Official German Prudery? Sexual Morality and Illegitimacy in the Third Reich

In a Tortoiseshell

The following excerpt is from my final research paper for HIS429: Fascism and Antifascism in Global History. For this assignment, students were granted the freedom to research any aspect of fascist or antifascist history they found interesting and compelling. We were tasked with locating primary source documents related to our subject of interest and developing and defending an argument based on our research and analysis of the sources. The critical question our papers were meant to address was “What is it about this historical subject that you can teach the rest of us? That the rest of us are likely to miss without you, and your research, illuminating for us?”

Excerpt / Alexa Marsh

Nazi Germany has long been characterized as intensely anti-sex. Repulsed by the perverse progressivism and decadence of the Weimar Republic, the Third Reich’s sexual politics constituted a reactionary backlash against the prior regime’s aura of openness and toleration of sexual liberties. Its repressive reprisal promised to reverse the depravity of the Weimar age and restore a sense of restraint, respectability, and Christian morality to the German nation. The Nazis’ glorification of the virtuous Aryan family, insistence on stoical restraint and unwavering discipline, and aggressive persecution of sexual “deviants” are cited as evidence not only of the regime’s severe sexual repression, but its quasi-pathological obsession with sexual propriety. George Mosse attributed the regime’s desire to “transcend sexuality” and transform the body into a symbol of national purity to Nazism’s ideological emphasis on self-discipline and its appeals to bourgeois respectability.1 Other historians have ascribed the regime’s supposed sex hostility to “official German prudery” and the National Socialists’ deep “fear of sexuality.”2 This representation has so dominated the discourse on the Third Reich’s sexual politics that the association between Nazism and sexual repression now appears almost “intuitively obvious.”3 But while the regime’s virulent chauvinism and animosity toward homosexuality demonstrate its repudiation of sexual toleration, the narrative of sexual propriety and prudishness disregards the centrality of sexuality to the Nazi political program. Far from repressing sexuality, the Third Reich redefined who had the right to sexual expression, and rejecting bourgeois conventions, devised a new social morality that functionalized sexuality for the national agenda.

The interwar years in Europe were marked by acute demographic declines. The loss of life and prolonged spousal separations of the First World War provoked plummeting birth rates that exacerbated national angsts about military insecurity and economic instability. Across Europe, western democracies passed pronatalist policies and endorsed a maternal politics that afforded mothers greater welfare benefits and social protections.4 Although falling rates of fertility were a continental phenomenon, Germany was among the nations that experienced the most severe reductions in childbirths. The German population grew by ten million between 1919 and 1933, but natality continued to decline even as the number of marriages increased.5 In 1933, the German birth rate fell to an unprecedented low of less than one million births.6 Aggravating anxieties about such stumbling birth rates were somber prognoses from German statisticians who cautioned that the continuation of a two-child system would lead to the extinction of the German people within the next three centuries.7 As demographer Friedrich Burgdörfer warned, reversing Germany’s demographic decline was critical because “a Volk without youth would be a Volk without hope, a Volk without a future.”8 For the Third Reich, demographic downturn represented more than a menace to German military might or the regime’s economic durability. Population stagnancy represented feebleness and infirmity, and it tarnished the regime’s resolution for national regeneration, virility, and vigor.9 And most significantly, unlike the demographic realpolitik of its democratic neighbors, the German brand of procreation politics was distinct: it was harnessed for eugenic ambitions. Falling fertility constituted an existential threat to the longevity of the racial state. Boosting the birth rate thus became a major preoccupation for the regime, and the bureaucratic regulation of intimacy, a national imperative. Wielding the power of the modern welfare state to manipulate maternity and police fertility, the regime exploited sexuality for its ethno-nationalist project of reproductive engineering. And far from harboring a preoccupation with sexual propriety, in administering its pronatalist politics, the Third Reich repudiated bourgeois and Christian conventions and contrived an alternative sexual morality that encouraged German procreation outside marital and familial institutions.The regime’s systematic persecution of those deemed sexually deviant—Communists, Jews, Gypsies, homosexuals, prostitutes, and “over-sexed” women10—is undoubtedly a testament to its determined abrogation of the toleration of Weimar progressivism. However, interpreting the Third Reich’s victimization of sexual outcasts as evidence of the National Socialists’ prudish sexual suppression misunderstands how the regime manipulated the discourse on sexual morality to advance both anti- and pro-sexual projects. Instead of extinguishing the sexually permissive proclivities of the Weimar rule, the Nazis hijacked the language of chastity and conservatism to demonize the sexually perverse “other” and reconceive sexual liberalization as a Germanic prerogative and ethical duty. Thus, the Nazis did not strive at all costs to render their movement congruent with middle-class respectability, as scholars such as Mosse have suggested. The political deployment of moral purity coexisted with party rhetoric that empowered heteronormative sexual activity among the racially pure. The regime appropriated Christian canons and bourgeois beliefs to disparage “perverse” national enemies while simultaneously repudiating Christian standards of sexual propriety as an obstruction to the regime’s reproductive ambitions and endeavoring to rid the German public of restrictive socio-sexual mores. Nazi officials sought, in the words of Himmler, to “break through the small and holier-than-thou civil judgment” that was impeding the regime’s population program and endangering the endurance of the racial state.11


