There is an old familiar slipstream in Western thought, of course, that personal liberation means exactly the freedom to injure others, that the ultimate experience of personal liberty is in the destruction or degradation of another. This doctrine, mystified and prettified, lies behind a great deal of what is called nihilism, libertinism, and so forth; this is the doctrine behind the appeal of sadistic fantasies (or realities): the defiance of all rules. It should not be associated at all with progressive or liberal politics; its genealogy is quite otherwise.
I find no prospect for liberation in an ersatz re-enactment of the excesses and privileges of an earlier aristocracy. Many of the members of the new sm social scene happily describe themselves and their hobby as decadent, and references (symbolic, stylistic, artistic, literary) to the fall of the Weimar Republic are frequent and self-conscious. There are strong connections with the nihilistic Punk aesthetic, a convergence of style and manner, a shared fascination with violence, pain, and death.
There is also a peculiar reduction of privilege and oppression into a meaningless mess, manipulated whichever way is advantageous at the time. Sm lesbians frequently use the politics of deviance line to identify themselves as a minority within the lesbian community and to bewail their oppression, suppression and silencing at the hands of an intolerant, normal majority of vanilla lesbians. They identify themselves with the pioneers of Gay Liberation and heap indignant rage on those who are not delighted with them for coming out and claiming their sexuality.
At least some influential spokeswomen for sm identify the Marquis de Sade as a victim oppressed by a hypocritical and repressive society, an unfortunate and even a martyr for freedom of speech and sexual liberation. How women who call themselves feminists can manoeuvre themselves into this position is beyond me. The Marquis was, first, a man in a century in which men had even more legal and informal power over women than they now have. He was, secondly, a white man and a wealthy one in an age of imperialist expansion abroad and exploitation of a labouring peasantry at home, a beneficiary of others' labour and others' suffering. He was, thirdly, an aristocrat in a nation where the male aristocracy had for centuries enjoyed every form of self-indulgence and the unlimited abuse of powerless commoners. The women he abused were neither wealthy nor noble. He was no different from any rich white male today who can sexually harass his female employees, perhaps even beat or kill a whore in his hotel suite, with no questions asked. Yet to some lesbians today he has become a hero, and the libertinism he practised and advocated seems glamorous, desirable - and radical.
Libertinism, like decadence, is the hobby of aristocrats and aesthetes. It is a concept rooted in the traditions of maleness and wealth, the idea that freedom means complete lack of social restraint and the right to do whatever one damn well pleases. It is the philosophically rationalised, highfalutin face of brute force. Freedom to the rest of the world's people means freedom from constraint, freedom from being forced to do other people's will, freedom to pursue one's own course unmolested; only to the violent, the wealthy, and the privileged does liberty mean license. The Marquis de Sade was silenced in the end only because he became too loud and offensive - effectively letting down his team by publicizing what his fellow-aristos would rather keep quiet: the degree and depth of their power and their appetite for its abuse. To describe him as a human rights martyr is the purest revisionism.
The libertinism of the age-old aristocracies evolved and was embodied in the Nietzschean blond beast, the Superman whose physical vitality, mental acuity and innate aggression would give him the right to rule the world. Might makes right, the ethic at the heart of male supremacy, had been given a new hairdo. The Aryan Superman into which Nietzsche's high-flying rhetoric was simplified and mass-produced was only the logical application of 20th century nation-state politics to centuries of the mysticism of kingship and male supremacy. The aristocracy of Hitler's New Order would be a populist aristocracy, an aristocracy of all pure-bred Germans over everyone else. The arrogant and absolutist overlord of feudal times would be Everyman; the blond beast would be every foot soldier of the Reich, full of patriotism, youthful energy, and the glorious enthusiasm of licensed bullydom: the perfect vulgarisation of privilege.
The tragedy of the Third Reich has been so much exploited for its drama and for the private agendas of individuals, and is so little studied and known by the average person, that it has become to most people only a convenient symbol, a media event of sorts. As I've said before, the complexities of Hitler's grand plan for Europe get reduced to simplistic metaphors to suit almost any argument.
