Male Fantasies by Klaus Theweleit: A Reading

In “Male Fantasies”, Theweleit draws a comparison between the fascist soldiers in pre-WW II Germany and modern man.

And it resonated with me – in these fascist German soldiers I saw exaggerations of tendencies of my own – a certain rigidity in response to threatening situations, a strange fear of women married to defensive-like reaction in which I took refuge in books and grand ideas.

The book demanded my attention, provoked self-examination and was behind a number of changes I made at the time.  Theweleit’s happy view of sexuality especially I found a good influence, and his analysis of relations between the sexes and the classes in western culture convincing.

I am re-reading it in order to regain the insights it provided those 7 years ago, and to notate it in order to provide a ready means to access them in the future.  Barbara Ehrenreich, in her introduction, notes why this book is important:

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In the first chapter, Theweleit explains what it is about the fascist soldiers he will focus on…


Then he delves into the actual writings of these men (diaries, journals, novels), starting with the absence of hardly any mentions of their wives in their writings, and almost never of their names.  Further, they seem to avoid their wives as much as possible, using the pretext of war (amongst other things) to take them away from the domestic scene.  Theweleit discusses the example of a seargent who got injured in WWI, but rushed to join the fight against the communists:


Instead their diaries, journals and novels focus on the “the fatherland” their native city, their uniforms, other soldiers, their weapons and animals (especially horses).


[sic: that last word is “relations!]

Later in the chapter, in an aside on psychoanalytic interpretations, he criticizes the tendency to “reduce the phenomena under investigation to the most all-embracing of concepts possible” and therefore by reducing to also annihilate:


This “too hasty a rush” to simplify concrete reality by subsuming it under a larger umbrella is a compulsion noted often in text, not only of psychoanalysts, but of the Friedkorps soldiers, and men generally.

Women other than their mothers and sisters are always treated as and desired for the qualities which allow them to be blank canvases to project their own fantasies on.  The fantasies projected onto working class women were thus:


He notes that what appears to be most threatening about working class women is their sexual experience, which releases a powerful fear in these soldiers, and seems intermingled with the concept of “communist”.  It is a very odd displacement which perhaps serve to placate the men as to the source of their fear and aggression.  The answer to them was obvious – “communism”.

After this he begins to reccount the many passages of examples of how these men talked about and viewed women and depictions of  violence against them.  In particular he examines the way in which they tell their stories and in their use of language.  He comments that “perceived reality is annihilated in order to preserve the life of an ideational representation” a process that seems compulsory.



This family resemblence is that they are “anti-individualist, anti-subjective…  They are as uninterested in the subject as they are with the object.”

There is a process going on in which perceived reality is consumed and transmuted into a particular powerful fantasy.  It is a fantasy in which the fear of communism is equated with the attack of the sensuously feminine, and with the fear of castration.  Theweleit makes the accusation that in analyzing fascism we have paid far too little attention to what the fascists themselves have said, as opposed to those who have claimed to “see through them”.


Then he goes on to discuss the barely veiled aggression of these men for their mothers, and their lust for their sisters.



He then relates a few passages in which the soldiers wistfully wish to find a girl like their sister, with language that suggests that “like” is superfluous.


Then he turns to the image of fathers in these writings:


The vision that emerges out of these writing is of young men with no regard for their fathers, aggression towards their mothers and covetousness and lust towards their sisters.  A dysfunctional family indeed.

However, how much of the actual behavior of these women lent themselves to this perception?  What were working class women in this period like?


Being so poor, most families took in boarders, and a historian of the period remarks on what that was like:





Try to imagine one of those gentleman, or young boys, approaching a working-class woman who is relatively unrestrained sexually, clicking his heels as he extends her an “invitation” to a dance and, indirectly, to sexual intercourse.  How can it ever work?  He is used to laying his money on the table and buying a woman, in which case he knows that he can behave with the inconsiderateness of a proprietor.  Or else he is used to taking the long way around; only here he can’t go through the proper bourgeois sexual foreplay by inviting a working-class girl to the casino, introducing her to “society,” or going off with her to Duisburg for a night at the theater.  With a working-class woman, he doesn’t even feel like taking that detour.  How else, though, can he express what he’s really after?  Calling a spade a spade is out of the question, since his only vocabulary for sexual relations is either pejorative – designed for communication among males – or stilted.  He finds that he is simply too stupid to carry on any kind of conversation with a female member of that despicable substratum.

This incompatibility, Theweleit explains, was the result of the young soldiers immaturity and their inability to measure up to the working man “who sweated and slaved to feed his dependents and improve living and working conditions in the district – while unemployed militarists killed time playing with guns and taking food from the mouths of the working population.”

