Friday, November 16, 2012

Nazi Fetishism in BDSM and Other Subcultures

I would have liked to have posted this on HubPages, but they don't allow any sort of sexual or fetish content, so I'll just have to post it here. Once again, sorry about the formatting.


Portrait of a young Totenkopf SS officer
(Source: Weaxzezz & Proud)
There are going to be two groups of people: those who find this provocative and interesting, and those who are flabbergasted and revolted even if they manage to read through it. Because of the controversial nature of both these topics - let alone the combination - people simply haven't written much about them as a counterculture phenomenon, and as they've interested me for some time, I figured I should tackle the job. I'm not doing it for shock value or to offend anyone, and am taking it quite seriously. Both the Nazis and how they've been portrayed in popular media as time has gone on are fascinating subjects and should be studied instead of being immediately dismissed as horrible and ignored; forgetting important parts of history is what allows them to repeat themselves.
In case you're already/still completely incensed anyway, here's a disclaimer: I am not ignorant of the various and grandiose atrocities committed by the Nazis, and am actually probably aware of a few specific and especially sickening ones that many are not. I think that people who are aroused by torture and murder (much less genocide) ought to seek professional help expeditiously. I am not and article is also not racist, bigoted or supportive of Neo-Nazis or violent hatred of any kind in any way. Don't misconstrue my interest in this topic, try to find an underlying/subliminal meaning in the article or twist my words around, please.
Alright, let's get on with it. What this is, at its core, is a look into the nature of the eroticism of power and domination, in the context of a specific historical cult with one of the most fascinating and comprehensive propaganda campaigns ever conceived. People probably wouldn't be nearly as personally offended if it were the Soviets who had been so stylish and interesting even though Stalin murdered scores more than Hitler (though it's obviously about principle, not keeping tally), so I hope emotional reactionary bias can be set aside for the sake of appreciating the psychological depth of this fetish.
I've been wanting to delve into it for some time, and having just finished Fifty Shades of Derp and realised that BDSM is working its way into mainstream American pop culture as a poorly construed flavour of the month trilogy and probably being largely misunderstood by average women, I've at last gotten the last little push I needed. Sadomasochism is really a very small aspect of that story, merely serving as a semi-justification for Christian Grey's preferences, and without that detail the book would be Twilight or one of the countless cheesy romance novels of the 90's in which a powerful man controls and subdues a naive, uninteresting woman into loving him, possibly even raping her, because even though he makes her miserable and they're fundamentally incompatible, he's just so damn good looking that she can't help herself. This model is offensive and even misogynistic in its vapidity, distorting sadism and masochism to the casual observer. It walks an awkward line between S&M and a depiction of Stockholm syndrome, which does not constitute a loving, trusting relationship and usually puts someone or all parties at risk of serious harm or death.
I've also said "American pop culture" specifically because American society is unique, especially in the context of how sexuality is perceived. It's easily the most diverse society on the planet but is rooted in Puritan tradition, and no other advanced nation has comparable numbers of very religious citizens with correspondingly fundamentalist and/or conservative views. The founding Puritans are why words like "crap" are censored on Cartoon Network, why Janet Jackson's nipple brought everything to a screeching halt and why we have a ubiquitous national uniform of T-shirt, jeans and tennis shoes.
We as a nation simultaneously embrace and condemn the superficial, dressing toddlers up to look like toy dolls and prostitutes while condemning teens who are sexually active. We won't legalise prostitution even though it's a proven fact that regulating it would largely prevent young runaways from being snatched off the street and sold into slavery, beatings, drug use, the spread of STD's, et cetera, because even though it's the world's oldest profession, our society cannot wrap its pointed morally justified head around doing so. I believe that this draconian system of checks and balances is why there is such tension and division in the U.S., as so many diverse people obviously do not conform to it at all, and yet for some reason it persists. There is pressure to be normal, and talking openly about sex is shocking, especially if it's not the hetero under-the-covers type.
Europe, by contrast, is generally more liberal about these things, and the Japanese simply turn every fetish you can think of into an adorable neon-lit sex playground complete with an inflatable slide and snacks, even though many Japanese are very conservative and most are notoriously polite. Two countries that were actually involved with the Nazis in the Great War - Italy and England - are where this fetish originates. I wouldn't doubt that it existed in some form immediately, and it would be interesting to do serious research into old letters and things, but as far as I know, it began with a controversial 1974 film by Liliana Cavani called Il Portiere di notteThe Night Porter. 
