6 Feb. 2014: Nazi Laws and Public Feelings

I’m currently grappling with the question of how to attend to the relationship between law, politics and everyday lives and feelings in the past?

There now exists a considerable amount of cultural and critical scholarship on the shape and shaping of ‘public feelings‘, especially in the present-day U.S., and about what Sara Ahmed has called the Cultural Politics of Emotions. These insights, in different ways, follow in the feminist tradition of challenging the divide between the public and private, the personal and the political.

Photo-0525This article on the ‘Nazi murder law that still exists‘ indicates the importance of such modes of inquiry even as it shows that the law can provoke public feelings that do not address the full extent of systemic injustices. The broad content of the article – that some of the legislation introduced by the Nazis has never been revoked – was not new to me. However, I had previously only looked at the legal history of Paragraph 175 and its variations, which criminalised homosexuality and remained in West Germany’s Criminal Code until unification in 1994 (I’m showing a movie from 1919 about the impact of this law next week. For more info click here).

It is disturbing that  – so many years after Nazi rule has come to an end – people who are tried for murder in the German courts are still subjected to laws that were introduced by a regime which actively pursued hate, discrimination and inequality, and which killed millions of people. Stephen Evans, the author of the piece, points out the gendered effects of the Nazi murder laws, which distinguish ‘murder’ from ‘manslaughter’ via a definition of ‘the murderer’ ‘as someone who killed “treacherously” or “sneakily” (“heimtueckisch” in German):

‘This means that a man who beats his wife over many years, finally killing her, is less likely to be convicted of murder, with a mandatory life sentence, than to be convicted of manslaughter, which may mean only five years in jail. The argument is that there was nothing “sneaky” or “treacherous” about the killing – it was frontal and direct and might have been expected.’

The article gives examples of how some convictions under this law caused public outrage in Germany, but it appears that these public debates largely focused on the individual cases rather than the fact that Nazi laws remain in place in contemporary Germany.

Aside from drawing attention to the very real legacies of Nazism and its twenty-first century presence – how can a state work through its past if its institutions retain the values of an atrocious regime? – these debates also raise questions about the role of the law in historical research. In the history of same-sex sexuality, which is the concern of my current project, changes in legislation – such as the introduction of Paragraph 175 in the newly formed German Empire or the Labouchere Amendment in Britain – clearly impact on individual lives. But my work on Hirschfeld’s private papers and public work has already taught me that the relationship between legal and political developments and ‘felt experience’ is fraught. For laws, while helping to define the conditions of possibility for individual and collective existence, only ever tell part of the story of what it feels like to live at certain moments in time.

This is why, for me, the tools of literary analysis and cultural criticism are so important. As verbal and visual representations are our bridge between the imagined and the real, paying attention to the narratives that shape a historical archive provides access to the lives and feelings of the women and men who inhabit it.

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