- Germany, two world wars, militarised masculinity and “Heldendämmerung” (Twilight of the Heroes)
- On the symbolic order of the military
Germany, two world wars, militarised masculinity and “Heldendämmerung” (Twilight of the Heroes)
Germans are responsible for two world wars costing millions of lives – not to mention countless injured, displaced and traumatised people. This was ultimately only possible because, in the decades leading up to these world wars, extreme forms of militarised masculinity called the shots. I would therefore like to speak briefly about Germany’s history and quote a few passages from my book “Heldendämmerung” (which equates to Twilight of the Heroes), which our international guests especially may find interesting.
I am the daughter of a former soldier and fanatical National Socialist who never came to grips with the downfall of the Third Reich. He despised his own wife for being “racially inferior”, was incapable of building personal relationships, never laughed, ran everyone down, never spoke about his past and ultimately didn’t speak anymore at all. During the Church Congress in Stuttgart in 1969, he publicly committed suicide in front of 2,000 people during a reading by Günter Grass by drinking a bottle of cyanide. I was 13 years old at the time. In his book “Diary of a Snail”, Günter Grass alludes to the family secret that my father had toyed with the idea of killing his entire family at the same time. I read Grass’s book as a teenager, but, interestingly enough, “skipped over” this passage. Only years later, when writing “Das falsche Leben” (A False Life), the biography of my father, did I realise with shock that I was a survivor as well.
In reaction to my book, hundreds of people wrote me letters and e-mails about their own families – and showed that, over 60 years after the war had ended, my father’s biography was anything but the fate of one individual. There were numerous drastic cases among them: for example a woman who had been raped by her own SS father. Or a man who, as a child, was left behind by his Nazi parents when bombs rained down at night. He was simply told to pull himself together: “A German boy knows no fear.”
This sentence, “A German boy knows no fear”, goes right to the heart of the military drilling of men: you no longer take note of your feelings. The military is all about totally controlling the body and mind, about totally suppressing empathy and feelings, because a soldier might otherwise not be able to perform the “job” of killing. In military drilling, feelings are systematically denounced as being “feminine”, Femininity is weakness and cowardice and must therefore be suppressed. Every army in the world works to this pattern of misogyny.
In my book “Heldendämmerung” (Twilight of the Heroes), I go into extensive detail on the long history of how German masculinity has been militarised. At the end of the 18th, beginning of the 19th century, education through corporal punishment, which was euphemistically called “male discipline”, was common practice – in schools, orphanages, prisons, teaching facilities and barracks. In his 1793 textbook Gymnastics for Youth, Johann Christoph Friedrich GutsMuths, a teacher from Saxony, formulated the first instructions on how a young boy should be turned into a man through drills and degrading all things female. In his estimation, the life of luxury had caused men to lose their “natural” power the result being “female” shortcomings such as weakness, sickness, cowardice, dependence and passivity. His recipe for countering this was “male repugnance to effeminate mushiness”. GutsMuths saw the male body as a mechanical machine: each of its individual parts needed to be tuned to increase its overall performance. “It is a beautiful thing to behold”, enthused GutsMuths, “when boys and youths run to their place on command, line up in rank and file, adopt a good stance and march off as if one body to wherever one wants them to be .” Peace researcher, Astrid Albrecht-Heide, therefore refers to the military as the “masculinity machine”. One could also call it the “Hercules machine”.
The military saw itself as the “nation’s school of education for war” or as the “school of masculinity”. Intense physical conditioning over several years was designed to drive out of the recruits any human aversion to killing and dying and replace it with purely mechanical reactions. “The smooth motions of parading, marching, holding, loading, aiming and shooting had to be performed mechanically without thinking or even doubting,” writes the historian, Ute Frevert, in her book, A Nation in Barracks. “The frequency and length of the marching steps per minute were predetermined, as was the height at which the legs were to be turned, or the angle between the upper and lower arm when shouldering their weapon .”
This militarised masculinity was a mass-based programme, body, brain and soul washing which, with a few exceptions, all men were subjected to. It produced the classic military mindset which soldiers also had to “display” in civilian life and shaped the entire Prussian-German nation: a man needed to be hard and disciplined, and had to take pain and deprivation without complaint, indeed: not even take notice of it. Cultural variations aside, this drill pattern applies in principle to every army.
