Gender and Genocide: The Role of Nazi Constructions of ‘Mixed-Sex’ Bodies and Genders in the Genocidal Process

Author: Jacobin Bosman

Subeditor: Molly Lidgerwood

CW: Genocide, transphobia, antisemitism, homophobia, gendered violence, sexual violence

Image credit: “Stabbed in the back!” Austrian postcard showing a caricatured Jew backstabbing a German soldier, 1919, 502 x 341,  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stab-in-the-back_myth.

Mapping right-wing gender and sexuality discourses from the Weimar Republic through to the fall of the Third Reich offers historians an insight into the significance of gender to genocide. Current historiography pays limited attention to distinctions between sex and gender, much less to constructions of gender outside the normatively sexed male-female binary. However, as this essay demonstrates, the pseudo-scientific Nationalist Socialist (Nazi) constructions of gender and sex were significantly more variable than is often recognised, making it necessary for historians to develop a greater capacity to expand beyond a cisheteronormative lens when engaging in historical analysis. While victims of the Nazi regime experienced violence as members of their respective gender, perpetrators held the power to affirm or deny that gender both individually and systemically. Applying and expanding upon Øystein Gullvåg Holter’s theory of ‘gendercide’, I therefore argue that the Nazi regime’s strategic reevaluation of gender provides an opportunity to examine new and complex possibilities for the role of gender in the genocidal process.

Germany’s loss in World War I, and the ensuing post-war social liberalism of the Weimar Republic, represented a crisis for conservative Germans. Women’s emancipation and public campaigns for homosexual and ‘transvestite’ rights amplified their fear of a breakdown in traditional gender stratification. Concurrently, an imaginary ‘Jewish push’ for ‘super rights’ was represented as a valid threat in National Socialist (Nazi) Party propaganda. Race, gender, and sexuality therefore represented powerful, interlocking fears of Germany’s societal collapse, evident through an escalation of public rhetoric targeting perceived sources of ‘decadence’. 

Slights to German manhood achieved distinct prominence within these emotive discourses. In one narrative, ‘Red revolutionaries’ enact a symbolic emasculation by tearing the epaulets off of German officers’ uniforms. Meanwhile, an extended section of Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf presents an allegorical tale of the the degeneration of an ‘Aryan’ peasant boy upon being exposed to urban life. In these narratives, ‘the Jew’ mastermind and his underling allies— defined by their deviance from ‘Aryan’ manhood— are rendered culpable for the devaluation of German men and, by extension, the Volk.

Holter situates such narratives within the earliest phase of genocide: the dominant group’s growing perception of being devalued socially and politically. However, I argue that these stories operate concurrently with Holter’s second phase of genocide: social re-evaluation. Although Holter largely defines these phases as distinct, the mutually constitutive role of race and gender in the nationalist race-state requires historians to understand devaluation and re-evaluation as recursive processes. Aligning devaluation narratives with utopian re-evaluations develops a justificatory framework that situates future violence as a necessary and reparative act. 

A significant aspect of gender-based re-evaluation is a process I refer to as ‘re-gendering’, in which the assignment of normative, binary, sex-aligned gender becomes reserved for the dominant or desired cohort. Consequently, groups targeted by this cohort are reframed as gender-deviant and targeted for ‘correction’ or elimination. As Patricia Szobar’s work on Rassenschande (race defilement) confirms, gender was contingent upon race in the Nazi worldview; only those who fulfilled the Aryan ideal were defined as men and women in a binary, gendered sense, while those outside the ideal were assigned a composite, non-binary sex/gender. As a result, right-wing propaganda deliberately evoked a mockery of the trans-gendered body to convey monstrosity, perversity, and the need for corrective violence.

One such example of the connection between antisemitism and early transphobic tropes is found in a postcard from 1919, which contrasts a square-jawed German soldier with a Jewish ‘traitor’ stabbing him in the back. The latter figure possesses exaggeratedly large, ‘male’ hands, muscular arms, and visible Adam’s apple, coupled with a ‘feminine’ hairstyle and large breasts. This early imagery re-emerges in Nazi propaganda slides, which contrast the ‘racially healthy’, and thus sexually dimorphic, Aryan body with the ‘mixed sex’ bodies of Jewish men. Such photos represent the purposeful selection of Jewish men with breasts and stereotypically ‘feminine’ fat distribution, thereby aligning ‘Jewishness’ and sex/gender deviance. Jewish men’s bodies thus become non-male, and by extension Jewish men are rendered not men to the Aryan audience.  

Homosexuals and ‘transvestites’ also occupied an interstitial gender category, based on their perceived proximity to Jewish influence. Like Jewish men, those considered transgressive due to sexuality or gender are uniformly referred to in language that evokes gender deviance. That de- or mis- gendering victims forms part of the early campaign of Nazi persecution is made explicit by William Stuckart and Hans Globke, who remark that beyond the Volk ‘no human life exists in the legal sense…only a biological, vegetative existence.’ To be gendered, after all, requires a tacit recognition of the victim’s humanity and ergo the social value placed on their gender. Conversely, removal from the gendered order assigns the victim an animalian, utilitarian, or ultimately disposable status within the genocidal regime.

