Resilience and Longevity: Struggles of Masculinities

Presentation at GRACEH2016: THE 10TH GRADUATE CONFERENCE IN EUROPEAN HISTORY Resilience, Restoration, Revival:
The Endurance of Structures from Early Modern Times to the Present 

Gender roles are very resilient, that is no news. Men are Men and Women are Women. What sounds like a crystal clear statement, simple isn’t one. Before I get into my research results about masculinities after the First World War, I want to start with some more recent source material.


Is that a man or a woman? It is definitely one thing, an illustration for an article that was published in the Viennese magazine for men „Der Wiener“ Volume 409. The article is called „Eiertanz“. The author Manfred Rebhandl simply states that there is an ongoing „crisis of masculinity“, Starting with our ancestors who hunted down wild animals, invented the wheel, discovered the fire, went to the moon and waged countless wars. During the 1960s our fathers had a wife at home and a secretary at the office, they did not eat healthy, drank alcohol and died of heart attacks. They died like real men. And today? Men shave their chests, get a manicure, do the laundry, go to yoga classes and watch „Sex and the City“.

So I was quite irritated, how such pictures of past masculinities were used to criticize today’s „unmanly men“. There are two stark contrast here, which are also found about 100 years ago and that leads me to results of my research on masculinities and medicine 1910 to 1928.

The first point is the struggle between „ideal“ and „normal masculinities“. For my thesis I looked at obituaries for physicians, they have the distinct advantage to mostly contain positive attributions about the deceased, and came to the following results. With two periods, a pre- and a post-war period, we see some very clear differences. 4 categories from 1910-1913 and twice as many, 8 categories, from 1919-1922. At first glance this might seem to point at a widening of ideal masculinities, but it is in fact the opposite. The actual indicator here is the category „Miscellaneous“. It contains attributions which couldn’t be grouped any further and are therefore quite diverse. The other categories only contribute to define the ideal in a more strict way, which in this case is constructed by these 7 essential attributes.

Ideal Masculinities.001

The problem is, ideal masculinities are almost a theoretic construct. Normal men rarely get close to those ideals. How to get a grip on normality? According to Jurgen Links Theory of Normalism, statistics allow us an approach. If 35% of a population have had, for example, homosexual experiences, they can hardly be condemned as deviant. So were do we find normalities in the medical field? At the other end of the spectrum – the patients.

Deviations are found in the field of sexuality, homosexuality for example once again, which slowly moved from serious disorder towards the psychoanalytic explanation of neurosis. But also with the over 100.000 war disabled persons who had to be reintegrated into society. Their deviation was the failure to meet the arguably most important masculine requirement of the time: the ability to work. But they still counted as men, most importantly concerning the topic of state controlled marriages. They were the men that needed to be married quickly, because they had served bravely and willingly to make sacrifices. The context of these debates is one that should take an even more sinister turn the next decade: Eugenics and in contemporary words „Rassewert“ – Value of race.

So there was a certain ambivalence concerning normal masculinities. I also came across two impressive case studies published in 1920 by psychiatrist Alexander Pilcz, containing the experts report on the matter. The first case is about F. F., a simple soldier who deserted five times from 1913 to 1918. While desertion was a serious offense, Pilcz comes to a positive conclusion in his report. F. F., despite his desertions, is described as a brave and even dutiful man. Certain arguments supported this depiction formed by Pilcz, for example the fact that F. F., after his first desertion, returned to the military by his own will at the outbreak of the war. Another argument in favor of F. F. was his industriousness. His five desertions were explained with the diagnosis of „fugue“, a condition where the patient has the irresistible urge to just wander away. He did not have to answer for his offenses and did not face a court martial.

The second case took a very different turn. Officer O. T. was part of an offense during the war, when he suddenly and against his superior’s command ordered his unit to retreat. He was then admitted to the hospital under the diagnosis „hysteric-neurasthenic condition“. Pilcz’ exploration of the case leads to O.T. being depicted as a weak, marauding coward faking mental illness. Other than F. F. he was found accountable for his offense and court-martialed. What we see here are some interesting lines of argumentation using attributes of ideal masculinities to build a positive image.

Deserter and fakers were obviously judged differently.

So looking back there are certain developments pointing at a widening of normal masculinities, at least a lot of ambivalences that opened opportunities for masculinities. But there was also one clear boundary: Feminisation. As certain quotes from the source show, men taking on female characteristics (and also the other way around) was seen as a downright threat. Robert Stigler, the author numerous article on the matter and later a vivid member of the Nazi Party, feared a „decline of health and efficiency“ of men and children. „A people (Volk) of psychological hybrids could never compete with real men and women.“ Men becoming more and more like women was the distinct boundary of normalization during the time. And that brings us back to our starting point.

Coming back to the picture shown at the beginning – What do we see in the picture? A man becoming more and more female. It’s a resilient and long-lasting threat to ideal masculinities, one that the article to this picture perfectly displayed. Soft men, doing laundry and so on. But the article didn’t actually stop there. Because after all this glorifying of ideal masculinities and pointing out the ongoing crisis came a subheading asking „Or maybe not?“. The author played a very good trick, building up those ideal masculinities and then deconstructing them. Because effectively they contribute to two things:

They sabotage female emancipation and they lead to the stigmatization of so-called „alternative masculinities“, which are in fact normal masculinities, if you argue with statistics in comparison to ideal masculinities. And this struggle between normal and ideal masculinities is the second resilient and long-lasting element here. But furthermore the importance to deconstruct those ideal masculinities in order widen the field of normal masculinities marks an important task. And this is a historian’s tasks, our task, and while we heard a lot of resilience and longevity, this social responsibility of ours might need a revival.