Content warning: this post contains images of Nazi soldiers, and video content relating to Nazi Germany.
This video has been doing the rounds on digital media. It is a selection of images from a recently published book. A figure in bra and pants, midriff exposed, leans back against a swastika flag. A couple – one in a white dress, the other in military uniform, lean closely in to each other. Three party goers stand posed, backs to the camera, in gowns that showcase their toned backs and sweep to the floor. A tense individual sits rigid, face in half-profile, cheeks dark with rouge. And then, the voiceover begins. Translated from the German, it begins:
“The photos show soldiers, who we know as Nazi fighters, all of a sudden from a side we never would have expected. There is suddenly a certain softness, a sentimentality.”
A few moments later, the author of the book explains, ‘The crazy thing is … [how] many of these photos can be found’.
I was brought up short by this – but not for the reason the maker of the video seems to anticipate. My response was first one of disbelief, and then of anger. The idea that soldiers dressing in women’s clothing, or soldiers engaging in displays of intimacy, constitutes ‘softness’ and ‘sentimentality’ made my blood boil. The terminology is very familiar. In the medieval medical texts I’m reading, writers often explain that women are innately ‘softer’ than men. It’s rooted in etymology: the seventh-century philosopher Isidore of Seville stated categorically that the audible similarity between the words ‘mulier’ (Latin for ‘woman’) and ‘mollior’ (Latin for ‘softer’) could be taken as incontrovertible proof of women’s natural propensity to be softer and weaker than men. Likewise, the idea of ‘sentimentality’ was highly gendered. Women – so it was believed – were more emotionally volatile than men; more given to emotional expression. Indeed, this capacity was actually biologically linked to their ‘softness,’ for medieval thinkers believed that since women’s bodies were more liquid than those of men, their organs were literally softer, and their emotions more apt to gush and overflow. This fluid softness confirmed that each woman needed the firm hand of a man, of course, but it also – our friendly medieval authorities conceded, magnanimously – explained why women were so marvellously good at producing new life: all those soft, comfy, liquid bodies made for wonderfully cushy places for foetuses to gestate.
Lest this sound a little like Donald Trump does medieval, I must point out that these texts were hugely influential. They permeated Western European culture for centuries, and their influence is still felt today.
Nazi Germany upheld a strict and horrific gender binary, and it is a secondary source of shame that the resulting atrocities have been slow to be reported, let alone publicised and taught. ‘Homosexual’ men and women were sent to the death camps – including those who were so categorised for their propensity for dressing in the clothes of the ‘opposite’ sex. Women were required to centre their lives on church, home life, and children, and brothels for Nazi soldiers recruited young women and teenagers straight from Hitler Youth. When I was at school, in the 1990s, Section 28 was in force, and the teaching of anything relating to homosexuality – especially homosexuality as an intimate or emotional bond, a ‘family relationship’ – was banned. In most State schools, the question of homosexual (let alone trans) victims of the Holocaust simply could not arise. In my school, I was fortunate: we used a textbook that did briefly mention these things, and the pink triangle – but only to conclude, comfortably, that gay people had only to restrain themselves should they wish to escape persecution.
I mention this history in part to demonstrate my deep reservations about the argument put forward in this video. Homosexuality is not merely a propensity for dressing in the clothing of the opposite sex, a fetish one could and should subdue at times of need. It is not ‘crazy’ for men to dress in women’s clothing. Let’s get that out there, first and foremost. It might be that some of these men were what we would now call trans; it might be that they were homosexual and expressing their sexual identities through what official publications considered to be a key means of expressing same-sex identity. But the idea that this should make us think these individuals were ‘softer’ or more ‘sentimental’ is deeply flawed, and frankly disgusting. To be feminine, or female, is not to be ‘soft’ or ‘sentimental’. To be a gay man is not to be ‘soft’ or ‘sentimental’.
But it gets worse. Why might cross dressing be ‘so popular’ in Nazi Germany, asks the voiceover? (And if it was that popular, I asked myself, when are we going to see the women dressing as men? Or was there some striking and obvious reason for the absence of cross-dressing women soldiers – like, say, the fact this cross dressing was fuck all to do with gender expression and everything to do with the tactics of misogynistic patriarchy?). Thankfully, we’re not left wondering for long:
“One likely reason: Germany’s Carnival tradition.”
Yes, you read that right. Carnival. The literal translation of the word is ‘farewell to meat,’ and that’s because it’s the festival that happens right before Lent, as Catholic societies prepared to forego flesh in the lead-up to Easter. In many medieval societies, ‘carnival’ was an opportunity for all sorts of anarchic celebrations and disruptive, rowdy activities, including (yes) men dressing as women. But you know what else ‘carnival’ was about? Oh yes, the persecution of the Jews. This explicitly Christian festival included events such as that instigated by Pope Paul II in 1466, wherein Jewish people were forced to race through the streets of Rome for the entertainment of Christian viewers. In fifteenth-century German images, as Ruth Mandel observes, Jewish people and pigs were both associated with the disorder of carnival, in an association seemingly intended to offend against Jewish dietary laws. Reading this, I could not believe anyone could get so far as to compile hundreds of images of Nazi soldiers, and not even begin to think about the histories of Jewish persecutions in Germany.
There might be many reasons why Nazi soldiers cross-dressed, but the reasons why seem to me less important than what those images of Nazi soldiers dressed in women’s clothing might motivate us to think, and do, and remember. A friend of mine observes what I think must be the horrible truth here. These soldiers, who dressed up in women’s clothes and had their photographs taken, cheerfully posing, were not afraid of the possibility they, too, would be persecuted for putative sexual ‘deviancy’. They were not afraid their cross-dressing would bring down suspicion upon them. And the clothes they wore? Well, as my friend puts it:
I have a horrible feeling the reason we have so many pictures of Nazis doing this was NOT because WW2 was extra tough so they needed some down time but because the Nazis engaged in mass confiscation of property as part of their fucking genocide so they had an endless supply of women’s clothes to play with. I feel sick that he hasn’t thought about where the clothes came from.
Let’s take a minute or five to think about that, shall we? And let’s remember the Jewish woman whose photographs can’t be played over and over on video montages, because they never got to make them.