Posts Tagged With: nazism

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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Writing European History


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. 

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

Mothers in the Fatherland


Koonz, Claudia.  Mothers in the Fatherland:  Women, the Family, and Nazi Politics.  New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1987. 

In an interesting and provocative book, Koonz evaluates women’s role in the world created by the Nazis.  Ultimately, Koonz concludes that “Far from remaining untouched by Nazi evil, women operated at its very center,” (6) and “women made possible a murderous state in the name of concerns they defined as motherly” (5).

Central to Koonz’s argument is the fact that, from the beginning, Nazi ideology was based on two distinctions: Aryan versus Jew (and all non-Aryans) and man versus woman.  In other words, Koonz sees racism and sexism as two basic tenets of Nazism.  Just as Aryans were superior to Jews, men were better than women, and this was seen as representing the natural order of things.  Koonz argues that women, or Nazi women in particular, were willing to accept their inferior (“traditional”) status in return for rewards that varied from material goods to social prestige and honor.  But Koonz shows that many Nazi women wanted more than a “Mother’s Cross” in exchange; they wanted greater control over their own social sphere.

To understand women’s stance in Nazi Germany, Koonz rightly argues that one must first look at the Weimar period.  The women who would later become “Nazi women” did not view the emancipation of women during the Weimar period as an emancipation at all. They had to take up civic responsibilities that they weren’t required to before; they also felt more burdened by having to work to earn wages, wages lower than those paid to men.  Essentially, they felt that they were being forced to give up traditional values and roles (48).  There existed among women, then, a desire “for a society based on what sociologist William Goode called the “family of western nostalgia” (219).  The Nazi Party offered such a vision, while also not demanding that women take part in the politics of it all, which is the explanation Koonz offers for why women did not simply join other conservative parties.

But, a return to traditional values (including separate spheres for men and women) did not mean that women expected to be told what to do. Nazi women “hated the New Woman, but did not under any circumstances dream of returning women to narrow housewifely tasks” (122).  Nazi women organized and planned for the creation of a feminine Lebensraum inside Germany, a “social space” where women worked independent of men’s authority to help implement the Nazi vision as nurses, teachers, and social workers (7).  But Koonz portrays these women as naïve, because once the Nazis took power it became clear that women could organize, but they would obey the men’s orders (172).  Koonz also shows that while women perceived  the home as being “their” sphere, separate from the world of politics, the family actually became the site where Nazi ideology became personal, where good Nazis could be raised.  Therefore the notion of separate spheres was more or less a sham (389).

But it was important that men and women continued to perceive the home and private self as a separate spheres from work and the pubic self.  Indeed, this is how Nazi wives helped contribute to murder.  By offering a traditional, feminine home where Nazi men felt loved, women offered a place where men could “touch base” and feel human again before going back to work at a death camp the next day (418).  Moreover, Koonz suggests that many women knew what their husbands did, and so reassured him that what he did (public) was separate from who he was (private).  While some of her conclusions may be questionable, Koonz shows us that women were instrumental in implementing Nazi vision, and moreover, they perceived themselves as the harbingers of Nazi values.  That’s what makes their story so important.

For a longer list of books on German history, see my post here

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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).

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