Ironically, all these cross-dressing soldiers were fighting for a regime that sent actual transvestites to concentration camps.
Over years of collecting amateur photography from the Second World War, German artist Martin Dammann kept noticing something odd: An awful lot of soldiers fighting for Nazi Germany seemed to enjoy dressing up as women.
“If the photos did not exist, you would not believe it,” Dammann told the German news magazine, Der Spiegel.
Cross-dressing among soldiers happened on all sides in both world wars. Most photos of the phenomenon are as a result of a theatre performance put together by troops: With no women around to play Ophelia or Celia Peachum, a man would be enlisted to fill the role for laughs. (Here, for instance, is a photo of a theatre troupe of First World War-era Alberta soldiers, including a performer in drag).
But the phenomenon seemed to happen way more in German ranks, according to Dammann. This may be due to a longstanding German tradition of carnival cross-dressing.
While many countries celebrate Mardi Gras with drinking and sexualized costumes, some German communities have a centuries-long tradition of treating it as a celebration of gender-bending.
In Cologne, one of the central mascots of the Carnival parade is “the virgin,” a pigtailed maiden that has been played by a man since the 1820s. There’s also Weiberfastnacht, a subversive German festival practice dating back to the Middle Ages in which women are handed control of the community and are free to roam the streets cutting off men’s ties.
Dammann’s book, which carries the rather dry title Soldier Studies, is a comprehensive catalogue of German soldiers dressed as women: In training, on the front lines and even behind the wire at Allied P.O.W. camps.
And it’s not just dressed. The photos often depict men wearing nothing more than women’s underwear or skimpy improvised cabaret costumes. In some cases, the undergarments may have been looted from towns invaded by German soldiers.
The men in these photos were all fighting for a regime that pitilessly persecuted gays, transsexuals, cross-dressers and anyone else seen as sexual “deviants.” Several thousand homosexual men alone are estimated to have died in concentration camps under Nazi rule.
Nazism had originally counted many gay men among its founding leadership until they were ruthlessly purged after the ascension of Adolf Hitler. The most famous was Ernst Röhm, the openly homosexual early Nazi founder murdered in the 1934 Night of the Long Knives.
Nazi’s also annihilated the burgeoning gay scene in Berlin, which until then had been known as one of the most sexually liberal cities on Earth.
Berlin’s famous Eldorado club had been an advertised interwar destination for transvestites and transsexuals, for example. Soon after Hitler was appointed German chancellor in 1933, it was turned over under pressure to the SA, the Nazi Party’s paramilitary arm, and was soon shrouded with swastikas.
A press release for Soldier Studies notes that the photos “most definitely contradicted National Socialist ideology.” Dammann also noted that many of the photos aren’t inherent expressions of transvestism, but of men who were simply desperate to see a woman, even a fake one.
One particularly striking photo shows a German forest encampment. Standing in front a tank, a man in a dress appears to be serenading the troops with a sensual cabaret number. “I think these actors were both homosexuals and heterosexual,” Dammann said in an interview with DW English.
Many of the photos are stripped of any identifying features; Dammann would have simply found them in German family photo albums without context. Names of most of the participants are not known, as well as whether they survived the war or what they may have done.
The light air of many of the photos stands in contrast to the fact that they still depict members of one of the most genocidal and destructive armies in modern history. Even the German units at the front lines of the Holocaust left behind similar photo albums filled with similar innocent-looking scenes of merry-making. A shocking 2007 photo exhibition by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, for instance, showcased photos of SS officers dancing and decorating Christmas trees only steps away from the gas chambers of Auschwitz.
“I very much hope by showing (the soldiers) in a more human light, it’s not misunderstood that I want to relativize the war and their crimes,” Dammann told DW English.
In an afterword to Soldier Studies, the sociologist Harald Welzer writes that the sheer quantity of cross-dressing photos from the Second World War indicates just how normal the conflict came to be seen among the German soldiers fighting it.
“As paradoxical as it may seem, these photographs of Wehrmacht soldiers in female underwear, on first glance so exotic, actually corroborate the normality of the situation and not its exceptionality,” he writes.
An article by Tristin Hopper for NationalPost.com