Why are the Nazis obsessed with masculinity

The noisy rise of political machos

The staging of masculinity to influence the masses has a long tradition that is currently flourishing again.

In some parts of the world, hyper-masculinity is rampant. The President of the USA presents himself as a kind of caveman who drums himself on his chest, grasps women by the crotch and roars like a monkey.

A Canadian psychology professor by the name of Jordan Peterson has gathered countless young male followers on the Internet, encouraging them to stand up, fight the liberal softies, reaffirm their male authority, and restore traditional social hierarchies that he believes are forces of nature. Peterson is a more refined version of another male self-help guru, Julian Blanc, who sparked a scandal years ago when he said that women liked being forced to have sex.

The political staging of masculinity to influence the masses has a long tradition. In Italy, it was Mussolini who placed himself at the center of a cult of masculinity between the two world wars: the Duce in riding boots, his hands tight on the leather belt, who dominated Italy's public with a scowl, proud demeanor and protruding lower jaw - as if she were his submissive lover .

The Mussolini model

Other fascist leaders in Europe followed Mussolini as an example. Obsessed with the idea of ​​national decline and the softening of cultures, they sought to internally strengthen their people through the display of exaggerated masculinity. In his description of the Hitler Youth, Hitler succinctly summed up the male ideal: "Nimble as greyhounds, tough as leather and hard as Krupp steel."

Jews were commonly portrayed by the Nazis as a malevolent power which, through vicious manipulation, seeks to harm the health of nations and seeks world domination. In public hate speech, however, the cliché of Jews as weak, diligent and nerdy was instrumentalized - the opposite of the male ideal. If the hierarchy of the schoolyard is applied to society, Jews were easy targets for brutal intimidation by class bullying.

The excesses of violence and hypervirility were not limited to the Western world. The grotesque forms Japanese militarism took in the 1930s are well known. What happened around the same time in India, however, does not.

Radical Hindu nationalists founded the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a paramilitary, nationalist volunteer corps that continues to exert heavy influence on the Bharatiya Janata Party, which now ranks Delhi. Inspired by late 19th century slogans like "Beef, Biceps, and the Bhagavad Gita", the RSS emulated European fascists and installed ideals of military discipline in young Hindu men.

Although outbreaks of hypermanliness can occur more or less simultaneously in different parts of the world, the causes can be different. Usually it arises from a feeling of humiliation or fear of being humiliated. The Hindu nationalists in India reacted to the shame of colonial submission. They had to become just as strong as their British masters, even if, contrary to their own habits, it was necessary to eat beef.

Fear of feminism

Many German men who had fought as soldiers felt the defeat in the First World War and the strict requirements of the victorious powers for their country as a disgrace. They wanted revenge, not only on the Allied victors, but also on liberals and Jews who had allegedly betrayed them.

The French, who founded right-wing extremist movements like Action Française at the end of the 19th century, were still suffering from the defeat of the Franco-Prussian War of 1871. Reactionary intellectuals dreamed of re-strengthening the nation. Some found the image of a decaying France so tormenting that they welcomed the German invasion of 1940 as a necessary shock that would restore masculine virtues.

Where does the current political machismo come from? Why in the USA? Why in Europe? Fear of humiliation can have many causes. Some young men may feel intimidated by feminist demands for equality. Indeed, one explanation for the reluctance Hillary Clinton showed as a presidential candidate was that she reminded many men of the kind of female boss they hate.

Targets for popular anger

Many young men seem to yearn for the reassurance that self-help gurus give them by saying that it is natural for men to take the lead. Others may feel sexually unsettled by the #MeToo movement and demands to enforce women's rights.

Multiculturalism is another target of the macho right, specifically the presence of Muslims. The rise of women in positions of power in Western societies is accompanied by an increasing number of successful leaders of non-European origin. And just like Jews in the past, Muslims are portrayed today as a threat to Western civilization: as fanatics and terrorists.

In truth, most Muslims in the West find themselves in a position of weakness, which easily makes them the target of popular anger. And while these developments are taking place on one's own doorstep, Western powers like China are not coming into focus as existential threats abroad.

Barack Hussein Obama, who is hardly considered a softie, represented everything that many people reject: he was highly educated, liberal, had a Muslim middle name, and his father was an African. Through Obama's presidency, the rise of China, the visibility of non-Western immigrants, and the challenges of feminism, it became clear how the world had changed.

Behind Donald Trump's facade

That's why voters in the United States voted for a tall, blonde, gossiping, woman-in-the-crotch president who promised that everything would be back to normal.

And yet Trump's hypermanliness is somehow not that convincing. Despite all its rumble, the impression remains that behind the facade of the inflated machismo hides a frightened, small, white man who knows that he has lost control.


Ian Buruma (* 1951 in The Hague) studied Chinese literature in Leiden and Japanese film in Tokyo. In 2003 he became Professor of Democracy and Human Rights at Bard College in New York, and in 2008 he was awarded the Erasmus Prize. Numerous publications. Buruma has been the editor-in-chief of the renowned "New York Review of Books" since spring 2017.

Translated from the English by Sandra Pontow. Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2018

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("Die Presse", print edition, April 21, 2018)