Emma Kuby, review of Elissa Mailänder’s “Amour, mariage, sexualité. Une histoire intime du nazisme (1930-1950)”

Elissa Mailänder. Amour, mariage, sexualité. Une histoire intime du nazisme (1930-1950). Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 2021. 512 PP. Paper €24.00. ISBN: 9782021459241.

In 1995, an elderly Austrian woman stood before the photographic evidence of Nazi military atrocity on display in Vienna as part of the landmark traveling exhibition “War of Annihilation: Crimes of the Wehrmacht 1941-1944.”[1] “What do you want me to say?” she asked, evidently shaken. “We saw things in a different way from what is shown here…Well, we were shaped by that era, but it wasn’t as bad as all that.” Grasping for proof of her claim, she turned to her own conjugal life and intimate familial sphere. “As you can see, I am here, married for what will soon be fifty years, with four children, who have all succeeded, who have a suitable attitude. That, too—that surely came from somewhere.”[2]

This striking response to the visual evocation of Nazi war crimes, fifty years after the fact, only appears in the closing paragraphs of Elissa Mailänder’s Amour, mariage, sexualité. Une histoire intime du nazisme (1930-1950). But the task that she has set herself in the book might well be described as a heroically wide-ranging effort to make historical sense of it. Mailänder seeks to unearth the “lived experience” of Nazism for those heterosexual, cisgender, non-Jewish, non-disabled German and Austrian men and women who comprised Hitler’s Volksgemeinschaft—and she insists, convincingly, that this experience was primarily situated in the intimate, everyday realm of sex, romance, and marriage. She argues, further, that the concrete opportunities for “empowerment or personal fulfillment” that the Nazi regime provided in the intimate sphere help explain what drew the great majority of individuals to the National Socialist project and produced “the internal cohesion of the mobilized national community” (358, 19). Already a distinguished scholar of women’s direct complicity in Nazi violence—notably, she is the author of a book on female SS guards in Majdanek—Mailänder recognizes the potential ethical pitfalls of studying the “pleasant and motivating aspects of the Nazi regime” (18).[3] But she rightly insists that the racialized dynamics of radical exclusion and mass murder in the Third Reich cannot be understood outside of their dialectic relationship to the (likewise intensely racialized) processes of inclusion that created Nazism’s “insiders.”

Amour, mariage, sexualité builds Mailänder’s case across seven widely varied, loosely chronologically organized chapters that span the period from 1930-1950, each employing an entirely distinct source base to explore one particular aspect of “intimate” life during the Nazi regime and in its short-term aftermath. Chapter Two, for instance, draws on civil court records to explore how the 1938 Anschluss changed the landscape of divorce proceedings in Austria; meanwhile, Chapter Four considers Nazi-era gender relations through a close reading of six wartime romantic films about aviators. Chapter Six uses the archives of the American military administration in postwar Bavaria to explore US soldiers’ sexual relationships with German women; in contrast, the following chapter approaches German men’s erotic and conjugal experiences in the wake of defeat principally via the advice columns of the short-lived magazine Liebe und Ehe (Love and Marriage). Mailänder likens her method to “deep core sampling,” emphasizing that she aims not to offer a “general history of sexuality under Nazism” but rather, across multiple instances, to demonstrate how ordinary men and women appropriated Nazi ideology “from below”—and, in so doing, how “these individuals ‘made Nazism,’ in the sense that their acts and their social interactions produced a reality” (24, 356). The unusually expansive geographic and chronological parameters of her project—that is, her deliberate inclusion of Austria and of the immediate pre- and post-Nazi periods—serve this argumentative aim, creating an “enlarged grid” on which to observe “continuities and ruptures” (24).

The topics of gender relations, sexuality, and marriage under Hitler have occupied historians for decades. To Mailänder’s great credit, her book engages in thorough, productive, and explicit dialogue with existing scholarship at every turn rather than adopting any false pose of groundbreaking novelty. “Every chapter inserts itself into a historiographic field that has already been cleared and is in constant evolution,” she stresses in her introduction (24). Indeed, the book’s very first chapter, on maternal ideals and maternity training in pre-1939 Nazi Germany, moves Mailänder into territory that might better be described as a casualty-strewn battlefield than as a peaceably tilled bit of farmland. But her goal is not to resume hostilities. In revisiting the Historikerinnenstreit (quarrel among women historians) that divided scholars in the 1980s and 1990s over women’s degree of complicity with the Third Reich, Mailänder is less interested in choosing sides than in celebrating the way that “this lively and fruitful debate…inaugurated a new historiography, sensitive to German and Austrian women’s capacities for action (agency) in all their nuances and ambiguities” (36). Situating herself within this literature, she demonstrates how Nazi organizations’ eugenicist, highly politicized approach to maternity offered concrete economic and emotional benefits for “Aryan” women, operating via a “permanent tension between motivation and threat” (77). Other chapters are deeply engaged with the work of dozens of other German, Austrian, French, British, and American historians, including some—Mary Louise Roberts, for instance—who study sex and gender in non-German contexts. Unsurprisingly, Dagmar Herzog’s Sex After Fascism, with its brilliant dismantling of a purely “repressive” view of the Nazi regime’s approach to sexuality, is a touchstone throughout the entire text.[4]

