Journal of the History of Sexuality 11.1 and 2 (2002) 22-66
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Sexuality and Nazism:
The Doubly Unspeakable?
Elizabeth D. Heineman
University of Iowa
The history of sexuality in Nazi Germany unites two subjects vulnerable to sensationalist coverage: sex and Nazism. Film scholars have observed a tendency to eroticize National Socialism in that medium, a phenomenon that reflects (and perhaps perpetuates) the dangerous allure of fascism. 1 Film, however, often claims to be fiction and always claims artistic license. Perhaps more startling is the persistent misrepresentation of sexuality under Nazism in outlets that allegedly produce nonfiction. In a recent front-page story, the Los Angeles Times characterized Lebensborn as a place where "11,000 children were born to women who mated with elite SS officers," although all serious investigations describe Lebensborn as a home for pregnant women who could demonstrate the racial acceptability of their offspring-to-be. 2 Popular perceptions of many historic episodes are stubbornly resistant to evidence, but it is worth asking whether there is something special about the combination of Nazism and sex. [End Page 22]
If words appear inadequate to describe either the excruciating violence of Nazism (Adorno's "to write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric") or the sensory pleasures of sex (Barthes's "Bliss is unspeakable"), we might expect to be doubly frustrated as we struggle to conjure up the intersections of Nazism and sex. 3 Yet in the end, Adorno revised his claim that post-Holocaust poetry was impossible, and Barthes explored a language for sexual bliss. 4 Thus it is perhaps fitting that the last twenty-five years have seen remarkable advances in our understanding of sexuality under Nazism. Three major developments can account for this sea change. One is a growing interest in the scientific bases of Nazi racism, specifically, the science of eugenics. A second is the emergence of women's history. The third is the lowering of taboos about studying sexuality and, particularly, sexual minorities. As a result, some subfields within the history of sexuality in Nazi Germany are now well developed. We have detailed studies of the ways that Nazi racism shaped women's reproductive lives as well as good research on the persecution of homosexual men. One strength of this literature is its integration of the history of sexuality into the study of Nazi racial ideologies and practices. Another is its pursuit of larger issues of change and continuity. Historians of sexuality have carefully explored the balance between those aspects of Nazi policy and practice that were innovative and those that evolved from preexisting social mores and scientific ambitions.
Nevertheless, enormous gaps in the literature remain. One reason is the uneven nature of the sources. It is easier, for example, to formulate a research project on the persecution of homosexual men than on that of heterosexually "promiscuous" women. The former violated easily identified paragraphs of the criminal code (Paragraphs 175 and 175a) and, if sent to concentration camps, had their own label (the pink triangle). While a study of convictions under Paragraph 175 or of pink triangles hardly exhausts the history of gay men in Nazi Germany, it is an indispensable beginning and a relatively straightforward research task. There is no comparable, easily defined set of records on heterosexually "promiscuous" women (as distinct from those legally categorized as prostitutes), making it difficult for a researcher to identify and isolate women persecuted on the basis of "sexual promiscuity."
Even good sources, however, do not guarantee good research. A political climate, both inside and outside the academy, that considered sexuality trivial in comparison to other fields of study long made it difficult for scholars to get such research funded. 5 The relegation of certain themes to [End Page 23] subfields of history, such as sexual violence against women to the subfield of women's history, has led scholars in other areas, such as the history of the Holocaust, to overlook evidence regarding sexuality. 6
A related problem concerns the questions asked. We are in the habit of inquiring into groups persecuted by the Nazis, and we recognize...