Elissa Mailänder is an Associate professor of contemporary history at Sciences Po, Center for History (CHSP) in Paris. After receiving her PhD in history at the École des hautes études en sciences sociales (EHESS) and the University of Erfurt, she worked at the Kulturwissenschaftliches Institut Essen, the Centre interdisciplinaires d’études et de recherches sur l’Allemagne and EHESS in Paris. A historian of everyday life and of Nazism, Mailänder focuses on perpetrator history and the structures, mechanisms, and dynamics of violence in Nazi society to draw out their material, social, and cultural dimensions. She recently spoke with Yanara Schmacks about her article “Masters of Sex? Nazism, Bigamy, and a University Professor’s Fight with Society and the State (1930–1970),” which has appeared in the most recent issue of the Journal of the History of Ideas (January, 82.1).
Yanara Schmacks: Your article introduces the case of Otto M., a Kiel-based university professor who specialized in phytopathology and pharmacognosy during the Third Reich and in postwar West Germany. M. had an openly bigamous relationship and lived in a shared household with his wife and another woman whom he considered his “second wife” in a “community marriage.” He had children with both women and justified his lifestyle with reference to Nazi pronatalism and eugenic principles, framing himself as a “prodigious father” contributing to the Volk. How are M.’s case and the trajectory it took illustrative of the unique and often contradictory National Socialist sex and gender politics? How is it situated within the völkisch ideology favored by leading Nazi figures like Heinrich Himmler and myths about a Germanic past?
Elissa Mailänder: At first glance, the polygamous professor reads like a tremendously eccentric curiosity. Yet a closer look reveals that this man believed that, by fathering and rearing many racially “pure” and “healthy” children, he was acting in a “morally righteous” way in a distinctly völkisch sense. This adjective, so difficult to translate, refers to a rather quirky current of thought that developed in German-speaking countries at the end of the 19th century, gaining particular traction after World War I. Covering trends like the escape from metropolitan urban life to reconnect with nature, nutritional awareness, and naturopathic medicine, followers of this eclectic movement shared an undemocratic, ethnic conception of national community that further exalted its presumed Germanic roots. Most importantly, the völkisch logic rejected foreign influences and racial differences as threats to an allegedly pure Germanic race. Cleverly, the Nazis then drew upon this ethno-racist and eugenic ideologyfrom the 1920s,reinforcing asense of belonging via inclusionary racism and declaring the family as the biological stock of an ethnically defined People’s Community (Volksgemeinschaft).
German motherhood became a major political component of Nazism, at first as a demographic “weapon” in a larger combat against rival ethnic populations (Jews and Slavs), ideological enemies (Bolsheviks, political opponents), and internal “threats” to racial purity, such as Germans perceived as socially awkward or genetically “damaged.” Secondly, as the rise of the modern welfare state had already sufficiently proven, motherhood was also a convenient tool to monitor and motivate the German people, as it allowed Nazism to present itself as promoting a society of benevolence and beneficence. Since the very beginning, the Nazi government encouraged “racially” German couples to have large families, via financial incentives such as the marriage loans instituted in the summer of 1933 or awards like the Cross of Honor of the German Mother launched in 1938. From 1933-34 onwards, Nazi women’s organizations took over the existing provision of advice and training to mothers, while the NS-Frauenschaft (National Socialist Women’s League) and the Deutsches Frauenwerk soon became key players within the wider field of Nazi organizations concerned with race and welfare. In a bitter rivalry with male-dominated Nazi organizations, the leaders of the National Socialist Women’s League (NSF) tried to monopolize the field of training and advice to mothers, because Gertrud Scholtz-Klink, the leader of the NSF, knew all too well about the political capital of motherhood: training mothers and housewives targeted a wider female public, far beyond party membership. It therefore offered a fabulous opportunity to transform ordinary women into racially conscious rulers of the family.
The professor and his wife, however, belonged to a public that was differently attuned ideologically. It seems that M. and his wife, both academics with PhDs, had been seduced by völkisch ideas when they were university students; both perceived eugenic family-building as their duty. While Nazi politics paid considerable attention to motherhood, professor M. claimed his full rights as a father and patriarch. Yet by inviting another woman to join their household and have children with professor M., the couple certainly made an unusually bold choice that did not please everyone. The case illustrates how some colleagues and registrars struggled to accept the validity of this arrangement and particularly the legitimacy of his children born out of wedlock. Others, most importantly academic superiors and judges, backed the professor, at least during the Third Reich. Yet despite this divided reception, people generally tolerated M.’s lifestyle. After all, many high-ranking Nazi officials such as Heinrich Himmler, Joseph Goebbels, and Martin Bormann fathered children with their mistresses, although none openly engaged in polygamy. Nazism had a sexist approach to gender and sexuality, granting “Aryan” men multiple legal advantages (divorce law) and informal concessions (from “traditional” sexual promiscuity to sexual violence). Professor M. is a telling illustration of “Aryan arrogance” (Claudia Koonz) paired with male entitlement.