Charlotte Rampling as Lucia Atherton in
 The Night Porter  (Source: Russh Magazine)
The Wiki synopsis is well written and concise, so I'll just use it:
" Dirk Bogarde plays Maximilian Theo Aldorfer, a former Nazi SS officer, and Charlotte Rampling plays Lucia Atherton, a concentration camp survivor who has an ambiguous relationship with Aldorfer. Flashbacks show Max tormenting Lucia, but also acting as her protector. In an iconic scene, Lucia sings a Marlene Dietrich song to the concentration camp guards while wearing pieces of an SS uniform, and Max "rewards" her with the severed head of a male inmate who had been bullying the other inmates, a reference to Salome.
Thirteen years after World War II, Lucia meets Aldorfer again; he is now the night porter at a Vienna hotel. There, they fall back into their sadomasochistic relationship."
At first glance maybe you'd think that this was just another racy European sexploitation film, as they were becoming quite common by the mid 70's, but that's not the case. It's actually pretty tasteful, and the concentration camp flashbacks emphasise how complex the seemingly counter-intuitive bond between prisoner and captor is. Lucia, as a grown woman, feels compelled to fulfill her deep sexual desire to be dominated by Max, and lies to her unsuspecting husband so she can skulk off and relive it with him. The dynamic of cruelty, submission, power and mutual trust that evolved between the two shaped Lucia's understanding of a sexual relationship in her formative years, and she cannot dissociate arousal and the thrill of being tormented.
Now, here we have the issue again: where is the line between domination and submission and Stockholm syndrome? As I defined the latter previously, it seems like we should know, but how often do real life (er, movie life?) situations fit snugly within the confines of a textbook definition? A literal prisoner and captor in this type of relationship in the context of a horrifying genocidal political situation is certainly unique and valid arguments could easily be made from both sides. If this was the sort of thought-provoking discourse going on concerning Filthy Shades of Lame it would still be a terribly-written piece of mommy porn, but at least it would be making people think.
Siouxsie Sioux and Sid Vicious 
Il Portiere di notte also introduced people to Nazi chic as sexy fetish wear for women when Lucia put on SS officer accessories (sans shirt) and sang Marlene Dietrich for her captors. Ballsier London punks started wearing Nazi symbols soon afterward, as punk rock developed there from about 1974-1976. Sid Vicious and Siouxsie Sioux are the most notable people I'm aware of who sported Nazi regalia. I'm not sure who did it first, but Sioux also wore rubber and leather fetish wear on stage, went topless, carried whips, etc., and was quite openly into BDSM sex, or at least vividly portraying herself as if she were. She's also the icon of many a goth (including a younger version of myself), and naturally this sort of dark, intentionally offensive style and behaviour permeates that subculture as well. I'm sure her stage presence constituted a genuine love for exhibitionism, which doesn't have to be a sadistic or masochistic fetish but is often used in the context of creating arousing shame in such circumstances. Vicious often wore handcuffs on his belt and bondage gear, and probably lived a similar lifestyle.
Nazi chic among London punks in the 70's
(Source: Nazruel d'Cokrow)
Observed together, though, Nazi regalia and restraint devices could also be interpreted as an anti-authoritarian sociopolitical statement, which flows nicely within the vein of punk, but more than anything, kids started wearing it to shock the establishment. "Anarchy in the U.K.", as it were, was the new cool thing. Piss off your parents, your teachers, the pigs, everyone. Yeah! Lower middle-class urban youth have always been and always will be frustrated and stifled, in need of a sometimes destructive outlet. This is where things start getting complicated and convoluted, though, and where it's essential to understand the difference between skinheads and Neo-Nazis. There are multiple subdivisions of these categories within popular culture and music, and as this analysis/editorial is already extensive I'm not going to get into the nitty-gritty of it, but suggest anyone unclear on the subject do some reading on it.
In short, the NF, or the British National Front, saw the peak of its popularity at exactly this time, and the whites-only nationalist organisation indoctrinated some of these angry disaffected kids into its cause. The exact same phenomenon happens in every poor predominantly white neighbourhood of America today, American History X style. If this surprises you at all, believe me, I went to high school with plenty of skinheads, and white supremacist rock and metal are quite popular. As I said, though, the two aren't mutually inclusive, and many skinheads are in fact anti-Neo-Nazi.
Regardless of the motivation for doing so, the point is that kids started wearing Nazi regalia as a fashion statement. One of the most popular and iconic shirts was actually designed by Vivienne Westwood (unlabeled, for obvious reasons) circa 1978-1979, and features an enormous swastika with the word "DESTROY" across it, a crucified Jesus, and a postage stamp of the Queen over it all. Intentionally vague, offensive and provocative? You bet. Westwood also designed fetish wear at the time.
