So, Max Mosley, the son of the former Blackshirt leader, Oswald Mosley, has won the right, in principle, for everyone to have a private sex life. As Mr Justice Eady's summing up made clear at the High Court in the case against the News of the World newspaper, there was no evidence of a "Nazi" theme during the five hour SM bondage orgy indulged in by Max Mosley and five so-called "hookers". But so what if there had been? It strikes me (no pun intended), that whatever goes on privately behind locked doors, between informed consenting adults – even public figures – it is solely a matter for them, unless it has a direct bearing on their public role.
As the Operation Spanner boys maintain, sado-masochists have every right to privacy and freedom, even if they do want to be tied up, slapped, whipped, or have steel bolts driven through their scrotums. It's not everyone's cup of tea, but the key words here are "private", "consent" and "adults". Since the ruling – an all too rare example of European Human Rights Laws leading to a sensible legal outcome – the News of the World and others, like former Sun editor Kelvin MacKenzie, have been squealing about "press freedom", claiming that by curbing its prurient intrusions into the bedrooms (or private torture chambers) of public figures, the court has dealt a death-blow to our democratic freedoms, or at least those who valiantly seek to defend them.
Of course, this is complete eye-wash. Modern red-top newspapers cannot legitimately claim to be part of the noble "Fourth Estate" that seeks to defend freedom, democracy and truth in this country. They are produced to entertain people and deliver huge readerships to capitalists in exchange for their advertising revenue. Not only are these papers full of bingo, celebrity nonsense, sport and pictures of topless girls, even their news stories are written to a strict "info-tainment" formula, often being compared to the scripts from Hollywood films (stories about "Home Alone" kids, for example, or "Rambo" gun killers on the loose).
Although Judge Eady, presiding over the case, accepted that the News of the World genuinely believed there was a Nazi theme to all the shenanigans (hence his decision not to grant exemplary – i.e. punitive – damages against the paper), the gross intrusion into Max Mosley's private life and its false allegations of a "sick" Nazi theme to all the spanking and wanking had little to do with lofty notions about the public interest, it was just a cynical ploy designed to sell more newspapers. It insults our intelligence to pretend otherwise.
Ironically, the News of the World's Nazi orgy story relied on exactly the same kind of furtive frisson amongst its readership that Mr Mosley was falsely alleged to be guilty of. Publishers of history books and the kind of penny dreadful thrillers you see in airport bookshops will tell you that a swastika on the cover can send sales skyrocketing. However much we may fear or loathe it, Nazism, or rather, the Nazi aesthetic, still holds a fascination and allure for many people, all the more potent for its transgressive and forbidden qualities. Why should this be?
Because of the evils perpetrated by the Nazi regime it is inevitable that powerful feelings surround any Nazi cultural artefacts (the flags, the songs, the posters and so on). The Bolsheviks had already learned how to manipulate modern media for political ends by the time Hitler rose to power, but the Nazis were even more skilled in creating a strong, dynamic and alluring aesthetic. The mass rallies and night-time rituals of allegiance, the uniforms, the strict discipline and hierarchy, the military music, phallic salutes and shrill speeches – all brilliantly committed to film by Leni Riefenstahl - were designed to attract, inspire and brain-wash. After the humiliations and privations of the 1920s, it is hardly surprising that a whole generation of Germans, particularly German men (at whom the bulk of this propaganda was directed), responded to the Nazis' clarion call to build a newly virile and conquering Fatherland.
Mercifully, Nazism was eventually defeated, both militarily and politically, but that doesn't mean that its artefacts, or its overall aesthetic, have lost their power to enthrall. As I have already mentioned, for many there is still a furtive frisson in flirting with the Nazi aesthetic which is all the more potent for its transgressive and forbidden qualities (certain songs and images are still banned in Germany and Austria, for example). And where transgression and the forbidden exist, sexual fetishism is never too far behind. The Nazi propaganda machine's appeal to sadism and masochism, together with its barely concealed homoeroticism, means that the Nazi aesthetic inevitably pervades a sub-strata of the gay leather and SM scene, occasionally spilling over into the straight sex scene too (mostly in the commercial sector, i.e. prostitution). Anyone in a leather coat or tall boots is bound to attract their fair share of drooling admirers and there's no denying that the black SS uniforms manufactured by the Hugo Boss company were hot – they were purposely designed to flatter the masculine physique and emphasise male power.
This need not concern us too much. Several years ago, I met a man in a London gay bar who was quite up front about what he called his "Nazi fetish" and who seemed well connected to that part of the SM sub-scene in which this fetish is indulged. Although my tastes are somewhat more conventional and "vanilla" I was interested to learn more about this hidden scene he belonged to and a long discussion ensued. He can only have been in his early 30s, was intelligent and uncommonly handsome - not at all what you might expect. He also held down a responsible job in the public sector and was perfectly level-headed in every way. He told me that there are several private clubs, necessarily clandestine, in which men like himself can act out sexual fantasies involving Nazi uniforms and paraphernalia, but they live in constant fear of being exposed.
Having already "come out" as gay at work, he had been bounced into coming out a second time, this time as a "Nazi fetishist" when a would-be blackmailer threatened to distribute images from his fetish website amongst his work colleagues. In the event, he proudly showed the website to his immediate colleagues anyway, who apparently took this revelation in their chuckling stride and respected his right to a private fantasy life.
