As Barbara Spackman illustrates in her book, Fascist Virilities: Rhetoric, Ideology, and Social Fantasy in Italy, fascist discourse has an apparent “obsession with virility.” Although rhetoric of virility is common to all political discourses, as Spackman concedes, the particular aggressiveness and tenacity inherent in fascist discourse makes this type of rhetoric stand out more, and thus attracts an aura of perceived significance among historians.
Virility being an inherent aspect of fascist discourse, it is interesting to examine those parts of fascist regimes which appear to contradict this assumption. This is exactly what Thomas Kühne does in his chapter, “Protean masculinity, Hegemonic Masculinity: Soldiers in the Third Reich,” when he asked the question: “What did being a man mean for Hitler’s soldiers?” Kühne’s analysis of what he calls “Protean” masculinity offers a new perspective on this virile element of a fascist regime. However, Kühne’s analysis of “Protean” masculinity seems to directly contradict (in certain ways) Laurie Marhoefer’s study of gender nonconformity in Nazi Germany in her chapter, “Lesbianism, Transvetitism, and the Nazi State: a Microhistory of a Gestapo Investigation, 1939-1943.”
A comparison of these two readings provides insight into the malleability of cultural norms even within a regime as rigid and oppressive as Hitler’s Nazi Germany. Kühne’s concept of “Protean” masculinity and Marhoefer’s focus on gender nonconformity offer two contrasting views of gender norms in Nazi Germany: the former discusses the ability of “Aryan” soldiers to explore more feminine roles as long as they fulfilled a required image of “hardness,” while the latter discusses the inability of lesbians and transvestites to avoid persecution in Nazi Germany, despite the lack of official laws against them, as a result of their image as nonconformists. The common rationale linking these two seemingly contradictory cases appears to revolve around the concept of conformity.
In the case of “Protean” masculinity, male soldiers in Nazi Germany were afforded the luxury of being able to express more effeminate and non-masculine traits once they had conformed to the norm of displaying physical, emotional, and moral “hardness.” In Marhoefer’s discussion of gender nonconformity, lesbians and transvestites were clearly viewed as outcast members of society due to their nonconformity to gender norms, despite the fact that many of them would likely have displayed certain “masculine” traits. On the surface, these different reactions to two separate instances of blurring the lines between masculinity and femininity appear arbitrary. However, Spackman’s discussion of virility may help to organize these concepts.
Spackman identifies the concept of masculinity (in strictly the sexual, “phallic” sense) as gradually blurring over time with that of virility (meaning “strength” and “force”). Since political discourse so often champions the strength of a state, a nation, a people, or a community, the abstract concept of unity and strength has become conflated with that of being “manly.” This explains the fascinating phenomenon mentioned in Kühne’s reading whereby, in Nazi military culture, being deliberately “unmanly” demonstrated such a level of confidence in oneself as a man that it became an expression of manliness.
Laurie Marhoefer, “Lesbianism, Transvestitism, and the Nazi State: a Microhistory of a Gestapo Investigation, 1939-1943” The American Historical Review 121: 4 (2016): 1167- 1195.
Thomas Kühne, “Protean masculinity, Hegemonic Masculinity: Soldiers in the Third Reich” Central European History Vol 51, Issue 3 (September 2018): 390-418.
Barbara Spackman, Fascist Virilities: Rhetoric, Ideology, and Social Fantasy in Italy (Minneapolis, 1996), pp. 1-33.