This collection of articles offers a sophisticated and thought-provoking contribution to the history of gender and politics in Weimar Germany. Exploring a wide range of topics, the volume demonstrates how methodologies derived from gender history open new perspectives on the language and practice of the political. The authors propose a ‘new political history’ or rather a ‘Kulturgeschichte der Politik/des Politischen’ that expands the boundaries of classical political history and shifts scholarly emphasis from the traditional subjects of politics (state or state actors, constitutional interests and parties) to the ‘messiness’, fluidity, ambivalences and interrelation of the political with what is often cast as non-political, cultural and private. Critiquing the opposition between ‘precarious’ politics and ‘innovative’ culture in histories of the period, they argue that this new approach uncovers the mutual interdependence of gender with ‘other forms of social differentiation’ and politics (p. 9). It is not enough, as Gabriele Metzler and Dirk Schumann argue in their opening essay, to capture the discursive, experiential or performative manifestations of gender and their effects on political culture. The authors in the volume instead demonstrate how scholars might take seriously the myriad ways in which the gendered order is already embedded within the political and vice versa. Emerging out of a conference in 2013, the volume emphasizes how this approach challenges existing narratives of Weimar political history and recommends new interpretations for studying party politics, body culture and social welfare, among others. The collection is divided into topical sections on the case study, theory, the regulation of sexuality and reproduction, the body, media representations and questions of chronology. Following the co-authored introduction, in which Metzler and Schumann sketch recent historiographical trends and outline ‘new political history’, Adelheid von Saldern explores the connection between gender and politics in a case study of Gertrude Polly, a woman who after World War I battled poverty, disease and diminishing social-welfare assistance. In 1929, she sparked not only a media scandal surrounding her particular complaints of state neglect, but broader debate on social welfare, femininity and the modern citizen in the Weimar Republic. While labelled by welfare authorities as an undeserving, immoral and ‘quarrelsome woman’, Polley both transgressed female behavioural norms and acted as a ‘modern citizen’ with expectations about her rights and the responsibilities of the state. The essay demonstrates how official policies on family, motherhood and social welfare and expectations for gendered behaviour were transfigured by Germans who were also simultaneously constituting themselves as democratic citizens. In their chapters, Kathleen Canning and Martina Kessel raise conceptual questions on gender and the political. Canning challenges histories of the Weimar Republic that privilege crisis and restoration. She argues that casting gender as either separate from the social and political realm or as a key framework through which other crises are stabilized obscures ‘the disorderly properties of gender and appears to take at face value contemporaries’ desire for order’ (p. 59). By taking a critical approach to the persistent ‘reordering paradigm’ in the historiography of the period, she challenges the linear narrative that supposes a return to normalcy in the early 1920s. Canning points instead to the post-war expansion of ‘new political and cultural sites’ at which the gender order was negotiated and contested: arenas beyond parliaments and parties such as ‘consumption, popular culture, leisure organizations, reproductive and body politics’ (p. 64). By resisting our own impulses to straighten the ‘messiness’ of gender, scholars can uncover, she argues, ‘the very potentialities of Weimar democracy to foster new citizens, new selves and new sexualities’ (p. 66). Kessel similarly challenges narratives that divide the political from the social, cultural and gendered dimensions. Examining Weimar political rhetoric, she argues that politicians from across the spectrum borrowed the deeply embedded episteme of gender to structure hierarchies of political power and to either legitimize or undermine actors and policy. She focuses on conservative politicians’ efforts to appropriate wartime visions of militant masculinity to cast the new democracy as sexually deviant, effeminate, Jewish and an unlawful and violent trespasser. By focusing on gendered discourse, Kessel reveals how conservatives drew upon established cultural logics to successfully discredit democratic negotiation as unmanly and weak. In the next section, Cornelie Usborne and Martin Lücke explore the regulation of sexuality and reproduction as a genuine political field. Focusing on the interrelation of birth control and sexuality from World War I to the Weimar Republic, Usborne examines in her essay ‘the changing discourses around the body female and the body politic’ as shaped by political fears of demographic decline (p. 111). Challenging scholars who emphasize the disciplinary nature of policies