid” (9).

But the World War era also provided stability for the post-war Europe in another way.  Judt argues that for fifty years, the atrocities of Hitler’s Europe remained silent and that this silence was vital to the establishment of European stability.  Only after social, political, and economic stability were achieved were Europeans able to begin fully studying and confronting what it soon became clear was a European-wide complicity in the murder of the Jews.  In the post-1989 world, Judt argues that “Holocaust recognition is our contemporary European entry ticket” (803).  After Marxism lost its legitimacy through the knowledge of Soviet atrocities, Europeans witnessed the death of “grand narratives,” or single explanations that tied the march of history to one’s destiny (563).  Particularly after the collapse of Communism, Europeans were left with no competing ideologies with which to make sense of their world and use as the basis of identity.  Instead, Judt suggests that the Europeans’ violent past has become the unifying “other” for present day Europe.  Only by acknowledging the dangers of rampant capitalism and nationalism, by recognizing the destruction wrought by Europeans – epitomized by the Holocaust – can one be considered part of the new, unified “Europe” of today (830).

While they may focus on different themes throughout their narratives, all three authors position Europe into a larger, transnational or global history in the same way.  Each scholar concludes that the history of the twentieth century is the history of Europe’s relative decline in the world.  Wasserstein posits 1914 as already marking the “beginning of the end of the Eurocentric world” (1).  Mazower points out that the economic crises of the 1970s revealed to Europeans the weakness of nation states and “the need for concentrated action to defend their way of life against global competition” (328).  He adds that while the European nations themselves enjoy relative stability and peace, globally “Europe has lost its primacy, and perhaps that is what most Europeans find hardest to accept” (403).  From the beginning of his book, Judt tells readers that his is a “history of Europe’s reduction” (7), but Europe’s loss of relative political and military dominance in the world is not portrayed in a negative light.  In fact, he concludes by stating that, In spite of the horrors of their recent past – and in large measure because of them – it was Europeans who were now uniquely placed to offer the world some modest advice on how to avoid repeating their own mistakes” (800).  Again, this highlights Judt’s emphasis on the stabilizing and educational role Europe’s violent past can play in today’s effort to create a stabile and peaceful Europe.

These books offer three different ways of conceptualizing modern European history.  Mazower holds Europe’s divisions, competition, and violence as paramount, stating that, “The “Europe” of the European Union may be a promise or a delusion, but it is not a reality” (xiv).  Ultimately he argues that Europeans will only find lasting stability by giving up on the effort to define a single, unifying “European” identity.  “If Europeans can give up their desperate desire to find a single workable definition of themselves…they may come to terms more easily with the diversity and dissension which will be as much their future as their past” (403).  Wasserstein claims that, “Civilization and barbarism walked hand in hand in Europe in the course of the past century.  They were not polar opposites, but…locked together in a dialectical relationship” (793).  But while Wasserstein mentions this coexistence at the beginning and end of his narrative, readers may question if he feels that barbarism and civilization really coexisted, or if Europe’s twentieth century can be viewed as a transition from barbarism to civilization.  And lastly, Judt believes that the new “European” model can only be successful if it’s based on accepting Europe’s violent past.


[1] Eric Hobsbawm, The Age of Extremes: A History of the World, 1914-1991. New York: Random House, 1994.

Books under review: 

Mazower, Mark. Dark Continent: Europe’s Twentieth Century. New York: Vintage, 2000.

Wasserstein, Bernard. Barbarism and Civilization: A History of Europe in Our Time. New York: Oxford University Press, 2007.

Judt, Tony. Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945. New York: Penguin Press, 2005.

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

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

European Mass Culture in the Context of Global War

Berghahn

European Mass Culture in the Context of Global War

The twentieth century was very much a European century.  European imperialism reached new heights and on two occasions European conflicts grew to engulf the globe in war.  Each of the books we read for this session address cultural aspects that contributed to these far-reaching forces of change on the “dark continent.”  Volker Berghahn seeks to explain the “orgy of violence” that erupted from Europe between 1914 and 1945. He attempts to look beyond surface level political causes and to instead explain the structural mechanisms of peace and violence in terms of material well-being.  Simonetta Falasca-Zamponi also draws our attention to deeper shifts in Western culture to help explain the rise of fascism in Italy.  By bringing in the lens of aesthetics, she challenges us to reimagine the way we view politics and how they interact with other spheres of life.  James Andrews also examines the connections between the state and civilian society by looking at the ways in which two separate Russian regimes interacted with scientific organizations that were working on the popularization of science.  Moreover, by situating his study in Russia, Andrews prompts us to question what is meant by “European” and whether or not Russia can be included in that definition.  And finally, Erez Manela directly confronts the definition of European, civilized, and modernized by exploring the ways the 1919 Versailles Treaty affected colonized people across the globe.  By removing Europe from the center of the story, Manela forces us to rethink our concepts of “center” and “periphery” as well as the role that European powers were perceived as playing in international politics.