Source: Style Pantry
Now, I've referred to the Nazis themselves as "stylish" at least once already, and maybe you think it's shallow or ignorant or something to view them in such a way in light of the big picture, but I've already made it clear that I'm neither: there's simply no disputing the effectiveness of sharp, well-designed and tailored uniforms. They exude a sense of authority, make people (especially children) look up to you as a legitimate figure and even national hero, create a powerful sense of unity, and, well, you know what they say about how much the ladies dig them. If I were talking about cops or Marines people would all be nodding their heads in unison. Yes, the Nazis were evil and psychotic, but that doesn't change these simple facts. Charisma, propaganda, and presenting an all-around positive image to people are the things you use to win them over, regardless of your platform or intentions.
Portrait of a young SS officer
(Source: tumblr.)
That Vivienne Westwood is not the only huge designer name to come up in this subject, then, is not surprising: many know that Hugo Boss joined the Nazi party and produced many of their SS uniforms using forced concentration camp labour. His sales increased exponentially as a result, which he needed, as he'd been forced to declare bankruptcy and his business was all but completely dismantled only two years before he started supporting the Party. Boss became the official supplier of uniforms not only for the infamous SS, but also for the Hitler Youth, the Storm Detachment (or more commonly, the Brownshirts), and the National Socialist Motor Corps.
Uniform fetishes are not uncommon, and when you combine this with the fact that the ideal German - according to incredibly racist, bigoted, screwed-up eugenic ideals that have no basis in science or reason - is fair, blue-eyed, chiseled and generally extremely good-looking, even the most flabbergasted of sexually conservative readers can start to get the idea. The same goes for men: squeeze a blonde, blue-eyed bombshell with an hourglass figure into a tight black uniform and tell me you're not instantly having a good time.
Most everyone knows about Prince Harry's now infamous Halloween costume, but Nazi fetishism has probably slunk into American popular culture more than you realise. Everyone knows that Michael Jackson was one of the most bizarre celebrities ever, but multiple different media outlets have reported that he studied Hitler and his regime extensively, especially in the context of troubled youths, and that he owned an extensive collection of documentaries, other films and Nazi memorabilia. He was also a huge fan of military uniforms as a fashion statement. Now, if you're wondering where I personally would draw the line between acceptable and creepy in the context of this fetish, I have to say that seeing these images and symbols in your home every day and having to consider the atrocities behind them as you drink your coffee or stroll to the bathroom is a bit much.
If these various allegations are true, what MJ had would be a full-blown Nazi fetish/fascination, which is a few levels above being interested in the historical and cultural aspects of the regime and/or being aroused by a gorgeous man or woman in a uniform.
Source: Amazon.com
Another prominent celebrity accused of having a thing for Nazis is none other than Arnold Schwarzenegger, the oft-imitated multi-talented (arguably) Governator. He has a belt buckle depicting the logo of the Totenkopf, the 3rd SS division, infamous because of the "Death's Head" logo and because of the fact that most of its members were concentration camp guards. He even brandished it very clearly on the cover ofTime with Michael Bloomberg, who's Jewish! The irony, it burns. It's fairly well-known that Arnie's father was an Austrian police chief and member of the Nazi Party, too, so you'd think such a prominent public figure would want to nix something so controversial, even if it is cool looking. Oh, I can just hear the rusty GOP conspiracy theory gears turning now...
But wait, let's build on that. A lot of people have undoubtedly noticed that conservative extremists have tried to scare the living daylights out of people who don't understand the concept of universal healthcare not only by decrying progressivism, atheism, social democracy, socialism, communism, fascism etc. as the same thing, but by unabashedly comparing Obama to Hitler. Whether or not you personally like Obama doesn't make the comparison any less preposterous if you have a rational mind. Speaking of idiots, a lot of people also noticed the Bundeswehr uniform, Soviet cap and red background Glenn Beck sported on the cover of his book as an apparent parody of the people who criticism him. If this weren't taken so grossly and ignorantly out of context even I, vehement hater of this man, would concede that it was a clever shock marketing tactic, but when you combine it with all-too-frequent Nazi references he and other mass media talking heads have made, it makes you wonder whether or not the same fetish has cropped up again. A list of some of these extremist comments can be found here, though they're far too numerous to compile in their entirety.