YS: Taking a closer look at M.’s unconventional personal and family life, which was characterized by open bigamy, you argue for the explanatory power of Alltagsgeschichte, an approach to history pioneered by Alf Lüdtke that focuses on everyday life experiences. In what ways does Alltagsgeschichte enhance our understanding of Nazism? And how is the more recent attention in Holocaust studies to the intimate and family lives of historical actors specifically illuminating in this context?
EM: The notion of everyday life, or Alltag, is a lens that allows us to look at the transformation of seemingly banal men and women into active proponents of Nazism. Drawing on Karl Marx, Alf Lüdtke developed the concept of “appropriation” (Aneignung) to describe a diverse, formative, and “sensual” interpretation of lived reality—discourses, practices, and compulsions—by historical actors. From this perspective, social norms do not appear as implicit, but as something that individuals must first reify and then enact in ways that are not always logical or consistent. Hence, it is the often ambiguous and contradictory social practices of ordinary citizens, rather than their political motivations, that explain broad support for or assimilation within a dictatorial regime. This micro-historical approach to the everyday necessitates not only a reduction in scale to the level of the individual, but also a highly nuanced understanding of their everyday lives and agency.
The private life in Nazi society, as opposed to the public and professional one, has gained analytical traction in historiography over the past decade, only for historians to realize that even in a fascist dictatorship, there was no such thing as an Orwellian nightmare of total invasion of the private sphere. In their recent studies, Nicholas Stargardt and Janosch Steuwer demonstrated how comfortably Austrians and Germans “nested” within their family lives, creating parallel private worlds. Most individuals attempted to lead ordinary lives, even under exceptionally harsh circumstances. Some even understood their withdrawal into the private sphere as a sort of inner emigration, not recognizing that within a dictatorship and genocidal regime, the private is resolutely political. In other words, mass dictatorships cannot be understood within a simple framework of coercion or norms imposed by a regime. Although individual actions and gestures of (private) withdrawal or non-conformity cannot be dismissed, simply coping with Nazism, even reluctantly, or keeping political action to a minimum, tacitly implied support and contributed to the power and stability of the regime.
Everyday conformism is ambivalent, meandering through a broad spectrum of coercion and consent. Yet it has a considerable social impact and political meaning, as it helps create a new political culture. With Mothers in the Fatherland, Claudia Koonz was really onto something in the 1980s. Child rearing under Nazism was, as we have seen, a core political activity that made Austrian and German mothers into indispensable political agents. Although we now know a lot about the ideological underpinnings of the motherhood training and housekeeping courses for mothers-to-be, we still lack information about how women translated this training and other political incentives into everyday family life. Unfortunately, oral history interviews were only conducted with women professionally engaged in the Nazi movement, whereas systematic analysis of ego-documents (diaries, letters, photo albums, housekeeping books etc.) by ordinary German women remain a lacuna. Which is why German motherhood and childrearing during Nazism, as an experience and social practice, curiously count among the least explored topics.
If we adopt an integrated perspective on the perpetrators and victims of the Holocaust—I deliberately do not want to use the term “comparative”—we ought to ask: who had an “everyday”?Everyday life is not a given. According to anthropologist Gerald Sider, having an everyday life requires “a reasonable grounded expectation of a livable tomorrow” – that is, money to pay rent and food, health, and a decently positive projection into the future. German families, even during the harsh Allied bombing raids in 1943-45, still possessed a functioning infrastructure with female fire brigades and soldiers who rescued people from burning houses and rubble, as well as bunkers that offered shelter, food, and medical support. By contrast, Jews in hiding, refugees or people detained in concentration camps or on death marches did not have much coherence or predictability in their lives. Historian Natalia Aleksiun has shown how difficult and volatile the daily struggle for survival was for Jews hiding in Nazi-occupied Eastern Galicia. Marginalized women were particularly susceptible to abuse of their sexuality (rape, sexual exploitation, forced pregnancy) and of their maternal responsibility (forced abortion, suicide, infanticide), be it in the ghettos and camps, in resistance groups or in hiding and escape. In addition, motherhood and reproductive capacities made women doubly vulnerable. Crying babies and toddlers represented a particular liability, not only for the people in hideouts but also for their gentile hosts. In addition, the lack of food and hygiene made the survival of newborns and mothers particularly precarious. Hence, while the privileged and distinctly völkisch approach to German motherhood is crucial to understanding the allure of Nazism, we also need to look at the brutal implications for those excluded from this ethno-racist community. In Nazi society—and, as a matter of fact, in any segregated society—inclusionary and exclusionary racism are two sides of the same coin.
