The following is an article from the Spring 1981 issue of "Women and Revolution" that may have some historical interest for old "new leftists", perhaps, and well as for younger militants interested in various cultural and social questions that intersect the class struggle. Or for those just interested in a Marxist position on a series of social questions that are thrust upon us by the vagaries of bourgeois society. I will be posting more such articles from the back issues of "Women and Revolution" during Women's History Month and periodically throughout the year.
***********From Weimar to Hitler: Feminism and Fascism
Among the proliferation of tracts excoriating the evils of pornography which have dominated feminist writing recently, another theme has made a modest splash. An off our backs (December 1980) article by Carol Anne Douglas, titled "german feminists and the right: can it happen here? “worried:
"With recession, inflation and unemployment growing and Ronald Reagan running for president (of course, he couldn't win), the Moral Majority bellowing in the land and the ERA dying a lingering death, it seemed like a good time to read about German history.... What signs were there of impending fascism? Did feminists see the signs? How did they act as fascism drew near? Why did some women become Nazis?" Douglas' article reviewed four recent books on German feminism and fascism. Ms. magazine has also published a two-part series by Gloria Steinem on the same theme, "The Nazi Connection," which however does not mention a single feminist organization or individual by name.
Weimar Germany—A "Fortress of Feminism"
For feminists the struggle against patriarchy is theoretically the highest imperative; and Nazi Germany was, in the words of feminist Adrienne Rich, "patriarchy in its purest, most elemental form." There is undoubtedly an inherent contradiction between feminism as a variant of bourgeois liberalism, committed to the quest for more individual liberties for women within the confines of capitalist society, and fascism; but at certain conjunctures it has been subordinated. It is beyond doubt, for example, that the Third Reich enjoyed broad support among German feminists.
Why? Certainly no one can argue that they were duped. Hitler was even more forthright about his program for women than Mussolini had been. Whereas Mussolini had conciliated feminists in 1923 by granting the vote to women in local elections, the original Nazi program called for the abolition of women's suffrage, and Hitler stated in Mein Kampf: "The message of women's emancipation is a message discovered solely by the Jewish intellect and its content is stamped by the same spirit." Equal rights for women, said Hitler, actually meant a deprivation of rights, since it involved women in areas where they would necessarily be inferior, i.e., public life. Gottfried Feder, one of the Nazi Party's founding "theoreticians," wrote:
"The Jew has stolen woman from us through the forms of sex democracy. We, the youth, must march out to kill the dragon so that we may again attain the most holy thing in the world, the woman as maid and servant."
—quoted in Kate Millett's Sexual Politics
Nor can it be argued that Hitler triumphed because the organized feminist •movement was weak. In the words of Kate Millett, by 1925 in Germany "feminism was in fact a fortress." She points out that in that year Gertrud Baumer, the most authoritative spokesman of middle-class German feminism, was a member of the Reichstag and a high official in the Ministry of the Interior.
Millett's explanation of feminist support to Hitler is that between 1925 and 1933, when Hitler came to power, the feminist movement was gutted and perverted by Nazi infiltration. In fact, though, the German feminism of 1933 evolved inevitably and organically from what it had been even prior to World War I.
The overwhelmingly predominant German feminist coalition, the Bund Deutscner frauenverene (BDF— Federation of German Women's Associations), which had almost a million members in 1925, had grown increasingly conservative since 1908. Faced with the possibility that its membership would endorse the legalization of abortion, the right wing of the BDF persuaded the large and extremely reactionary German-Evangelical Women's League (Deutsch-evangelischer Frauenbund) to join and use its voting power to defeat the proposal. This maneuver was followed by the ousting of president Marie Stritt in 1910 and her replacement by the far more conservative Baumer and the expulsion of two "left-wing" tendencies, the Bund fur Mutterschutz (League for the Protection of Motherhood) in 1910 and a small pacifist faction in 1915 (which went on to help found the liberal pacifist Women's International League for Peace and Freedom).
