A question that haunted me throughout my time as a Ph.D. candidate for all its difficult implications for my project. Read more about it in my blog post for We the Humanities.
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Edit February 28, 2018: As We the Humanities seems to be down, the text is reposted below:
Whenever I told other people about my doctoral project, their reactions often made me reflect upon the most complicated part of my topic. I would usually sum it up along these lines: “My dissertation is about the work of Åsmund Sveen (1910–1963), a Norwegian author and critic. He was among the first to write homoerotic poetry in Norwegian. Interestingly, he was also a Nazi—during World War II, he worked as a bureaucrat and propagandist for the Quisling government.” And then, my interlocutor would sometimes stare blankly waiting for the point of my little tale, until I realized that they were unaware of the Nazi persecution of homosexuals. Other times, however, they would confidently explain that although this was official Nazi policy, many of Hitler’s closest staff members were in fact gay—a fact that is evident in the homoerotic iconography of the Third Reich and of fascism in general. Hence, the fact that Åsmund Sveen, who shared twenty years of his life with another man, would commit to Nazism is not at all surprising.
The assertion of a link between homoeroticism and Nazism is both troubling and deceptive. Yet it seems hard to reject the notion that there is something gay about fascist art. What, then, is a reasonable explanation why some homosexuals found an appeal in Nazism—and why so many depictions of men in Nazi art does, indeed have a homoerotic flair? In my view, these are separate questions.
The relation between Nazism and homosexuality has been fiercely debated ever since Hitler rose to power. In the inter-war years, homosexuality was well established in many Western countries as a universal scapegoat. To the Nazis, the Jews and communists were depraved homosexuals, whereas to the communists in exile, Nazism was an ideology so perverse it could only possibly be promoted by those who were perverse themselves. The author Klaus Mann lamented this attitude already in 1934, but the left-wing myth of the homosexual Nazi still lives on.
Suffice it to say that the idea of a plethora of homosexuals in Hitler’s administration, the assertion that homosexuals as a group would benefit from Nazi rule, or that Nazism was in some way a secret homosexual plot have all been thoroughly analyzed and debunked by various scholars, such as Andrew Hewitt (1996), Alexander Zinn, (1997), and Susanne zur Nieden et al. (2005).
But debunking those myths doesn’t answer the uncomfortable question of why fascist and Nazi aesthetics overlap with homoerotic imagery on many points. Susan Sontag was among the first to discuss this phenomenon in her article “Fascinating Fascism,” where she remarks that “Painters and sculptors under the Nazis often depicted the nude, but they were forbidden to show any bodily imperfections. Their nudes look like pictures in male health magazines: pinups which are both sanctimoniously asexual and (in a technical sense) pornographic, for they have the perfection of a fantasy.”
Recently, queer theorist J. Halberstam has discussed fascist iconography in homoerotic art, under the interesting category of the homosexual as anti-social. Gay artists will subversively take advantage of their exclusion from respectable society by introducing elements that are anti-humanist and politically unsettling in their art.
While Sontag’s and Halberstam’s observations are to the point, they still beg the question of why Nazi aesthetics lends itself to such a homoerotic “adoption.”
While working on my dissertation, I finally felt like I was given the tools to answer this question when I discovered the work of historian George L. Mosse. What Mosse mapped out in several books and articles was how the modern Western ideal of masculinity is hyperbolically masculine to the degree where it is always at risk of becoming homoerotic. According to Mosse, the masculine stereotype was constructed during the German Classicism of the late 18th century. The motto mens sana in corpore sano—a healthy mind in a healthy body—supported the masculine ideal as image of the modern state. Like the ideal man, the state was to be characterized by a dynamic, forceful virility, combined with discipline and the ability to tame any impulses to chaos.
Another important innovation of early modernity was physiognomy—a pseudoscientific belief that outward appearance betrayed moral and mental qualities. One might think of the stereotypical portrayal of the ugly Jew. Likewise, 19th century sexology took physiognomy as part of its inspiration in the search for a homosexual anatomy. For the Nazis, then, the strong and naked male body was a symbol of German strength in opposition to the “feminine,” “degenerate,” and “unpatriotic countertypes of Jews and homosexuals.
Building on Mosse’s claims, art historians have underlined how the gay subculture of the late 19th and early 20th centuries appropriated the hyperbolic ideal of masculinity to construct a gay male cult of the body (see Steorn 2006, Körber 2010). Vitalist pictures of half-naked, muscular men, intended as advertisements for exercise and physical culture, also served as softcore porn in gay magazines. Thus, what was originally a representation of an ideal to combat national degeneration was usurped by the group of people imagined to embody that very degeneration—homosexual men.
To put it briefly: What is hyperbolically heterosexual risks becoming homoerotic because of what Eve K. Sedgwick has termed “the crisis of homo/heterosexual definition.” The lines between homo- and heteroeroticism get blurry in a culture where worshiping the male body is characteristic of both (heterosexual) masculinity and (“feminine”) homoeroticism.
While Åsmund Sveen probably had a bunch of other reasons to join the Norwegian Nazi Party—such as the economic safety it would provide, the safety from being persecuted, as well as an ideological affinity with romantic nationalism—it is clear that some of his poetry is marked by the ideal of masculinity Mosse accounts for. I’ll end this post with a translated excerpt from his Whitmanesque poem “Til dei unge menn” [“To the Young Men”], released the day before the German invasion of Norway.
Potentially homoerotic, phallic imagery is obvious in these lines, together with a synthesis of technological and spiritual achievements that falls in line with Nazism:
And you, who span bridges over darkening crevices,
who drill halls in mountains and fountains in the desert
and erect victorious towers on savage mountains—
thank you for your eyes!
Maybe sometime you will stand up
like a mountain of blessings between desolate souls.
Oh children of sun and light,
you who have been given such praise by nature!
I see you on yellow beaches by the green sea
you cultivate your bodies and love the sun.
I like you.
Do you also feel the sun of truth
burning at midnight?
Halberstam, Judith. 2011. The Queer Art of Failure. Durham: Duke University Press.
Hewitt, Andrew. 1996. Political Inversions: Homosexuality, Fascism & the Modernist Imaginary. Stanford: Stanford University Press.
Körber, Lill-Ann. 2013. Badende Männer: Der nackte männliche Körper in der skandinavischen Malerei und Fotografie des frühen 20. Jahrhunderts. Bielefeld: transcript.
Mann, Klaus. 1969. «Homosexualität und Faschismus.» In Heute und Morgen. Schriften zur Zeit, edited by Klaus Mann and Martin Gregor-Dellin, 130–137. München: Nymphenburger Verlagshandlung.
Mosse, George L. 1998. Image of Man. The Creation of Modern Masculinity. New York & Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Nieden, Susanne zur, ed. 2005. Homosexualität und Staatsräson. Männlichkeit, Homophobie und Politik in Deutschland 1900–1945. Frankfurt/New York: Campus.
Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky. 2008. Epistemology of the Closet. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Sontag, Susan. 1975. «Fascinating Fascism.» accessed 24.4.2013. http://www.nybooks.com/articles/1975/02/06/fascinating-fascism/.
Steorn, Patrik. 2006. Nakna män: Maskulinitet och kreativitet i svensk bildkultur 1900–1915. Stockholm: Norstedts akademiska förlag.
Sveen, Åsmund. 1940. Såmannen. Oslo: Gyldendal.
Zinn, Alexander. 1997. Die soziale Konstruktion des homosexuellen Nationalsozialisten. Zu Genese und Etablierung eines Stereotyps. Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang.