This study of fascist men shows their terrifying fascination with sex, death, and authority
‘Male Fantasies’ examined the inner lives of German fascists and reached a horrifying conclusion
fter World War I, a German paramilitary commander stood in the countryside, surveying a grisly scene: a lovers’ picnic interrupted by a grenade. The couple’s blood-smeared, mangled corpses gave the commander a strange surge of pleasure. The woman was a Communist whore, the commander thought, one of the many “Red women” destroying his homeland in the years since the armistice. He was a commander in the Freikorps, a paramilitary group made up of downtrodden German veterans who blamed Communist revolutionaries for their loss of the war. Many of the Freikorps later joined the Nazi regime. Perpetual war was not just their work, but their reason to be, the will to live merging with death. And one book would make a quest of understanding why.
Though afterward the Holocaust was declared “unthinkable,” that label was widely seen as an urgent call to untangle its root causes. Who did this and what were their motives? More than three decades after World War II ended, Klaus Theweleit’s 1977 book Male Fantasies, sought an unusual path to understanding. Theweleit, a German doctoral student in literature, wanted to understand the fascist man’s deepest desires. Not why did they do what they did, but what did they want? As German historian Sven Reichardt points out, while others sought political explanations for fascist violence, Theweleit shocked readers by looking to their quotidian lives for answers. The resulting two-volume book is an intimate analysis of the letters, poems, diaries, and novels of the Freikorpsmen: fascism up close and personal. To modern readers, the Freikorpsmen’s fantasy life will be familiar: a country in decline, a nationalistic call to purge it of disorder, a clear separation between men and women, rich and poor, your kind and the other.
When the book was published in Germany, it became a cult classic and required reading in leftist circles. “Everyone — at universities, in left-wing undogmatic circles, in communal communities or groups of men — read the book at the time,” said one German writer. In 1987, the book was released in English and instantly, modern-day parallels were drawn. A New York Times reviewer wrote that Theweleit had “captured a glimpse of our souls.”
While other writers sought to understand the rise of Nazism by looking directly at Nazi violence, Theweleit, perhaps sensing that this direct path was too on the nose, used a different access point to the proto-fascist mind: their relationship to women. For the Freikorps men, there are three kinds of women: their absent wives/girlfriends/fiancées; the pure, upper-class “white nurses” serving the cause; and the “Red women,” the unruly communist revolutionaries waving flags in the streets. The Freikorps violence was not limited to women, but women are a potent symbol of their most primal fears: the dissolution of the self in another. Sex and the female body are, to them, nothing short of horrifying, so it is better that women be absent, separate, or dead.
When the Freikorpsmen’s wives appear in their writing, they are usually nameless and only mentioned in passing, even when they die. One Freikorspman’s writes only of his wife, “When I came home, I found my wife suffering from a severe nervous disorder. She died soon afterward.” Two pages later, he mentions honeymooning with his second wife. The white nurse is similarly unthreatening. She is sterile, sexless, and statuesque.
The “red women” however, are where the ugliness really lives. They represent everything that the order-obsessed Freikorpsmen fear: unwieldy sexuality, the chaos of revolution, the mingling of people regardless of class, creed, and color. “It’s a well-known fact that women are always at the head of these kinds of riots,” a Freikorps General’s speech read. “And if one of our leaders gives the order to shoot and a few old girls get blown up, the whole world starts screaming about blooodthirsty soldiers shooting down innocent women and children. As if women were always innocent.”
Throughout their writing, the Freikorpsmen are nearly drooling over the opportunities they have to murder these “red women” and stop the “filthy-red wave.” Theweleit quotes a scene from a fascist novel in which a Communist woman is confronted by Freikorpsman: “his sight is pointing straight into her mouth, into the center of that slobbering hole, so wide open with hysteria that he can even see the gums.” Once he shoots her point blank in the face, he is amazed. The shot “threw her onto her back, as if she had been blown over by some gigantic wind. Is that thing at his feet really her?”
It is possible to read Male Fantasies as not really about the Freikorpsmen at all, but about an “irreducible human desire,” as Barbara Erenreich writes in the book’s English introduction. In 2004, historian Robert Paxton warned in his book on fascism that we should “not look for exact replicas, in which fascist veterans dust off their swastikas.’’ They are in our midst, he was saying, perhaps in different clothes (though admittedly, sometimes they don’t bother with a wardrobe change). Theweleit’s startling proposition is that the Freikorsmen were human, that their fantasy life is alive and well.