Matthew's Reviews > Sex After Fascism: Memory and Morality in Twentieth-Century Germany

Sex After Fascism by Dagmar Herzog
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's review
Sep 05, 2007

really liked it
bookshelves: sexuality, german-history
Recommended for: Interesting people, historians
Read in September, 2007

Herzog claims that “careful attention to the history of sexuality prompts us to reconsider how we periodize twentieth-century German history.” It does this by challenging assumptions about “key social and political transformations” and providing “new insights into a broad array of crucial phenomena.” It also provides “content [and:] force” to anti-Semitism before and during the Third Reich. It provides an understanding of the appeal of Nazism to conservative and liberal Germans. It helps explain the demoralizing and emasculating effects of the loss of WWII. It also helps to explain the ways in which sexuality was used to “master” the Nazi past both in the 1950s Federal Republic of Germany and the 1960s youth protesters and their sexual liberation movement.

How sexuality is remembered at different points in German history by historical actors is directly related to their actions in their present. The book begins, for example, with the observation that the memory of sexuality under the Nazis during the 1950s was of sexual liberalization and the abandonment of traditional sexual morals. It was state-endorsed depravity and secularization. The move back toward Christian sexual mores, while partially stimulated by the Allied-promoted revival of Catholic and Protestant churches in the Federal Republic, and the rise of the Christian Democratic Party, was in large part a move by Germans to distance themselves from the depravity of the Nazis. Focusing discourse exclusively around the sexual misdeeds of the Nazis, not around the persecution of the Jews, was a method of mastering this past.

Herzog’s examination of Nazi sexuality shows that Germans in the immediate postwar years were not wrong to remember the Nazis as sexually liberal. Nazism’s anti-Christian neo-paganism did promote heterosexual sex of all kinds (marital, pre-marital and extra-marital) as the privilege of the master race. Sexual restraint, experimentation, sterilization (and of course worse) were reserved specifically for those deemed undesirable by the Nazi racial hygiene program. Herzog examines popular magazines, sex advice columns, and other evidence, showing that the rhetoric of sexual dignity was mostly aimed at the depravities of Jewish sexuality and bourgeois depictions of the body. Nazi sexual policy intensified the liberalization of sex that began in the Weimar era, even as it criticized it.

Later, in the 1960s, a new generation coming of age came to believe that the sexual conservativism of their parents was a holdover of Nazi sexuality. The New Left student movement were exposed to the Auschwitz trial (1963-1965) that revealed the horrors of the holocaust that had gone unremembered in the 1950s relentless focus on sexuality. The students promoted a connection between sexual repression and moral atrocity that was then echoed by scholarly examinations of Nazism of that era. Disturbingly, these students likened themselves to the victims of the holocaust, and likewise their parents to Nazis. Again this misremembering of the Nazi past was a way of mastering the past. One of the movements most interesting components is that, while it sought to prevent fascism through sexual liberation, it nonetheless contained anti-Semitic undertones. Jews were absent and faceless in this understanding of the holocaust, and its victims and its horrors abstract.
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