In Europe in the Era of Two World Wars: From Militarism and Genocide to Civil Society, Volker Berghahn lays out his argument for why Europe fell into total war twice during the twentieth century.  According to Berghahn’s model, Western civilization stood at a cross roads at the dawn of the twentieth century. These cross roads represented two different paths into the modernized, industrialized future.  On the one hand was a civilian model of modern society, in which the modes of production were used to mass-produce consumer goods that were then peacefully mass consumed by a democratic civilian populace.  Berghahn then offers the United States as the epitome of this civilian model (5).  The other option for organizing modern society, according to Berghahn, was the militaristic model.  In this model, “violent men” controlled the government to use the industrial processes to produce weapons of war in order to achieve imperial or racial goals.  The twist in this model is that these products that were mass-produced were not mass consumed, but rather consumed civilians through warfare and death.

Berghahn’s book then, is the story of how European societies faced this confrontation between two competing ways of organizing modern life.  He offers three obstacles to the realization of the dream of “creating a civilian mass-production and mass-consumption society” before 1914:  First, violence still persisted at high levels in schools, the home (strict patriarchy), and in/through the armies.  Second, the unequal distribution of the gains caused by capitalism created tension among classes of people.  And third, and most important, the institution of imperialism, which he understands as Europeans’ attempt to bring up their own standard of living was based on a system of violent exploitation (11-16).  Berghahn understands imperialism as one of the three types of totalitarianism, alongside Communism and fascism (21).  In fact, he concludes the interwar years of 1919-1938 could not be a successful phase of re-stabilization because the stability at home in Europe depended on the continued exploitation of the colonies and the non-Western world (72).

What made the two World Wars different than previous wars was the fact that military leaders and other “violent men” realized that, because of technological advances, any new war would be all encompassing.  Moreover, there was less of a push to protect civilians from this type of war because in a total war, the line between civilian and combatant was blurred or all together ignored.  In addition, authors such as Jünger and Ludendorff, who believed in always being fully mobilized for a total war, “provided the men of violence of the interwar years with not only the pseudo-justifications but to a considerable degree the recipes for their deeds” (84).  This militaristic model of organization penetrated all levels of society so that by 1939, violent measures against civilians had become an integral part of the German way of warfare (100). Berghahn then concludes that ultimately the American model of civilian organization was triumphant.  Fortunately, the destroyed Western European nations were able to pick and choose what they wanted to import from the American model, so that “Europe, too, became a region of the world whose societies were civilian-industrial in outlook” (139).

Berghahn’s argument is a materialistic one in that everything depends on material-well being.  It seems that civilians are only able to interact peacefully and keep “violent men” at bay if they have products to consume.  Moreover, the way that Berghahn discusses violence, it seems that it is something that is contagious and spreads outward from “violent men” to infect an otherwise peaceful human nature, which I don’t find incredibly convincing.  Lastly, he speaks of the triumph of the civilian model over the militaristic one, but what about the fact that the “violent men” of both World Wars were only defeated by violence?

In Fascist Spectacle: the Aesthetics of Power in Mussolini’s Italy, Simonetta Falasca-Zamponi also seeks to explain violent phenomena of the twentieth century, though she focuses specifically on the emergence of fascism.  Unlike Berghahn, she does not focus on modes of consumption, but instead uses the notion of art as a lens to understand the rise of fascism in Italy.  Falasca-Zamponi argues that until her book was written, Emilio Gentile’s notion of fascism as a “political religion” had been a convincing way of understanding the movement.  But, in her book, she argues that fascism should bee seen as an aesthetic, a set of principles similar to those that drive an art form.  In this light, the politician is seen as an artist, sculpting a creation out of his people.

Falasca-Zamponi shows that fascism was only able to emerge and take root as the result of a historical nexus of conditions that was unique to that period.  One condition was the creation of “the masses,” which we have studied in another session.  Several factors contributed to the creation of the masses, including communication technology and an expanding print culture.  A second condition was the “arts for art’s sake” movement, which disassociated art from the arousal of the physical senses.  Under this movement, art was meant to be created and appreciated simply for what it was, rather than for how it made the viewer feel.  A third condition is what she calls the larger shift from the emphasis on “character” to “personality” in Western culture. Earlier, one was meant to embody “character,” which encompassed controlling one’s impulses and making oneself presentable in public.  Falasca-Zamponi argues that new technology and new disorders placed a greater emphasis on “the self” (as opposed to the social cohesion that was kept by members all representing proper character), and thus led to an emphasis on personality, which included “being yourself” while still being likable.  In this model, individuals with strong personalities could both be themselves and compel others to like them (45-46).  A fourth condition that was unique to Italian culture was Italian history; the presence of Rome in Italian history, coupled with the continued presence of the seat of the Catholic Church meant that Italians were accustomed to both a glorious (and glorified) past as well as being surrounded by the pomp, circumstance, and pageantry of the Church.

