Volume , Number 0
There are no articles.Commentary
There are no articles.Culture
There are no articles.Features
People's Global Action
Nuclear Nightmare Goes Critical
The Schools We Want
E. Wayne Ross
Signs of a Police State â€¦
Movement Building Is the Only â€¦
In Memory Of Bhopal
An interview with Tahmeena Faryal â€¦
The Threat Of Global State â€¦
Colombia is the third largest â€¦
Airline Layoffs, Worker Concessions
Extending U.S. Dominance
Urgent Patient Tasks
There are no articles.
NOTE: Z Magazine subscribers and sustainers have access to all Z Magazine articles here and in the archive. The latest Z Magazine articles available to everyone are listed in the Free Articles box at the top of the table of contents, and are starred in the list below. Questions? e-mail Z Magazine Online.
Outing Hitler and Atta
Outing hardly raises an eyebrow anymore. Kevin Spacey? Who cares. Rosie O'Donnell? Please. But recently when the National Enquirer published its front-page expose of Mohamed Atta, the mastermind behind the September 11 terrorist attacks (“Mohamed Atta and several of his bloody henchmen led secret gay lives—and Atta's ‘boyfriend' died with him in his September 11 suicide mission”), you couldn't help but take notice. Especially since the Atta revelation comes on the heels of the publication of Lothar Machtan's The Hidden Hitler (Basic Books), which claims that the Fuhrer was gay.
There's a weird irony to these outings: for the past 50 years the gay rights movement has promoted a public-relations campaign insisting to mainstream America that gays are just like everyone else. That gays, in fact, have existed throughout history. Supporting evidence comes from queer historians, both popular and scholarly, who've argued that figures such as Plato, Joan of Arc, Abraham Lincoln, Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman, Willa Cather, John Singer Sargent, and Eleanor Roosevelt were attracted to or engaged in sexual relationships with members of their own sex. What's interesting to see, now that Hitler and Atta have been added to the list, is how readily the general public (in the case of Atta) and the media elite (with Hitler) have embraced the notion that both men were gay. During a recent interview with Machtan, NBC's Matt Lauer unquestioningly accepted the premise that Hitler was gay and asked anti-historical questions, such as: “In just the minute left, and I know it's very difficult to ask you to do this, but why do you think that his homosexuality and perhaps his attempts at concealing it were at the root of his anti-Semitism?” Apparently, the idea that Hitler's putative closeted homosexuality did more to shape his hatred of Jews than the 2,000 years of virulent European Catholic/Christian anti-Semitism that preceded him poses no logical problem to the mass media.
It's quite a contrast with the reception given, for example, to the claims that Roosevelt and Whitman were gay. Even though there is abundant, albeit sometimes conjectural, proof that these people experienced same-sex desires, scholars demand far higher standards of “proof” for queerness than they ever would for heterosexual longings or actions. They do this even when such “proof” exists. Whitman, for example, left letters and poems expressing homoerotic feelings, and Roosevelt's papers are filled with expressions of lesbian desire. Still, enormous efforts are made to “explain” it away as poetic imagery in the case of Whitman or as sentimental women's talk for Roosevelt.
So why the ready acceptance that mass murderers like Hitler and Atta were gay and the reluctance to believe that beloved figures like Roosevelt, Whitman, and Lincoln might have been?
Machtan and the National Enquirer, in making their cases, draw upon the same historical techniques and methodologies pioneered by Havelock Ellis and John Addington Symonds, who compiled what was probably the first list of famous homosexuals throughout history in their 1897 work Sexual Inversion. These techniques and methodologies can be summed up as follows: historians looking for homosexuals in history have learned to read between the lines. Sometimes this involves looking at the work of an artist in fresh ways: why are Michelangelo's male nudes so much more realistic than his female nudes? Exactly what was Gertrude Stein talking about in her obscure prose poem “Tender Buttons?” Sometimes it means acknowledging the obvious: it certainly wasn't poverty that forced Abraham Lincoln and Joshua Speed to spend four years sleeping in the same bed when one was an up-and-coming lawyer and the other a prosperous, middle-class store owner.
