For a generation, progressives have portrayed fascism and Nazism as exemplified by sexual repression and moral conservatism. In this view, the left has an anti-Nazi sensibility because the left is into bohemianism and sexual expression. In my new book, “The Big Lie: Exposing the Nazi Roots of American Left,” I show that the fascists and Nazis, far from being repressed moral conservatives, were themselves sexually and stylistically bohemian. In style as well as in ideology, fascism and Nazism are phenomena of the political left.
The whole notion that fascism and Nazism are forms of sexual repression is the invention of one man, Herbert Marcuse of the so-called Frankfurt School. Himself a refugee from Nazi Germany, Marcuse was a Marxist who detested Christianity and capitalism with the same passion that he hated Hitler. In the period after World War II, Marcuse set about to mobilize the hatred Americans felt for Nazism against America’s own capitalist and Christian social and sexual mores.
According to Marcuse, America had its own form of fascism, and that was modern, technological, capitalist society. In his book “Eros and Civilization,” Marcuse insisted that America had established elaborate systems for controlling our sex organs, what Marcuse terms the “sacrifice of libido.” Marcuse blamed not merely the free market system for supposedly codifying and merchandizing sex – turning it into a commodity – but he also blamed religious and social mores for repressing and enslaving the sex instincts. Unfortunately, Marcuse noted, there is currently in America a “channeling of sexuality into monogamous reproduction” and a “taboo on perversions.”
Marcuse proclaimed that this “suppressed sexuality” was indicative of an emerging American fascism. Without being released, he wrote, it “manifests itself in the hideous forms so well known” including the “sadistic and masochistic orgies” of prison inmates and “concentration camp guards.” Marcuse’s mantra was: Away with all this. Liberate the libido. Let it all hang out. Marcuse termed what he was promoting as “polymorphous sexuality.”
Marcuse’s celebration of outright perversion was a mantra that could not be more perfectly timed in the 1960s, when a generation of young activists became alienated from their parents, their preachers and the norms of their society. They were looking for a sex guru, and Marcuse became their apostle of sexual freedom. Marcuse formally rejected this description of himself – he liked the pose of the disinterested scholar – but he also understood that this was precisely the basis for his celebrity status with the 1960s counterculture. What the children of the sexual revolution liked most about Marcuse was that he gave a lofty basis for their genital adventures. Basically, Marcuse made sexual bohemianism into a valiant expression of anti-fascism.
In reality, Marcuse was pulling off a major scam. While the rutting bohemians of the 1960s had no idea, Marcuse surely knew that the Nazis and the Italian fascists were themselves – almost to a man – bohemians. Hitler himself was a painter and artiste before he went into politics. He was obsessed with music and regularly attended the Bayreuth Festival; Wagner’s music, Hitler said, reflected the triumph of art over life. He was also a vegetarian. Hitler had a secret mistress, Eva Braun, whom he only married the day before the two of them committed suicide. In their case, “till death do us part” was literally a matter of hours.
Hitler also despised Christianity as a kind of disease and regularly spoke of seeking its eventual eradication in the Third Reich. “Pure Christianity,” Hitler said, “leads quite simply to the annihilation of mankind. … Let us be the only people who are immunized against the disease.” While he recognized the political inadvisability of openly attacking Christianity, privately Hitler called it “an invention of sick brains: one could imagine nothing more senseless.” Of Christianity, Hitler said, “The catastrophe for us is that of being tied to a religion that rebels against all the joys of the senses.”
Heinrich Himmler, Hitler’s No. 2 man and head of the SS, was an atheist who took his secretary, Hedwig Potthast, as his mistress. Although he is sometimes portrayed as an uptight moral traditionalist, nothing could be further from the truth: Himmler envisioned human breeding farms in which selected Aryan types would promiscuously breed with selected Aryan women to produce, in the words of historian Sarah Helm, “a constant supply of perfect Aryan children.”
Himmler was also a natural-food guy who was an eager proponent of organic farming. He insisted on organic food being grown in concentration camps, and once stopped by Auschwitz for no other reason than to visit the vegetable garden there. Many of the top Nazis condemned the congestion of the cities and affirmed the value of living in communion with nature; historian Stanley Payne writes that we find in Nazism “the first major expressions of modern environmentalism.”
Goebbels was also an atheist and philanderer who had a series of notorious affairs, one with the Czech actress Lida Baarova. He also wrote a play and an autobiographical novel. He fancied himself a romantic; indeed, his doctoral thesis at Heidelberg University was on the German romantics. Before Goebbels entered politics, he wanted to be an artist and writer. Had he lived today, it is easy to envision him living in Greenwich Village and teaching romance languages at Columbia University or NYU.
Progressives and leftists sometimes seek to vindicate Marcuse, and prove the moral traditionalism of the fascists, by claiming the fascists were anti-homosexual. While it’s true that homosexuals were one of the groups later rounded up for the concentration camps, this had nothing to do with moral reservations. Rather, it was based on the Nazi idea that it was imperative for Germany to multiply its Nordic or Aryan population, and homosexuality was seen as impeding that process. Two flamboyant Nazi homosexuals – the party’s legal specialist Helmut Nicolai and Achim Gerke who served in Hitler’s Interior Ministry – were purged in 1935 on that basis.
As was widely recognized in the 1920s and 1930s, a significant number of the Nazi Brownshirts, including the group’s head, Ernst Rohm, were homosexual. William Shirer tells us that the head of the Munich Brownshirts, Edmund Heines, was not only gay but also a convicted murderer. The Communists and Social Democrats derided the Nazi Brownshirts by calling them names like the Brotherhood of Poofs in the Brown House.
Himmler and Goebbels, fearful that a gay reputation would hurt the political prospects of the Nazi Party, urged Hitler to reduce the homosexual presence among the Brownshirts. But Hitler refused, saying that these things were “purely in the private sphere.” The Brownshirts, he emphasized, were not a “moral establishment” but rather a “band of fighters.” Why, Hitler asked, should he care what they did in the bedroom when they did the job they were meant to do?
The Brownshirts only became a problem when they threatened to displace the German police and the armed forces as the country’s enforcement brigade. Hitler needed the army and the police, and so he reluctantly agreed to suppress the Brownshirts. When Hitler showed up to arrest Rohm and his top lieutenants at the Hanselbauer Hotel, he found himself in the middle of a gay orgy. The first door Hitler kicked open revealed Heines naked in bed with an 18-year-old Brownshirt troop leader. Hitler told him, “If you are not dressed in five minutes, I’ll have you shot on the spot.” Heines jumped from under the sheets and did the Heil Hitler salute.
When Hitler’s men opened Rohm’s door the Brownshirt leader feigned a very casual attitude. Hitler simply told him, “You’re under arrest.” One by one, doors opened and Brownshirt couples came streaming out, in various stages of undress. This was the Nazi atmosphere in those days, and it far more closely resembles that of the Village Voice or the Democratic National Convention than it does the National Review or the Trump White House.
This history is relevant to refute Marcuse’s contention – which has now virtually become conventional wisdom – that fascism and Nazism were straight-laced and socially conservative. That is part of the larger myth that fascism and Nazism are right-wing phenomena. In reality, as the cultural and sexual bohemianism of the fascists and Nazis confirms, the fascists then, like the fascists now, are firmly anchored on the political left.