Eroding the Wall Between the Political and the Private

Photography has, perhaps, unique implications for that fragile boundary between the private and the public, the personal and the political. Everything that painting could do, the development of casual photography made accessible to everybody. As Umbach elaborates, any interwar German could capture a moment in time, creating a precious memory to be shared and handed down.

This ability to easily create snapshots is of particular interest to a totalitarian regime. Now, those grandiose displays of strength so favored by such regimes – massive military parades, the reconstruction of the Colosseum, or directed tourist routes revealing the poverty of other countries, as per Baranowski – can be preserved, and the picture-takers are deputized into message-bearers for the regime, as they redistribute the regime’s chosen message in their own photos, more authentic and personal spokespeople than centralized party newspapers.

In the same way as the symbolic nature of those events can be redistributed forever, so to can those individuals in the photos, captured as they are, in alignment or in opposition to the regime’s raison d’être. In a populist context, where the movement’s legitimacy rests on its protracted struggle to return the nation to the glorious days of ere, this becomes of particular importance – and so the appearance of those who are captured in those photographs is also of particular importance to the State.

To return on my comments last week about the centrality of controlling female sexuality to the fascist narrative – where racism could be tempered to build wartime alliances, but under no circumstances could ‘the Women of the Chosen Race’ be allowed to stray – this same concern, and the same obsession with control, are also illustrated here. Nazi guards were quick to caution German women who got too cozy with locals at their tourist locales, with Baranowski describing how little it took to incur sanction: “Ignoring warnings that their deportment flouted that demanded of a ‘master race,’ the women cheerfully posed for snapshots with blacks against scenic backdrops, in return for a few cigarettes.” With photography allowing for the creation of a permanent memento of this ‘race mixing’, even if the actual event lasted only a second, it necessitated a state response.

The hypocrisy appears when those women are chastised for interacting with locals, while those very same locals are incentivized by the State to develop tourist-attracting amenities by the promise of, as per Crumbaugh’s dissection of the Franco-era movie El turismo es un gran invento (Tourism is a grand invention), “Booby girls” coming to visit these new tourist destinations. The woman in this scenario do not control their bodies, instead being dictated a list of ‘acceptable’ and ‘unacceptable’ partners, and being promised to those who serve the nation faithfully.

Sexual politics aside, the snapshot ability of photography allows for a jealous/totalitarian-minded populist movement to constantly probe its followers for any disloyalty. To counteract this, it becomes important for movement adherents to constantly signal their allegiance. This can be done consciously, such as through the adoption of specific Hitleresque poses as described by Umbach in Nazi Germany, but this might fall short – particularly nowadays, with the ubiquity of photography and the potential for surreptitious capture. To be safe, one needs a physical shibboleth, something that constantly indicates one’s support for the movement, even in photographs taken without one’s knowledge.

Miller-Idriss gives a fascinating overview of these symbols, with the rapid rise in the past two decades of articles of clothing clearly linked to populist-nationalist groups. As she explains, these clothes serve to indicate ideological affinity, effectively serving as a key to prove one’s group-membership, and thus unlocking access to certain communities or events. They also, though, serve to create a shared economic interest, with those articles of clothing manufactured by companies specifically hiring and thus funneling money to like-minded individuals.

Now, the popularity of these clothes may be linked more to the growth of population density – serving to identify allies in cities where it is no longer feasible to know everyone personally – rather than to the fear of being ostracized from a community after being photographed without the proper apparel. Pragmatically, that may be the case. Philosophically, though, it may well be worth seeing this as part of a slippery slope, where the political drills ever more peepholes into that wall separating it from the personal, gaining ever more technological tools to record and scrutinize every moment for a hint of dissent.

When the political begins demanding constant allegiance to a narrative, that becomes particularly worrisome. The mixture of populism and social media (between public-facing social media or leaked private chats) seems primed to be a toxic brew – but adequately addressing that particular debate would far overspill the (already well exceeded) word limit of this piece.

Baranowski, S. (2004). Racial Community and Individual Desires: Tourism, the Standard of Living, and Popular Consent. In S. Baranowski, Strength through Joy: Consumerism and Mass Tourism in the Third Reich (pp. 162-198). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Crumbaugh, J. (2009). Prosperity and Freedom under Franco: The Grand Invention of Tourism. In J. Crumbaugh, Destination Dictatorship: The Spectacle of Spain’s Tourist Boom and the Reinvention of Difference (pp. 15-39). Albany: State University of New York Press.

Miller-Idriss, C. (2018, May 9). Dr. Cynthia Miller-Idriss – The Extreme Gone Mainstream; Presentation on ‘The Extreme Gone Mainstream: Commercialization and Far Right Youth Culture in Germany’. International Institute of Islamic Thought. Retrieved from

Umbach, M. (2015, September). Selfhood, Place, and Ideology in German Photo Albums, 1933-1945. Central European History, 48(3), 335-365.

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