The Volksgemeinschaft: Hitler’s war on gender

Fig. 1. Würbel, Franz. Gesunde Eltern- Gesunde Kinder! [Healthy Parents- Healthy Children]. 1933. Lithograph. 593 mm x 424 mm. Imperial War Museum, Germany, https://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/38855.

Author: Julia Richards

Sub-editor: Vita Banducci

CW: references to Nazi homophobia

Gender was fundamental to the Volksgemeinschaft in Nazi Germany (1933-1945), as it facilitated procreation through the politicisation of the family, gender roles and sexuality, ostracising minority groups who were deemed ‘unworthy of life.’ Historian Lisa Pine defines the notion of Volksgemeinschaft as an ethnic ‘national community’ that was heavily ingrained in all facets of daily lives, epitomised by the destruction of class, religion and localism, privileging the notion of an Aryan nation. I will argue that gender was instrumental to the Volksgemeinschaft because it encouraged traditional gender roles, emphasising the importance of reproduction through the politicisation of the family. Additionally, I will explore how the Nazi construction of gender was disseminated through propaganda, legislation and state-led organisations, thus galvanising the oppression of ‘asocial’ groups such as homosexual men. Ultimately, Nazi Germany was a highly gendered epoch epitomised by the ideology of the Volksgemeinschaft and gender can therefore be employed to complicate traditional historiography, unveiling how it shaped the experiences of individuals.

The conceptualisation of gender in Nazi Germany was essential to Hitler’s Volksgemeinschaft, illustrating its association with reproduction and the family as both an individual and a state issue. Whilst Historian David Welch considers class to be a motivating factor of the Volksgemeinschaft in galvanising the ‘true harmony of the classes,’ Gisela Bock acknowledges the significant role of gender in promoting the reproduction of Hitler’s supreme race. Yet, the politicisation of the heterosexual family through the dissemination of traditional gender roles was crucial in manufacturing Hitler’s ‘national community.’ On 18 March 1933, in a speech at a Berlin showcase known as: The Woman, the Minster for Propaganda Joseph Goebbels emphasised the importance of gender roles in Nazi society, asserting that ‘the best place for the woman to serve her people is in her marriage, in the family, [and] in motherhood.’ This speech was significant because it exposed the gendered nature of the Volksgemeinschaft, highlighting its preoccupation with the biological purpose of heterosexuality and normative gender roles for men and women. In contrast, Eleanor Hancock notes that men were expected to embody a hyper-masculine role through their participation in the workforce, war and the political sphere. As a result, gender also had an influential role in all aspects of daily life, from state-led organisations such as the Hitler Youth and the League for German Girls, to the Honour Cross to Prolific Motherswhich was presented annually on Mother’s Day. Epstein highlights that the Nazi regime promoted reproduction by awarding women gold for producing eight children, silver for six and bronze for four. Therefore, it is evident that gender was important to the notion of the Volksgemeinschaft because it emphasised the natural responsibilities of men and women to reproduce for the progression of the nation, as both an individual and state responsibility.

Similarly, gender was instrumental to the Volksgemeinschaft through its prevalence in legislation and propaganda, promoting the family as an important state institution and thus ostracising groups who failed to embody Hitler’s ideology.  The Nazi obsession with the family was disseminated throughout all aspects of society, from education to propaganda posters. The 1933 poster titled Healthy Parents-Healthy Children clearly demonstrated this notion, as it illustrated a prosperous Aryan family, epitomising Hitler’s vision for the Volksgemeinschaft. Such propaganda coalesced with Nazi gender ideology that was legitimised in law via pro-natalist policies. In particular, the 1933 ‘Law for the Prevention of Hereditarily Diseased Off- Spring’, is significant for understanding gender as a motivating factor within the Nazi regime as it determined superiority within the Volksgemeinschaft via discrimination against race, health and sexuality, thus perpetuating the sterilisation of those considered ‘unworthy of life’ such as homosexuals, Jews and disabled people. Joseph Bendersky emphasises the intersectional nature of gender and race in the Volksgemeinschaft, suggesting that such legislations were fuelled by an overarching notion of a ‘higher civilisation,’ and Hitler’s desire to increase the population of Aryan citizens from sixty-five million to one hundred million. This resulted in the sterilization of over three hundred thousand people who were considered ‘asocial.’ Thus, it is clear that the incorporation of propaganda and legislation emphasised the importance of gender within the Volksgemeinschaft and its intersection with racial ideology.

