The Decriminalization of Abortion in Northern Ireland is Good, but…

A story that made that made the headlines last year in many newspapers around the western world resurfaces as the struggle for the Northern Irish advocators for an abortion ban lift approaches a conclusion. Interestingly, in the UK the Abortion Act of 1967 liberalized rules on abortion in England, Scotland and Wales, but not in Northern Ireland. So, Northern Ireland was the only part of the United Kingdom that was still holding a legislated ban on abortion which originated from the conservative political influence of its governance and the important place of religion in the area. Ireland voted for the legalization of abortions only last year in May. It is interesting that it is only now that we see a movement by the government for change in the legislation. Finally, on October 22 at 12am, the ban was lifted.

However, there is still much debate to come and a long way to go before any kind of substantive change is instituted in Northern Ireland. The ban repeal is good, a step in the right direction, but until regulations are provided, it remains similar to the status quo and even goes backwards to previous practices instead of moving forward with the legislation. It is also noteworthy to mention that Northern Ireland has had a very substantive opposing faction to this repeal : the Church(es) (i.e. Catholic and Protestant churches). The abortion issue, in which in the Catholic Church has taken a more pronounced stance, has always been debated against by the church. A member of the Catholic Clergy has gone as far as saying that being pro-choice was committing a mortal sin. Historically, Northern Ireland, or even just Ireland as a whole, has been a very religious country and a great deal of the population (including the leading political parties like the Democratic Unionist Party and to some extent the Sinn Féin) is very conservative in nature. This means that once a government is reinstituted with the conservative parties (as it has not been standing since 2017 in Northern Ireland), debates on the matter will likely restart as this reform was voted by London and not necessarily by the leading political parties of the area.

So, ban lifted, great! Now what? What should we think of this and how should we understand these changes? I am in total accordance with the idea that abortion should be decriminalized and that it should have been done long ago, however, in this instance, the decriminalisation of abortion also means its deregulation as the government was allowed until late March 2020 to regulate abortion. Ironically, this means that Northern Ireland just went from having some of the strictest abortion laws to the most liberal abortion laws in the European context. Now the Northern Irish population is very confused about the law and what is legal as it has no clear legislation or regulation. It should be understood that apart from the dropping of prosecution cases against healthcare professionals and women having sought abortions, not much as changed and not much will change until the new regulation in 2020. Women and girls are still required to go to England to terminate their pregnancies. There is no telling hat kind of restrictions or regulations will be put in place in march of next year.

This “good news” can also be seen as a step back as Northern Ireland is simply looking to go back to practices from 2012 when it comes to abortion. Also, as mentioned previously the fact that this was done without an actual standing government in Northern Ireland will complicate the matter once it comes back to power because of the conservative nature of the area. Even the Irish Times are sensitive to the matter, but frame their pro-choice opinion on bringing Northern Ireland back into the “European mainstream” while remaining conscient of the fact that many of the readers have conservative views tied to their faith.

Therefore, my opinion on this matter remains clear : it is a case of the “one step forward, two steps back.”

Russia in Europe: A New Game, An Old Playbook

By Absalom Sink

Things fall apart; the centre looks less like it’s able to hold, as the European Union continues to be buffeted by the widening gyre of euroskeptic nationalism. But it’s becoming increasingly clear that the rise of the European far-right isn’t exactly organic. In fact, you’d almost need to be willfully ignorant in order to miss the signs of Russian influence. The Kremlin has a well-established habit of supporting right- and far-right euroskeptic political parties and movements in Europe and beyond. In the short term, Russia’s goal is to agitate for the lifting of sanctions imposed on it following the annexation of Crimea in 2014. But its long-term goals are no less transparent: Russia wants to weaken NATO and the EU, and reestablish its hegemony over former Soviet Bloc countries. Vladimir Putin did, after all, call the break-up of the Soviet Union the “greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the twentieth century.”

Hence, Russia’s support for nationalists, particularly the euroskeptics: illegal funding for Italy’s Lega Nord; the Ibiza scandal involving Austria’s far-right deputy chancellor Heinz-Christian Strache; potential links between Russia and Germany’s AfD, the official opposition party; the miraculous loan from a mysterious Russian bank that kept Marine Le Pen’s Front National afloat in 2014; the list is long, and that’s without even touching on the likelihood of Russian interference in the 2016 Brexit referendum or the 2016 United States presidential election. Still, if we remove the latter two—obviously huge wins for Russia if they tipped the scales in either case—the win-loss record is decidedly mixed. While Lega Nord did end up in a ruling coalition Italian government, Marine Le Pen was soundly defeated by Emmanuel Macron, and the Ibiza affair led to Strache’s resignation in Austria, to say nothing of apparent far-right failures in a handful of other European states recently.