YS: Going beyond the immediate scope of your article and moving into the present, it seems striking how far-right movements today stylize themselves as defenders of the conventional family, fighting against “genderism” and “alternative” family constellations. Do you think this development marks a transformation of right-wing sexual politics, or are there similar sexually transgressive strands in the current right that we do not pay enough attention to?
EM: Professor M.’s polygamous arrangement was not all that revolutionary; as the pater familias, he still held all the cards. What I wanted to highlight in my article is that this family setting cannot be simply explained by male domination or oppressive patriarchy, as the women and mothers of his children had their reasons for participating as well. They granted him his patriarchal dividends, at least at the beginning; for a couple of years, they shared his values and actively participated in this bigamous arrangement where two women shared a household, until it became too complicated and they wanted to separate. Ultimately, his wives perceived their role as modern German mothers of his nine children as a female privilege. Then and now, right-wing or völkisch feminisms do exist. Journalist and intellectual Sophie Rogge-Börner (1878-1955) and best-selling author Johanna Haarer (1900-1988) come to mind; both were strong voices for a “Nazi style” gender-equality suffused with Nordic mythology, antisemitism, and exalted motherhood in a race-based society. Motherhood and a certain “healthy” German lifestyle became key tropes and markers of identity – in some cases, even a powerful fantasy of potency.
Here is where we can indeed draw some parallels to postwar anti-feminist conservative women’s movements that advocated against equal rights between men and women in a diverse, multiethnic society. Be it Phyllis Schlafly (1924-2016) in the United States or Ellen Kositza in contemporary Germany, both draw their political credibility and stamina from their prodigious motherhood and role as exemplary family caretakers.Kositza, a West German woman in her forties and wife of the popular ideologist of the new right, Götz Kubitschek, now lives in Schnellroda, in the depths of Thuringia, where she runs a self-sufficient estate and looks after her seven children. Yet neither Schlafly nor Kositza embodies the traditional model of a stay-at-home wife, as they both work(ed) full time as political lobbyists. Kositza, who holds a college degree in philosophy and literature, manages the far-right Antaios publishing house, a blog, and her own YouTube show. As educated, middle-class women, neither Schlafly nor Kositza has much in common with the workaday and family lives of women with migration backgrounds, women of color, or white mothers of precarious working-class families. Instead, as female members of the dominant mainstream society, they voice white women’s demands and privileges in a still segregated society, be it the United States of the 1970s or contemporary Germany. In other words, they defend a particular kind of white nationalist patriarchy, much as Nazi feminists did. Only by reflecting upon their positionality and by placing them within a larger social and political web of power relations can we grasp their obstinate defense of ethno-cultural privileges.
Unsurprisingly, current far-right movements remain utterly conservative when it comes to gender. The Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) and other far-right movements might have opened up to gays and lesbians, but only if they share cisgender traditional values and forcefully oppose gender-queerness. The publicist and agent provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos (born in 1984) and the high-profile AfD politician Alice Weidel (born in 1979) self-identify as right-wing homosexuals, which does not prevent them from advocating for traditional family values or buying into homophobic narratives. By opposing cultural, ethnic, and religious diversity, as well as transgender identities, they share certain guiding principles with their heteronormative political fellows. If we understand ‘queer’ not solely as a synonym for gay but also as a way of asking questions about what goes against the norm, then being gay or lesbian does not make a person necessarily gender subversive or free from patriarchal precepts.Sociologist Raewyn Connell coined the compelling concept of a “very straight gay,” as gay men and women can, indeed, lead a double life, hypercorrect the presumed contradiction with traditional gender values, and therefore incarnate conservative misogynic homo- and transphobic masculinities or femininities. As historians, wetend to essentialize our historical subjects and their agency by holding on to static binaries (man/woman, gay/straight, transgender/cisgender, etc.) and by locking the people we study into categories: victims, perpetrators, oppressed women, dominating men etc. The pressing questions then are: how can we conceptualize the asymmetries of power relations without congealing identities? How can we examine the dark and compromising sides when it comes to femininities or queerness? How can we recognize contradictions and multiple affiliations in our historical analysis?