In no Western country were questions of sexuality more politically central during the second
half of the twentieth century than the Federal Republic of Germany. after the collapse of National Socialism it was, in the slang of the time, Thema 1 ("Topic No. 1"); by 1970 the Nouvel Observateur could claim that the Germans were sex-obsessed—"Sex über alles"—noting that the heavy breathing of orgasm had mercifully replaced the stomping of boots. Nowhere were sexual and political liberation linked more fiercely during the 1960s and '70s, and nowhere—with the possible exception of the United States—was the backlash in the decades that followed more painful. Even in the German Democratic Republic, where socialism supposedly made matters of personal sexual morality less pressing, Siegfried Schnabl's 1969 Mann und Frau intim (Man and Woman Intimately) was the biggest-selling title of any book in East German history (the nearest competitor was a book on gardening).

Why this was the case lies at the heart of Dagmar Herzog's brilliant, deeply researched, and beautifully written book, Sex After Fascism. Herzog can only hint at the deep structures of an answer, the longue durée of the history of sexuality in Germany. That would be another project. She does point to the attraction that public nudity has held for Germans—and the Nordic peoples more generally—since the late nineteenth century. And she does link the post-Nazi reading and misreading of the political history of sexuality to earlier exercises of a similar sort: German conservatives of the 1920s, for example, blamed the supposedly novel sexual liberalization of the post-Versailles era on military defeat and the Communists when in fact it was merely the continuation of trends already well under way in a reaction against official Wilhemine morality. Indeed, the Nazis intensified many of the liberalizing trends of Weimar at the same time that they presented themselves as the saviors of Germany from the rampant, Jewish-led sexual depravity that supposedly characterized the republic.

There is, however, more to the prehistory of the postwar story. The '60s notion that the unshackled body is central to the reform of life was already present, for example, in the iconic, endlessly reproduced and reworked 1894 "Das Lichtgebet" ("The Prayer to Light"), by Hugo Höppner (aka Fidus), picturing an androgynous, decidedly Nordic nude, standing on a high cliff with arms upraised in praise to the sun. The commitment of West German radicals of the '60s to liberating the sexuality of children was also prefigured, if more coyly, in the image of lithe, naked children dancing on the cover of the 1902 volume Die Kunst im Leben des Kindes (Art in the Life of the Child). In other words, there is even more historical weight behind the story Herzog tells than she has space to relate.

Herzog's answer, though, is more precise and detailed: Sexuality, central to "meaning making" in any culture, was, in postwar Germany, determinative of how the Third Reich would be remembered and how succeeding generations would come to terms with the Holocaust. The range of sources Herzog marshals to support her view is breathtaking: from local church pamphlets to the pronouncements of bishops; from autobiographical snippets to political manifestos and theoretical statements; from legislative histories to the recounting of central episodes in the battle for sexual liberation. There is plenty on what was said but also a great deal on what was done—including detailed descriptions of innovative day-care initiatives, the 1974 demonstrations in support of a lesbian couple accused of murdering the abusive husband of one of the two, and the suicides of at least six gay men prosecuted in 1950 under the notorious Nazi holdover Paragraph 175, which criminalized homosexuality.

Central to Herzog's story is the history of sexuality itself in the Nazi era, because what actually occurred is crucial to understanding how it was misremembered and misunderstood by the generation of 1968. Of course the '68ers were wrong and perhaps naive in their belief that Auschwitz "was typical of a society that represses sexuality" or that "brutality and lust for destruction" became "substitutes for sexual pleasures." But theirs was a morally serious misunderstanding, grounded in a distortion of the past that they inherited from their parents' generation and that was itself the result of the complex story of National Socialist sexuality.