  1. Mosse, George L. “Fascism and Sexuality” in Nationalism and Sexuality: Middle-Class Morality and Sexual Norms in Modern Europe. Madison, Wisconsin: The University of Wisconsin Press, 2020. ↩︎
  2. Herzog, Dagmar. Sex after Fascism: Memory and Morality in Twentieth-Century Germany. Princeton University Press, 2005, pp. 15. ↩︎
  3. Herf, Jeffrey. “One-Dimensional Man” (review of Herbert Marcuse, War, Technology and Fascism), New Republic, 1 Feb. 1999, pp. 39. ↩︎
  4. Joshi, Vandana. “Maternalism, Race, Class and Citizenship: Aspects of Illegitimate Motherhood in Nazi Germany.” Journal of Contemporary History 46, no. 4 (2011): 832–53. ↩︎
  5. Thompson, Larry V. “Lebensborn and the Eugenics Policy of the Reichsführer-SS.” Central European History 4, no. 1 (1971): 54–77. ↩︎
  6. Ibid. ↩︎
  7. Carney, Amy. Marriage and Fatherhood in the Nazi SS. University of Toronto Press, 2018. /stable/10.3138/j.ctv2fjwqcz.7. ↩︎
  8. Ibid. ↩︎
  9. Thompson, “Lebensborn and the Eugenics Policy of the Reichsführer-SS.” ↩︎
  10. Ibid. ↩︎
  11. Carney, Marriage and Fatherhood in the Nazi SS, pp. 61. ↩︎

Author Commentary / Alexa Marsh 

I chose to research the regulation of reproductivity and sexuality in Nazi Germany. Examining the scholarly literature on the Third Reich’s sexual politics, I found that there was a general consensus among most historians regarding the regime’s attitude toward sex: that it was one defined by prudishness, discipline, and respectability, reflecting a propensity for propriety that bordered on pathological obsession. This narrative of the regime’s adherence to a strict set of religious and socio-sexual mores, however, seemed at odds with some of the Third Reich’s pronatalist policies that I had begun to research. Most antithetical to the image of a chastity-obsessed Nazi regime was the Lebensborn program, a state-sponsored initiative to increase the number of “racially pure” Aryan children by explicitly encouraging eugenically “fit” women to procreate outside the institution of marriage. 

In my paper, I seek to address the tension between the traditional understanding of the Third Reich’s sexual politics—as repressive, moralistic, and bourgeois—and the pronatalist initiatives and internal party communications that tell a different story about the regime’s stance on sexuality. This contradiction between the conventional narrative of the Nazi regime and the political realities and pronatalist rhetoric deployed by the Third Reich forms the crux of my paper. Analyzing primary sources that detail the aims of the Lebensborn program and correspondences between high-level Nazi officials describing the urgent need for a population politics that transcends obsolete religious and bourgeois sexual norms, I argue that contrary to the dominant depiction of a Third Reich that was repulsed by and repudiated sexual license and liberties, the regime instead sought to devise a new sexual morality and functionalize it for its ethno-nationalist agenda.

