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Sex after Fascism:
Memory and Morality in Twentieth-Century Germany
Dagmar Herzog

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WHAT IS THE RELATIONSHIP between sexual morality and mass murder and its aftermath? In view of Nazism's horrific crimes, sexuality might be seen as a frivolous or inappropriate subject for scholarly study of twentieth-century Germany. Yet precisely the opposite is the case.

Careful attention to the history of sexuality prompts us to reconsider how we periodize twentieth-century German history; it changes our interpretation of ruptures and continuities across the conventional divides of 1918, 1933, 1945, 1968, and 1989. Consideration of the history of sexuality and insistence on integrating the history of sexuality with more traditional topics of historiography can also challenge our assumptions about key social and political transformations and provide new insights into a broad array of crucial phenomena. To neglect the history of sexuality, for example, is also to fail to care about the content or force of antisemitism both during the Weimar Republic and in the early years of the Third Reich. Similarly, if we set sex aside as irrelevant, we lose opportunities to comprehend the extraordinary appeal of Nazism both to those Germans who sought the restoration of conservative family values and to those who benefited from Nazism's loosening of conventional mores. Nor can processes of popular secularization or religious renewal be understood without attention to the history of sexuality. Likewise, to disregard conflicts over sexuality is to risk misunderstanding the extensive emotional repercussions of Germans' military and ideological defeat in World War II, and its consequences especially for German manhood. Perhaps most significantly, to treat sexual issues as marginal is also to miss how the postwar Federal Republic of Germany, in striving to be incorporated into the Cold War West, was able to manipulate the memory of Nazism and to redirect moral debate away from the problem of complicity in mass murder and toward a narrowed conception of morality as solely concerned with sex.

Sexual politics functioned as a main locus for recurrent reconstructions of the memory and meanings of Nazism. Because the reworking of sexual mores had been such an important feature of the Third Reich, attempts to come to terms with the legacies of fascism in Germany could not help but address sexual matters. No less pertinent a factor, however, was the unexpected revival of Christian authority in the political realm in the western zones and then subsequently the Federal Republic of Germany. As it turns out, to delineate the ways in which sexuality, memory, and morality repeatedly intersected in postfascist Germany is also to shed light on Germans' efforts to grapple with the possible relationships between pleasure and evil.

This book was originally conceived as a study of the generation of 1968 in West Germany. Seeking to understand how Nazism and its legacies were interpreted in the 1960s, especially by the New Left student movement, I was struck by the preponderance of arguments that the Third Reich was a distinctly sexually repressive era and that to liberate sexuality was an antifascist imperative. Numerous New Leftists argued directly that sexuality and politics were causally linked; convinced that sexual repression produced racism and fascism, they proposed that sexual emancipation would further social and political justice.

Members of the West German New Left student movement, along with many of their liberal elders, defended activism on behalf of sexual emancipation on the grounds that sexual repression was not merely a characteristic of fascism but its very cause. As one author put it, "it would be wrong to hold the view that all of what happened in Auschwitz was typically German. It was typical for a society that suppresses sexuality."1 Another argued that "brutality and the lust for destruction become substitutes for bodily pleasure . . . This is how the seemingly incredible contradiction that the butchers of Auschwitz were--and would become again--respectable, harmless citizens, is resolved."2 Or as yet another phrased it even more succinctly: "In the fascist rebellion, the energies of inhibited sexuality formed into genocide."3 In the 1960s these views were widely held, and they provided moral justification for dismantling the postwar culture of sexual conservatism. To liberate sexuality, it was believed, would help cleanse Germany of the lingering aftereffects of Nazism.

For many commentators in present-day reunified Germany, more than fifteen years after the collapse of communism, it has become standard to denigrate the rebellions of the later 1960s for their utopian romanticism and fierce anticapitalism. But in their historical moment, those rebellions--and not least the sexual element in them--were signally important. They fundamentally reconfigured familial, sexual, and gender relations and all codes of social interaction. They undermined the authority of political and religious conservatives who had dominated West German political life for nearly two decades, and they succeeded in reorienting society-wide moral discussion and debate toward global concerns like social injustice, economic exploitation, and warfare.

As my research unfolded, I found that the New Left's interpretation of the Third Reich's sexual politics as profoundly repressive had been almost uniformly adopted in recent scholarship on Nazism as well. I also found, however, in researching the more immediate post-World War II period, that numerous commentators in that period had a completely different interpretation of the Third Reich. They argued that the Nazis had encouraged sexual licentiousness or even suggested that their sexual immorality was inextricable from their genocidal barbarism. Indeed, for many of these more immediate postwar observers, the containment of sexuality and the restoration of marriage and family were among the highest priorities for a society trying to overcome Nazism. It increasingly appeared as though the postwar culture of sexual conservatism was not (as the New Left believed) a watered-down continuation of a sexually repressive fascism but rather had itself been developed at least in partial reaction against Nazism.