All of those conditions allowed for the possibility of fascism’s success in Italy.  Mussolini, whom Falasca-Zamponi quotes extensively, saw himself as an artist, a creator.  Under the particular fascist aesthetic (which was never static or complete, but constantly evolving), the politician was an artist who should sculpt the effeminate masses to unlock potential and create powerful soldiers for the cause.  But under the “art for art’s sake” mentality, the artist had no ethical boundaries, and therefore the politician had no ethical limits to what he could or should do.  Mussolini’s personality was perceived as exceptional and this allowed him to step into the role of leader, artist, and creator in one.

Mussolini and his fascists were preoccupied with crafting particular images of the movement.  They created specific (and largely false) histories and myths for themselves, but Falasca-Zamponi reveals the reflexive nature of symbols and myths.  While fascists may have created, through their cultural and political power, particular myths and symbols (ways of speaking, dressing, and living), these symbols took on a life of their own and then defined what the fascists could do from that moment on (118).  In this light, the aims the fascists set for themselves (constant movement, creation, vitality through conflict and violence against bourgeois materialism, capitalism, individualism, and liberal democracy) meant that international war was inevitable.  Once the Italian masses had been sculpted into perfection and inner enemies ousted, the only option open to the fascist movement, which portrayed itself in melodramatic terms as more than a political regime, was to expand its violent vision outwards.

James Andrews’ Science for the Masses: the Bolshevik State, Public Science, and the Popular Imagination in Soviet Russia, 1917-1934 brings our discussion away from violence, and directs our attention to another aspect of European mass culture: the popularization of Western science from the late nineteenth century to the 1930s.  Whereas we saw a complete intrusion of the government into the private sphere in Falasca-Zamponi’s study, Andrews shows us a delicate coexistence of private and state sponsored endeavors to spread scientific knowledge among the masses.  In imperial Russia, the popularization of science was tied to education, and was organized by voluntary scientific organizations through museums and journals.  As with the music journals in Applegate’s Bach in Berlin, print culture played a defining role in the popularization of science in Russia.  After the 1917 revolution, the Bolshevik state provided both political and financial support to these popularization efforts because they were in line with Bolshevik campaigns to spread Enlightenment education and ideals.  Under the New Economic Policy era of the 1920s, the science popularization movement boomed because of increased funding from the state, and the fact that the Soviet state found it important to maintain non-governmental associations (172).  Moreover, because of ties between state officials, association leaders were able to better navigate through the new Bolshevik bureaucracy (59).

Stalin’s cultural revolution, which began in 1928, changed all of this, though.  Enlightenment ideals were now seen as vestiges of a liberal, bourgeois period, and so it became official policy that scientific knowledge was no longer to be pursued or taught for its own sake.  Instead, the emphasis was on the utilitarian aspects of science.  In other words, the masses were no longer seen as creators of knowledge, but instead as the recipients of state-approved knowledge.  But Andrews shows that not everyone was willing to accept this new approach to science that was filled with Soviet propaganda about the superiority of Soviet science and technology.  Workers were able to somewhat define their own interests and let it be known that they did not like the propaganda with a side of science; instead, they wanted applicable, technical training for their jobs.

Examining this study on Russian history raises several questions pertinent to our sessions:  What is modern and what is European?  It is often argued whether or not Russia is a part of Europe, and I think that Andrews’ book shows that perhaps it is important to ask when can Russia be considered European.  Both under an imperial government and a Bolshevik socialist one, Enlightenment ideals spread, sometimes with substantial government support.  It was not until 1928 that the Stalinist government decided to control rather than support scientific knowledge and purposefully identify against Western Enlightenment ideals.  Perhaps at this moment, Russia becomes less European?  It is interesting to also note that Andrews’ book challenges us to rethink 1917 as a complete breaking point in Russian history, because in some ways there are far more continuities across the 1917 line than breaks.

