Frost, Laura Sex Drives: Fantasies of Fascism in Literary Modernism, Cornel University Press, 2002
I once interviewed an elderly French woman who had been a courier for the Resistance in occupied France. In Paris, she was captured by the Milice, French fascist collaborators, tortured without divulging anything and held prisoner for months. A Milice officer named Cornet would visit her cell and point her out, saying, “That one didn’t talk. She has courage.”
One night, Cornet and she drove to a nightclub for Miliciens and German soldiers, the Green Parrot, which she soon realized was also a brothel.
“When we entered, someone said, ‘Where are Georgette and Simone?’ And somebody said, ‘They are upstairs. Work.’ You can imagine the kind of work they were doing.” There were German soldiers seated in the corner, and she entertained a faint hope that they might aid her if the Miliciens decided to rape her and she asked for help in German.
She and Cornet met and sat at a table with Bassompierre, the man who had complimented her body during her interrogation. “He looked at me, and even in my innocence, his eyes were glassy with desire. It was an extraordinary experience. I knew what he wanted.
“[Cornet] asked for some champagne, but there was no champagne cool, so he said, ‘Benedictine’ [instead].” She was thirsty, but she asked for water, assuming she would need to be in good shape to defend against whatever happened next. “When you’re in a moment like that, your intelligence is ten times sharper.”
They gave her a glass of water. Cornet told her to massage his hand, which was swollen from administering a beating to her cellmate Yvonne’s husband. Yvonne usually did this, as she was a masseuse. Suzanne said she had studied to be a social worker and had some hospital experience, but didn’t know how to massage.
At that moment, exhausted and unnerved, she didn’t know if she was about to faint or scream. Someone put a record on the record player, “Lili Marlene.” The French had invented their own lyrics for it. “I said to [Cornet], ‘Let me listen to some music.’ I put my hands on my face, and I listened to the music, only to the music, to relax, because my muscles, my body was just in such a state…. Through my fingers, I could see the face of Fredo, and there was admiration.” Cornet suddenly pushed himself away from the table and he said, “I’ll take you back.”
She doesn’t know whether Bassompierre made some kind of sign to Cornet for her to be taken away.
For whatever reason, Cornet took her back to her cell, unmolested, and she stayed there until her release during the liberation of Paris.
I’m still puzzling out the relationship between real life violence and inequality and fantasized, eroticized consensual violence and inequality. Laura Frost’s excellent book Sex Drives is an insightful discussion of just that topic.
The glib bit of folk anthropology that “Nazis were all repressed queers and perverts” grossly oversimplifies a complex relationship. Certainly, there were anecdotal accounts of fascist leaders with fetishistic or sadomasochistic behaviours, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that the ranks and file Nazis had such proclivities. I suspect a lot of confirmation bias here, which leads to the even more problematic linking of deviant sexuality with deviant politics. Middlebrow Freudians in the interwar period positioned fascism as the collective id, which had to be restrained by democracy as the collective ego. Fascism was equated with primitivism, which parallels the 19th century equation of deviant sexuality with primitive religion (giving us words like “fetish” and “taboo.”) Germans were explicitly likened to Neanderthals and Cro-Magnons, via the pseudoscience of physiognomy. (Apparently racist pseudoscience can cut both ways.)
Another school of thought suggests that fascism is what happens when the libido is too repressed by pleasure-hating, conformity-inducing society. If Hitler had just dropped the ascetic vegetarianism, had a beer and got laid once in a while, everybody would have been better off. It’s the guilt-ridden, shame-filled closet cases like J. Edgar Hoover who make the world hell, not the happy queers.
Frost quotes Foucault:
Nazism wasn’t invented by the great erotic madmen of the twentieth century but by the most sinister, boring, disgusting petite bourgeoisie you can imagine…. It’s the infected petit bourgeois dream of racial propriety that underlies the Nazi dream.
However, even Foucault hedges this claim a bit, acknowledging there might be “localized” and “incidental” elements of eroticism in fascism. The exact relationship between authoritarianism and sadomasochism is elusive, but one does seem to stimulate the other. On the other hand, Leo Bersani in Homos says “the polarized structure of master and slave, of dominance and submission, is the same in Nazism and S&M, and that structure – not the dream of racial ‘purity’ or the strictly formal dimension of the game – is what gives pleasure.”
In World War I, French and British propaganda about German incursions into Belgium and France explicitly used rape imagery, both literally, in that rapes would result from the invasion, and metaphorically, figuring the entire conflict in sexual terms of masculine aggression upon feminine victims. Art showed hypermasculine German soldiers standing over supine women in diaphanous robes.
A classic trope in propaganda is to impute the enemy with excessive and deviant sexuality, particularly if the intended audience prides itself on its sexual continence. French and English propaganda has deployed the image of the cruel, hypermasculine, oversexed and mindlessly obedient German soldier since the Franco-Prussian of 1870, if not earlier. Thus, imputing deviant sexuality to Nazis and other fascists of the 1930s and 1940s is just another iteration of a preexisting tradition.