The extermination of gay men in the camps and the destruction of the Hirschfeld Institute are often cited to equate Nazis with homophobes, and vice versa. On the other hand, McCarthyites made a lot of mileage in the post-war years from the existence of the Räoehm faction, and generated reams of scurrilous propaganda equating Nazis and perverts. The public book-burnings conducted by the Hitlerjugend are used to associate the Nazis with censorship and repression. On the other hand, it was the embattled Weimar Republic which repeatedly jailed Hitler for inflammatory oratory, and Julius Streicher (the most effective propagandist of the early years) for his pornographic and anti-Semitic paper Der Stªuermer ; and both Hitler and Streicher described themselves as victims of State terrorism, censorship, and repression.
There are still those who equate the Nazis with Communists, because the Party built its initial appeals on the anger and unrest of Germany's imperiled working class and called itself Socialist. On the other hand, Germany's Communists were the first and the most tenacious of her citizens to fight the Nazis, and they died for it in large numbers. There are those who associate the Nazis with attacks on Big Business and with nationalisation, because of the massive expropriation of Jewish business and State takeovers of the press and other essential concerns. On the other hand, Aryan Big Business in Germany was in league with the Nazis as soon as they proved themselves able to keep the power they had grabbed. German industrialists, some still living and in business, had no problem increasing their profit margins by the strategic use of slave labour from the camps.
Many associate the Nazis with any and all attacks on art, because of their ridiculous campaigns against modern art. The insane humourlessness and self-importance of their pseudo-scientists and philosophers are well remembered, and were even the subject of (whispered) jokes at the time. The Nazis are easily imagined as boring, regimented, fun-hating party-poopers who shut down the great friendly party that was Weimar. On the other hand, they showed a genius for spectacle and entertainment matched only by that of the modern American media industry. Leni Riefenstahl's film of the Berlin Olympics is splendid cinema. Their sense of symbolism and regalia, their knack for accessorizing their politics into fashion and style, their ability to provide glamour and show and pageantry, were phenomenal. They kept the public very well entertained, until the strain of the war years began to break down the PR machinery. There were secret societies to belong to, rituals to take part in, costumes to wear, grand rhetoric to repeat: many of those who were young during the Nazi climb to power remember it as a time of tremendous excitement and fun.
The Weimar Republic which was such an object of hatred and contempt for the young Nazis is now associated in the public mind with liberty and democracy, a brave era of liberation in which a women's movement and the beginnings of a gay rights movement briefly flourished. Packaged along with these things in many people's minds are the decadence of old Berlin, the sex clubs and strip shows, the naughtiness which drew tourists to Germany and upset churchmen and civic officials. On the other hand, the Weimar Republic was a government perpetually beset by economic disaster; unemployment was rampant, inflation repeatedly wiped out working people's savings, hunger was not uncommon. It was in this cold and hopeless economic climate that the club owners and madams of Berlin recruited their workers, and the tourists who came to a humiliated and bankrupt Germany to spend their valuable foreign currency were not unlike the wealthy who now throw their Eurodollars around in the hungry nations of the Third World. Berlin's notoriety as the bordello of Europe was not, at the time, a matter of great pride or achievement for Germans.
The same atmosphere of poverty, shame, unemployment, and foreign exploitation that produced the whores of the Alexanderplatz produced the Brown Shirts, just as similar (though less severe) conditions today have in the US produced both a burgeoning sex and drug trade, and the Skinheads. The poverty that makes an army of young, undereducated and hopeless women available for sexual exploitation makes an army of similar young men available for recruitment into whatever rowdiness and destruction is going around.
So it is hard for me to know exactly what to feel, when young women decked out in a close imitation of SS regalia call their lesbian sisters Nazis or sex-fascists for opposing pornography or prostitution - when both are traditional tools and institutions of 20th century fascism as well as ancient despotism.