Hidden Histories of the Third Reich: Aryan body worship and rape during the Holocaust

Background: As a descendent of Holocaust survivors, I have a particular interest in the study of the war, Nazi Germany, the culture of Germany during the Third Reich, and the untold stories of the Holocaust. Last summer I attended a 12 day seminar at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum in DC, and this past winter I assisted in a Holocaust history course at UCSC, which further strengthened my interest in the topic. 

Have you ever wondered what Germany was reading during WWII? Author Chrisitan Adam has, and after surveying the list of bestsellers during Hitler’s Third Reich, he uncovered the popularity of Aryan body worship through Hans Surén’s “Mensch und Sonne,” (“Humans and Sun”). Censorship was rampant in Nazi Germany, yet this somewhat pornographic (and dare I say homoerotic?) book was actually supported by the SS. In an interview with Spiegel Online, it is noted that, “The foreword in the 1936 edition, written after some 80,000 copies had already been printed, says the book was strongly supported by the race policy agency within the Nazi party and protected as official party literature.”

The book was designed to foster praise for the “Aryan” body; to build “strong and joyful affirmation of body awareness” in order to “build a strong and self-confident race.” To see some images from the book head over here. And unless you want your coworkers to see you looking at naked pictures of Aryans, this is NSFW.

Praise for the Aryan body was not simply a German phenomenon. In America, competitions called “Fitter Family Contests” were popular at state fairs in the early decades of the 20th century. According to the Eugenics Archive online,

“Farmers brought their products of selective breeding — fat pigs, speedy horses, and large pumpkins — to the fair to be judged. Why not judge ‘human stock’ to select the most eugenically fit family?

This was exactly the concept behind Fitter Families for Future Firesides — known simply as Fitter Families Contests. The contests were founded by Mary T. Watts and Florence Brown Sherbon — two pioneers of the Baby Health Examination movement, which sprang from a ‘Better Baby’ contest at the 1911 Iowa State Fair and spread to 40 states before World War I. The first Fitter Family Contest was held at the Kansas State Free Fair in 1920. With support from the American Eugenics Society’s Committee on Popular Education, the contests were held at numerous fairs throughout the United States during the 1920s.

At most contests, competitors submitted an ‘Abridged Record of Family Traits,’ and a team of medical doctors performed psychological and physical exams on family members. Each family member was given an overall letter grade of eugenic health, and the family with the highest grade average was awarded a silver trophy. Trophies were typically awarded in three family categories: small (1 child), medium (2-4 children), and large (5 or more children).

All contestants with a B+ or better received bronze medals bearing the inscription, ‘Yea, I have a goodly heritage.’ Childless couples were eligible for prizes in contests held in some states. As expected, the Fitter Families Contest mirrored the eugenics movement itself; winners were invariably White with western and northern European heritage.”

We know a great deal about the prevalence of eugenics in Nazi Germany, but for a brief outline of eugenics in the US, check out this website.

Also, in their ongoing investigation of rape as a tool of war, CNN has recently published an article called Silence lifted: The untold stories of rape during the Holocaust. While mass rape of German women by the invading Soviet army is well documented, rape against Jewish women during the Holocaust has mostly remained a hidden history. The article, however, notes that there is a growing movement of scholars working to uncover these stories:

“A spotlight on this dark subject was switched on with the late 2010 publication of a landmark book bearing a straightforward but telling title, ‘Sexual Violence against Jewish Women during the Holocaust.’

The interdisciplinary anthology touches on everything from rape, forced prostitution and sterilizations to psychological trauma, gender identity issues and depictions of violence in the arts. Co-edited by Sonja Hedgepeth and Rochelle Saidel, it is believed to be the first book in English to focus exclusively on this subject.”

The significance of rape during the Holocaust is somewhat controversial, as among the many methods of terror, rape was not necessarily rampant. In contrast to Hedgepeth and Saidel’s viewpoint, Holocaust scholar Lawrence L. Langer says, “The historical significance [of rape] is very small in the context of the Holocaust experience…To make rape a significant part of the narrative, the numbers would have to be in the thousands or tens of thousands. We will never know how often it happened.” That’s not to say that rape is not significant and traumatic to the victim, but rather that as a weapon of war, rape during the Holocaust may not be statistically relevant.

The article continues,

“Myrna Goldenberg, another scholar and author, agrees that stories of rape need to be contextualized and that their scope shouldn’t be exaggerated.

‘We have to keep saying that this was still not the norm. This was not the Holocaust. It was the murder of Jews that was the Holocaust,’ she says. ‘But to assume the subject is untouchable is wrong. Women were tortured and raped. Breasts were cut off. How do you not talk about that? How do you not acknowledge that?'”

Over the years publications have been discovered that document some of the horrendous sexual assault that women experienced at the hands of Nazis:

“Diaries emerged in which soldiers and eyewitnesses documented rapes during pogroms. Details of Nazi actions against Jews were chronicled in books by Soviet writers — before being suppressed by Joseph Stalin and rediscovered decades later.

Included in these long-hidden publications were tales of women being singled out to dance naked before being raped and murdered. Soldiers stormed homes and victimized girls in front of parents, wives in front of husbands. Mass graves were opened to reveal women with removed breasts.”

As we well know, time is running out to collect testimonies from Holocaust survivors, so there is a sense of urgency amongst these scholars to reveal what really happened. We will never really know the significance of rape during the Holocaust unless we can get first hand accounts from survivors. Again, scholars argue over the significance of rape as a common practice during the Holocaust, but from my perspective any sexual violence during this period of time is sociologically relevant, especially in terms of the hidden history of women. Hopefully as the movement to uncover these stories grows we will be able to explore the topic more thoroughly.

It’s been over 65 years since the war ended, and we still have a lot to learn and uncover about history.

And as a final note, the Illinois Holocaust and Education Center in Skokie has just opened a new exhibit called Spots of Light: To Be a Woman in the Holocaust. It is “the first international exhibition to focus exclusively on women and their experiences in the Holocaust. Through these women’s initiative, creativity and courage, the exhibit demonstrates that human beings are strong enough, even in the most difficult of circumstances, to maintain those values which are the foundation of humanity: motherhood, friendship, faith and love.” The exhibit will be open from June 24 to September 6, 2011.




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