aimed at encouraging ‘traditional’ gender roles, she shows that such prescriptions coexisted with an instability of gender boundaries. Usborne suggests that women were not passive receptacles of state policy, but ‘active and capable of exercising control over their fertility and their lives’ and resisting elite prescriptions (p. 129). Lücke similarly analyses state efforts at regulating so-called deviant male sexuality in the Weimar social welfare system. Drawing on research into state-run reformatory schools, Lücke examines how authorities sought to both categorize and discipline specific expressions of male sexuality (homosexuality and male prostitution) conceived as dangerous. Focusing on Struveshof, a school near Berlin, Lücke’s essay explores how welfare institutions functioned as a particular field of contest between the individual and state efforts at standardization. In their chapters, Sabine Kienitz and Erik Jensen examine the ‘politics of the body’ in the political imagination. Emphasizing the ‘messiness’ of gender, Kienitz shows how the body of disabled war veterans became a politicized ‘medium of communication about the war and its consequences’ (p. 160). While the bodies of the war-disabled challenged ideals of masculinity, they were also mobilized in efforts aimed at ‘reconstituting’ the relationship between the genders. As war veterans articulated new claims to citizenship, these conversations also assumed complementary gender roles and women’s supposedly feminine role in caregiving (p. 161). In his essay, Jensen investigates how issues of gender and state intertwined with physical culture, here in the role of competitive, non-team sports. While politicians debated whether such sports were appropriate for athletes, they agreed that physical culture was integral to military and demographic goals. Examining how competitive athletes became central to debates over self-interest, duty, nation and gender, Jensen’s essay shows how German officials and athletes saw competitive sports as transforming ‘men’s and women’s sense of themselves as citizens with rights and responsibilities’ (p. 183). Kate Lacey und Jochen Hung demonstrate how ostensibly ‘non-political’ arenas such as fashion and beauty became political through the media. In her essay, Lacey explores radio, a form of communication that brought ‘the public world of politics and culture into the private world of the home’ (p. 201). She proposes ‘new attention to the politics of listening’ rather than the active ‘voice’ emphasized in historiography (p. 204). Although early radio content replicated conventional feminine concerns of household and family, Lacey points to the ways in which radio destabilized gender roles by blurring the private and public. This ‘feminization of the public sphere’ was, as Lacey argues, ‘an important democratizing force in the new Republic and beyond’ (p. 203). Hung uses the example of the tabloid newspaper Tempo to chart how public discourse about gender roles changed in relation to economic and political shifts in the late Weimar Republic. In exploring the emergence of a conservative female image in Tempo in the early 1930s, he uncovers a continuity to popular notions about gender roles despite changing political outlooks. The figure of the New Woman, while weakened in these years, transformed under uncertain economic conditions into an emotionally independent, but modest woman. In the last section, Daniel Siemens and Kirsten Heinsohn discuss the masculinization of politics in the late Weimar Republic and questions of periodization. Siemens examines the ‘politics of the street’, arguing that the gendered language of militant masculinity that came to define conservative politics in the 1930s emerged as early as the mid-1920s and was more deeply embedded in the political system than previously understood. Siemens suggests that the same gendered dichotomies and misogynist language that the Nazis used to cast Weimar institutions as ‘soft’ and ‘effeminate’ were equally as common among the organized Left. In her essay, Heinsohn argues that a reassessment of women’s participation in party politics suggests a new periodization of political history. She challenges, in particular, the emancipatory narrative of 1918, in which women gained the right to vote, and instead points to the importance of the Reichsvereinsgesetz in 1908, which allowed women to become members of political associations. In a detailed exploration of women’s political engagement, Heinsohn proposes a new periodization of 1908–1928 and 1929–1945 that reflects a more nuanced understanding of political participation. The volume provides an important overview of the possibilities afforded by ‘new political history’. Given the sophistication of argument and considerable discussion of historiography, the text would be particularly exciting for graduate student seminars and scholars interested in reimagining their own engagement with political and gender history. © The Author(s) 2017. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the German History Society. All rights reserved.
German History – Oxford University Press
Published: Mar 1, 2018
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