Officers and soldiers were required to be armed at all times when in public, bearing a sword, rifle and bayonet. Until the beginning of the 19th century, men from the state of Wuerttemburg even had to prove that they owned a gun and harness if they intended to marry. Masculinity, pugnacity and sexual potency fused into a complex where disarming was perceived as emasculation. When the German armed forces capitulated at the end of World War I and his regiment was forced to plunge its munitions into a pond, a soldier in the Freicorps, Friedrich Schauwecker, wrote: “The nation has done a great job by cutting off its genitals under order here”.
The attitude of soldiers towards violence and sexuality was characterised by a double standard. As good Christians, they vowed in the church not to kill and not to commit adultery, yet it was normal for recruits to be enticed by prostitutes to have sex. Sex and violence was approved after all, and it was even expected that recruits engage in both. The allegiance which they swore as soldiers, which was even vaunted as a “German” trait par excellence, was solely to their king, emperor or leader; however, anyone remaining true to their wife disgraced themselves before their comrades: “That one today, another tomorrow, no two the same, that’s the soldier’s game (“Heute Jettchen, morgen Bettchen, immer neu, das ist Soldatentreu.” )
At the beginning of the 20th century, the nobility and officers in Germany were seen as the country’s elite, as the leading and even the trend-setting class. The men’s barracks had become the nation and the male nation the barracks; the imperial force under its head of state, Emperor Wilhelm II., was seemingly well equipped for the next wars and colonial conquests. The notion of an “imperial force” increasingly evolved into the delusional idea of a racially-pure “racial corpus” which was filled with common blood.
At the Congo Conference in Berlin in 1884/85, the Great Powers divided Africa up, with Germany also being given several colonies. German colonisers introduced forced labour and barbaric physical punishment involving the use of a hippopotamus whip and became an abhorred nation as a result of their cudgel culture. The uprising among the Herero in what is known today as Namibia was met with a campaign of extermination by the Germans between 1904 and 1908, which today is recognised as the first genocide of the 20th century: around three quarters of the Herero were slaughtered. The skulls of some of those murdered were brought to the Charité in Berlin to prove “the superiority of the German race”. That the German Empire exported concentration camps to its colonies, which Hitler later re-imported into the “Reich” as it were, cannot be explained by economic interests alone it seems: the German colonial economy did not bring benefits to any country other than Togo. One of the aims was to prove that the white man was superior to the black man. Anyone who feels such a compulsion to prove their “superiority” clearly has a need to conceal their weak identity.
The ethnologist Heinrich Schurtz propagated a theory in 1902 that men’s societies were always behind the initial formation of societies. He claimed that only through unmarried young warriors joining forces can the adolescent find like and like-minded people in a space that shelters them from all those who are different. The countless men’s clubs and student associations, tables reserved for regulars in bars, secret societies and duelling fraternities with their frothy beer binging were to them proof that the men’s society had continued to exist from the Stone Age to the present. Schurtz’s “men’s society” became a defensive term, an ideological battle cry, a self-fulfilling prophecy: more and more military, political and scientific men’s societies wanted to put women in their “designated place”.
Any men who showed solidarity with women pacifists or women’s rights activists, were so brutally defamed as “unmanly” at the beginning of the 20th century that even the SPD preferred to incorporate the “education of pugnacity” into its manifesto. “God save us from the mannish women and perverted quirks,” blustered one journalist on behalf of many at the time of the pacifist congress in Berlin in 1904. “More than ever, our era needs men who can think and can use a weapon.”
The artificial polarisation of gender which began in the 18th century, ultimately culminated in National Socialism. To quote the Anglo-German historian George Mosse: “Never before and never afterwards, has masculinity be elevated to such heights as during fascism”. Nazi leaders vaunted man-male ties in grandiloquent speeches and rituals, around campfires, in the Hitler Youth, in the “sacred circles of comrades”, in military parades and trouping of the colour.
This male “comradeship” comes across as a perverted yearning for freedom, equality and fraternity in a country that has not produced a single civic revolution. Because the men’s society promised “strength and “pugnacity”, it became a substitute for the common nation that had been missing for a long time. The consequence: in the belated nation of Germany, which, for so long, had been unsure of where its outer borders lay, the loyalty of the nation turned deeply into the inner psyche. The German man was expected to be loyal to the state “to the very German core of his German bones”. No other nation was so thoroughly militarised “deep into the soul” of its populace. Many men aspired to functioning like a small nation, as the pocket version of a grand idea.