In fact, the Nazis were, as the German churches pointed out timidly during the Third Reich and vociferously afterward, the sworn enemies of "traditional" bourgeois sexuality. Of course the Nazi regime made abortion a capital offense, tightened the 1871 criminal penalties against homosexuality, and mounted hyperbolic attacks on Weimar as the golden age of Jewish/Communist sexual perversion. Sexual license was for the master race alone, under prescribed circumstances. Still, Hitler was an avowed enemy of prudery. Premarital sex was standard and uncontroversial National Socialist policy; pro-sex polemics were part of a neo-pagan attack on Christian morality; illegitimacy was destigmatized; and every opportunity was seized to encourage early sexual exploration among the party's young faithful.

Nudes constituted fully one in ten paintings of those officially shown under Nazi auspices. The Nazis were, as Herzog points out, far from chaste. (One wishes for reproductions to help make her case: The subject of Sepp Hilz's Peasant Venus, for example, stands enticingly naked before her bed. The coy girls in The Four Elements by Adolf Ziegler, the "master of German pubic hair" and president of the Reich Chamber for the Visual Arts, could only be invitations to desire.) As Herbert Marcuse wrote in the early '40s: "The abolition of sexual taboos [made] this realm of satisfaction an official political domain" that bound individuals to the party.

The generation of '68 was thus responding not to the sexual repressiveness of the Nazi regime but to a postfascist formation, the cultural work of their parents in coming to terms with defeat and the Holocaust without getting into moral deep water. A brief period of postwar libertarianism and openness—a sort of breezy time that extolled the return of heterosexual romance, cheerful femininity, and chivalrous masculinity, which Herzog argues banalized the worst aspects of the Nazi regime and provided cover for a renewed persecution of homosexuals—gave way to the astonishingly repressive and hypocritical years of Christian Democrat rule. Adenauer represented a return not to the '20s but to the most conservative norms of Wilhelmine Germany. This regime the baby boomers mistakenly identified as fascist.

Creating a world safe for husbands who were "real men," able to support their families single-handedly, and for wives who uncomplainingly tolerated whatever their men did and happily sacrificed themselves for the greater good of society, became, as Herzog shows, a widespread project that deflected attention away from what really stank in Germany. The churches and the state struggled mightily to distinguish their antiabortion, anti–birth control, antigay stances from those of the Nazis: Killing the unborn was cast as a version of the Holocaust, for example; federal commitment to Paragraph 175 as a defense against a seemingly communicable wave of homosexuality was made without any reference to the legislation's odious, murderous history. It was precisely these continuities that the '68ers would cite when they insisted that the postfascist culture of conservatism was really just a continuation of the Nazi regime in unconvincing disguise. Parents and teachers, and a flood of religious and secular publications, preached the virtues of premarital chastity as if it were the highest good at the same time as they remained silent about their own lack of virtue during the years 1933 to 1945.

The social history of sexual practice itself had a different trajectory, one that Herzog documents beautifully. In fact the currents of sexual behavior run far deeper and more slowly than changes in norms and memory. Abortion in West Germany in the '50s and early '60s was the primary form of birth control, not as policy (as in some central European Communist states) but as a matter of social practice; premarital sex was the norm—something on the order of 90 percent of girls admitted to it at a time when Kinsey and others reported the figure to be around 50 percent in the United States—and one-third of all children born were conceived before marriage.

In the realm of memory, however, the new conservative regime made itself felt with a vengeance. To those who came of age after 1945, the 1950s consensus represented the continuity of Nazi oppression. Both in its divergence from reality and in the secrecy with which all matters sexual were treated, it stood as a monument to hypocrisy and silence generally, to an unmastered and unacknowledged past. Sexuality and its discontents bore the burdens of history from one generation to the next.

The goal of the sexual revolution of the 1960s and early '70s was to transcend this past, to demolish root and branch, intellectually and institutionally, what progressive contemporaries took to be the psychological foundations of fascism. A new morality of pleasure, they hoped, would replace repression with freedom, overweening child-rearing practices with a new openness, hypocrisy with truth. "Never again" was to be written on the body.