The puzzles presented by the contradictory postwar interpretations of Nazism--and the utterly conflicting lessons drawn from them--led me to broaden the scope of my study. If I was going to explain the New Left's viscerally intense but also highly mediated relationship to the Nazi past, I had to expand my focus considerably. This entailed reconstructing debates over sexual mores under Nazism, as well as the evolution of postwar interpretations of Nazism. It also required an examination of the sexual culture of the first two postwar decades, first in the western zones under military occupation and then in the Federal Republic of Germany, in order to clarify in what climate the generation of 1968 had come of age and against which it would subsequently rebel. But it also became important to explore the comparative context of developments in the Soviet zone of occupation and then in the German Democratic Republic, in order to see how the development of postfascist sexual moralities differed in East Germany, especially due to the dramatically reduced presence there of those two main social forces--consumer capitalism and the Christian churches--which each in its own way kept sexual matters so integral to politics and culture in the West. In addition, I wanted not only to understand how the convictions about Nazism held by members of the generation of 1968 informed its efforts to remake German society from the 1960s to the 1980s but also to see how those efforts--and indeed the meaning of 1968 itself--had been reinterpreted yet again in the wake of German reunification in 1990.

In short, I began to consider questions of continuities and discontinuities (and complex mixtures thereof) in twentieth-century German history through the lens of conflicts over sexual morality. It seemed that the history of sexuality in Germany and other aspects of German history articulated constantly with one another--though always again in different ways--and thus could not be told separately. It also became clear that the generation of 1968 was not the first to believe that sexual and other kinds of politics were intrinsically connected. Sex was a crucial theme for politics even before the Third Reich began. It was closely linked with antisemitism.

After Germany's defeat in World War I, in the politically and economically unstable experiment with democracy called the Weimar Republic, Jews were--for the rising National Socialist movement as well as for many across the political spectrum--powerfully identified with sexual liberality. Not coincidentally, the sexual demonizing of the Jewish man became a major element in early National Socialist campaigns, and during the Third Reich the equation of Jews with sexual immorality helped facilitate first their exclusion from German society and subsequently their murder. Issues of sexual morality were central as well to the Christian churches' initial defense of National Socialism after Adolf Hitler's ascension to power in 1933--and thereby of the moral legitimation of the regime--even while differences of opinion over sexual mores subsequently emerged as a source of tension between the churches and the Nazis. Attending to this conflict over sex between the churches and the Nazis during the Third Reich in turn brings us much closer to an understanding of why the postfascist period in West Germany, under the leadership of the Christian Democratic Party (CDU), would be so strongly marked by a preoccupation with sexual propriety.

It is not least because scholarship on the Christian churches and scholarship on sexuality under Nazism have generally proceeded separately (all the more remarkable since sexual matters are often central to an erosion of faith) that so many scholars continue to presume that the Third Reich's sexual politics can best be characterized as prudish and conservative. For this turns out to be an only partially accurate reading. Without a doubt there were massively repressive elements in Nazi sexual politics: from the torture and murder of homosexual men to the incarceration of prostitutes to the forced sterilization of proletarian women whose purported promiscuity was taken as a sign of mental deficiency, from the prosecution of Jewish-Gentile sex in the so-called race defilement trials to the grotesque reproductive experiments and sexual sadism practiced on Jewish and other prisoners in the concentration and death camps. But none of this evidence justifies the conclusion that the Third Reich was repressive for everyone. What has routinely been downplayed since the 1960s is that Nazi policy and practice, for those broad sectors of the populace that were not persecuted, was anything but sexually repressive. Indeed, and this was especially apparent in the regime's vigorous attacks on the Christian churches, Nazism advanced an often ribald and unapologetic celebration of sexual activity; it avidly promoted both pre- and extramarital heterosexual sex.

There were also for the duration of the Third Reich regime-encouraged tendencies toward the maintenance of conventional sexual morality. Sexually conservative values were preserved in the bourgeois middle class and among church-affiliated individuals and groups of all social strata. Nazi spokespeople did on many occasions appropriate and actively disseminate these values; for instance, examples of Nazi sex advice materials advocating premarital chastity and marital fidelity--especially for women--abound. But these traditional mores were also intensively combated by the regime.