In the Third Reich, Jews increasingly became the symbol of the frightening, alien female body, the “foreign body” in the German nation, “parasites on the German social body (“Volkskörper”). The National Socialists foisted traits associated with women on the “eternal Jew”: he was seen as impotent, weak, soft and corrosive. “No other populace has so many effeminate men (“Weibmänner”) and mannish women as the Jews. That’s why so many female Jews are thrusting themselves into male professions,” wrote Otto Hauser, for example, in his essay on Jews and Germans. Male Jews were considered effeminate on the one hand, and lecherous sex offenders ready at any time to commit rape, on the other, who wanted to defile “German virgins” and “German blood”. Evidently, Jews served as the dumping ground for all fears that had emerged as a by-product of extreme gender polarisation.
Nazi propaganda also sought to convey that there was not – and should not be - any differentiation between the German man and warrior. Anyone wanting to prove that they were not a “Gevatter Butterweich” (“Father Softy”), as they were referred to everywhere at that time, had to be a soldier on the front lines. Because, according to the Nazis, only in battle could a man prove that he possessed the “virtue of hardness” and “ruthlessness”. Compassion and empathy were thus denounced as being just as “unmanly” and “effeminate” as “cowardliness in the face of the enemy”. On the basis of letters from the army postal service, the historian Frank Werner illustrated how intensely soldiers had internalised this fatal equation. They engaged in campaigns of extermination in order to explicitly prove their masculinity. The “requirement to be ruthless,” writes Werner, “functioned as an internal suppression mechanism which sheltered men from being emotionally ‘overwhelmed ’.”
The male ideal prevalent at that time also had the effect of SS men and soldiers not going insane at the war crimes they had committed, but instead – in spite of any scruples or doubts they may have had – of being able to integrate them successfully into their self-perception: as a sign of masculinity and heroic deed. To quote one member of a task force: “I also know that some kept a very exact count of how many people they had shot dead. They used these figures to gain recognition among each other.”
But the requirement to be ruthless also triggered fears of being shown up in front of their entire squad if they didn’t join in. They had to fear that, if they refused, they “would be seen as pussies”, said one SS squad leader in defence of his involvement in executions. And Frank Werner confirms this: “The reports about how officers and comrades would scorn those disobeying an order as being ‘cowards’, ‘pussies’ or ‘sissies’, or would quite simply brush them off as being “too soft” are legion .” When presented with two evils, that of either suffering social death as a man or taking part in bloody deeds, most of the soldiers opted for the second solution as the apparently less bad alternative. It’s better to be a murderer than unmanly: this highlights the entire madness of polarised gender roles.
In 1945, the German war hero was brought down from his high horse with a bang. Since then, Germany has been a post-heroic country where militarisation and armament also had to be enforced against the will of the majority of the population. The German armed forces are in the throes of being converted into a voluntary army, but only 0.4 percent of each year want to join the forces.
On the symbolic order of the military
The military researchers, Christine Eifler and Ruth Seifert, have proven that women do not hold the same rank as men in any army across the globe, not even in those with a large proportion of women: 17 percent of the USA’s forces are women; 30 percent of Israel’s. The degrading of women takes place on many levels, symbolically and in real life, with groping, insults and rape. Every army has cases of sexual assault on women – and on men “who are different”, who don’t comply with traditional masculinity patterns. Sexual violence appears to be inherent in the military by necessity. It occurs far more frequently in the army than in civilian life, presumably because the pressure here is so much greater to be “manly” and to be “able to put up a fight”.
Armed women pose a threat to the self-perception of “strong men” and upset the hierarchy where everything presumably weak and “feminine” must be made subordinate. To men with a fragile self-assurance, women bearing arms also appear to pose a castration threat.
Since the beginning of the war on terror, almost one third of the 200,000 US women soldiers dispatched to Iraq and Afghanistan have been sexually molested, and almost a third have been raped.
And this is despite the US Army having taken measures to combat sexual assaults in the aftermath of the so-called Tailhook scandal. In 1991, women pilots, soldiers and female guests attending an annual official meeting of the marine pilots association in a Hilton hotel were subjected to a veritable running of the gauntlet. Drunk pilots wore t-shirts with the words “Women Are Property” printed on them, watched porn movies, lay in wait for women in narrow hotel corridors and ripped the clothes off them. Quite clearly, the male flying “elite” wanted to degrade their female colleagues and maintain their own high military status, which they believed to be endangered through the inclusion of women.
In another case, at the Citadel Military Academy in Charleston, for instance, male cadets used brutal methods to ward off the invasion of women cadets and trainers in a literally male bastion. They received obscene phone calls and pornographic messages; their doors were unhitched or smeared with words like “cunt” or “Women will destroy the world”. The young men sang songs about chopping off women’s limbs or poking out their eyes; they put up posters with death threats, sprayed household cleaner into the mouths of women cadets or set their sweatshirts alight.