Propaganda is not a genre intended to have subtlety or ambiguity. It presents a Manichean view of good versus evil, both unmistakable, and a call for the militant opposition to the latter. And yet, a curious thing happens.
These fantasies in which Britain, France and the United States cast themselves as the feminine victim of a virile Germany are often given romantic or erotic overtones. A French World War I poster called “Les Monstres” depicts a German soldier leaving a woman on the floor beside a tousled bed; the caption exclaims, “He might at least have courted her!!” It is odd to see courtship invoked in this picture of sexual violence. A British World War I cartoon by Louis Raemaekers titled Seduction shows a dark-skinned German slumped in an easy chair, legs cross, with a pistol pointed toward a kneeling woman, whose dress is pulled down to expose one breast, as in depictions of Liberty. The caption: “Germany to Belgium: ‘Aren’t I a lovable fellow?’” These images, and many others like them, broadly imply sexual violence, but they also have what Ruth Harris calls an “almost pornographic” tone, since the terms of seduction, courtship, and romance hint at eroticism in Germany’s imagined relationship to France and Britain.
This Manicheanism and absolute prohibition are essential generators of eroticized images of fascism, which foreground the propagandistic construction of the enemy, question and sometimes parodying such representations and, above all, showing political prohibition—especially when based on sexual voraciousness—to be sexually exciting.
This in an interesting parallel to the abolitionist propaganda of a century and a half prior, where scenes of brutalized slaves intended to horrify slipped into the sensual. Blake and Bartolozzi’s mutilated slaves were also beatifically suffering romantic heroes and heroines. Perhaps the observer wants to transform brutality into tragedy by humanizing the victim.
This humanizing can go both ways, as in the French Occupation-era novel The Silence of the Sea, written by a resistance fighter, in which a German officer billeted with a French family tries desperately to be accepted by them despite their silent refusal. He even explicitly likens himself to the monster in the Beauty and the Beast fable, yearning to be transformed by the absolution of the daughter who will not talk to him.
Frost also explores DH Lawrence’s “leadership novels”, written in the early 1930s when fascism could still, in good faith, be seen as a legitimate political system. Aaron’s Rod and Kangaroo both feature protagonists who feel alienated from heterosexual marriage and democratic society, and who find themselves through homoerotic relationships with charismatic, proto-fascist men. (Sounds like an early version of Fight Club.) However, the protagonists are deeply ambivalent about their man-crushes, equally put off by the “bullying” violence that seems inherent to the philosophy as by the claustrophobic emotional intimacy of “clinginess.” Lawrence’s rhapsodic fantasy of sperm whales suggests that he dreams of an autonomous life roaming the world that can instantly switch to perfect, willingly obedient union with another being; freedom and intimacy reconciled.
Perhaps BDSM is a solution to Lawrence’s dilemma, providing a regulated ritual space for his intimacy that prohibits “bullying”.
What we see in works ranging from DH Lawrence’s authoritarian novels to Genet’s novels to Sylvia Plath’s poem “Daddy” (“Every woman adores a fascist…”) are relationships that may not be consensual, but are reciprocal. A truly fascist narrative is only about the fascist. A sadomasochistic narrative is about both of the parties involved.
As Frost writes:
The dynamics of sadomasochistic fantasy – domination and submission – are structurally similar to that of fascism, but these similarities must be qualified. For example, to speak of “submission” to fascism is a grotesque distortion of those who were victimized by it. Sadomasochistic fantasies (and it bears repeating that my subject here is fantasy, as expressed in literary form) have no inherent relation to fascism. However, the questions rasied by the aforementioned interpretations of fascism – Is it repressive or liberative of desire? – are also reaised by sadomasochism. Sadomasochistic fantasy is characterized by an opposition between restraint and release, submission and domination, dynamics that are analogous to the repressive/permissive opposition at work in characterizations of the fascist libido. The authors examined in the followeing chapters understand sadomasochism quite differently from its usual characterization as a pathological sexuality. In a culture that defines positive, appropriate sexuality as tranquil, tender, and promoting equality – a reflection of democratic values – these authors suggest that fantasies of power and violence can be an arousing component of sexuality. They make that point by eroticizing the politics most strongly associated with oppression but then go on to distinguish between erotic sadomasochism and fascist violence.
These texts consistently mark a difference between the violence of enacted historical fascism and sadomasochistic eroticism. In sadomasochistic fantasy, the characters are engaged with one another’s desires and move, however circuitously, toward pleasure. In scenes of fascist violence, consent, recognition, and exchange among the characters are missing, as is erotic pleasure. These distinctions are lost when we read purely for thematic content, that is, when we note merely the fascist images in sexual scenarios. These texts must be read with an attention to erotic investment and inticement, for shifts in agency, and for the differences between historically faithful representations of fascism and a clearly distorted fantasy of fascism.