Lest feminists be tempted to overstate the importance of the loss of these "radicals," it should be noted that the Bund fir Mutterschutz, which was strongly influenced by sexual libertarian Helene Stocker and whose manifesto advocated an end to "the capitalist rule of man" and the establishment of a matriarchy, sought to create colonies in the countryside for unmarried mothers and their children as a way of promoting "German racial health." Racially "unhealthy" mothers were not admitted. "It is indeed disturbing/' complains Carol Anne Douglas, "that the first women to endorse sexual freedom were racists." The explanation for the BDF's early conservatism lies not in the departure of these small dissident elements but in the fact that it existed from its inception in a highly politically class-differentiated society with a mass working-class party—the German Social Democratic Party (SPD), which had, moreover, developed a strong socialist women's movement. Left-leaning and working-class women who wanted to fight their oppression joined the SPD, not the BDF.The Socialist Women's Movement versus the BDF
The SPD's women's movement was founded in the 1890s by Clara Zetkin, and was based on the Marxist understanding that women must be organized as part of the revolutionary proletarian movement, given the indissoluble connection between women's oppression, the family and the private ownership of property. It was from the beginning counterposed to bourgeois feminism. By 1914 the SPD women's organizations had a membership of 175,000, while Zetkin's journal Die Gleichheit (Equality) had a circulation of 124,000.
It was Zetkin who addressed the Third World Congress of the Communist International with the powerful statement:
"There is only one movement; there is only one organization of women communists within the Communist Party, together with male communists. The tasks and goals of the communists are our tasks, our goals. No autonomous organization, no doing your own thing which in any way lends itself to splitting the revolutionary forces and diverting them from their great goals of the conquest of political power by the proletariat and the construction of communist society."
—Protokolle des IV. Weltkongresses der Kommunistischen Internationale, p. 725
While the SPD's record on women's rights was far from spotless (it sometimes dropped the demand for female suffrage in local elections, and in the name of "modesty" discouraged the open discussion of abortion and contraception), it was the staunchest fighter for the advancement of German women in the early 20th century. In 1895 the party introduced a female suffrage motion into the Reichstag and in 1896 stood almost alone in opposing the male supremacist Civil Code. The SPD campaigned for the protection of working women and for equality of women in education and jobs. It supported equal pay for equal work and daycare centers for working mothers. The SPD also criticized Germany's abortion laws, favored the availability of contraceptives and ran educational courses to train and promote women as leaders of the proletarian movement.
In contrast, during the same period, the middle-class feminist BDF held the position that only a minority of women had either the ability or the need to enter politics or pursue a career, and it was taken for granted that those who did so would remain unmarried. Thus the BDF supported the law requiring women schoolteachers to resign if they married (just as later in 1930 it did not oppose the measure introduced into the Reichstag—supported by all major political parties except the German Communist Party [KPD]— providing for the dismissal of married women from public service).
World War I exposed the internal rottenness of the SPD, which supported the imperialist German war effort (as of course the BDF did). Many left-wing cadres of the SPD's women's work left with the anti-war minority, some joining the large Independent Social Democratic Party (USPD), others the much smaller group of revolutionary socialists who formed the Spartakusbund in 1916 and later the KPD. Despite heroic efforts and personal courage, these socialists were unable to properly take advantage of the revolutionary crises sweeping Germany after the war. The Weimar Republic was consolidated with the murder of Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht and the bloody defeat of the Spartacists.
Puffed up with self-importance, the petty-bourgeois and reformist caretakers of the Kaiser's shattered state indulged in grandiose illusions in their historic role. In 1919 the program of the BDF proclaimed its aim to "unite German women of every party and world-view, in order to express their national solidarity and to effect the common idea of the cultural mission of women." This program declared housekeeping and childbearing women's proper destiny, rejecting the idea that men and women were equal. It advocated "eugenic" policies and the sterilization of "anti-social" elements and actively campaigned for higher birth rates. BDF member Adele Schreiber advocated the sterilization of "drinkers"; Elsie Luders fought for the elimination of interracial marriages; and the German Colonial Women’s League, whose sole reason for existence was to oppose the marriage of German men living in the colonies to non-Caucasian native women, joined the BDF.
