6th Southampton Stonewall Lecture: Interview with Professor Dagmar Herzog
February 28, 2017
by Lewis Brennen
On Thursday 9th February Professor Dagmar Herzog came to the University of Southampton to give the 6th Southampton Stonewall Lecture. The lecture, entitled ‘Love and Perversion – The Modern History of Homophobia’ was part of a series at the University of Southampton focused on communicating the latest LGBT history research to a wider public audience.
Professor Herzog is a distinguished professor of history and the Daniel Rose Faculty scholar at the Graduate Center, City University of New York. Her work on the histories of sexuality, gender, religion, Jewish-Christian relations and the Holocaust informed her fascinating lecture.
We interviewed Professor Herzog before the lecture to find out more about her career and what led to her interest in the history of sexuality in the twentieth century.
What are the key ideas you want to put across to the audience today?
The story I want to tell in my Stonewall lecture has to do with the overwhelming power of homophobia in the post-World War II United States. This is the world of the cold war and an anti-communist climate in which the psychiatrists and psychoanalysts were enormously influential in giving legitimacy to ugly hostility towards homosexuality. The story I want to tell has to do with how incoherent and absurd these ideas were, and yet how powerful they were and how much damage they did, but also how the same ideas were refuted and dismantled and how ultimately brilliance and generosity triumphed over cruel silliness.
So that’s the arc of the story – the rise of the homophobic consensus and its destruction, but I’d also like to introduce a very important character, Robert Stoller, who was crucial in the 1970s in using psychoanalysis to rebut homophobic ideas. I want to give an example of how one can have a queer eye for heterosexuality, because ultimately that was the strategy Stoller used in order to dismantle homophobia and to make it look ridiculous. I also want to communicate how closely linked gay rights and women’s rights are. I’m interested in how the content of homophobia changes: the excuses people make for why they have to be prejudiced change over time, which shows you that it’s really about maintaining power.
In your latest book (Cold War Freud) you write about the ‘durability of homophobia’. Why has homophobia been so enduring in the modern age?
It’s a great question. It would be nice not to have to ask it anymore!
Many thoughtful people have given different answers over time.
One possible answer is the one Freud himself gave in Civilisation and its Discontents, which is that heterosexuality doesn’t always make people as happy as they want to be – something in the nature of sex and intimate relationships is always somewhat disappointing at some times. Not everyone feels totally comfortable inhabiting their gender. There is something special about sex that makes it very easy to manipulate people politically around it, so it makes people vulnerable in their intimate relationships and in their relationships with themselves that’s intense for people. It takes effort to be sovereign and generous towards difference and not fall into getting excited about curbing other people’s freedoms.
You started as a historian of religion in 19th century Germany. How did your interest in the history of sexuality begin and develop? Do you see yourself mainly as a historian of sexuality or even LGBT history?
It’s true that I started writing on the rise of a religious right in the 1840s and what was interesting to me was – writing during the years of the rise of Ronald Reagan in the US, Margaret Thatcher in the UK and Helmut Kohl in Germany – that I noticed that liberals were very disconcerted by the rise of a sexually conservative religious Right that they hadn’t expected and didn’t know how to respond to.
I was interested that the religious disputes and fights about Christian-Jewish relations that I was analysing in the 1840s were actually carried out via a lot of sexual innuendo – so it was the sources that led me to the topic. I was interested in the fact that this religious Right used sexual innuendo to make fun of liberals and disconcert them, and it had a variety of consequences for how liberal Christians understood Jewish rights.
I was interested in this nexus of Christianity and the difficulties it has with Judaism, seeing this endless rivalry, always frustrated that the Jews don’t come over to the Christian side and I was interested in the conflicted feeling around sexuality – themes that have stayed with me all along, but which came out of the sources.
Subsequently I met a lovely man named Theodore Weiss, an Auschwitz survivor, who approached me at a conference in 1993 and said he wanted me to teach history of the Holocaust at Michigan State University and I said ‘but I write on the nineteenth century’ and he retorted ‘I’ve researched you – you can do this.’ (I am confident that he has said this to dozens of scholars over the years! He has been extraordinarily successful in mobilizing the field.) And indeed, with his help, it turned out he was right. Thanks to him, I become a twentieth-century historian. I then became very involved in Holocaust education and to this day I’m very active in the work of the Holocaust Educational Foundation and just taught a week-long course at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.
I ended up writing my second book on the stages of memory-making in the aftermath of the Holocaust and what lessons people drew from that cataclysm and astonishingly – I did not go looking for it – the sources were filled with sexuality.
Strikingly, Christian conservatives in the immediate aftermath of the Third Reich argued that the way to get over this horrible past of mass murder was to clean up and restore family values and to clean up the culture sexually. Then a generation of their children – many of them members of the New Left – said that no, we needed to liberate sexuality in order to avoid another Auschwitz. They thought the Third Reich had been totally sexually repressive even though that wasn’t true. In truth, the Third Reich had combined incitement to heterosexual activity with lethal homophobia with brutality towards Jews and Roma and many other peoples, so actually there had been a combination of taboo- breaking both in the realm of sexuality and in the realm of violence.
Because the Third Reich itself was complicated, it was easy to draw contradictory lessons from it, but a lot of the intergenerational conflicts after 1945 were played out in the realm of sexuality. So that’s where my long standing obsessions with ‘what is the emotional appeal of right wing politics and fascism’, ‘how do homo- and heterosexuality belong together and how differently in each time period’ and ‘why is it that fights about nonsexual matters get carried out in the realm of sex and vice versa’ – those things all come from these research experiences. It’s not me – it’s the sources!