In The Hidden Hitler, Machtan reinterprets much of what we already know about Hitler to make the case that he was sexually attracted to men; that he probably had sexual relationships with some men before the 1930s; that these relationships helped him attain social and political power; and that his fear of exposure led him to implement a brutal anti-gay policy and inflamed his already deeply held anti-Semitism to new, more determinedly deadly levels. For instance, while the homosexuality of Ernst Rohm, head of the Sturmabteilung (better known as the SA or the Brownshirts) and of some members of the SA has long been a historical given, Machtan reinterprets Hitler's putsch against them—known as the “Night of the Long Knives”—as a preemptive strike against people who knew too much about Hitler's homosexual past. In doing so, he rejects the long-held belief that Hitler's violent destruction of the group was a standard political power play within National Socialism.
In its tawdry piece on Atta, the Enquirer makes much of the fact that Atta and Abdulaziz Alomari shaved their bodies the night before the attack and put on cologne. This can easily be interpreted as a religious act. Islam, along with Christianity and Judaism, has religious and social laws connected to ideals of cleanliness and aestheticism that regulate care of the body and hair grooming. But when put in a seamier context, the act takes on a lurid feel: “On the eve of his murderous assault, [Atta] and his boyfriend Alomari made a quick, mysterious trip to Portland, Maine, where they spent the night in room 233 of a Comfort Inn. They paid $179 for the deluxe rooms with gold bedspreads.
Atta and Alomari dutifully followed instructions from a document later discovered in luggage that got left behind.... It told the men to take an ‘oath to die' and ‘shave excess hair from the body and wear cologne'.” While the Enquirer piece raises some valid issues—that male- male sexual activity has always been tacitly condoned in Mediterranean and Middle Eastern cultures (though never accepted as a sexual identity)—the magazine distorts it by noting, “extremist elements among Arab men become so socially segregated from women, they turn to homosexual behavior.”
The bottom line when searching for homosexuals in history, as with Hitler, or in contemporary life, as with Atta, is that the “clues” have to be interpreted responsibly. When they aren't, you wind up with sloppy scholarship such as Noel I. Garde's From Jonathan to Gide: The Homosexual in History (Vantage Press, 1964), in which large trees of innuendo grow from small seeds of evidence. The standards should be closer to those of historically perceptive and sensitive scholars such as Blanche Wiesen Cook, whose biography of Eleanor Roosevelt is a model of how to understand a historical figure's sexuality in the context of her life and times. The second volume of Cook's projected four-volume work on Roosevelt, for example, explicates in great detail how Roosevelt's intense, often erotic connections to women formed the basis of her domestic and human-rights work and helped shape the New Deal. There's no way to argue that Machtan meets this standard.
Unlike Cook's biography, Machtan's work is full of holes. He doesn't have any hard evidence to prove that Hitler was gay. No man actually claims that he slept with Hitler, and there are no explicit letters, diaries, or communications—so he relies on the endless rhetoric of conjecture. Machtan's text is littered with “maybe,” “perhaps,” and “possibly.” Sometimes he goes even further with “in light of this it makes sense to assume” and “there may also be documents locked away in Swiss strong rooms that would shed light on these years” or even the more impertinent “it would be irresponsible to rule out that Hitler may have made approaches to wealthy men [for sex].” Often his jumps are breathtaking: the “fact” that Wagner's world-famous Bayreuth opera house “was a notorious international rendezvous for prominent homosexuals”—the “opera queen” theory of history—proves nothing.
At the end of 434 pages, we are left with a house of speculative cards that can hardly stand on its own. All history asks us to make some leaps of faith, but like a magician, Machtan wants us to suspend disbelief almost all the time. He is the master of circumstantial evidence. Complicating matters is the fact that he avoids placing his material in a larger context. There is almost no substantive discussion of Magnus Hirschfeld (who was a Communist, sexuality researcher, and an early homosexual activist) and his Institute for Sexual Research; the complexity of German naturalist movements (which often promoted a desexualized form of homoeroticism); or the Wandervogel movement that conflated nature with nationalism. Machtan also seems unaware that most historians reject the label “gay” or “homosexual” for non-contemporary figures, and his use of both words to describe Hitler's identity flies in the face of sound historiography and correct usage.
