It’s not an understatement that Americans have a Hitler fetish, in every sense of the term. It’s not simply the quasi-erotic fixation that the history and military channels have for him however that is at times so troubling, it’s the larger way in which his works now seem like a perverse calling card for politicians, activists, and any legal clerk who thinks refusing people legal services is a violation of her civil liberties. Hitler dominates our cultural consciousness, more often than not for worse in our heads, and as a culture it’s becoming difficult to bridge the topic of Hitler and World War II sanely. This development may be due to the fact that the narratives of World War II are typically romantic. Winston Churchill with a cigar tucked into his lip calling for strength from a pile of rubble while his country holds itself together, great men like General Patton (Ole Blood and Guts) and Eisenhower leading the troops to victory, the serendipity of the invasion of Normandy on the sixth of June 1944, the liberation of concentration camps and the foiling of the so-called “Final solution,” Hitler’s great mistake of attempting to invade Russia, and the scores of homosexual activity that took place between soldiers.
Wait. What was that last part?
The word scores may imply more than actually took place, but the fact that this may be the reader’s first actual reading of any homosexual activity taking place during the Second World War speaks volumes about the stories of World War II that fixates out society’s attention. This is due largely for the fact that many people either don’t want to acknowledge this story, or else have been too afraid until this time to do so. Let me not paint myself as a hero though, for my knowledge of gay soldiers during this time period is fairly recent. Alan Berube has written a book entitled Coming Out Under Fire: The History of Gay Men and Women in World War Two. Normally that would be a lead-in to the review, but I admit to my great shame I have not gotten a chance to sit down and actually read this piece. Grad-school being what it is, I probably won’t get a chance until late December.
Let the reader tuck that title away for now with an understanding that I will get to the book eventually. My resources come from two other books one of which will probably confirm some bias you possess of the writer. I picked up Sex Between Men by Douglas
Sadownick in the LGBTQ studies section of the Half Priced Books Store in Dallas. I’d just finished a semester of studying Queer theory and so anything involving sexuality was still buzzing around in my head. My father, to his credit, only shook his head. Sadownick’s book is about what a casual observer may expect: an extensive study of sexual intercourse between men. But before the reader believes the book is nothing but anal and blowjobs I should qualify. While the book does concern how men engaged in sex over the last half-century, the focus of the book is to analyze how gay men approached sex, what they thought of themselves for having it, and how the sexual act between men has shaped into a new identity over time. It’s an effort to understand the sex that happens between men, and how it has helped change the public perception of homosexuality.
After the introduction (aptly named Foreplay), Sadownick begins with World War II:
It is strange to think that it took the American Military to stage a national coming out experience for gay men. Imagine: the crowning achievement of the United states Government, the proud moment that made the world safe for democracy, the mobilization that ended the Great Depression, the liberation of the concentration camps, the emergence of the military-industrial complex of the post-war years—all this provided the conditions for more gay sex than Christian culture had ever seen. (24).
Such a description of the Second World War is probably a new experience because nobody attributes the homosexual much room in the romantic visions of World War II. Suddenly those boys liberating the beaches of Normandy become human beings that violate the heteronormative standard that fits the usual visions of The Greatest Generation, the same generation by the way that wouldn’t let black soldiers fight alongside white soldiers, but that’s another essay.
Sadownick’s book does a good job of explaining and analyzing the sexual behavior that took place between men during the time, but it’s in another book where some of the best historical work is done. Michael Bronski’s A Queer History of the United States, is an effort to understand how homosexual behavior has manifested throughout the existence of the United States. Now don’t get me wrong, Bronski’s book is fantastic and an important addition to any library, it’s just his effort seems rather sparse given the potential for the topic. Then again, since it’s only 242 pages, the reader is spared the David McCollough effect. Bronski arranges his chapters by the periods of history, and of course World War II being what it was, it receives its own chapter. Like Sadownick, Bronski stresses how important World War II was to a generation of gay men.
For the first time in American history, large-scale, highly organized single-sex social arrangements were considered vital to national security. Men on battleships lived together in close quarters with little privacy. The physical intimacy and stressful conditions often led to emotional and sexual intimacy. Servicemen in these all-male groups turned to their fellow troops for emotional and psychological support. The stress of leaving home, shipping out, active battle, and years of war allowed men to be vulnerable with one another in ways impossible outside of this environment. (157).
Bronski’s effort is not simply regulated to sex. He attempts to impart real facts while constructing his wide effort. He says later on:
It’s impossible to know how many homosexuals served during the war years. […] Hypothetically, if Alfred Kinsey’s 1948 study of male sexual behavior was correct, then somewhere between 650,000 and 1.6 million male soldiers primarily had sex with other men. (160).
With those numbers now in play the topic of homosexuality in the military becomes not just a side note, or a heavily buried independent study your college offers once every other three semesters, it becomes, out of necessity, a crucial component for scholarship on the Second World War.