Erez Manela’s The Wilsonian Moment: Self-Determination and the International Origins of Anticolonial Nationalism continues this endeavor of questioning European values and how far they reach beyond the geographic confines of Europe itself.  This study zooms out to look at Europe and America through the lens of Europe’s colonies, areas that are very “European” in the sense that they are an important way European societies define themselves.  Manela studies the effects that Woodrow Wilson’s rhetoric about a new world order based on self-determination and liberal democracy had on colonized people around the world.  Wilson’s 1917 speech (and other subsequent ones) laid the groundwork for what Manela calls “the Wilsonian moment,” which lasts from the fall of 1918, when an Allied victory in the war was assured, to the spring of 1919 when the failure of the Wilsonian promise became apparent.

This Wilsonian moment created an atmosphere of encouragement and hope among nationalists pushing for independence in Egypt, India, China, and Korea.  Though representatives from all of these colonies were barred from the peace negotiations in 1919 (except China, which was not officially a colony, but was the victim of a web of arrangements by foreign powers that checked its sovereignty), nationalists in these territories were able to use Wilson’s rhetoric of self-determination in an attempt to claim their place in the new international order.  The greatest contribution of Manela’s work is that it reveals how anti-colonial nationalism cannot be understood in national terms, but must be viewed in an international context.  Egyptian, Indian, Chinese, and Korean nationalists called for self-determination based on the new international standards that Wilson laid out; they sought to present their case on an international stage; and finally, they sought the aid of international pressure against their colonizer to help them achieve their goal of independence.  Moreover, international media allowed nationalists to know that other peoples were also pushing for similar goals (64).  Manela draws special attention to how the presence of so many Korean patriots abroad played a decisive role in Korea’s national movement.  These Korean patriots living abroad, who were dedicated to international, cosmopolitan liberalism, were able to get around the Japanese censors to gain and share information with Koreans back home and with the world on Korea’s behalf.

Beyond showing how movements for national determinism were placed squarely in international developments, Manela’s book helps explain why anti-colonial revolts broke out across the globe in the spring of 1919.  As it became apparent that Wilson’s promises were meant only for European nations, nationalists elsewhere realized that they were going to get no support from the American president that they had, only months before, adored as a sage-like savior.  But instead of losing hope from the fact that Wilson himself wasn’t going to help, these nationalists still saw power in Wilson’s rhetoric, and so they harnessed it and switched gears.  The first few months of 1919 were filled with revolts and uprisings in Egypt, India, Korea, and China; in each case, independence was won, even if it took decades to achieve it.  But, it’s important to realize that it was only after these nationalists understood the Wilsonian moment as a failed promise that they turned to open confrontation as an answer to their problems.

Ultimately, Manela’s work is a study of power: political power, the power of ideas, and the power of words and their (un)intended consequences.  The revolt against the West by anti-colonialists was not a result of the Great War, but was instead a direct result of the failure of the idealized peace that came afterwards.  While politicians attempted to keep political power flowing from the metropole to the colonies, Wilson attempted to define what it meant to be modern, enlightened, and civilized.  What peoples on the peripheries of the Versailles negation didn’t realize was that Wilson’s definition was narrow, had a blatant racial component, and was only meant to be applied to the West.  But, the power of Wilson’s words could not be undone, and the anti-colonialists took his rhetoric and launched revolts with them.  Manela concludes that while many viewed 1919 as an expansion of imperialism for Great Britain and France, the moment actually laid the groundwork for imperialism’s undoing (11).

In fact, all of these studies reveal how the modern era – with its developments in technology – allowed words and ideas to take on new powers.  On a basic, yet important level, technology allowed more efficient communication among a larger group of people in further corners of the world.  But as Vanessa Schwartz and others have shown, technology (along with other cultural developments) allowed for individuals to think of themselves as one part of a larger “people” or populace.  In short, the modern period saw the creation and rise to prominence of “the masses” as not only an audience, but also an important political tool and player to be considered in all decisions.  These masses acted as both the receptors and tools of political leaders’ ideas, as well as the inspiration for and creators of other ideologies.  As we have seen, the masses allowed for fascism and wide scale violence, but the masses also helped nurture the popularization of Enlightenment ideals and movements for national self-determination.  These are all parts of the European story.

Books under review: 

  1. Manela, Erez. The Wilsonian MomentSelf-Determination and the International Origins of Anticolonial Nationalism. Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press, 2007.
  2. Berghahn, Volker, R. Europe in the Era of two World Wars: From Militarism and Genocide to Civil Society. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2006.
  3. Andrews, James T. Science for the Masses: The Bolshevik State, Public Science, and the Popular Imagination in Soviet Russia, 1917-1934. College Station, TX: Texas A&M University Press, 2003.
  4. Falasca-Zamponi, Simonetta, Fascist Spectacle: The Aesthetics of Power in Mussolini’s Italy. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997.

For a longer list of books on Modern European History, see my post here

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European Mass Culture in the Context of Global War by W. J. Newsome is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

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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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