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)