Ultimately, and despite the contrary impulses, Nazism perpetuated and intensified certain aspects of the sexually liberalizing tendencies underway since the early twentieth century, even as it sought to harness those liberalizations--and the growing popular preoccupation with sex--to a savagely racist, elitist, and homophobic agenda. This was the distinctive innovation of Nazi sexual politics. The goal was not so much to suppress sexuality. Rather the aim was to reinvent it as the privilege of nondisabled, heterosexual "Aryans" (all the while claiming to be "cleaning up" sexual morality in Germany and overcoming the "Jewish" legacy). What needs to be confronted, in short (and what the 68ers could not accept), is that this advocacy of sexual expression coexisted with virulent racism and mass murder.

Indicatively, moreover, no one in the immediate post-World War II era recalled the Third Reich as a sexually conservative time. On the contrary, observers remembered a steady liberalization of heterosexual mores over the course of the first half of the twentieth century. One question this book thus pursues has to do with how the close imaginative linkage created by Nazism between sexual libertinism and genocide was coped with and misremembered in the post-1945 period.

At its heart, then, this book is concerned with how, in the postwar era, for complicated and overdetermined--if never fully conscious or rationalized--reasons, conflicts over sexual mores could become such an important site for managing the memory of Nazism and Holocaust and coming to terms with their inheritance. Thus I investigate the history of sexuality: laws, values, beliefs, and practices; such matters as contraceptive techniques, the treatment of sexual minorities, or the prevalence of pornography; how people talked about anxieties and about pleasures. But the book also charts what else was getting worked through when Germans fought with each other over sex and traces the continual reinterpretations of Nazism that occurred within postwar debates over sex. As such, the book can be read in at least two ways. It is a history of conflicts over sexual morality in Germany from the Third Reich to the present. But the book also advances a conceptual argument that has to do with memory. My aim in presenting a revised assessment of the sexual politics of the Third Reich, as chapter 1 will do, is not just for its own sake (though that too), but also in order to lay the groundwork for the remainder of this study. For a central question pursued in this study concerns how the memory of the connections between Nazi sexual enticements and Nazi racism came to be so energetically forgotten, only to be replaced by the new (and now more familiar, if also unevenly applied) "memory" of Nazism as sexually constrictive and uptight. With this question in mind, each chapter offers a different perspective on the relationships between sexual and other kinds of politics. Throughout, the book is concerned with the mechanisms of, and reasons for, the repeated reimaginings of the national past.

Chapter 1 offers a reinterpretation of Nazism's sexual politics against the background of developments in the Weimar Republic. I emphasize how under Nazism both sexually conservative and sexually liberalizing claims were advanced through antisemitic argumentation and how Nazis "remembered" and represented Weimar in sexualized terms. I suggest the often disconcertingly protopostmodern elements of Nazi thinking about sexual orientation and desire, explore the ways young people in particular were encouraged to depart from their parents' mores as well as the depth of the conflicts between Christians (especially Catholics) and Nazis over the status of premarital chastity and of marriage, and conclude with a discussion of the impact of total war on sexual mores. Chapter 2 then turns to the liminal moment between the end of World War II and the early years of the Federal Republic of Germany (founded in 1949). On the one hand, this was an era of considerable sexual liberality; on the other hand, it was also a time when the meanings of Nazism were actively renegotiated via impassioned discussions of sex. In these years of transition from fascism to Western democracy, diverse constituencies distanced themselves from select aspects of Nazism while they pursued fresh rationales for the continuation of other--and some of the more disturbing--elements of Nazi ideology.

Chapter 3 analyzes the claustrophobic and conformist climate of the mid-1950s to early 1960s in West Germany. Beginning with the early 1950s debate over censorship of sexually suggestive images and texts, and the need to promote sexual decency and protect young people from smut, I argue that the official sexual conservatism of this era can be understood not only as an inevitable by-product of the dominance of the Christian Democratic Party during these years but also as a powerful strategy for mastering German guilt and shame over the Holocaust. This chapter also charts the evolution of sexualized interpretations of Nazism. While in the early 1950s, commentators still emphasized Nazism's antibourgeois component and explicitly linked Nazi encouragements to nonmarital sexuality with Nazism's crimes, the Auschwitz trial of 1963-65 in Frankfurt am Main marked the emergence of the theory of the petty bourgeois and sexually repressed Holocaust perpetrator that was to become so important to the New Left student movement.

Chapter 4 turns to the sexual revolution that swept West German society after the mid-1960s. In this chapter, I examine the very real effects of New Leftists' beliefs about Nazism, manifest in their critiques of the family and experimentation with communal living, antiauthoritarian child-rearing, and nonmonogamy--but outline as well the immense appeal of New Left perspectives also far beyond New Left circles. At the same time, I am concerned to foreground New Leftists' acute discomfort with the mainstream sexual revolution unfolding all around them, and the vehemence of their efforts to forge links between liberated sexuality and struggles for social and political revolution. I argue that the New Left can best be understood not just as it presented itself (i.e., as an antifascist movement) but even more as an antipostfascist movement, one whose activism around all aspects of sex and gender relations was formulated in reaction against the postfascist settlement of the 1950s--even as Nazism and the Holocaust were continually invoked as negative moral reference points.