Georges Bataille’s essay “The Psychological Structure of Fascism”… distinguishes fascist “sadism” from sadomasochistic eroticism as a form of sexuality that does not literally destroy. In At the Mind’s Limits, Jean Amery, writing on his survival of Nazi imprisonment and torture, directly addresses the question of whether the Nazis were “sadomasochists” in the conventional sense. He asserts that Bataille’s explanation of sadism/cruelty is resonant with his own experience with the SS. “[The Gestapo] were bureaucrats of torture. And yet, they were also much more. I saw it in their serious, tense faces, which were not swelling, let us say, with sexual-sadistic delight, but concentrated in murderous self-realization.”
In the post-war era, Nazis came to have a symbolic function as a floating signifier for the abject in simplistic narratives of good and evil. Don’t like somebody? Call them a Nazi. (See Godwin’s Law.) If you feel sufficiently alienated from the mainstream, why not align yourself with what represents everything the mainstream rejects, as Jean Genet did?
Feminists had their own rhetorical uses for Nazis, from Germaine Greer referring to “Nazi anthropologists” in The Female Eunuch to Betty Friedan comparing American suburban female life to a “comfortable concentration camp” in The Feminine Mystique.
In another layer of culture entirely, you had Nazi-exploitation films, of which Ilsa: She Wolf of the SS is a well-known example.There actually were cruel female guards in concentration camps, but they seem to have been singled out and exaggerated as the subject of fantasies, post-war. Ilsa spawned a mini-cycle of films, in which the apparently immortal character reappears decades later in the service of Communists, Latin American dictators and Middle Eastern oil sheiks. Ilsa isn’t just a National Socialist. She seems to pop up wherever power wielded by Other groups becomes exploitative, perhaps as a kind of camp or parodying function. One could easily imagine new sequels: Ilsa: Harem Keeper of Al-Qaeda (for right wing viewers) or Ilsa: Bitch Queen of Guantanamo Bay (for left wing viewers).
Ilsa’s sisters are les femmes tondues, French women who allegedly committed “horizontal collaboration” with German occupiers, and during the Liberation were publicly shaved bald, stripped naked and paraded through the streets as punishment. The Ilsa films and the ritualized abuse of les femmes tondues both provide female scapegoats who embody unacceptable politics (violence and collaboration, respectively), express them through deviant sexuality (female sadism and female promiscuity, respectively) and are publicly punished, restoring moral/sexual order to the universe. However, that conflict is never permanently resolved and the ritual needs to be repeated; thus, there’s always a sequel.
Carol J Clover, in her seminal book Men, Women and Chainsaws , theorizes that the intended audience for the slasher film, the adolescent heterosexual male, goes through a complex series of different identifications while watching the film. Sometimes he identifies with the killer, sometimes with the victims, sometimes with the Final Girl who defeats the killer. Clover says this is a process of resolving sex and gender anxieties.
The equation of Nazism with Absolute Evil is a Manichean view, reducing the complexity and ambiguity of the real world and particularly of human fantasy and desire to simplistic, binary terms. Yet, there is always ambiguity.
You can find examples of BDSM pornography and fantasies that are quite explicitly based on real world events. At lot of this seems to come from Eastern Europe, such as the Bound Heat series of women-in-prison videos, which seem to be loosely based on real world trafficking and exploitation of women, as well as some ahistorical post-apocalypse scenarios.
Another example is the Lupus Pictures spanking videos. These are explicitly based on real situations from Czech history, mostly in the Communist era, set in one hierarchical social setting after another: the peasant village, the bourgeois family home, schools, prisons, youth groups, etc.
It’s hard to put these texts into any easy political category. The whole point of the exercise is “virtue in distress”, women suffering, going all the way back to the 18th century novels like Clarissa, yet the narrative at least pays lip service to the idea that these women suffer unjustly.
It’s too bad that Frost didn’t apply her incisive critical eye to more post-war and “low culture” texts. There’s a large body of Nazi-exploitation works that lie in the borders between pornography, horror and adventure: Salon Kitty, the men’s adventure magazine genre, the Israeli-produced stalag pulp novels of the early 1960s, etc. The appearance of Nazi elements in biker and punk subcultures is another area to explore.
Still, Sex Drives is an intelligent and provocative look at a very difficult and sensitive subject, and has given me a lot of fodder for the early 20th century section.
I believe that the Nazi/BDSM intersection is more a matter of a pre-existing sexual/cultural style appropriating the trappings of a particular political movement. There’s no causal relationship between Oswald Mosley’s two-bit British fascist movements and his son Max’s use of fascist imagery in his sexual fantasies. Oswald would have been appalled by his son’s decadent actions.