Last weekend, a group of neo-Nazis marched alongside other white supremacists and far right activists in Charlottesville. The chants and visual tools they used — from swastikas to wooden shields to “blood and soil” chants — revived rhetoric and imagery that many in America believed to be entirely eradicated: so beyond the pale of common morality that no reasonable person could possibly seek to revive it.
That belief, and the complacency it engendered, was erroneous. If anything, the sheer taboo nature of Nazi imagery — how thoroughly outside the window of acceptable discourse it is — has, to its supporters, only added to its appeal. Its very transgressive nature has made it easy for propagandists to market it as “sexy” and “forbidden.”
This is not new. The sexualization of fascist and, specifically, Nazi imagery precedes even World War II. In his The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, written against the backdrop of the Nazi rise to power in the late 1930s, critic and cultural theorist Walter Benjamin warned against the aesthetic dangers of fascist imagery, as it was predicated on eroticized notions of power and submission.
"The logical result of Fascism is the introduction of aesthetics into political life,” Benjamin wrote, latter adding: “[Mankind’s] self-alienation has reached such a degree that it can experience its own destruction as an aesthetic pleasure of the first order.”
In other words, we culturally fetishize both absolute power and our own apocalyptic destruction, and fascism capitalizes on that fetishism to win supporters. And certainly the success of Hitler’s own propaganda lay in part in the Nazis’ ability to harness that erotic undertone to gain support. Consider German filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl’s Olympia documentary series, which celebrated (Aryan) German masculine beauty at the 1936 Olympics. (Riefenstahl’s conscious complicity with Nazi ideology has long been a subject of debate — she strenuously denied it — but it’s undeniable that her lens captured how Germans of the time saw their Germany identity, and their Führer.)
The taboo nature of Nazi imagery made it even more of an eroticized phenomenon after World War II. Cultural critic Susan Sontag noted this in her 1974 essay “Fascinating Fascism,” pointing out how the trappings of fascism (particularly here, too, Nazi fascism) gained a cultural potency from being illicit and forbidden.
"To those born after the 1940's,” Sontag wrote, “fascism represents the exotic and the unknown. ... Right-wing movements, however puritanical and repressive the realities they usher in, have an erotic surface. ... Certainly Nazism is ‘sexier’ than communism.”
French philosopher Michel Foucault, likewise, commented in an interview that “Every shoddy erotic fantasy is now attributed to Nazism. … Aren’t we witnessing beginnings of a re-eroticization of power, taken to a pathetic ridiculous extreme by the porn shops with Nazi insignia that you can find the United States?”
Plenty of films about World War II made in the second half of the 20th century echo those tensions. On the high culture front, there was Liliana Cavani’s The Night Porter, about a sadomasochistic relationship between a concentration camp survivor and her old guard. On the pulp side, there was 1975’s Ilsa: She Wolf of the SS, one of so many “Nazisploitation” movies that treated the Holocaust as Eli Roth-style torture porn, complete with a sexual frisson. In Ilsa, the main character and her contemporaries were leather-clad, whip-wielding Nazi dominatrixes.
The more taboo the approach, the more powerful it became in the popular id. After all, Nazi prisoner-themed pornographic pulp, or “stalags," were so popular in the newly created state of Israel — the population of which was at that time 50 percent Holocaust survivors — that the Israeli government had to ban the genre in 1963.
Even today, we fetishize the taboo nature of Nazi ideology. A November 2000 New York Times style article celebrated “fascist chic” as the “in” look of the season, quoting a magazine editor as saying: "Fascism — I hate to say it, but it's sexy. ... It expresses the idea of taking and then relinquishing control.” Often, the aesthetics of Italian fascism — a more palatable aesthetic than the German version — would make its way into pop culture. The article quotes a New York fashion designer who modeled her latest collection after architecture under Mussolini: “Brutal granite and travertine structures,” the dictator's pet mode of propaganda, “are all about power,” the article quotes her as saying, “and power is the greatest turn-on.”
The eroticization of Nazism was twofold, in other words. It relied on both a wider existing cultural fetishization of power and masculinity and a more recent fetishization of the forbidden. As scholar Laura Catherine Frost writes in her book Sex Drives: Fantasies of Fascism in Literary Modernism, “the politically forbidden and repudiated is just as likely to be the substance of erotic fantasy and the chosen political object. ... Images of sexualized fascism derive their meaning precisely from the distance mainstream culture puts between itself and deviation.”
Understanding our cultural fetishization of Nazism is key to understanding how Charlottesville happened
To admit the erotic charge of Nazi ideology openly may seem distasteful — or outright immoral. But it is precisely the dialectic between repression and transgression that allowed Nazi ideology to flourish in certain corners of the internet: permitting the Twitter trolls of the alt-right to morph, slowly, into flesh-and-blood perpetrators of racial violence.
After all, as I wrote for Real Life magazine in November 2016, the loose coalition of “alt-right” that came to form the umbrella we know today wasn’t entirely composed of conscious, intentional white supremacists. Some were, to be sure, but as many denizens of alt-right gathering places like 4chan’s /pol/ modeled themselves after British free speech firebrand Milo Yiannopoulos — saying the most offensive thing possible to get a rise out of people, reveling in his disengagement — as well as those who were committed white nationalists like Richard Spencer.
Many members of the alt-right and alt-right-adjacent I interviewed then spoke of the Overton window — the field of culturally acceptable discourse — and how they wanted to widen it as much as possible. Unchecked free speech, including the freedom to do a Hitler salute, was integral to how they presented themselves: as sexy, transgressive agent provocateurs.
And widen the Overton window they did. Capitalizing on those same erotic tropes that defined a 1974 genre of soft porn, or a “sexy” 2000 fashion trend, they managed to present themselves as the real underdogs: the most punk rock of us all, going beyond the boundaries of outrage, morality, and good taste. In so doing, they provided a culturally acceptable avenue for “jokes” about a pure ethnostate to become ideology, for the implicit racism underpinning so much of America to become explicit, and to reinforce itself through repetition — the real “meme magic” so popular with the alt-right — until irony became truth.
As long as the alt-right continues to be glamorized, we risk making more would-be rebels without a cause like the man who drove his car into the crowd of counterprotesters in Charlottesville, killing Heather Heyer and injuring 19 others.
Indeed, perhaps the most effective portrayal of Nazism is one that looks on its horrors with humor. Mel Brooks’s 1967 film The Producers — so controversial when it came out — culminated in the (Jewish) protagonists attempting to stage a schlocky propagandistic musical, “Springtime for Hitler,” a surefire (they hoped) bust. The film presents the musical’s title number in its entirety: awkward goose-stepping and robotic salutes, Nazi Rockettes, and a drugged-out Hitler who can barely remember his lines. That film, created by Jews just two decades after the horrors of the Holocaust, smashed open the Overton window far more defiantly than Milo Yiannopoulos and his ilk could ever hope to do.
If the alt-right is correct about anything, it’s that we should — in this one instance — keep that very window of discourse open, to strip Nazi ideology once and for all of the taboo eroticism it’s had since Leni Riefenstahl captured some strapping Aryan boys on camera. And we should use that space to point and laugh.