Editor Commentary / Grace Kim

Alexa responds to the relatively open-ended nature of her given prompt from an interesting direction: She approaches it as a teaching moment, as an opportunity to walk us through what she herself noticed and spent time thinking about so that we, too, may learn something new about the sexual politics of Nazi Germany upon reading her paper. 

She invites us to follow the logic of her thinking, even if we may not be as familiar with the Third Reich’s sexual politics, by providing all of the necessary information that we need to know to understand the context (orienting!) leading up to her discovery of something unexpected, strange, and in her case, previously overlooked by other historians. She clearly and directly expresses what this interesting discovery is (motive!) by writing it out right before her thesis, cueing our attention to her complication of the existing scholarship through the “but”: “But while the regime’s virulent chauvinism and animosity toward homosexuality demonstrate its repudiation of sexual toleration, the narrative of sexual propriety and prudishness disregards the centrality of sexuality to the Nazi political program.” The keyword here is “disregards”—having studied both her primary sources on the “Nazi political program” and her scholarly sources on their “narrative of sexual propriety and prudishness,” she points out that those scholars have not been paying attention to the “centrality of sexuality.” 

Notice how she anticipates, throughout her orienting, the tension that takes force in the “but” that signals her motive. She acknowledges what other historians have already studied and argued about her topic: “Nazi Germany has long been characterized as,” “George Mosse attributed,” “other historians have ascribed,” “this representation has so dominated the discourse.” She lays down this scholarly road map as the foundation of her research, grounding her own ideas within the frame of her scholars’ work so that we can understand not only what she is responding to (scholarly conversation!) but how she is responding to it (motive and thesis!). 

Following the introduction paragraph, there are two paragraphs from different parts of her evidence-analysis, as an illustration of how motive connects to the main content of her paper. The second excerpted paragraph is one that comes immediately after her introduction. Rather than jumping straight into her own argument, she works her way towards her ideas by following the scholarly road map that she lays out for herself, and for us, in her introduction: Here, she continues the work of her scholarly conversation by presenting the evidence that further contextualizes and explains the focus of her scholars. This then gives her a solid basis for which she can delve into the argument of the final scholar who is entering the conversation—cue Alexa! The final excerpted paragraph is where Alexa shifts the focus towards her own, original argument. Much like how she sets-up and presents her motive in the introduction, she calls our attention towards her motive in the evidence-analysis through key words that convey the relationship between the scholars’ ideas and her ideas: “however,” “misunderstands,” “instead,” “did not… as scholars such as Mosse have suggested.”

As a whole, these three excerpted paragraphs exemplify how Alexa builds up to her motive, clearly presents it, and makes it flow into her evidence-analysis. Her excerpted paper models a skillful navigation of the scholarly conversation, where she does not work to merely prove that her scholars are correct but rather draws from their ideas to set-up a scholarly framework within which she can make a case for why she is correct. 

The author

Alexa Marsh

Alexa Marsh ’25 is a member of the Class of 2025 from Great Falls, Virginia, majoring in the School of Public and International Affairs and pursuing a certificate in Italian Language and Culture. On campus, she is involved in civic engagement as a Vote100 Fellow, serves as a Fellow at the Writing Center, and acts as a Study Abroad Global Ambassador for the Office of International Programs.

Grace Kim ‘25 is a junior studying English from Ellicott City, Maryland. On campus, she supports other students throughout the writing process as a Writing Center Fellow; advises high school students on their college applications and manages the 2024 cohort of Princeton Advising Fellows as a Matriculate Head Advising Fellow; and is a member of the Princeton Christian Fellowship. In her free time, she loves to dance with Six14, watch Korean dramas, and journal at Small World.