Journal of the History of Sexuality 11.1 and 2 (2002) 3-21
[Access article in PDF]
Hubris and Hypocrisy, Incitement and Disavowal:
Sexuality and German Fascism
Michigan State University
It is not acceptable to disguise dirty desires with National Socialist ideas. . . . There are no two sides to the Jewish question and it is not admissible to damn the Jew in his political, economic and human manifestation while secretly, for personal convenience, to maintain the customs he has suggested in the realm of love- and sex-life.
Dr. Ferdinand Hoffmann, 1938
What is the relationship between sexual and other kinds of politics? Few cultures have posed this puzzle as urgently, or as disturbingly, as Nazi Germany. The answers are multiple and as yet unresolved; each emerging answer raises further questions. What exactly were Nazism's sexual politics? Were they repressive for everyone, or were some individuals and groups given sexual license while others were persecuted, tormented, and killed? How should we periodize transformations in the history of sexuality in Germany? How do we specify the continuities and ruptures that mark the transition from the Weimar era into the Third Reich, and how do we periodize changes that occurred in the course of both eras? How do we make sense of the evolution of postwar interpretations of Nazism's sexual politics? What do we make of the fact that scholars from the 1960s to the present have repeatedly assumed that the Third Reich was "sex-hostile," [End Page 3] "pleasureless," and characterized by "official German prudery," while in films and popular culture there has been a countervailing tendency to offer lurid and salacious anecdotes as a substitute for serious engagement with the complexities of life under German fascism? 1
Another bundle of questions has to do with theoretical approaches. The topic of sexuality under Nazism exposes the poverty of our available conceptual languages and frameworks. Numerous scholars in the history of sexuality have turned away from the work of Sigmund Freud to that of Michel Foucault. Yet it is possible that we need both of them in order to understand and convey the distinctive qualities of life and death in a grotesquely brutal but wildly popular dictatorship that was obsessed with issues of both reproduction and pleasure. 2 It is also possible that we need to return to the work of such an intermittently neglected theorist of sex and power as Herbert Marcuse. 3 All three thinkers struggled over how to put into words the coexistence of the seemingly contradictory; such Freudian terms as condensation, projection, splitting, transference, displacement, and disavowal are as indispensable as Foucault's challenges to the repressive hypothesis and insistence on the mutual imbrication of power and knowledges. And few terms capture as well as Marcuse's famous "repressive desublimation" the controlling components also of emancipatory injunctions. In addition, Marcuse was one of the first to try to articulate how Nazism's hubristic racism was inseparable from its attempts to reorganize sexual life, how central the politicization of the previously more private realm of sexuality was to the Nazis' political agenda, and how it was that sexual arousal could become a mechanism for social manipulation.
But there are many further interpretive dilemmas. It seems, for example, that we need not only to ask the increasingly more widely acknowledged—but still very pressing—questions of how categories of "race" and [End Page 4] "class" cut across and complicate categories of gender and sexual orientation but also to explore such finer delineations of sexuality and related realms as arousal, inhibition, anxiety, satisfaction, attachment, repulsion, envy, longing, and ennui. 4 We need to think as well about what insights queer theory can offer not only into male and female homosexuality but also into heterosexuality and a host of other emotions and practices. And we need to consider what it might mean to extend and adapt our still only tentative understanding of such phenomena as pornography, voyeurism, or exhibitionism—usually analyzed in the context of individual feelings and behaviors—to such an area of inquiry as the ideological work...