The end of the Second World War and the collapse of Nazism necessitated an enormous change to German ideals of masculinity. For decades prior to the conflict, it had been drilled into German men to be unfeeling, disciplined and efficient soldiers; their loss to the allies therefore precipitated a crisis of masculinity. When considering this crisis in post-war Germany, it is important to first understand the origins of this masculinity.
The Sonderweg (Special Path) theory has been present in German historiography since the end of the Second World War. This theory posits that German-speaking lands took a unique route from aristocracy to democracy, one that was different to any other European example. The phrase ‘Sonderweg’ has been used since the 19th century and had positive connotations during both the nation’s imperial period and prior to the fall of Nazism. This ‘special path’ highlighted the supposedly unique nature of the German people, who saw themselves as a great central European power. Theirs was a society that had advanced in a very short space of time, through rapid industrialisation and a modernised economy.
The failure of German liberals to seize power from the old aristocratic powers in the Revolution of 1848 meant that when the German nation unified in January 1871, it was dominated by a militaristic, authoritarian system, much the same as in Prussia. This authoritarian system was perceived extremely positively during this period and was seen as the best alternative to the allegedly weak and ineffective democracies of France and Britain, whilst avoiding the autocracy of Imperial Russia.
Prussian society had long upheld the ideal of a dominant, militarised society and therefore required men to demonstrate particular characteristics. In the German nation, men had militarised masculinity drilled into them. The military aimed to remove emotion, replacing it with a machine-like efficiency and discipline to follow orders without question.
When looking at German society under Nazism, it is apparent that these ideals of masculinity were upheld. Nazi propaganda conveyed the belief that there should be no difference between the German man and a warrior – the two were inseparable. The only way in which men could demonstrate their masculinity was through combat and defending the fatherland. Empathy and compassion were judged to be effeminate and cowardly, whilst ruthlessness was commended.
It was this ruthlessness that helped to enable and encourage German men to engage in war crimes. The suppression of empathy and the requirement to be merciless prevented soldiers from being emotionally overwhelmed by their actions, even going so far as to make men fear being shown up in front of their comrades if they did not participate. Men were confronted with a choice: potential embarrassment and shame if they refused to participate, or engaging in war crimes, and many preferred the latter. This clearly exposes the extremity of the polarised male gender role.
The collapse of the Nazi regime in 1945 necessitated a drastic change in concepts of what it meant to be a man in Germany. The importance of the man as a soldier and defender was brought into question due to Germany’s military defeat, and awareness of the atrocities committed completely delegitimised the fascist ideal of the German man.
The domestic environment had also changed completely. Women had become emancipated due to the absence of men on the home front and were now working outside the home and making financial decisions whilst also fulfilling the role of single parent. In a society that previously saw women as nothing more than mothers, it became clear to German men returning home that their role would change considerably.
In addition to these domestic changes experienced by soldiers of many nationalities, German soldiers also had to come to terms with the breakdown of Nazi propaganda. Propaganda had been administered throughout people’s lives, from the school system, to the Hitler Youth, to the Wehrmacht. Readjustment to civilian life post-war would take decades due to the indoctrinating effect of the regime on males of all ages. The post-war occupation of Germany by multiple foreign forces and its division into two separate states in 1949 would make changing these racist beliefs and coming to terms with events as traumatic as the holocaust even more difficult.