Journal of the History of Sexuality 11.1 and 2 (2002) 164-200
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Fascism and the Female Form:
Performance Art in the Third Reich
Terri J. Gordon
Barnard College, Columbia University
Nazi Germany is generally understood to have been a sexually repressive society, and in fundamental social and political ways, it was repressive. The National Socialist Party intervened in the private space of the body to an extent never before experienced and in hitherto unprecedented ways. The state instituted a politics of the body that rendered the individual body a public site whose purpose was to further the larger social organism. In the drive toward the establishment of a pure, thriving Volk, the National Socialist regime conducted a dual campaign, a pronatalist campaign encouraging "healthy" Aryan women to bear and rear children and an antinatalist policy aimed at preventing the reproduction of "undesirable" elements (Jews, Poles, Africans, and the mentally disabled, among others). Whereas pronatalist policies operated through incentives, such as government subsidies, child allowances, tax rebates, and medals for childbearing, antinatalist measures were carried out through repressive laws, including compulsory sterilization of the genetically "inferior," forced abortions, and marriage prohibitions. 1 The body became a social site onto [End Page 164] which political ideals were mapped. The notion of the healthy body as a microcosm for the healthy state was reiterated in the images of the "sacred wife and mother" in officially sanctioned art and promoted in a vast propaganda campaign enjoining women to lend their bodies to the movement to maintain the vitality of the race.
Yet despite the radical political intervention into domestic life, sexual iconography persisted in Nazi Germany in ways highly reminiscent of that of the Weimar period. Another face of sexuality was visible in the Third Reich, one that was reflected in the cult of the body that marked much of the performance art of the period. Both the cabaret revue and Ausdruckstanz (expressionist dance) flourished in the Nazi period. These two forms of dance signal two distinct areas in which nudity and female eroticism were employed in Nazi culture: the revue in the realm of mass culture, Ausdruckstanz in the realm of the avant-garde. Both forms were culturally continuous with the Weimar period, against whose "decadent" and "degenerate" norms Nazi Germany continually positioned itself. In the Nazi period, the Hiller Girls provided the German counterpart to the British Tiller Girls, the fashionable dance troupe whose highly synchronized movements set the tone for popular entertainment in the Weimar period. Touted in the press as the "New Woman," the Tiller Girl was heralded by many as an icon of modern sexuality, the new, independent woman whose control over her body and her life reflected the liberated norms of the Roaring Twenties. Expressionist dance, the deeply subjective, avant-garde dance form developed by the schools of Rudolf von Laban, Mary Wigman, Jutta Klamt, Berthe Trümpy, and others in the Weimar period, was integral to state-sponsored events in the Nazi period, including the German Dance Congresses (Tanzfestspiele) held in Berlin in 1934 and 1935 and the opening night ceremonies of the 1936 Olympic Games. On an aesthetic level, the prevalence of both the cabaret revue and expressionist dance under the Nazi regime is surprising. Why was the revue, the prototypical expression of modernity, appropriated by the regime? On the other hand, why did expressionist dance continue to prosper under the Third Reich while expressionist art was cast out, castigated as degenerate in the Entartete Kunst Ausstellung (Degenerate art exhibition) in Munich in 1937? And why did Rudolf von Laban and Mary Wigman fall out of favor with the regime despite their aesthetic endeavors to further a National Socialist ideology? [End Page 165]
This essay advances the thesis that the cultural liberation of sexuality in performance art in the Third Reich served in a number of cases to fortify the otherwise restrictive sexual politics of the state. The redeployment of sexuality in Nazi Germany often had domestic and political resonance, reinforcing the role of woman as "natural" wife...