When I asked him if he was genuinely some kind of fascist or racist, he told me he had no time whatsoever for right-wing politics. In fact, he was a Labour supporter and through his job, actively committed to opposing racism. He was also very scornful of some of the other Nazi fetishists he had encountered who did engage with the far-Right, apparently oblivious to, or unfazed by, the far-Right's trenchant and sometimes violent hostility to homosexuals. The majority, however, like himself, managed to detach the fetishised Nazi aesthetic they embraced, from the Nazi ideology they rejected (I know of one Jewish gay masochist who has also managed to do this). They see themselves as part of a long tradition of homosexual flirtation with Nazi iconography and fantasy, whilst remaining acutely aware of what actually happened to thousands of homosexuals in the concentration camps. They are not alone. Famously, the erotic photo-realist drawings of Tom of Finland draw upon Nazi iconography even when his fantasy males are not adorned with SS breeches and fascist insignia, although he did draw a series of overtly fetishistic Nazi-themed fantasies. These were inspired from his youth when he encountered sex-hungry German soldiers in Helsinki during the Second World War.
There are many within the gay community, particularly the left-wing gay community, who find such engagement with the Nazi aesthetic distasteful and unacceptable. Presumably, they think that to admit the erotic charge within Nazism is to rehabilitate it and to some extent, they have a valid point. When I wrote for the left-leaning London newspaper Capital Gay in the late 1980s and early 1990s, it often carried stories about gay men whose fetish for Nazi insignia or roleplay had caused a furore, or tipped over into something more sinister. One London nightclub had a doorman in a stormtrooper uniform guarding the entrance, until someone complained, while another club was taken to task for having German eagle insignia in the entrance lobby, though the swastika part had been concealed with gaffer tape. Leigh Bowery, the flamboyant nightclub host and avant-garde performance artist caused outrage when he incorporated a Nazi-themed medical examination into his live stage act.
On another occasion, Peter Tatchell warned the Earl's Court leather and SM community of a German man (called Max, coincidentally), whose reported Nazi roleplay had allegedly crossed the consensual line on several occasions to become violent assault. Another man who approached two men wearing SS uniforms in a bar to voice his distaste for their attire was beaten up for his trouble. A gay murderer was found to have a stash of Nazi paraphernalia and was only apprehended by police when he was found in possession of a swastika flag he had stolen from one of his victims – who, by coincidence, also shared this dark fetish.
Some of the examples above serve to remind us that Nazi fetishism and sexual roleplay cannot always be neatly filed into the category of "harmless transgressive fun". But equally, we shouldn't join the ranks of the hysterics who think that just because someone gets off on a Nazi-themed fetish they are necessarily goggle-eyed Fascists (a famous newsreader, with impeccable liberal credentials, is rumoured to own a wardrobe full of Nazi uniforms, though precisely for what purpose is unknown). Twenty years ago, the ill-fated GLC-funded Lesbian & Gay Centre in London's Cowcross Street, was embroiled in a row about leather SM enthusiasts using its facilities, after a group of lesbian militants claimed that wearing leather uniforms was "fascistic" per se and should be banned. What these women seemed to forget, however, was that while Fascism undeniably incorporates some sado-masochistic elements, sado-masochism predates Fascist ideology and exists independently of it. Not only that, but banning people, ideas and behaviour one happens to disagree with can also be construed as "fascistic".
There are parallels here with the hysteria over Prince Harry's fancy dress faux pas, when he donned a (rather tatty and unconvincing) Nazi uniform for a party. Believe me, the real Nazis we have to worry about are not to be found in private sex dungeons, dodgy gay bars, or at fancy dress parties. The real ones are nasty little "chavs" in designer track-suits who live on council estates, or twisted losers like David Copeland who bombed Soho's Admiral Duncan gay bar in 1999. To dress up as an SS man, whether for a party, a military re-enactment, or for kinky sex, is simply to dress up as an historical figure and should be no more concerning than someone dressing up as a Crusader, a Roundhead, or a Suffragette – though it would be undeniably tasteless to do so in Golders Green High Street. As Mr Justice Eady ruled in the Mosley case, fetishists do have a right to demand that their privacy is respected, but they, in turn, must respect the sensibilities of others and use their discretion accordingly.
The American gay writer and cultural critic, John Rechy, once said of sado-masochistic sex within the gay community: "I have no doubt that sado-masochism is the fascist side of the homosexual experience . . . it is the most depleting, the most self-hating, by definition. I think that every time homosexuals are involved in a sado-masochistic relationship they are doing a kind of Black Mass to heterosexual oppression. We imitate the kind of oppression they have made us feel, and we pay homage to them".
Rechy was writing in the 1970s, but in 2008 I think we can allow ourselves to frame sado-masochism and even Nazi fetishism, for those so inclined, in a more positive and libertarian way.
In the same way that some gay men re-appropriated the word "queer" in the early 1990s, emptying it of negative connotations and filling it with positive meanings instead, it could be argued that those gay men who have appropriated the Nazi aesthetic have emptied it of its murderous anti-gay hostility and in using it for their own playful sexual pleasures are taking ultimate revenge on a loathsome political regime that brutally murdered 50,000 homosexuals. The signifiers of enslavement, fear and death, have thus been appropriated and refashioned for enjoyment, albeit enjoyment of a darker kind. If Adolf Hitler had a grave he would probably be spinning inside it, knowing that the signifiers of pure Aryan manhood have been subverted by the deviants he sought to eradicate. Looked at from this perspective, Nazi sex fetishism within a small sub-strata of the gay leather and SM communities (and beyond) doesn't represent a worrying revival of Nazi ideology, it represents its final defeat.