But Russia’s record is spotty only if we count a Russian victory as being the installation of a sympathetic party in those countries. In reality, the Kremlin may be playing a much more nuanced game, one that instead harkens back to the Great Powers competition of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Before World War I, European states sought any advantage they could to tip the continental balance of power. An increasingly common tactic over that period was to back anti-colonial nationalist movements in opponents’ colonial empires, as a way to force that opponent’s focus inward. The Russian Empire themselves supported Armenian and Kurdish nationalists as a way to destabilize the Ottoman Empire. Nazi Germany revived the practice during World War II, hoping to undermine the British war effort by supporting Indian and Arab nationalist movements.

Remember, Russia’s goal is the disruption of the NATO and EU status-quo. In that regard, anything that weakens either is a point for Russia. The Kremlin certainly would have benefitted from a victory by Marine Le Pen, but it would be naïve to think that they haven’t benefitted simply from the uncertainty and political polarization that came with the contested 2017 French election. Even the renewed majority government that Poland’s Law and Justice Party (PiS)—famously frosty in its relations with Russia—won earlier this month is something of a minor victory for Russia, given PiS’ euroskepticism. If the Kremlin’s playbook in Europe is a throwback to those pre-WWI great power tactics, Putin and pals’ implementation is remarkably effective.

Still, it’s not all sunshine and roses for Russia. Their short-term goal of getting economic sanctions lifted is seeing little success. And even though Putin still looks to have his strongman hold over the country, “the shrinking economy, the shrill nationalism as a distraction from internal decay, an inward-looking elite feuding over the division of spoils while taking its monopoly on power for granted” might be signals of a crumbling grip, that some new revelation is at hand. If that’s the case, it yet remains to be seen what rough new beast will slouch towards Moscow to be born.

Women and Fascism

“History is written by the victors” is a phrase often heard and thought about in the context of historical analysis. How can we compensate for the fact that most histories are very biased? Looking at history from the “loosing side’s perspective”? How about those who are dismissed or simply overlooked? López and Lower both answer these questions by looking at a perspective that is often simply overlooked or dismissed as unimportant in previous historical analysis. López with the history of the role of conservative, far-right women as spies during the Spanish civil war, and Lower with the study of nazism-abiding women’s role in enabling the genocide take a stand for those forgotten perspectives because of their historical value. They both look at women who adhered to fascist ideologies, which can be an uncomfortable for today’s historians because it can be impossible to wrap our heads around the idea that some women would abide in a male-dominated ideology.

López makes a good point in reflecting on the fact that, even though it was a very male-dominated ideology that prescribed submission of women, women knew about the ideas associated with feminism (easily manipulated, fragile, innocent, etc.) and used it to their advantage to become spies. She goes as far as saying that even men on the fascist side acknowledged this power and how important women, young women were to the growth of the movement. This is fairly recent work. This pushes the question : how many more perspectives have gone without consideration? And how much would our understanding of the historical event change?

The answer is a lot of it would be flipped on its head and we can see this is Lower’s book. Lower points out the ways in which women, because of their assumed character (i.e. innocent and fragile) even though they enabled genocide, very few were punished for their actions during the Second World War. This was shocking as the male-prevalent historiography of the war rarely talks of the involvement of Aryan women in the holocaust.

Thus, looking at an overlooked perspective or one deemed impertinent by other historians like that of young women is crucial to the understanding of histories like that of the Spanish Civil War and the Second World War. However, one should be careful of not overcompensating for the lack of female perspective on the “loosing side” by overestimating their role in the causes in effects of these events, even though it is absolutely necessary that we understand their importance.

Agency and Complicity in Fascist Regimes

By Absalom Sink

There is a decades-long discourse on the extent to which populations under the totalitarian regimes of the 1930s—Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy and Romania, Francoist Spain on the right, and the Stalinist USSR on the left—were complicit in the atrocities committed by their states. It is a question we have touched on somewhat tangentially in previous weeks, but which becomes the central question of this week’s readings.

We have read of Fascists’ conception of gender roles, with masculinity rooted in stoicism and martial prowess in contrast to the feminine role as nurturer and reproducer, roles which were designed to constrain the agency of women and ensure ‘racial purity.’ And we have read of the victimization of women who refused to confine themselves to the rigid gender dynamics imposed upon them, women like Ilse Totzke in Laurie Marhoefer’s “Lesbianism, Transvestitism, and the Nazi State.” But as becomes clear in reading Wendy Lower’s book Hitler’s Furies and Lopez and Sanchez’s “Blue Angels”, historians and lay people alike have been all too willing to accept stories women’s victimization by Fascist regimes while ignoring the crucial roles that a staggering number of other women played in the administration of those regimes, and in the violence they wrought.

Lower traces the war-time trajectory of a handful of women in Nazi Germany. Some, like the Nazi-loathing nurse Annette Schücking, are rather sympathetic figures, especially when contrasted with others like Johanna Altvater, a secretary who moonlit as a murderer of Jewish children. But Lower also muddies the waters by making clear that participation in a regime totally committed to war and genocide means complicity in those crimes. Though the Nuremberg Tribunal exempted the clerks, the secretaries, the stenographers who staffed the SS and Gestapo offices, the Holocaust could not have been carried out without them.

Likewise, as Lopez and Sanchez make clear, Republicans were not the only women who took up arms in the Spanish Civil War. Many Nationalist women were involved in espionage and sabotage. But Nationalist writers, unable to square these women combatants with the Fascist feminine ideals—the “excellent virtues as loving mothers, selfless wives, the tenderness of the sister, the fidelity of the fiancée”—whitewashed history. The fighters were ignored, and the official account of Nationalist women had them “help[ing] the war effort by carrying out traditional feminine roles: nursing, charity and social services, sewing clothes, writing loving yet chaste letters to the soldiers, keeping the home warm and orderly for moment that the men should return victorious, and so on.”

In effect, by ignoring the part that women played in the Nationalist fight against the Republicans in Spain and in the machinery of genocide in the Third Reich, we are accepting at face value decades old Fascist propaganda; we are accepting the notion that men alone are the perpetrators of Fascist violence and that women are passive, wholly lacking in agency. Lower would disabuse us of that notion:

“Genocide is also women’s business. When given the ‘opportunity,’ women too will engage in it […] minimizing women’s culpability to a few thousand brainwashed and misguided camp guards does not accurately represent the idea of the Holocaust.”

Works Cited:

Kühne, Thomas. “Protean masculinity, Hegemonic Masculinity: Soldiers in the Third Reich.” In Central European History 51, Issue 3 (September 2018): 390-418.

Lower, Wendy. Hitler’s Furies: German Women in the Nazi Killing Fields. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2013.

Rodríguez López, Sofia; and Cazorla Sánchez, Antonio. “Blue Angels: Female Fascist Resisters, Spies and Intelligence Officials in the Spanish Civil War, 1936–9.” In Journal of Contemporary History 53, no. 4, (Oct. 2018), pp. 692–713.

Marhoefer, Laurie. “Lesbianism, Transvestitism, and the Nazi State: a Microhistory of a Gestapo Investigation, 1939-1943.” In The American Historical Review 121, 4 (2016): 1167-1195.

Masculinity and Demographic Anxiety in Totalitarian Regimes

By Absalom Sink

Previous weeks’ readings have already investigated the cult of heroism, the glorification of violence, and the rejection of the “outsider” common to fascist movements. Here, we see those themes coalesce in a number of totalitarian regimes’ conceptions of masculinity. But for all the trumpeting of masculine values by these totalitarian ideologies, the particular gender constructs in question prove remarkably nebulous.

In Thomas Kühne’s “Protean masculinity, Hegemonic masculinity,” the author investigates the Nazi regime’s ideal of soldierly masculinity—”hegemonic masculinity” predicated on “physical, emotional and moral hardness”—as a component of the broader Nazi ideal of “collective will”. Kühne notes that men who met the “hardness” requirement were afforded greater leeway in participating in activities seen as typically un-masculine; at core, “emotional hardness meant decisiveness, aggression, brutality, discipline, and control over others: over women and weaker men, but also over oneself, one’s own body, impulses, and fears.”

It’s not much of a logical leap to recognize that the Nazi regime’s abhorrence of male homosexuality—to the point of criminalization—was grounded both in the view that homosexuality was an affront against the masculine ideal, but also in broader demographic anxieties. Male homosexuality was a threat to the reproduction of the “master race”. As Laurie Marhoefer explains in “Lesbianism, Transvestitism, and the Nazi State,” female homosexuality, by contrast, did not present the same threat and thus was not explicitly criminalized in the same way. Underlining this point, Marhoefer quotes a Nazi jurist who points out that “while homosexuality wasted a man’s potency […] ‘the woman who is inclined to lesbianism’ was ‘nevertheless capable of reproducing.’” That is not to say that female homosexuality was ignored; as Marhoefer makes clear, many in the regime viewed it as an outward indicator of additional “deviation”, and the Gestapo kept tabs on a number of women known or suspected to be lesbians. But by and large, as long as the ideal of man’s domination of woman was upheld, female homosexuality did not represent the reproductive threat of male homosexuality.

Similar concerns arise both in ideological fellow-travellers, like Italian Fascism, as well as in Nazism’s great illiberal ideological rival, Soviet communism. As Barbara Spackman explains, the Fascists inherited from Marinetti a paradox in which women are both bemoaned as vectors for feminization of males—“proximity of women turns boys into girls and heterosexuals into ‘pederasts’”—while simultaneously acting as the proving ground for masculinity via sexual conquest. Italy’s rebirth obviously requires reproduction, but bourgeois family values are held to sap the virility of the Italian man. For Marinetti—and given his philandering, one can assume for Mussolini as well—”Divorce, free love, and destruction of the bourgeois family” allow for the sporadic proximity that ensures masculinity, without leading to “effeminization.”

As Dan Healey explains in “Forging Gulag Sexualities,” in the Soviet Union it was actually the closure of the Gulag and the relative liberalization of the post-Stalin period that saw the crystallization of homophobia in the Eastern Bloc. While anti-homosexual laws had been on the books since the thirties, the regime’s tacit acceptance of homosexuality within the Gulag led to its proliferation; the closure of the Gulag actually saw an increase in the enforcement of anti-sodomy laws, and “both official and popular attitudes towards homosexuality hardened as a result of the reform of the Gulag and wider reforms of Soviet society under de-Stalinization.” Here again, a crucial component of the homophobia, and the implied Soviet value of masculinity, was the “demographic anxiety already [that] stalked all official deliberations touching on sexuality and gender relations.” Having lost some 26 million people during World War 2, the Soviet Union was yet another totalitarian state focused on a sort of rebirth.

Works Cited

Healey, Dan. “Forging Gulag Sexualities: Penal Homosexuality and the Reform of the Gulag after Stalin.” In Russian Homophobia from Stalin to Sochi (London: Bloomsbury Press, 2017).

Kühne, Thomas. “Protean masculinity, Hegemonic Masculinity: Soldiers in the Third Reich.” In Central European History 51, Issue 3 (September 2018): 390-418.

Marhoefer, Laurie. “Lesbianism, Transvestitism, and the Nazi State: a Microhistory of a Gestapo Investigation, 1939-1943.” In The American Historical Review 121, 4 (2016): 1167-1195.

Spackman, Barbara. Fascist Virilities: Rhetoric, Ideology, and Social Fantasy in Italy (Minneapolis, 1996)

Masculinity and Non-Criminality of Lesbianism

As numerous articles on fascism have noted, the generalization of such a complex concept is dangerous as it brings to a simplification of events and the misunderstanding of the concept itself. So, in the context of views on homosexuality in the fascist contexts, it is important to do the same, and not generalize the experiences of all homosexuals. Explored in this weeks readings were the use of concepts of gender and sexuality to define agency and use of these in fascist realities in the 30s and 40s. Shown in two articles, that of Marhoefer and Healy, it is interesting that lesbianism, as opposed to male homosexual relations, was not a criminal offence during the soviet regime and the nazi regime. It is revealing of ideology in the fascist states. Some scholars argue it was not seen as a threat to the political regime.

It is then interesting to answer this question by looking at the concept of masculinity. As shown in Kühne’s article, it was important for fascist ideology to portray hard “masculinity” and use it for social order and control. The fact that there was a great pressure on men to constantly prove and portray their masculinity shows that there was a need for aggressiveness, order and militarization in the Nazi regime. Male homosexuality then was a threat to order and the political system, or more concretely the ideology of fascist states which could sometimes be seen as fragile, just like masculinity was. There seemed to be no such emphasis on the femininity of women as a an integral force leading to social order and respect of the political system.

The fact that men were seen as dominant and as having control over women was probably the reason that lesbians or gender nonconformity within the female population was not as concerning as male gender nonconformity. Surely, the difference between the treatment of gays and lesbians does not exclude the possibility of maltreatment for lesbians. It simply shows the priority of the state, especially in nazi Germany concerning the role of gender in the implementation of ideology. Thus, masculinity as a concept in fascist states, such as Nazi Germany can be used to explain the difference between the criminality of gays and lesbians as well as understanding the ways in which the population was coerced and forced to conform to such a political regime through socially constructed pressure for men to be perceived as masculine or “real men”.