Philadelphia, PA—The often-esoteric Modern Language Association is commemorating a conflict too rapidly fading from collective memory—World War II— but the eclectic amalgamation of thousands of college and high school English professors is doing so in a manner that obscures key facts about the war, namely, what was at stake.
At the 2006 annual convention here, William J. Spurlin of the University of Sussex in the United Kingdom presented a paper entitled “Collective Memory at the Margin: Lesbians under the Third Reich.” The paper was presented in a panel entitled “War’s Others.”
Actually, Spurlin’s information shows that Hitler treated lesbians better than he did Jews. “Homosexual activity between women, apart from prostitution, is not so widespread as it is among men and, given the more intense manners of social intercourse between women, it more readily escapes public notice,” the Reich Minister of Justice to the Reichskommissar for the occupied Norwegian territories wrote in a letter dated June 18, 1942. “The greater resulting difficulty of establishing such behaviour would involve the danger of unfounded testimony and investigations.”
“One major reason for punishing sex offences between men—namely the distortion of public life by the development of personal ties of dependence—does not apply in the case of women because of their lesser position in state and public employment.”
Spurlin reproduced a case study who complained of harsher treatment, although not markedly so. “From the beginning of the Hitler regime I kept my short, man’s haircut, back then we didn’t wear trousers anyway, but I had a tailored suit,” “Anneliesse W., a.k.a. Johnny,” claims in Days of Masquerade: Life Stories of Lesbians during the Third Reich. “You can’t imagine what people said to us, ‘Take a look at the gay broads!’ and things like that. It was pretty bad. They said it was supposed to be made illegal for women, too; it was already illegal for men.”
While the ladies may have found this approach annoying, it hardly compares to conditions at Auschwitz. In fact, unlike millions of holocaust victims, Anneliesse/Johnny (1916-1995) lived to a ripe old age.
It should be noted that the MLA is first and foremost a society of literary mavens, not historians. On another panel, Benjamin Friedlander of the University of Maine at Orono provided a valuable service by reproducing excerpts from the wartime broadcasts of poet Ezra Pound.
As acclaimed for his poetry as he was reviled for his fascist sympathies, Pound made broadcasts for the Italian government during the war:
~ “The prospect of a thirty years’ war is not one to arouse mirth and hilarity, even in a blighted, chicken headed and irresponsible people such as the United States of Americans,” Pound said in a February 3, 1942 broadcast.
~ “Debts conducing to slaughter, slaughter conducing to debts, as intended,”
Pound said in a March 6, 1942 broadcast entitled “Why pick on the Jew.”
The revulsion in academia over Pound’s pronouncements 65 years after their original airing speaks well of the Higher Education Establishment at a time when its actions and reactions are too infrequently commendable. Unfortunately, Ezra’s epigrams sound all too similar to the statements we have become used to getting from the many Middle East Studies departments at American colleges and universities.
Malcolm A. Kline is the executive director of Accuracy in Academia.