Moving away from politicising this fetish, I've also wondered for some time why it's popular in Japan. Cosplay, or the costume play of popular anime, video game and other characters, for those who are unfamiliar, is practically an Olympic sport there. Even though the Japanese, as a homogeneous society on the other side of the planet, were not impacted by Nazi war crimes, experimentation, expansionism or horror in general, they were an Axis power and obviously aware of what was going on either way. I would expect to see Nazi regalia in visual kei, or basically Marilyn Manson-esque shock rock (ranging in style from ballad-peppered arena rock to thrash metal), the same way I would have expected to see Siouxsie Sioux wearing it, but online research on this particular quirk has been fruitless. Considering how comparatively shocking and mind-blowing everyday street fashion on Tokyo is, I'd guess that the Japanese who sport it honestly just view it as a harmless novelty. Plus, the swastika is just the universal Buddhist symbol for peace spinning in the other direction to represent its antithesis, so it doesn't produce the same instantaneous reaction of abhorrence as it does in the West.
The recent Internet buzz-worthy trend of Nazi uniforms in Chinese weddings, on the other hand, makes a little more sense, but still isn't exactly cute:
-Slow clap- Source: (China Smack!)
Nazis will also be eternally popular as villains in movies, from Inglorious Basterds and Captain America to The Pianist, Schindler's List and Defiance, but also as more human and sympathetic though admittedly much less frequent characters in movies like Das Boot, Valkyrie and The Reader. Either way, we see them constantly, and it's very possible that an actor you personally find physically attractive has played a Nazi. I've got a thing for Thomas Kretschmann, who you've probably seen a few times and never noticed, and I've got to say, he looks really good in those uniforms. On an interesting and somewhat relevant note, he also escaped East Germany on foot when he was 19. 
Thomas Kretschmann in The Pianist (Source: AllMoviePhoto.com)
And once again, I've just illustrated the disconnect. The fact that I think Thomas Kretschmann makes a very attractive Nazi in movies has nothing to do with the actual Nazis, what they did or what they stood for, now does it? Is it inappropriate to wear Nazi regalia in public for any reason, be you a famous political figure or high school kid looking to shock people? Pretty definitively, yes. For all you know, you could pass someone on the street whose parents were Auschwitz survivors. Is it weird to be obsessed with the Nazis and own an enormous collection of films, propaganda, accessories and other paraphernalia? I'd say so, and if someone would like to disagree, they're more than welcome to try. I haven't even mentioned Michelle McGee, because her infamous Nazi pin up photos are just distasteful all-around; there's not even anything redeeming about them aesthetically. Are MJ, Arnie, Glenn Beck, Siouxsie Sioux and counterculture London kids of the 70's Nazi sympathisers? Well, I don't know. Not necessarily and probably not. Are people who are into a bit of kink, black vinyl, riding crops and military uniforms supportive of and in agreement with the sentiments of said fascist regime? Undoubtedly someone out there is, but on the whole, of course not!
People who are sadistic or masochistic - and they're usually both, with heavier emphasis on one - are thrilled and sexually aroused by control and power. If you're reading this and hoping to understand the BDSM dynamic better, consider this: it is thrilling and therapeutic for someone who works very hard, takes command of every aspect of their life and constantly has to supply answers, advice and solutions to completely relinquish control to their partner sexually. It's like, really, do I always have to take the initiative be in charge of that, too? Of course that's not what you want to do at the end of a long, stressful, physically and mentally exhausting day. And vice versa. If someone who has a psychological need to be controlling finds, as all of us do, that many aspects of their life are out of their control and generally unsatisfying, then at least they can take charge in bed. Whether or not the person has some sort of childhood abandonment issues, obsessive compulsive tendencies, a superiority complex or whatever else you can come up with (and these things do all tend to ring true) does not necessarily matter, as it is not at all likely to change with introspection. The term "sexual healing" is often used jokingly in reference to the free love hippie movement of the 60's and 70's, but this is basic psychology. People are complicated, and deal with urges and tendencies in different ways.
In conclusion, even if still cannot separate the image of the Nazis in an attractive, sexual context from everything else you know about them and are still offended by the fact that this exists, that's fine with me, but I hope I've at least presented this topic in a way that allows you to consider if not completely concede the Nazi fetish in BDSM, punk, goth, and popular culture. Some people have a thing for feet; others are into erotic food. People really can't control what sorts of fetishes they have, but there's no reason to hate, condemn or fear them for it, unless they give you a valid reason to do so. Someone who tells you that they can't help but drool over SS uniforms probably doesn't need a general overview of what happened during the Great War; one shouldn't automatically assume that sexy uniforms, domination, submission and the love of a murdering fascist state dictated by a bigoted, misguided, egomaniacal lunatic are in any way related. They're probably not.