Sadownick notes that this homo-social behavior could lead to homosexual sex whether the men in question were actually gay. He says:
During the War, enforced intimacy with the same sex sometimes led to sex whether both men were “gay” or not. A straight man who got drunk and fucked his buddy did not feel at risk for being pegged “queer.” Gay men, perhaps feeling more emotionally receptive, helped egg the situation on. This provided a perfect opportunity for an emerging gay male to feel both virile and vulnerable […] (28).
It’s at this point the reader may object. But this changes the way I view the Second World War. Now I won’t be able to look at those images of the soldiers lifting the flag or storming the beach the same way. You’re besmirching the memory of the men and women that fought that war.
To begin with, if you actually said the second part, fuck you you’re an asshole.
Now if the first part was your only objection you shouldn’t feel bad (seriously fuck that second guy) because your instincts are correct. There should be an initial shock from hearing such a fact, but that shock is the side effect of eradicating myth and recognizing the real discourse of history. Sex Between Men and A Queer History of the United States share the common goal of subverting and outright eradicating the notion that homosexual behavior is something novel to contemporary society. They are efforts by writers and historians to open up the dialogue of what role gay people have had in our society, and the fact that such an outrage might be expected when they tackle the topic of World War II reveals a larger problem in our culture.
While I was on my honeymoon my wife and I sat down one evening and watched the film The Normal Heart. The plot of the movie centers on a group of gay men at the beginning of the AIDs Crisis. Ned Weeks, the protagonist, is an outspoken activist for homosexual rights, so outspoken in fact that the organization he leads ousts him and he has one of the most brilliant speeches I’ve heard in a film.
Ned Weeks: I belong to a culture that includes Marcel Proust, Walt Whitman, Tennessee Williams, Alexander the Great, so many popes and cardinals you wouldn’t believe. Mr. Green Beret, did you know that it was an openly gay Englishman who’s responsible for winning World War II? His name’s Alan Turing and he cracked the Germans’ Enigma code. After the war was over, he committed suicide because he was so hounded for being gay. Why didn’t they teach any of that in schools? A gay man is responsible for winning World War II! If they did, maybe he wouldn’t have killed himself and you wouldn’t be so terrified of who you are. That’s how I want to be remembered. As one of the men who won the war.
This speech has lingered in mind since I watched the film, and not just because I watched a movie with graphic gay sex scenes on my honeymoon. Ned begs the question as to why it’s impossible to admit into that romantic vision of the Second World War the presence of a homosexual man? Is it fear? Does acknowledgement of homosexuals mean that we now have to picture Eisenhower bending over while Douglass MacArthur lubes up his dilly wearing only half a sailor suit? Does it mean Winston Churchill’s cigar was more than just a cigar? (The Freudian just laughed) Does it mean Bradley wore tassels on his nipples underneath his uniform? Does it mean I have to picture the men fighting in foxholes, young boys who were giving their lives because they believed they owed their country their service, does it mean I have to picture these boys in a non-stop fuck fest?
All these books suggest is that there is more to the narratives of the Second World War than we have been brought up to believe. Rather than sensationalize these details it’s important to take them for what they actually were. An entire generation fought in these large single sex environments, and as Sadownick describes:
Never had so many Americans at once been forced to leave their homes in a vast migration to cities. Most were people young, white, single, and male, but many were African American and of Asian and Latino origin. Young adults who would have gone from their parent’s homes into youthful marriages cascaded into an all-male military culture that was supposed to stand for heterosexual values but that teemed with homosexual subtext. (24).
The World War II fetish is unlikely going to abate anytime soon during the next century
because the romance lingers in the minds of too many people. And in many ways I myself don’t want it to. There are many great stories that emerged from this time period, and if that means I must suffer every now and then through an appalling special on the History Channel that tries to argue Hitler was in league with Aliens, then I’ll take it. There’s nothing like watching the opening speech of Patton, Band of Brothers remains one of the most impressive cinematic achievements I’ve ever seen, and who could watch The Longest Day and not laugh their ass off when the paratrooper says to the German commanders, “So sorry old man, simply landed here by accident.” The reason our society loves World War II (the European war, let me qualify) is because of the great bounty of stories it has afforded to our culture.
If such is the case what are we really celebrating when a portion of society has been left out of these stories.
The narrative of World War II has changed for me, for now I understand that gay, bisexual, and transgender people played just as big a role in that “hell of a war.”
Whether it was on the beaches of Normandy or Iwo Jima, or whether it was participating in a drag show for the troops, there exists now the acknowledgment that there were gay heroes in those foxholes. That’s an American history worth writing and retelling, because unlike the heteronormative romance, it’s a true testament to the spirit of a democracy that fought and kicked-the-ass of tyranny.
The reason I’ve focused my attention on men in this article is due chiefly to the fact that the two books I worked with in this article tended to focus on the experience of men. A Queer History is a little more balanced, going into the experiences of women as well as men. Since my own studies tend to deal with men, masculinity, and the construction of male sexuality and gender, I usually focus on the experiences of men. If you hate me for this please forgive me, and please also don’t take me off the guest list for your Christmas party. I’ll bring mini-quiche.
Just in case anybody believes that homosexuality had no part to play in the war effort this is an advertisement for towels produced during the war. Once you’ve seen it you can’t un-see it.