Furthermore, he fails to recognize that same-sex activity does not necessarily dictate self-identity. Hitler's extreme conservatism, deep homophobia, and strong desire to belong to the mainstream most likely precluded him from seeing himself as an “invert,” the term then in use (defined as a woman's soul in a man's body and viewed by the mainstream as a pathological condition). Therefore, even if Hitler was attracted to or had sex with men, he almost certainly did not self-identify as “gay” or “homosexual.” The narrowness of Machtan's historical vision—he is intent on finding every single suggestion of homoeroticism in Hitler's life and friendship circle—continually undercuts whatever interesting information he has uncovered, such as the provocative rumor that Rudolf Hess was known to some allegedly gay men as “Fraulein Hess” or “Black Emma.” Even worse is Machtan's constant assertion that Hitler (and Hess, among others) were “almost pathologically sensitive, weak, and impressionable” persons with “markedly feminine traits.” This conflation of “feminine” with male homosexuality is a sure tip-off that Machtan falls far too easily into homophobic gender stereotypes of essential “male” and “female” characteristics. After finishing the book, you have the impression that the Third Reich was run by screaming, hysterical nancy boys.
Yet the book is being marketed as a serious work of historical investigation and, interestingly, received as such. It was published simultaneously in 15 languages and is a bestseller in Germany. Machtan's inability to deal in any sophisticated way with gender is not incidental to the way “gay” stereotypes and homophobia have taken shape historically. One of the reasons The Hidden Hitler and even the National Enquirer story on Atta are so accepted and acceptable is that both pander to the most commonly embraced homophobic stereotypes. Machtan's work is strewn with images of devious, duplicitous, overwrought closet cases, and the Enquirer story is so predicated on a close-binding, suffocating mother/ distant father it could come out of a 1950s psychoanalytic textbook. It portrays Atta as both too manly and too feminine—apparently to make sure all the bases are covered. Whatever kernels of truth may be in Machtan's book or the Enquirer article are completely ancillary to their methods, intentions, and conclusions.
It's ironic to note that, for better or worse, the Machtan biography and the National Enquirer piece are creations of a new world shaped by the gay movement and feminism. In his book The Hitler of History (Alfred A. Knopf, 1997), historian John Lukacs notes that “history means the endless rethinking—rewriting and revisiting—of the past” and that the past is created as quickly as we can create the present and the future. All new histories now have to take into account the gay and lesbian politics and past that homosexuals have been creating for decades. Machtan attempts to do this with some restraint and seriousness; the National Enquirer article is part of a backlash against the social and political gains the gay movement has made during this time.
On some level, all history—and all writing—is about politics, and it would be incredibly naive to think that the “outing” of historical figures does not have a political basis. From the 1897 list constructed by Ellis and Symonds to the National Enquirer's piece on Atta, such work forwards clear political agendas. The idea of a gay Hitler is not new. It was used by the Communists after World War II to attack fascism and one of the more popular and dangerously loony books from the Christian right over the past few years has been Scott Lively and Kevin Abrams's The Pink Swastika: Homosexuality in the Nazi Party (Founders Publishing Corporation, 1995), which blames homosexuals for the Third Reich and the Holocaust. The advent of a gay movement has, to a large degree, complicated the heterosexual world's relationship to homosexuality. Once a form of unmentionable depravity, homosexuality now occupies a clear and present place in the world. But despite the work done by gay and lesbian activists to promote positive gay images, the specter of the “evil homosexual” holds enormous fascination for Western culture. In many ways, homosexuality functions on a primeval level as the great signifier of evil. Homosexuals have become to the modern world what the Jews were to the medieval world—they corrupt children, they spread disease, they stand outside the sanctified, secure boundaries of nationalism, and they seek the destruction of the state.
It is no surprise, then, that both Adolf Hitler and Mohamed Atta—despite, rather than because of, whatever historical evidence there may or may not be—have become so easily identified as “gay.” The deeds of Hitler and Atta are unthinkable, in much the same way that homosexuality has always been unspeakable (it was, according to Lord Alfred Douglas, “the love that dare not speak its name”). In some ways, it makes perfect sense that the once unspeakable—now articulated—could become the first line of expression for the unthinkable.
Still, it raises
the question: what kind of a person actually thinks Hitler and Atta are somehow
more evil because they may have been gay? Z
Michael Bronski's writings have appeared in the Village Voice, the Boston Globe, Utne Reader, the Los Angeles Times, the Advocate, Out, the Boston Phoenix, and Z.