Since its appearance in Germany in 1977, Klaus Theweleit’s psychoanalytical study of fascist literature 1 has graduated from the status of a cult work to that of a classic. Rereading it in English, a decade after my first, rather sceptical perusal, it is easy to see why. Much of what made Theweleit’s book so startingly original in the mid-1970s has since become relatively conventional in literary and historical studies, from the Foucauldian analysis of literary discourse, and the exploration of the political history of the human body, to a feminist perspective on sex and power. Yet in the intervening period, the book has not lost its capacity to shock and disturb. Much of its power comes from its author’s unerring eye for the startling quotation. Consider this passage from a novel by Franz Schauwecker which was published in 1929.
They lie next to each other. She lifts her arms and her dress slips off. Underneath it she is naked. Her nakedness assaults him with a sudden glowing shudder, a gust of wind across a placid lake. He says nothing, but with a jolt his breath rushes into his blood, filling it with pearls of pure, quivering bubbles, a gushing froth, just as the blood of men shot in the lungs leaves them lying yellow and silent like corpses, while the blood spurts endlessly, gurgling and seething at every breath—breath which they heave up, groaning, as if by a block and tackle, the air is so heavy and laden.
Sex and death are never very far apart in the literature that is the subject of Theweleit’s analysis.
Theweleit is concerned not with the literature of the Nazi movement but with that of its much smaller military precursor, the Freikorps movement of the years between 1918 and 1923. The Freikorps were heavily armed bands of right-wing thugs, including many ex-soldiers, who were used by the Social Democratic-dominated governments of the early Weimar Republic to put down revolutionary uprisings such as those of the Spartacists in January 1919, the Communists in Munich later the same year, or the ‘Red Army’ in the Ruhr in the spring of 1920. Recently the Freikorps have had their