Chapter 5 returns to the immediate postwar moment in the Soviet zone of occupation and then analyzes sexual mores under East German communism from 1949, when the German Democratic Republic was founded, until 1989, when it disintegrated. The evolution of East German sexual mores illuminates a different possible postfascist trajectory. In contrast to the West, where discussion of sex was such a key means for mastering the Nazi past, in East Germany discussion of sex constantly circled around hopes for the future. Far from being insignificant in comparison with such issues as political dissent or the perpetual shortage of consumer goods, sex became a crucial focus for the regime in its efforts to encourage citizens to endorse more fully the socialist project. This chapter concludes with an examination of the ways the unique sexual culture of East Germany became a major object of former easterners' nostalgia in the wake of German reunification in 1990.

Finally, chapter 6 explores what happened to the anticapitalist impulse within the West after the perceived failure of the student revolts of the late 1960s. The chapter spans the three decades from the aftermath of 1968 to the turn from the twentieth to the twenty-first century, and charts the impact of the collapse of East Germany and of German reunification on the ways 1968 and its meaning and import would be interpreted. If chapters 3 and 4 examine the logics whereby New Leftists' beliefs about Nazism as "sex-hostile" were created (and document the ardor and fervor of New Leftists' faith that sexual liberation would be both a cause and a key component of the achievement of political and social justice), and chapter 5 provides a contrasting perspective on how the connections between sexual and other kinds of politics could be conceived, then chapter 6 chronicles the dashing of New Leftists' faith that sexual freedom had anything whatsoever to do with social justice in the first place. Against the background of both spreading sexual liberalization and recurrent announcements that sexual desire and intensity were in steep decline, chapter 6 also traces the rise of--and vehement backlash against--feminism that occurred in the 1970s and 1980s and the effects of the ensuing gender conflict on how the Third Reich was understood, and the lessons drawn from that understanding. It concludes with a look at the current status of German debates over sexuality and memory after Nazism.

In aiming to illuminate how we might think about the ever-altering connections between sexual and other kinds of politics, the book shows how sex can be the site for talking about very many other things besides sex and working through a multitude of other social and political conflicts. At the same time, specifically the contrast of developments under three regimes--fascist, democratic capitalist, and state socialist--offers an opportunity to ground historically investigations into the relationships between social structures, ideologies, bodies, and minds and to consider how, in the twentieth century, sex could become such an extraordinarily significant locus for politics, one of the major engines of economic development, and such a central element in strategies of rule. "Sex is not a natural act," the psychologist Leonore Tiefer once wrote; the seemingly most intimate parts of our lives are strongly shaped by social forces, even as the dynamics of the interrelationships between the social and the individual are elusive and constantly changing.4 The challenge is to take such matters as sexual practices, or subjective accounts of the dissociation or connection between physiological sensations, fantasies, and emotions, as legitimate objects for historical inquiry.

Throughout, a crucial point--and each chapter reveals another dimension of this phenomenon--is that memories were not preserved and passed on in some pure, uncontaminated fashion. Rather, "memories" of the Third Reich were continually constructed and reconstructed after the fact, so much so that these subsequent memories were even more influential--in political and social conflicts, and in individual psyches--than the actual complicated original reality. Each memory was always also an interpretation, mixing kernels of truth about the past with powerful emotional investments that had much to do with an evolving present. The ways that Nazis constructed Weimar, or the ways former citizens of East Germany, after reunification, constructed their experiences under communism, or the ways former New Leftists in the early twenty-first century have reimagined the significance of 1968, offer further expositions of this theme. Moreover, and while the literature on postfascist memory in Germany is large, what attention to the workings of memory in conflicts over sex in particular offers us is an extraordinary insight into how memories get "layered"--that is, the ways each cohort and constituency approached both the immediate and the more distant past only through and against the interpretations of its historical predecessors.5 What becomes apparent, in short, is the intricate mutual imbrication of different eras in German history. In seeking to make sense of this imbrication in a particular location, I hope to offer perspectives that are relevant for scholars studying memory cultures also in other national contexts. The aim is to explore the processes by which certain central cultural understandings--with enormous and quite concrete consequences for how lives are lived--are achieved. Precisely, then, by historicizing how German constructions of the Nazi past evolved, and the remarkable impact those constructions have had (and continue to have), the book considers the lasting power not just of real but also of fictive memories.

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File created: 8/7/2007

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