The BDF vehemently supported the reconquest of territory lost by Germany in the war. While claiming all political parties were divisive and supporting the ideal of an organic national community (Voksgemen-schaft), it was in reality anti-communist, and largely associated with small bourgeois parties such as the Deutsche Demokratische Partei. Throughout the Weimar years it expended most of its .energy in the same endeavor that consumes contemporary middle-class feminists like Susan- Brownmiller and Robin Morgan—campaigning against pornography. The BDF also worked for stricter censorship of films, books and plays and against contraception and "licentiousness."Fascism: Capitalism Takes a Different Form
The post-war chaos in Weimar Germany and the world depression of 1929, and above all the perceived inability of the workers movement to break through the impasse, threw masses of frustrated and impoverished petty bourgeois into the arms of the Nazis. Yet Hitler and his radical-lumpen street gangs would never have attained state power had not the bourgeoisie thrown its support to him, seeing in the Nazi movement a tool to crush once and for all the workers movement and open the road again for unimpeded German imperialism.
As Trotsky explained in his brilliant analysis of fascism, fascism is the continuation of capitalism in another form. Understanding this helps explain why masses of German bourgeois feminists who had loyally supported the Kaiser and/or the Weimar Republic did not find it so difficult to accept the Third Reich as well. In his 1932 article, "What Next? Vital Questions for the German Proletariat," Trotsky pointed out the
essence of fascism:
"At the moment that the 'normal' police and military resources of the bourgeois dictatorship, together with their parliamentary screens, no longer suffice to hold society in a state of equilibrium—the turn of the fascist 'regime arrives. Through the fascist agency, capitalism sets in motion the masses of the crazed petty bourgeoisie, and bands of the declassed and demoralized lumpen-proletariat; all the countless "human beings whom finance capital itself has brought to desperation and frenzy— When a state turns fascist...it means, primarily and above all, that the workers' organizations are annihilated; that the proletariat is reduced to an amorphous state; and that a system of administration is created which penetrates deeply into the masses and which serves to frustrate the independent crystallization of the proletariat. Therein precisely is the gist of fascism."
In Germany, the bourgeoisie had the opportunity to resort to this system only because the proletariat, paralyzed by the treachery of its political leadership— the reformist SPD and the Stalinized KPD— did not accomplish the socialist revolution instead.Feminists Go With Hitler
By 1930 the BDF—that "fortress" of feminism-opposed contraception, sexual libertarianism and abortion on demand, defended the family and reaffirmed that woman's proper destiny lay in marriage and motherhood. By 1932 the feminists joined in the general attack then being made on the parliamentary system and urged the establishment of a corporate state on the Italian model but with the exception that one of the "corporations" would consist of women.
The feminists of the BDF, like their husbands and brothers hit by the chaos and depression, were disillusioned with impotent Weimar parliamentarian-ism, and thus welcomed the "national revolution" promised by Hitler, seeking promise even in his statement that "equal rights for women means that they experience the esteem that they deserve in the areas for which nature has intended them." BDF president Agnes von Zahn-Harnack proclaimed that feminists could "do nothing but approve a nationalist government and stand by it" and that the BDF would "do all it can to help us work together, and will certainly take up personal contacts with the best women in National Socialism."
In the last elections of the thirties in which Germans exercised any freedom of choice—those of March 1933—the BDF gave considerable support to the Nazis and expressed the hope that Hitler would soon introduce a "biological policy" to preserve the German family and a "Law of Preservation" to protect it from "asocial persons." ^Bourgeois feminists in other advanced capitalist countries would not have found BDF racism so shocking; conventional bourgeois sociology at the time took for granted that "asocial" types and "lesser races" were genetically inferior.)
