Comrades in Arms: Military Masculinities in East German Culture

By Clarke, David | German Quarterly, Summer 2020 | Go to article overview

Comrades in Arms: Military Masculinities in East German Culture


Clarke, David, German Quarterly


Smith, Tom. Comrades in Arms: Military Masculinities in East German Culture. Berghahn, 2020. $135 (hardback).

Tom Smith's engaging study of cultural representations of armed service in the German Democratic Republic's Nationale Volksarmee (NVA) is a welcome addition to scholarship on gender in the GDR, pointing as it does to a relative neglect of masculine identities in both historical and cultural analyses of East German society. As Smith notes, the state's sometimes problematic and contradictory attempts to re-shape traditional roles for women have received a good deal more scholarly attention, the assumption being that masculine roles remained relatively stable under state socialism. While reminding us that, of course, all social identities are the product of processes of negotiation with existing power structures, Smith pays attention to the specific interrelation between masculinity and military service in GDR culture, demonstrating how experiences normally considered marginal to military life (vulnerability, shame, theatricality, and same-sex desire) were in fact "central to military institutions and the wider gender order" (12).

In focusing on representations of those very elements of men's experience that the military sought to erase, Smith shows how they were in fact constitutive of the military ideal. Drawing broadly but judiciously on a range of theoretical sources in gender studies, Smith furthermore aims to show that such experiences, and the varying ways in which individual subjects sought to negotiate these within the military context, ultimately demonstrate how understandings of masculinity in GDR culture should be understood as neither fixed nor monolithic.

In chapter 1 of this study, Smith analyses a selection of texts that might at first glance be considered as ideologically conformist. These novels, marketed by the GDR's own military publisher for consumption by recruits, are nevertheless surprising for their problematization of certain aspects of the military masculine ideal, offering alternative points of identification for soldiers, while finally affirming commitment to service to the state. Although the military handbooks given to soldiers may have sought to impose a monolithic standard of military masculinity, Smith argues that literary texts of this kind "pluralized" military identities, not subversively, but in order to assimilate individual soldiers as readers more effectively into the institution. They also offered, Smith argues, models of how individual identity could ultimately be subordinated to the military institution in a harmonious fashion, and that this could be experienced positively as a form of participation.

Chapter 2 of the book shifts the focus to the role of violence within the NVA. Despite the fact that East German forces never engaged in armed combat, retrospective accounts of conscription have often referred to the violence experienced by soldiers at the hands of the institution and of other recruits. Here, Smith addresses a series of pre- and post-unification films in terms of their representation of the experience of violence and its physical and psychological impact on individual soldiers. In such representations, he argues, the making visible of violence done to the body is a means for filmmakers to show the "structural and cultural violence" of masculinity (94) and thereby to "denaturalize and highlight the limits of ideal masculinities" (97).

In chapter 3, Smith extends this focus on cinema, analyzing Wolfgang Luderer's Der Reserveheld (1965), a popular GDR film starring the well-known comic actor and entertainer Rolf Herricht, alongside Claus Dobberke's more obscure drama Ein Katzensprung (1977). Here Smith's focus is on the physical performance of military masculinity, which these representations undermine as a kind of role-play that cannot be taken too seriously. In contrast, however, Smith shows how Jürgen Fuchs's novel Fassonschnitt (1984) explores a much more traumatic experience of subordination to military uniform and drill. …

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