One of the most poignant memoirs of the World War II Holocaust, Anne Frank’s Diary, has recently become the battleground in an entirely different kind of war. Gail Horalek, the mother of a young teen in Michigan, labelled the book as “pornographic” after her daughter experienced discomfort at reading passages where young Anne, bereft of much else to do while hiding from the Nazis, explored and described her own genitalia in poetic detail. “Between your legs there are two soft, cushiony things, also covered with hair, which press together when you’re standing, so you can’t see what’s inside”.

Anne isn’t the only one bamboozled by the Bermuda Triangle between her legs. Horalek played down notions of being prudish but claimed that the full version of Anne Frank’s Diary, containing material Anne’s father Otto omitted from the 1947 original, was inappropriate for US seventh graders (ages 12-13) and should be removed from their reading list. While free speech advocates frothed at the mouth at such censorship, in cyberspace (well, British cyberspace, at least) much of the ensuing discussion centred on whether the sections relating to Anne’s genital self-exploration increased or decreased students’ appreciation of the horrors of the Holocaust.

One school of thought was that the inclusion of the sexual passages (please excuse the pun) helped modern teenagers to relate to Frank’s extraordinary ordeal, increasing their empathy and understanding. The counter-argument was that a classroom full of girls and –­ in particular – boys giggling over that pearl of a literary sub-genre, the vaginal monologue, would somehow fail to grasp the subtleties of Hitler’s Final Solution. This view was pithily summarised as ‘sex and history don’t mix’.

Sine qua non

Those advocating the separation of sex from history might be surprised to find that erudite British author Gordon Rattray Taylor devoted an entire volume, unsurprisingly titled Sex in History, to the supposedly self-repelling properties of these two elements. What Taylor’s eminently readable 1954 tome incontrovertibly reveals is that not only do they mix extremely well, but that the former is perhaps the single most important driver of the latter.

Taylor goes so far as to say that “the study of the changes in sexual attitudes is the very first step, the sine qua non, of all coherent historical research”

What Taylor implies, knowingly or unknowingly, is that no understanding of Nazism is complete without studying the sexual attitudes prevalent at the time.

Taylor did not specifically address the issue of sex and Nazism. One writer who did was radical psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich – and he was there, living in Berlin in 1932. The following year he published The Mass Psychology of Fascism. He largely attributed the overwhelming support for an authoritarian regime acting against the people’s interests to sexual suppression. “In brief, the goal of sexual suppression is that of producing an individual who is adjusted to the authoritarian order and who will submit to it in spite of all misery and degradation”. Reich further claimed that the swastika was an emblematic representation of the sex act. This frightening symbol, according to Reich, promoted unquestioning allegiance by provoking sexual anxiety. One of the central tenets of Nazi domestic policy was thus the sexual ignorance of women. This ignorance begins with those “soft, cushiony things” so vividly documented by Anne Frank.

Burning books

The Mass Psychology of Fascism was banned by the Nazis. Reich was forced to flee, reputedly escaping to pre-Anschluss Vienna by disguising himself as an Austrian tourist. (Not quite Houdini, given that Reich was born in the Ukraine, which was then part of the Austro-Hungarian empire.) Political upheavals in Europe, compounded by antagonism to Reich’s pro-women and pro-sex education manifesto, pushed Reich into emigrating to America. His radical message was no more welcome in the New World than the Old. In 1956 the Food and Drug Administration ordered the burning of Reich’s books. These included The Mass Psychology of Fascism, a level of authoritarianism not even the Nazis achieved.

Reich’s theories remain unproven. What is indisputable is the impact of sexual repression on the present day, which is history in the making. The sexual ignorance of women exploited by the Nazis in the 1930s might continue indefinitely – in Michigan at least – were it not for brave, break-the-mould documents such as Anne Frank’s Diary.