However, the source of their hatred and brutality towards these women is still unclear.  So, yes, these were sexually-starved boys who were rejected by the only girls within their reach.  The one does not naturally lead to the other.  What was going on here?  And what’s with the whole sister fetish?

He says that the working class (proletarian) women are judged as if they were their sisters:

If their own sisters did what the proletarian women and girls do, without a doubt they would be prostitutes… and thus would have to be treated accordingly, casting them out.

In other words, the class difference in sexual norms are such that if bourgeois standards were applied to proletariat women, they would be disowned by their families, and disgraced.

The soldiers apply these standards to the working class women – and in seemingly deeply personal ways.  There is an odd exchange here in which they mentally replace the “sexually exciting” working class women with their sister –  sisters who are “well suited to this type of operation”, because:

The body of a sister (often older) is frequently the focus for an adolescent boy’s first voyeuristic sexual experiences, precisely because the sister, as an unsuspecting member of the same family, isn’t as careful as other girls about concealing her body from her brother.  She may even get some enjoyment out of being looked at, especially if her developing breasts finally provide some visual evidence that she is different from her brother… [and] the moment she begins having relationships with other men she becomes a prostitute, because she really belongs to her brother.

…by refusing to hide their sexuality, working-class women are behaving exactly as the soldier/brothers would secretly wish their own sisters to behave towards them…. The problem is that their love is directed towards other men…

What Theweleit is driving at here is that there is a re-enactment of a narcissistic injury, a fresh poke at a neurotic sensitive spot – the brother spurned by his sister is now the soldier spurned by the working class woman.  And not only spurned – but openly cavorting with other men.

Except now, equipped with guns in a time of war, they have an opportunity to act on their feelings of rage.  And, as history notes, they took ample advantage of that opportunity.  As Theweleit notes, “the soldiers attacks on working class women can be seen to be directed against the spector of his sister going around with another man, as revenge against the sister for denying him love… it is aggression against his sisters for having aroused him sexually without allowing him any means of discharging that originally pleasurable stimulation…  The women’s ‘crime’ consists in reminding the soldier of a desire he is prohibited from satisfying.”

Next he asks two questions:

1. Why is the level of arousal so great as to generate this hallucinogenic object-replacement (working class women with their sisters)?

2. Why does this arousal result in violence and blood-letting and not in sexual assault and rape, as would seem at first blush to be most logical?

And this is where he delves into the ambivalent relationship between proletariat men and proletariat women.  He begins by looking at passages that suggest that the women of Germany were not too saddened by the prospect of sending their men off to war, that some of their writing suggest the impulse had a bit of aggression behind it.

Further, he examines evidence that many of the proletariat men had whore-madonna complexes, and ended up marrying women they found sexually nonthreatening and unexciting.  There is a certain hostility to sex throughout their writing and stories about them, and pride in abstinence.



Then he delved into the dissasociative nature of the soldier’s descriptions of their mutilation of these women.  They are forever talking in the third person and using passive verbs.  Additionally, these actions are not perceived or described as “‘I’ see ‘that thing out there'”.  Rather, perception occurs as if through a veil.  He reaches a state of dissolution in which he and his victim lose their boundaries and enter into a hallucinatory union, which then induces a trance-like state. Theweleit posits that the goal of the mutilation is, ultimately, the achievement of this trance-like state.

Preliminary Findings (p. 204)

He goes on to describe the formation of the ego, and of “self-hood” and the Oedepal drama that creates it, reminding the reader of the identification with the same sex parent which is at the heart of becoming a self, and transferring desire from mother to someone in the image of mother, or sister or sister of friend, or friend of sister.

But, he says, these men are different…

For the men we are dealing with here, there is no such end. They want something other than incest, which is a relationship involving persons, names and families. They want to wade in blood; they want an intoxicant that will “cause both sight and hearing to fade away.” They want a contact with the opposite sex—or perhaps simply access to sexuality itself—which cannot be named, a contact in which they can dissolve themselves while forcibly dissolving the opposite sex. They want to penetrate into its life, its warmth, its blood.

This is not a desire for incest, this cannot be subsumed under the heading of object relations, it is “of another order entirely.”

What we have here is a desire for, and fear of, fusion, explosion…. Their fear of the rifle women, likewise… cannot be reduced to the concept of “castration anxiety.” What we encounter instead is a fear of total annihilation and dismemberment.

Theweleit’s point here is that we are not dealing with normal “ego” relations here. Rather, this is a very primitive, in some ways psychosis or infant-like relation to the outside world built more on the basic early relationship between mother and son (prior to the 3-way relationship with the father and the Oedipus complex). In other words, development halted at that early stage and these individuals never developed a firm ego or ability to form adult relationships.

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