The key point about the BDF's accommodation to Hitler is that it followed at every crucial point the class interests of the bourgeoisie, of its husbands and brothers—and was willing to subordinate to that end even its very conservative, upper-class goals of giving bourgeois women more access to the privileges of upper-class men. Accepting the bourgeois mystique of the sacred nuclear family, and imbued with the nationalist aspirations of its class, the BDF was unable to argue against Hitler's mystical, racist, zoological view of human society.
Hitler came to power, and proceeded to ruthlessly crush the workers movement. The most powerful proletariat in Western Europe was smashed, its organizations ripped apart, its spirit broken for a generation, all without striking a blow in its own defense. And in this triumphant wave of reactionary terror the bourgeois feminist BDF too was simply swept aside.
In April the Nazi government ordered the BDF to expel its Jewish affiliate, the Judischer Frauenbund (JFB—League of Jewish Women), its largest single organizational member, and join the Nazi mass women's organizations being formed. BDF leader Gertrud Bamumer publicly supported this move, stating that she believed the Nazi women's organizations were merely larger versions of the BDF—"a new, spiritually different phase of the women's movement"—and advised her followers to accommodate themselves to the new order. In June 1933 the BDF was formally dissolved by its membership.
Contemporary feminists are outraged by this forced dissolution of the BDF, characterizing it as a manifestation of naked fascist .tyranny. But if there was a voice raised against it at the time, it was the voice of president von Zahn-Harnack, who argued that the BDF should not be dissolved—because its aims were thoroughly compatible with those of National Socialism! She cited the organization's support for "eugenic" policies and the sterilization of "anti-social elements/' its condemnation of the Revolution of 1918 and the Versailles Treaty and its recognition of men's and women's "different spheres." To no avail—the vote for dissolution carried and this was the end of the "fortress of feminism."
The fate of the Judisher Frauenbund, which had shared all the illusions of the BDF in an educational, respectable, middle-class orientation and loyalty to German society, was perhaps the most tragic. Retreating into the Jewish community, where it had always carried on social work (like teaching young women to become maids and servants), the JFB urged its members to "lie low," not to act loud or ostentatious and to be • "good Germans." After Crystal Night, November 10, 1938, when the Nazis burned their orphanages and dissolved the organization, Jewish feminists ended up at railroad stations, making up food packets for Jews being deported to concentration camps. At the bitter end in 1942 there were only eight women carrying on at the Berlin train station, until they too were shipped away to die.
As for Gertrud Baumer, she continued to publish the BDF's Die Frau throughout the Nazi regime, later claiming that its Christian mystical emphasis was a form of resistance to Nazism. But as off our backs noted, "Considering that they allowed her to continue undisturbed, they weren't too threatened."And Mussolini, Too
The German feminist movement was of course stamped with the particular experience of German bourgeois society, but it should not be thought that the BDF's response to fascism represented a particular, German idiosyncrasy. In Italy, too, every major feminist organization voluntarily supported fascism during the early years of Mussolini's premiership on the basis that it was stamping out socialism, which was seen as the greatest danger.
After Mussolini's march on Rome both the Consiglio nazionale delle Donne italiane (CNDI—National Council of Italian Women) and the Glornale della donna (Journal of Woman) openly offered their help m the work of "national reconstruction." And they did help. Feminists played an important role in several major fascist propaganda campaigns, including those for a ruralization policy, an increased birth rate and against strikes. The task of organizing urban women to resist strikes was carried out largely by the journals Voce Nuova (New Voice) and Glornale de//a donna, while in the countryside La donna nei camp/ (The Woman in the Fields) urged women to refuse to participate in strikes and persuade their men to do the same.
