restricted access Red Rosa: On the Gender of the November Revolution in the German Avant-Gardes
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Red Rosa:
On the Gender of the November Revolution in the German Avant-Gardes

Forty years ago Klaus Theweleit published his groundbreaking analysis of fascism, Männerphantasien (1977–78). Theweleit's study turned to the literary fiction and fantasies of German Freikorps soldiers, many of whom had operated as shock troopers during World War I, then, immediately after the war as volunteers violently suppressing the German working class's November Revolution of 1918–19, and, finally, in the run-up to and during World War II, as high-ranked Nazi officials. Theweleit's Männerphantasien unearthed the imaginary that facilitated the production of death by the Freikorpsmen and lay bare the crucial role of gender and sexuality in their conscious and subconscious actions.1 For these men not only saw war as a perennial affair and murder as daily business. They also despised women and ordered them in three categories. There were their mostly middle-class wives and mothers, invisibly tucked away at home. There were the white, chaste, and disembodied upper-class German nurses at the front. And there were the "red women," members of the working class who as filthy, whorish and devilish aggressors armed with phallic weapons threatened the hardened and "white" integrity of Freikorps masculinity, and, by extension, Germany's sanctity at large. As embodied beings onto which the soldiers' fantasies projected eroticism, aggression and witchlike qualities, the "red women," especially, defined the Freikorpsmen's self-image. These "red women," who "flooded" the streets in large quantities and often headed public protests, were the very embodiment of communism that the Freikorps had been called on to ward off. Today we know, of course, that portrayals of the "red woman" as a despicably menacing emblem of communism could also be encountered far outside the Freikorps's ranks. Eminent German modernist writers and intellectuals, from Max Weber and Thomas Mann to Gertrud Simmel, considered women communists in a similar fashion.2 Yet while these women were seen as marginal rabble-rousers by Mann, Weber, and Simmel, to the Freikorpsmen, as Theweleit convincingly showed, they functioned as the binary other of the (proto)fascist self.

Over the past forty years many of Theweleit's more polemic assertions, grounded in his attempt to revise psychoanalysis, have been qualified. According to Theweleit, for instance, aversion of women's bodies defines European culture at large and takes root in the preoedipal stage; fascism, as a result, would be inherent to all European men and women. Yet as a historical study Theweleit's Männerphantasien remains a valuable document, not least because it manifests how the November Revolution in Germany, certainly for the (proto)fascist Freikorps, was also conceived as a gendered battle. It is with the gender of the November Revolution that we concern ourselves here so as to correct Theweleit's lopsided exclusion of a left-wing or communist artistic perspective.3 Indeed, while many cultural and political historians since have scrutinized the conservative gender politics of German socialist as well as communist officials around the time of the revolution of 1918–1919, forty years after Theweleit's classic study, which based its insights mainly on the fiction, poetry and visual art of German writers and artists from the far right, we lack an understanding of whether and how artists and writers from the left in Germany projected an alternative image of the "red woman" so central to the (proto)fascist imaginary. This article is a modest attempt to fill this gap.4

We limit our scope here to the exploits of German avant-garde artists and writers, focussing mainly on exponents of expressionism and Dadaism in literature, theater, the visual arts, and architecture.5 Feminist and gender-inflected readings have long established that the mostly male left-leaning members of the German avant-gardes frequently held traditional, at times misogynist, views of gender.6 Yet whether and how these avant-gardists represented the so-called "red woman" in a different manner than their adversaries on the far right remains uncharted terrain. There are good reasons for exploring this terrain, for many avant-gardists excelled in mocking the Freikorps in their work, and the...


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