However, the policy of Lebensborn in the context of World War Two (1939-1945) complicated gender in Nazi Germany, by challenging the sanctity of marriage and the family, yet also encompassing the core values of the Volksgemeinschaft. In 1935, Hitler legitimised his beliefs concerning gender through the Nuremberg Laws and Lebensborn policies, highlighting the natural duty of German men and women to keep the nation racially pure. Whilst the Nuremberg Laws prohibited marriage between Jews and Gentile people,the Lebensborn policies promoted nonconformity from traditional marriage, encouraging polygamy in order repopulate the German army. In October 1939, the Commander of the Schutzstaffel (SS) Heinrich Himmler, declared his men exempt from bourgeois gender norms, encouraging them to father illegitimate children in an attempt to replace the men who had died at the front. Vandana Joshi highlights this as a major concern of the Nazi regime, suggesting that in the context of World War Two, gender roles were in crisis because of the separation between married men and women, resulting in a low birth rate. Whilst Leila Rupp highlights the importance of the family unit to the concept of Volksgemeinschaft, Joshi suggests that the policy of Lebensborn was also highly gendered because it encompassed a wider sense of Nazi anti-natalist ideology, promulgating a racist, classist and ablest agenda.  Thus, while the Nazi’s adopted a pro-natalist ideology for Himmler’s SS, they also adopted an anti-natalist agenda for those who failed to conform to Hitler’s Aryan ideal. This demonstrates the ever-changing nature of gender, particularly in situations of war. Thus, while the Lebensborn scheme undermined the sanctity of marriage and the family, it was gendered through its promotion of normative performances of masculinity and femininity.

Contrastingly, gender was also used as a tool of oppression within Hitler’s Volksgemeinschaft, perpetuating the oppression of homosexual men due to their inability to reproduce and fulfil the heterosexual family structure. Jane Caplan highlights the exclusionary nature of the Volksgemeinschaft, suggesting that it was gendered via the adoption of ‘radical measures’ purposed to alienate people who did not conform to Hitler’s ideal community. This is evidenced in a memoir by Heinz Heger titled The Men with the Pink Triangle. In particular, Heger notes that the state ‘defined homosexuals as enemies of the state,’ through paragraph 175 of the German Criminal Code (1935), highlighting the prohibited nature of sexual acts between two men. In April 1937, Josef Meisinger, a prominent SS member in Warsaw, lamented the threat of homosexuality towards heteronormative gender roles and the state, suggesting that ‘homosexuals are useless for normal sexual intercourse… and will eventually lead to a drop in birth rate,’ therefore deteriorating the prowess of the Volksgemeinschaft and the ‘nation’s military capacity.’ Ultimately, traditional gender roles were fundamental to the Volksgemeinschaft because they promoted the reproduction of children, which Hitler considered as the future of the state. This galvanised the criminalisation of homosexuality and perpetuated discrimination and violence towards people who did not conform to traditional views of sexuality and gender. As Heger notes, the Nazi’s politicisation of gender resulted in the implementation of the ‘pink triangle,’ and an estimated ten to fifteen thousand homosexual men being transported to concentration camps.  Thus, it is clear that the Volksgemeinschaft was highly gendered and employed as a method of empowerment for people who fit Hitler’s ideals, yet also a tool of oppression for those who were incongruous with Nazi ideology.

Ultimately, gender was significant to the creation of the Volksgemeinschaft in Nazi Germany because it facilitated the reproduction of Hitler’s ‘master race,’ resulting in the subjugation of people who failed to meet the membership requirements. Gender is instrumental to understanding the preoccupation with biology epitomised by the Volksgemeinschaft, legitimised by political, social and cultural elements that promoted marriage and procreation. Alternatively, gender can also be interpreted as complex, contributing to promiscuity through the Lebensborn policies, suggesting that perceptions of gender can alter in dire circumstances. Finally, gender was a tool of oppression in Nazi Germany, ostracising groups such as homosexual men because of their lifestyle and failure to fulfil their biological purpose of reproduction. Hence, gender is a fundamental tool for complicating perceptions of the Volksgemeinschaft, and it was highly ingrained within every facet of public life and Nazi ideology.

Image credit

Würbel, Franz. Gesunde Eltern- Gesunde Kinder! [Healthy Parents- Healthy Children]. 1933. Lithograph. 593 mm x 424 mm. Courtesy of the Imperial War Museum, Germany. https://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/38855.

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Würbel, Franz. Gesunde Eltern- Gesunde Kinder! [Healthy Parents- Healthy Children].1933. Lithograph. 593 mm x 424 mm. Imperial War Museum, Germany, https://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/38855.

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