Nonetheless, by the late '20s the contradictions inherent in a "feminist-fascist" ideology became pronounced. The Genoese feminist newspaper, La Chiosa (The Comment), for example, ran an editorial in 1927 which complained:
"... we wish to ask our good Fascist camerada what you have done recently for women's rights, to educate and elevate women? In Fascism there seems to be a spirit of inexplicable, yet ferocious, anti-feminism."
—quoted in Alexander De Grand, "Women Under Italian Fascism," Historical Journal, Vol. 19, No. 4, 1976
Too late. After supporting Mussolini, even capitulating to the fascists' insistence on the primacy of the patriarchial family, such feminists' uncomprehending complaints met their inevitable response. The government simply transformed La Chiosa into a fashion and movie magazine.What Does "Consistent Feminism" Lead To?
We have expressed contempt over the years for the reformist Socialist Workers Party's idiotic slogan "consistent feminism leads to socialism." While mass movements of oppressed women have been a motor force of revolution in the backward societies of the "countries of the East," bourgeois feminism in the advanced countries has led to many things—the doctrine of war between the sexes, reformist schemes like "affirmative action," recently to a moralistic campaign against pornography—but never to socialism.
Indeed, if the experience of the BDF and Italian feminism proves anything, it is that there is in fact no such thing as "consistent feminism." The specific program and character of various feminist groups in various historical periods, while all in some sense a response to the special oppression of women, is determined essentially by class considerations. The accommodation of the BDF to fascism- reflected the broader failure of bourgeois liberalism in a period of intense capitalist crisis, as well as the fundamental hostility of the bourgeois class to proletarian revolution, the only way out for the exploited and oppressed.
For today's petty-bourgeois feminists, mired in the myth of the "sisterhood" of all women, the accommodation of their "fortress of feminism" to Hitler must remain forever a source of confusion and mystery. But for us revolutionary Marxists, it is only one more striking confirmation of our position that women's liberation is above all a question of class struggle.
Much of the current rad-lib worry about "Nazism now?" in the face of the Reagan years in fact reflects only liberal illusions that the ousted Democrats were somehow qualitatively better, even though both capitalist parties are equally war-mongering enforcers of austerity on the working class. Reagan's no fascist, but he is certainly the most right-wing politician to run the American state in the last 50 years and is riding a backlash of conservatism at all levels of society. In this atmosphere of reaction, of course Nazi and fascist terror groups feel emboldened. Fascists run openly for election on both Democratic and Republican tickets; communists, labor organizers, blacks and women are slaughtered and their KKK/Nazi killers get off scot free in Greensboro, North Carolina, while Klan crosses flare in victory across the nation. Where has been the feminist response to this immediate upsurge of tiny race-hate, terror groups?
It has been the "consistent socialists" of the Spartacist League who have called for the mobilization of labor to smash this Nazi terror in the egg. Feminist Kate Millett, who has agonized at some length in print about the vicissitudes of being a woman in Nazi Germany, refused to endorse a demonstration to stop the fascist scum from "celebrating" Hitler's birthday in downtown San Francisco last April 19. Like the Socialist Workers Party, which actually champions "free speech" for fascists, Ms. Millett was more concerned about the safety of these thugs than about those whom they would murder. The rally, which was supported and heavily built by the Spartacist League, turned Out 1,200 people to let the Nazis know San Francisco is a labor town, not a Nazi town—and they didn't dare show their faces. No thanks to Millett, or those bourgeois feminists who tell women to pin their hopes on the capitalist system of "law and order."
The experience of German feminism only confirms the fact that no matter how large or powerful a feminist movement is created, the fate of women is the fate of the working class. The fight to smash fascism today— like the fight to stop Hitler in Germany— is above all the fight to forge a revolutionary proletarian party which can, as the "tribune of the people," lead the working class and all the oppressed to victory over capitalism, and end forever its inevitable, periodic crises and poisonous ideologies.
Labels: fascism, feminism, German Communist Party, german social democracy, leon trotsky, social democracy, women's liberation