By situating an imaginary, trans-gendered body as the locus for race and social contagion, the Third Reich defined both itself and the Volksgemeinschaft more broadly as legally and morally bound to regulate its spread. As Holter notes, this third stage of moral regeneration and reproduction is a necessary part of upholding the newly-instituted state, making modern genocide intrinsically grounded in the reproduction of binary sex differentiation and its role in elevating the reproductive nuclear family. Consequently, acts of both state and individual violence commenced by targeting sites of gender and sexual transgression: banning pornography, destroying the Institut für Sexualwissenschaft (Sexual Science Institute), and raiding or closing Berlin gay bars. During the establishment of the Third Reich, for instance, Annelise W. (‘Johnny’), recalls a rise in homophobic street harassment from both the police and wider community. Similarly, people in heterosexual, but interracial, couples experienced assault and public humiliation by both the Sturmabteilung (SA or Brownshirts) and emboldened bystanders. Although current historiography positions such examples as, at best, tangentially connected, such violence can be seen as representative of the social acceptance of Nazi beliefs surrounding the intersection of “abnormal” sexuality, gender transgression, and Jewishness.

Such intersections are integral to understanding the 1935 Rassenschande (race defilement) laws, and the expansion of Paragraph 175A, which broadened the criminalisation of homosexuality. These laws simultaneously framed specific relationships, sexual acts, and even desires as antithetical to the new gendered order and helped define popular conceptions of the gendered ‘Other’. Significant overlaps between common homophobic, antisemitic, and early transphobic tropes, grounded in a fear and hatred of gender destabilisation, emerged throughout courtroom discourses. Like same-sex desiring men, heterosexual Jewish men— the primary target in race defilement cases and propaganda— were defined in the courts as threatening, unnatural, perverse, and hypersexual. Conversely, the language used to denounce same-sex desiring men overlapped with antisemitic tropes defining the feminised, male Jewish body as soft, little, and flabby. These laws, supported by a culture of community denunciation, purposefully redefined ‘Othered’ male bodies as weak, unproductive, and transgressively gendered, thereby validating both ‘corrective’ and destructive violence to preserve the Volksgemeinschaft.

Although Rassenschande and Paragraph 175A operated on a spectrum of violence, their genocidal intent manifested in regimes of legal or extra-judicial sterilisation. In the eyes of the Nazi state, sterilisation protected the nuclear family’s ‘pure’ Aryan blood from ‘contamination’ by prohibiting reproduction with targeted groups, ostensibly allowing them to die out in Germany altogether. Alfred Meyer, for instance— a Jewish man convicted of race defilement— was immediately castrated upon his internment. Even violence enacted in an extra-judicial capacity, however, followed the wider genocidal logic of the Third Reich. Assaults perpetrated on Jewish men by their guards, for instance, focused on causing genital injury and mutilation. Similarly, Gad Beck writes that the guards of one gay, Aryan man ‘set two large dogs on him— specialists in testicles and ears. He lost those body parts entirely.’ Although these acts are often read as a targeting of the normatively sexed body, given the association of both Jews and homosexuals with ‘effeminacy’, they can more accurately be interpreted as having a corrective purpose by representing the eradication of a source of both racial and gender deviance.

The culmination of genocidal violence in implementing the Final Solution resulted in expanding internment and eradication policies, with a corresponding influx of Jewish women. Current understandings of the role of gender in the Final Solution emphasise Jewish women’s specific vulnerability to sexual violence and execution as evidence of the Nazi’s gendered focus. However, I contend that the primary force legitimating these acts is not gender, but rather a bioessentialist, sex-based degendering that reduced Jewish people to the biological capacities associated with their assigned sex. This becomes particularly evident when comparing the treatment of Jewish victims with the Nazi’s changing attitude towards non-racialised prisoners. 

Understanding the loss of gendered versus sexed status helps contextualise the forms of violence considered permissible in concentration camps, both on an individual and systemic level. For instance, as Leslie Aigner testifies, the contingencies of war meant that ‘Jews were manning the factories and doing the production.’ The need for disposable, male bodies to undertake forced labour therefore clarifies the function of sex selection in sending women for medical experimentation and to the gas chambers. The Nazis intended that all Jewish people be eradicated, but the fundamental difference between male and female survival rates was not due to Nazi perceptions of Jewish men and women as men and women. Rather, the male body was perceived to have greater durability and utility for labour that necessitated keeping men alive, while the female body was rendered either useful for ancillary purposes in benefiting the Reich, else or entirely disposable. 

This argument is borne out by contrasting the treatment of non-Jewish prisoners in concentration camps with that of Jewish prisoners during the same period. While Jewish prisoners transitioned from being gender-others to binary-sexed bodies, the contingencies of war led to specific, usually ‘Aryan’, prisoners regaining their gendered status. While the genocidal intent behind acts of sterilisation could not be undone, the re-gendering process— often violent and cruel in and of itself— manifested in various ways depending on one’s proximity to the Aryan ideal. For instance, ‘anti-social’ women— usually sex workers or lesbians— were selected by the SS for sexual labour in camp brothels: the former on the basis of their potential for future release, the latter as a form of corrective rape as ‘the Nazis…thought it would shape them up.’ Similarly, Heinrich Himmler ordered same-sex desiring men into interactions with both sex workers and other men to assess their suitability for release as ‘normal’ (that is, reproductive) men. Others accepted ‘voluntary’ castration to secure their freedom. Such a dubious, limited ‘privilege’, however, was only offered on the basis of potential corrigibility, a possibility never extended to the racial ‘Other’.

The role of gender in genocidal violence remains widely contested by historians, and so complex a reality is unlikely to ever derive from a singular reason source. However, Øystein Gullvåg Holter’s theory of ‘gendercide’— while still necessary to view critically— supports a more comprehensive framework for understanding the essential role that gender plays in genocidal processes. Applying this framework to the Third Reich also calls into question the cisheteronormative lens that historians often apply to gender within histories of violence and genocide. Although this requires us to focus on the perpetrator, and consequently risks de-centring victims, critically interrogating the perpetrator’s construction of their own and others’ gender allows for a deeper investigation of new avenues for understanding how gender functions within genocidal regimes.

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