Why so much cross-dressing in Nazi Germany? Holocaust apologetics and the appropriation of LGBT histories

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.


Student expectations and the Salary Problem in Academia.

I’m breaking out of self-enforced blogging jail, to have a minor rant.

I settled down with the Guardian this morning (incidentally, on a break from applying for a teaching fellowship), and saw the following article. ‘Less than half’ of tuition fees spent on teaching English universitiesreads the headline. I mainly clicked on it out of puzzlement. This is news? Then I read that, apparently, it really is news to some people. Worse, it’s all our fault. ‘Universities need to be more honest with students about how their fees are spent,’ hectors ‘an influential thinktank’ (how do thinktanks sort out their finances, and can we all have a quick tour of the budgeting department, please?).

Apparently – and you’d imagine, from the way this is presented, that it’s a shocking denouement – universities spend as much as 55 to 60% of their budget on libraries and services including information technology and student support.

The bastards.

Imagine, choosing to find a library. Cos who needs books, or subscriptions to journals, right?

Granted, the article does eventually wind its way around to the question of academics’ pay, and makes the important point that the system is rigged, with black men and women earning far less than their white counterparts. Which is pretty disgusting. But it makes its way to that conclusion by way of some fairly insinuating chains of logic. Apparently, students would prefer if their money weren’t spent on advertising. Ok, fair point … but if it’s true that the majority of money is spent on library costs and teaching, um, possibly not as big an issue as you’d imagine? And what counts as ‘advertising’? One of the problems universities routinely raise is that student demographics don’t change without changes to applicant demographics – you can’t admit someone who doesn’t apply. So, perhaps you need to advertise, and campaign?

I am probably responding more to the tone of this article than to its content. There’s nothing particularly wrong with students (or academics) being more aware of how money is spent. I do routinely despair when students assume their supervisors are coining it. I’ve never topped the moment when, during my PhD days when I was doing hourly teaching, one of my less numerate students managed to suggest those teaching him were earning ‘9k a year from each of us’ since those were his fees. Oh, I wish.

The problem is, I have a certain amount of cynicism about how this information would be interpreted, were it available. I believe that university teaching ought to be better paid. I would believe that – I’ve never met an early career academic who doesn’t feel slightly brutalised by temporary teaching contracts that don’t include time to mark essays and plan lessons, or adverts for jobs that require ‘research-led teaching’ but decline to pay you over the summer (when you’d do the research). But if pay is one problem, prestige is just as much of an issue.

Universities run on early career academics as teachers, from PhD students onwards. But the popular perception of a university teacher is of a middle-aged (and probably male, and white …) academic, who has his own office, his established courses, and his books reassuringly lined up on the shelf. I know from complaints I’ve heard from students (and more from parents of students) that getting an early career academic, let alone a PhD student, as a teacher or supervisor is seen as being short-changed. Why isn’t the professor teaching the course? Why is the university cheating students by giving them some wet-behind-the-ears newbie who’s yet to publish her first book? There’s a feeling that what’s taught ought to be well established. A friend of friend, getting in touch to ask about her son’s applications a couple of years ago, is representative (and won’t now mind me writing this). She was concerned, she said, because she’d been to an Open Day and the sample lecture had included references to an article that wasn’t yet published. It was someone trying to get away with unfinished work, in her view. I didn’t (and still don’t) know which university this was, or who the lecturer giving the sample lecture was, but I know she was a she, and she was ‘quite young’. I explained then that you actually want people lecturing their unfinished work – it’s in the nature of a sneak preview. As a student, part of what you’re doing is testing out ideas, and when the person teaching you is testing out ideas too, you’re both engaged in the same process of moving backwards and forwards on something, taking some wrong turns, trying to fit things together differently. You should come out of a lecture feeling you know – or you have a hunch – where the lecturer isn’t quite sure about his or her ideas yet, where there’s a bit further to push at things.

This sort of uncertainty doesn’t fit well with what prospective students are taught to imagine university academics are like. And the problem is, I don’t think more transparency about pay will help. It implies that, if I’m paid 28k per year as a newly-graduated teaching associate, my teaching is worth less than someone who’s paid 35k as a lecturer, or 47k as an associate professor. And thing is, it really isn’t. That’s not me being arrogant – because if my teaching truly were worth so much less, it would be incredibly obvious which students had been shortchanged, because their results would skew much lower than those of their more fortunate peers, assigned to permanent members of staff.

Yes, students (and the rest of us) ought to know more about where the money is going. But they shouldn’t be fobbed off with headlines that make out funding a library is a shocking expense for a university to have. We need to give students and their parents a more accurate picture of what to expect from university, right from the start, before applications even happen. That involves changing the idea that university teaching is all about certainty and established truths, best delivered by middle-aged white men reading sonorously from dusty tomes they published in the last millennium. Change that, and maybe we’d have a hope of getting better pay for those of us who aren’t middle aged white men, too.