After World War I, a German paramilitary commander stood in the countryside, surveying a grisly scene: a lovers’ picnic interrupted by a grenade. The couple’s blood-smeared, mangled corpses gave the commander a strange surge of pleasure. The woman was a Communist whore, the commander thought, one of the many “Red women” destroying his homeland in the years since the armistice. He was a commander in the Freikorps, a paramilitary group made up of downtrodden German veterans who blamed Communist revolutionaries for their loss of the war. Many of the Freikorps later joined the Nazi regime. Perpetual war was not just their work, but their reason to be, the will to live merging with death. And one book would make a quest of understanding why.
Though afterward the Holocaust was declared “unthinkable,” that label was widely seen as an urgent call to untangle its root causes. Who did this and what were their motives? More than three decades after World War II ended, Klaus Theweleit’s 1977 book Male Fantasies, sought an unusual path to understanding. Theweleit, a German doctoral student in literature, wanted to understand the fascist man’s deepest desires. Not why did they do what they did, but what did they want? As German historian Sven Reichardt points out, while others sought political explanations for fascist violence, Theweleit shocked readers by looking to their quotidian lives for answers. The resulting two-volume book is an intimate analysis of the letters, poems, diaries, and novels of the Freikorpsmen: fascism up close and personal. To modern readers, the Freikorpsmen’s fantasy life will be familiar: a country in decline, a nationalistic call to purge it of disorder, a clear separation between men and women, rich and poor, your kind and the other.
When the book was published in Germany, it became a cult classic and required reading in leftist circles. “Everyone — at universities, in left-wing undogmatic circles, in communal communities or groups of men — read the book at the time,” said one German writer. In 1987, the book was released in English and instantly, modern-day parallels were drawn. A New York Timesreviewer wrote that Theweleit had “captured a glimpse of our souls.”
by Laura Smith