I look at these things and think “6 million people have just been murdered and you’re talking about cleaning up family values? It’s offensive! This cannot be what you’re talking about.” But indeed it was.
One of your major works is Sexuality after Fascism (2005) about 20th century Germany. How has this changed the way we think about the history of sexuality/ homosexuality in Europe?
One of the questions I always ask myself is how can you tell a fascism when you see it? For the 1920s, 30s and 40s whether you’re looking at Italy or Spain or Nazi Germany or Vichy France there’s hostility to homosexuality – predominantly male homosexuality – for some reason that’s more upsetting than lesbianism to the powers-that-be. There’s always also control of abortion rights, which is a way of controlling female sexuality. It’s different in each of the different fascisms but you can always see that double phenomenon.
Thinking now about right-wing movements in the United States in the post-war period, again you have anti-abortion, anti-homosexuality. Think about Western Europe now: for a while Western Europe was presenting itself as very progressive about sexuality, female sexuality and LGBT rights, trying to tell post-communist Eastern Europe that it needed to get with that liberal programme. Now we have massive movements also within Western Europe arguing that they don’t want to have “gender theory,” that they don’t want to have (what they call) “premature sexualisation of children” (via sex education) in classrooms; there is a move against gay marriage and there is a move against abortion rights again. It’s strange and upsetting to me that these are the facts, but thinking about the premier example of fascism helped me see this phenomenon is everywhere.
Another truth about the Nazis is that they were very much encouraging of sexual pleasure: they really incited sexual pleasure for non-disabled, heterosexual “Aryans”, who were the majority of the population. There’s this huge encouragement to pleasure on the one hand – pre-marital, extra-marital, marital – everything, and that’s the flipside of the coin of a lethal homophobia. The intensified prosecution of homosexual men, putting them in concentration camps, castration, conversion attempts, this grotesque behaviour is the flipside of all that encouragement.
So one other trait of many right-wing movements is that they also promise pleasure, that they are not just repressive across the board. One can look at Evangelical Protestantism of a certain conservative bent in the United States and see that it’s actually encouraging of fabulous marital sex, as long as one supports the anti-homosexuality, anti-abortion agenda. There’s always this idea that ‘we will offer you something better’. Right wing movements don’t just market repression, they market the promise that some group of people will get to feel superior and get to break the rules and have more fun.
You are a very active researcher and writer! What are your plans for future research?
The project I’m working on now has to do with the history of disability. I come to it both from history of religion, history of the Holocaust and from history of sexuality, because before the mass murder of European Jewry there was mass murder of the disabled.
In no other nation, in no other time and place has this happened that a nation killed its own disabled en masse. It was the “trial run” for the Holocaust. You can think of it as the prologue or the first chapter, but literally the same hundred individuals that got their practice and their training committing the mass murder of the disabled are the ones who go to Poland and start the Operation Reinhardt camps of Sobibór, Bełżec and Treblinka. Those camps used the same technology: killing by carbon monoxide. This was before they discovered Zyklon B in Auschwitz. A quarter of the Holocaust is done by carbon monoxide and is modelled on the earlier killing of the disabled. It’s obviously the same attitude of “lives unworthy of life.”
One of my major missions in Holocaust studies is to integrate the murder of the disabled more strongly into the history of the Holocaust, because it’s also a precursor in terms of emotionally preparing people for mass murder, both bystanders and the actual perpetrators.
I became very interested in how difficult it was to develop a disability rights movement in the aftermath of the slaughter – people were crushed. There was shame that was attached to the families of people who’d been killed and there was strong popular identification with the doctors who were the perpetrators. It is deeply upsetting, that in many ways hostility to the disabled was made stronger by the mass murders. It took almost four decades to really get a feisty counter-movement going.
It took a lot of effort for the mass murder of Jews to become recognised as something that we now think of as one of the defining events of the twentieth century. That took effort against a lot of disinterest in centring that event. However this issue- the mass murder of the disabled – has taken even longer to become central to our discussions because of the persistence of hostility to the disabled.
I’m really interested in talking about the disability rights movement that emerges finally and how it eventually does learn how to find ways to set terms of discussion politically and culturally, but just as that’s happening – we’re in the twenty-first century – disability rights are getting turned against women’s rights to abortion. It’s the new wedge-issue for anti-abortion campaigners. They figured out a clever way to put leftists and feminists on the back foot by arguing that it’s awful to abort on the grounds of disability. They’re using the idea that abortion is being used “eugenically” in order to make people feel guilty and confused. What has happened is a lot of disability rights activists also oppose abortion on the grounds of disability and so there’s a confusion of categories between Left and Right.
It’s becoming increasingly difficult to make an argument that says : this has to be a woman’s or a couple’s choice to take this on. It’s very difficult in every country in Europe at the moment – in 2009 in Germany, the parliamentary inquiry in the UK into abortion and disability in 2013, Spain in 2014, Hungary in 2012, Poland in 2016 – it shows you that it’s strategic. For many people it is sincere and deeply felt, but clearly it is also a moral wedge that divides people.
You may wonder what this has to do with LGBT, but one of the things I’m very interested in is that it’s actually LGBT activism that has provided the framework for disability rights, in at least 3 ways: the challenge to normative bodies; the challenge to what counts as a family form – disability “queers” families and calls attention to how interdependent we all are and brings into view the complexities for relationships that are needed for lives to flourish and be joyful; and LGBT’s insistence that pleasure and relationality are human rights has been a very important precursor to disability rights arguments as well. So I’m really interested in “queering” disability and showing what close links there are between those two movements.