When blackshirts were the rage

Filming Women in the Third Reich - Feminine Fascism
March 2, 2001

If anyone was tempted to believe, given the plethora of works on British fascism, that there was little left to say, Julie Gottlieb's Feminine Fascism would disabuse them. Its brilliant analysis of the place of women in Oswald Mosley's British Union of Fascists does much to change our preconceptions. Where women played comparatively little part in the fascist movements of other European countries, more than 25 per cent of the BUF members were women, many of whom were prominent in the movement's activities. All this, despite the macho image, so similar to that of continental fascism, displayed by the leader and by so many of his acolytes.

These women played a full part in the movement's activities, not only as orators and propagandists, but also as frontline troops, marching, canvassing and taking part in violent confrontations. Admittedly, their role was at times seen as that of organising children's and youth groups; but women also trained in ju-jitsu and acted as stewards at meetings; they were often used to counter any feminine violence from the other side. Women were conspicuous among the BUF parliamentary candidates. As war approached, the women's role became more prominent, as Mosley's platform became more concerned with peace. This culminated, after the outbreak of war, in the Women's Peace Campaign of February-May 1940. And of course, there were many women among those imprisoned in 1940 under Defence Regulation 18B.

These facts are surprising given that, as Gottlieb points out: "Stressing anti-feminism, misogyny and the repression of women has too often been used as another nail in the fascist coffin." How are they to be explained? Mosley himself, despite his stress on the masculine nature of fascism, was proud of the part that women played in his movement.

But what of the women themselves? What attracted them to fascism? Here, Gottlieb's study provides us with a striking paradox. Many of these women saw their fascist role as being a feminist one, a sign of independence. Indeed, a number of former suffragettes became prominent in the movement. As Gottlieb puts it: "In the political diaspora from the Edwardian suffragette movement, some former militant women settled into the seemingly inhospitable territory of British fascism during the 1930s." The most prominent of these were Nora Elam, Mary Richardson (the woman who slashed Velasquez's Rokeby Venus ) and "Commandant" Mary Allen. Gottlieb's study is full and convincing, backed up by extensive research into original sources and by judicious use of secondary information. It is also very well, and clearly, written, making it extremely easy for the reader to follow the arguments.

Unfortunately, the same is not true of Jo Fox's Filming Women in the Third Reich . The book has many virtues. Like Gottlieb's, it succeeds in overturning various firmly held preconceptions (this time, about the role ascribed to women in German wartime films); and it is also the product of extensive research into original sources, including the various repositories of the Bundesarchiv and the Hoover Institution. But it is written in an impenetrable style that one has to read and re-read; and the material is ordered into chapters less by argument than by a series of film categories. Through this, much is lost. But the major theme is striking: that the film audience in the war years comprised mainly women, and that the feminine roles in the films should be regarded not just from the viewpoint of Nazi masculine propaganda, but with the realisation that the audience was being taken into account. Here again, however, the points that are being made are muffled by the chapter format and the fact that conflicting details emerge at various points. In an early chapter, for example, Fox points out: "Motherhood was a key image in various other propaganda media of the Third Reich." She states: "Why the ministry failed to propagate the image of motherhood in the feature film is a matter for conjecture... Motherhood was a subsidiary image for women in the feature films of the Third Reich." In the chapter "War women in feature films", however, one finds the following: "The veneration of the mother figure (as a pregnant woman, first-time mother, experienced mother with many children, the release of sons for war service and the grief on their death) becomes a key element in nearly all of the war films, elevating her to heroic status in the fulfilment of her biological 'duty'." In the conclusion, Fox states:

"Surprisingly, images of women in the films of the Reich did not concentrate on motherhood."

This book does, however, make us question our preconceptions with regard to the images of women in the Nazi wartime cinema. Above all, it shows the variety of presentation: "Women were presented in many different forms, from the dancer to the comedienne, from the dramatic heroine to the siren." Fox mentions in passing Hitler's fascination with film and the fact that even in the last years of the Reich, a small cinema was installed in the bunker. It would perhaps have been useful to examine more closely Hitler's cinematic preferences for trash romantic material and comedy cartoons and the extent to which wartime cinematic output mirrored those tastes, as opposed to straightforward Nazi propaganda.

These two books show how misleading generalisations about fascist and Nazi attitudes to women can be. In this, they are a useful addition not only to fascist history but to women's history.

Richard Griffiths is emeritus professor of French, King's College, London.

Filming Women in the Third Reich

Author - Jo Fox
ISBN - 1 85973 396 4
Publisher - Berg
Price - £14.99
Pages - 268

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