It is quite conceivable that the military is a kind of recycling plant where the norms of male dominance are continually recycled and passed on. Degradation is consciously set on a par with feminisation: superiors insult male recruits using words like “cunt” or “wimp”, force them to do degrading “women’s” work such as cleaning or washing up or have them scrub floors with a toothbrush. This brutal behaviour is exemplified in Full Metal Jacket, Stanley Kubrick’s legendary film about how taskmasters treat recruits during the Vietnam wars. Kubrick drew on accounts given by real drill inspectors for inspiration.
In the German soldiers’ dictionary published in 1978 by Heinz Küpper, a collector of words and phrases found in everyday speech, close to one in four words or adage has a sexual connotation. In soldier jargon, the penis is called a “Hammer” (hammer), “Prügel“ (cudgel), “Rammelbolzen” (pounding bolt); condoms are “Rohrschoner” (pipe covers) and “Ballermänner“ (bangers); a soldier’s weapon is his “bride”. Those “looking after their bride” will be cleaning their “Elli“’ “Lina” or “Maria”. “Fast Anna“ is a machine gun and “big Bertha” a heavy bazooka.
Given their shape, weapons have become metal phallic symbols – whether as rockets, armoured conduits, gun barrels, egg-shaped hand grenades or bombs. Exactly what has emerged quite by accident for technical reasons and what has become material-based male fantasy is difficult to determine. What is clear is that weapons are used as a direct extension of the body, which has, at times, also found its way into literature: “Satanic desire, what’s that, am I not one with the weapon?”, asks Ernst von Salomon in The Outlaws. “Am I not a machine – cold metal? Sally forth, sally forth into the confused mob: here, a gate has been erected, those who pass shall be shown mercy .” Modern-day soldiers would use less impassioned speech: their weapon is equated to a “cohabitant”, they confided to conflict researcher Cordula Dittmer.
US researcher Carol Cohn described in 1984, how persons she was talking to in a nuclear research institute praised the latest weapons: “Awesome. You get more bang for your buck”. The new MX missiles, which then US President Reagan called the “peacekeepers”, were only allowed to be stored in the best hall because you couldn’t stick the “most beautiful” rocket in a “lousy hole”. In other talks, the subject would be the best “vertical erector launchers”. The list of Russian cities to be destroyed in the event of a US attack was known in internal Pentagon circles as “Wargasm”.
Sexualised metaphors crop up repeatedly in military jargon. First comes the penetration, then the explosion and then – once again metaphorically speaking – new life. At the core of this destructive fantasy is the idea of birth through destruction, which appears, for example, in the solemn invocation of a “new world order”, and which is a purely man-male rebirth without the involvement of women. This male fantasy can also be found in the antiquated German word “Kriegerschlecht” (something like warrior race) – warriors who reproduce among themselves to the exclusion of women.
In many wars and conflicts, the female body becomes a battlefield, both symbolically and in real life. The most common form of sexualised violence in wars is group rape. Perpetrators show off their masculinity to their comrades; the victim’s body becomes a prop. Those refusing to join in on this “spectacle” are excluded from the group. At times, soldiers are mocked by their commanders as being gay or weaklings if they refuse to join in on a mass rape.
Sexual violence against men and boys also occurs in virtually every war – in the former Yugoslavia, in the DR of the Congo, in Afghanistan and in other places, but it is the “taboo within the taboo”. Male victims don’t speak out because, by gender, they are not allowed to be victims, because victims are “female”, because they are “weak”. If they were to speak out, they would be “emasculated” a second time. Male victims urgently need help because the eternal cycle will otherwise keep repeating: victims become perpetrators in order to finally rid themselves of the traumatising violence they have suffered.
Why is the military system, regardless of what attitude each individual might have, so sexualised and, at the same time, so misogynistic? It might be an attempt to debase the feminine in order to keep male desires to regress in check. War is the most atrocious thing expected of men. Having to fight, to overcome their own fear of dying and their scruples about killing – this is the most extreme demand that can be placed on the psyche of a man. The natural reaction to such demands are capitulation, refusal, desertion and a longing to seek refuge in a woman’s or mother’s body. To pre-empt this desire, all things female and soft must be eradicated within the military.
Perhaps this is the bitter point: the military is only such a brutal institution because men as such are neither especially aggressive nor particularly belligerent but need to be made constantly aggressive in order for them to operate as warriors.