The effectiveness of Mailänder’s approach in Amour, mariage, sexualité is cumulative and gradual, gathering strength across her seven distinct studies. Nevertheless, the stand-alone significance of two individual chapters deserves to be highlighted. First, Chapter Three offers an engrossing close-up portrait of how four young Austrian women from modest backgrounds experienced the years between 1938 and 1945 as “a time of personal accomplishment and pleasure,” becoming progressively enmeshed in the Nazi project through seizing opportunities for mobility, camaraderie, and growth in their daily lives (189). Franziska, for example, born in 1921 and working as a maid at the moment of the Anschluss, joined the Reichsarbeitsdienst (Reich Labor Service, or RAD) in 1942 and rose rapidly through its ranks, thereby gaining a professional trajectory and social status that would otherwise have been inaccessible to her. Along the way, she reveled in a tight-knit female community of fellow RAD workers and also in a lively atmosphere of male attention. “It was the most beautiful period of my life,” she later remembered. Mailänder is able to relate the stories of Franziska and her generational counterparts Erika, Helma, and Marianne thanks to the survival of their rich private archives of diaries, letters, notes, and photographs, “a true gold mine for the historian of the everyday” (131). She excavates this astonishing trove patiently, chipping out valuable nuggets of meaning from the arrangement of photographs on an album page or the succession of male names in a journal entry. In tracing the four young women’s joyful journeys through the war years, Mailänder renders uncomfortably palpable the emotional appeal of the Nazi regime for its racially privileged denizens.

If Nazism’s extreme violence lurks persistently in the background of Chapter Three’s rosy-hued personal dramas, it occupies the spotlight in Chapter Five, an extraordinary historical meditation on a single amateur photograph.[5] The image, originally found in the National Archives of Romania, depicts a Wehrmacht soldier miming the rape of what appears to be a female corpse while a dozen laughing, grinning comrades look on. Despite possessing virtually no contextual information about the photograph, Mailänder—whose interest in photographic culture and gift for visual analysis are on display throughout the book—manages to use it as the “prism” for a rich reconsideration of sexual violence and male intersubjectivity among soldiers in the Nazi East. She reads the image as a “trophy,” a “proud exhibition of masculine solidarity and risk-taking” as well as a “performance of colonial masculinity” in the context of an imperial, racist, exterminatory war (235, 259). As in every other chapter—though here to uniquely devastating effect—Mailänder insists on taking seriously the ways that joy, erotic pleasure, camaraderie, and fun were constitutive elements of the Nazi state’s annihilationist projects.

Like the works with which it is in closest dialogue, Amour, mariage, sexualité can be considered essential reading not only for Mailänder’s fellow specialists in the history of gender and sexuality but for all scholars interested in understanding the dynamics of inclusion and exclusion that governed twentieth-century fascism—for, as she insists, these cannot be adequately addressed outside a gendered perspective. Mailänder’s unhurried collection of meticulous “deep core samplings”—all graced with plentiful, beautifully reproduced images and other useful graphics—deserve readings that are equally unhurried. That said, the one major shortcoming of this 512-page book is the absence of an index. Readers can hope that this issue will be rectified in any future English translation. More generally, they can hope that such a translation is forthcoming: this rich, engaging, and ultimately very troubling book merits as broad an audience as possible.


[1] This exhibition had a contentious and controversial history of its own: see Christian Hartmann, Johannes Hürter, and Ulrike Jureit, eds., Verbrechen der Wehrmacht: Bilanz einer Debatte (Munich: C.H. Beck, 2005).
[2] The woman’s comments come from a documentary film directed by Ruth Beckermann, Jenseits des Krieges (Austria: 1996), quoted in Mailänder, 368.
[3] See Elissa Mailänder, Female SS Guards and Workaday Violence: The Majdanek Concentration Camp, 1942-1944. Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 2015, German edition 2009.
[4] Dagmar Herzog, Sex After Fascism: Memory and Morality in Twentieth-Century Germany (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2007).
[5] Mailänder previously published a version of this chapter as Elissa Mailänder, “Making Sense of a Rape Photograph: Sexual Violence as Social Performance on the Eastern Front, 1939-1944,” Journal of the History of Sexuality 26, no. 3 (Sept. 2017): 489-520.


NIU history Associate Professor Emma Kuby
NIU history Associate Professor Emma Kuby

Emma Kuby is Associate Professor of History at Northern Illinois University. An intellectual, political, and cultural historian of modern Europe, she specializes in postwar France and its empire. Her book Political Survivors: The Resistance, the Cold War, and the Fight against Concentration Camps after 1945 (Cornell University Press, 2019) received the George Louis Beer Prize from the American Historical Association, the David H. Pinkney Prize from the Society for French Historical Studies, and the Council for European Studies Book Award. She is now at work on a project that explores how France, as headquarters for American diplomatic and humanitarian efforts to reconstruct a ravaged Europe after 1945, unexpectedly became the key space in which first and second-generation American Jews reengaged with the continent.

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