Sexual policy in the Third Reich

Contributed by Fiona Barker

This excellent dissertation on a much-debated aspect of German history was awarded a First in 2009 by York St. John University in the United Kingdom.

The Nazis are still regarded by many as the oppressors of women and sexual minorities based on the ‘separate spheres’ argument that men and women inhabited two kinds of social reality. This theory was commonplace in the West at the time, and it was used extensively to deny women equal rights. Demands for a women’s vote were frequently rejected because politics was regarded as part of the male ‘sphere’ and beyond the capacity of women to comprehend. Similarly, the working rights of women were neglected or ignored because a woman’s place was in the home and her sole duties were confined to the happiness of her husband and the health of her children. In this paper, the author explores how this social model was adopted by the National Socialists and enshrined in state law, only to be overturned, modified or amended as the pressures of war intervened.

She also considers the starkly hypocritical attitude of the regime towards male homosexuality, and the conflicting tensions within a Party which, as many have testified, presented an attractive prospect to some gays simply because of the philosophical emphasis on the primacy of the male as the dominant sex. During the so-called ‘Weimar’ period of democracy, homosexuality was reasonably tolerated in the large urban centres of the north, especially Berlin, and even within the National Socialist party itself. Ernst Röhm, the leader of the Sturmabteilung (the Brownshirts) and one of Hitler’s closest and oldest comrades, was an openly gay man who was frequently mocked in the German press, but on more than one occasion Hitler publicly defended him by insisting that political loyalty, not personal behaviour, was all that mattered. Yet in 1934 Hitler had Röhm murdered, and from that moment the homosexuals of Germany were in great danger as the Party switched polarity from tolerance to condemnation.

The paper is divided into three main sections. In Part I the author considers the liberal attitudes of the Weimar Republic towards human sexuality and rights for women, and how these freedoms repulsed the small-town mentalities of rural Germany, and particularly the conservative south. The National Socialists capitalised on these divisions and threw their weight behind what came to be known as Der Reaktion – a public outcry against sexual and personal excesses – hence when they assumed power in 1933, they had widespread support for a crackdown on Weimar ‘decadence’ and the restriction of women to their natural ‘sphere’ again. The author shows with great clarity how these regressive policies garnered significant support from as many women as men.

In Part II of the paper she examines the Nazi attitude towards heterosexuality, and how this was a focal point in the Party’s desire to build a pure-blood community, the Blȕtgemeinschaft. Women’s reproductive rights would be assailed from all sides, and how women presented and conducted themselves in public would also be a matter for acute regulation. Miss Barker expertly handles the thorny issue of the status of working women in Germany, demonstrating how the women’s organisations, some with a membership in the millions, openly supported the ‘separate spheres’ argument and insisted that the Party pledge money and support to women who would embrace their ‘natural’ roles and reject feminism in all its forms, and especially the rights to contraception and abortion. The author demonstrates how large sections of German society, including Catholic groups, trades unions, the traditional Left and the churches, were quite content to support this ‘back to the kitchen’ approach and the wholesale damnation of promiscuity. Yet again, these policies received extensive support from millions of women.

Part III of the study is dedicated to the Third Reich’s ambiguous and inconsistent attitudes towards male homosexuality. Much of the section is focussed upon the concept of the Männerbund, literally ‘a bond of men’, which underpinned the entire Nazi philosophy that only men were capable of shaping a world fit for the Volksgemeinschaft, or ‘people’s community’.   The author shows how the Party’s policies were based on existing legislation from 1871 which, having fallen into abeyance during the Weimar period, were dusted off and revived in order to persecute homosexuals between 1934 and 1945. But the lure of the Männerbund, the incredibly powerful and intoxicating notion that men together were virile, strong and mercilessly moral, attracted homosexuals to the Party itself, so much so that Heinrich Himmler was convinced that homosexuality was a contagion to be treated like any other disease. Thus the extreme tensions between a desire to eradicate homosexuality in the wider community while at the same time having to wrestle with the reality that the Party was perceived as a magnet to homosexuals led to the most inexpressibly cruel and invidious treatment of Germany’s gay community.

Miss Barker concludes with the observation that Nazi policy regarding sex and gender was an exercise in duplicity. SS brothels were happy to employ prostitutes while the regime imprisoned freelance sex workers; homosexuals were forcibly castrated while the Männerbund glorified male physicality and intense sensuality bordering on the homoerotic; and women, once condemned for working outside the home, were conscripted into the labour service when the war began consuming men by the million. With her studious and rigorous examination of these contradictions in Sexual Policy in the Third Reich, Miss Barker has made a very significant contribution to the debate.

The paper contains an extensive bibliography for further reading.

Gallery:  Key images from the period:

Women’s roles within the family were extensively promoted by the NSDAP.

Mockery of Ernst Rohm’s homosexuality was frequently seen in the German press until all free outlets were closed down.  The caption to the right-hand cartoon was “Rohm inspects the Brownshirts.”

The image of girlhood was strictly regulated.


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