Herzog subtly chronicles this mighty, pathos-laden struggle, treating it with the seriousness it deserves without airbrushing its blind moments or gestures of excess. Radical Freudian theories about fascism were at its theoretical core. "Read Wilhelm Reich and act accordingly" read the graffiti on a Frankfurt wall in 1968—and millions did just that. "Breathlessly," we are told, they made their way through The Function of the Orgasm and The Mass Psychology of Fascism. Nowhere else were these views so central. A "special sort of sexual tension was the ‘driving force' of 1968" wrote the New Left cultural critic and historian Klaus Theweleit. (Theweleit wrote one of the most important post-1968 accounts of politics and sexuality—two volumes published in the late '70s on the sexual fantasies of the Freikorps—in which he attempted to remain faithful to the idea that fascism was at its core a battle against pleasure, while acknowledging that its success lay also in its refusal to relinquish desire. He also took on the specifically antifeminist anxieties of his own generation and those of the '20s. Herzog's account of his project in her last chapter, like her analysis of other writers, is both generous and appreciatively critical.)

Reich's central insights—that cruelty was the result of chronic sexual dissatisfaction and that "genitally satisfiable people" were prone to be nicer and kinder—found expression in all sorts of reform movements, some silly, some long overdue. The '68 generation, for example, fought to create schools that valued the views of children and allowed the freer expression of child sexuality, the very existence of which an earlier generation had denied. If their parents had been taught to obey blindly, their own offspring would not be so burdened. (Well-publicized excesses—allowing six-year-olds to paint the naked bodies of their peers, to play with their own genitals and those of their friends in public, and to fondle their teachers—made the reformers vulnerable to false charges of pedophilia and worse.) The revolution made itself widely seen and heard. Explicit sex scenes appeared in films—some sponsored by the Social Democratic government—and on TV; pornography was everywhere. The teachings of the churches on questions of sexual morality were challenged across a broad front, and many clergy hastily responded that Christianity was in fact not as hostile to sex as it first appeared. Paragraph 175 was modified in 1969 to decriminalize homosexual acts between consenting adults, and the age of consent was lowered to eighteen in 1973 (Paragraph 175 was finally repealed in 1994). Abortion became legally available more widely, if unevenly.

Herzog herself is critical of the '68 generation and recounts its own self-evaluations. The Holocaust was an all too easy way, used by all sides, to tar the proposals of one's enemies. Latent anti-Semitism lay just below the surface. (She might have made more of the fact that for the '68ers Jews existed largely in their absence. That the sophomoric level of the exhibits at the Berlin Jewish Museum is considered revelatory by Germans of my generation shows just how abstract and empty the presence of Jews in Germany had become.) What Herzog describes as the "manic society-wide escalation of a culture of constant sexual invitation and arousal" came hard upon the revelations of the Auschwitz trials of 1963. Perhaps, she suggests, it kept self-confrontation at bay; perhaps it allowed children to identify with their parents as common victims of repression. But all this said, Herzog forces us to take seriously the politics of desire if we are to understand the peculiar passion of the '60s or the backlash of later decades.

The GDR provides Herzog with a counterfoil to this story. In a Germany that defined itself as antifascist, there were few hints of the neighboring Federal Republic's story: The East German government promulgated a proreproduction policy without aligning itself with similar, and equally unsuccessful, Nazi efforts; sex became a free space rather than an arena for contesting the past; and both the regime (reluctantly) and various intellectuals (more eagerly) insisted that socialism produced mutually satisfying gender and social equality. Indeed, the regime seemed to embrace aspects of sexual liberation as a way of ingratiating itself to its citizens.

In her chapter on the GDR, Herzog seems less interested in the question of how thinking about sexuality masters the past than in showing that there was actually some truth to East German claims. Socialist Germany did seem to produce a unique sexual culture, different from both that of the capitalist West and that of the rest of the often homophobic and straitlaced Eastern bloc. By contrast, we have some evidence that the continued hypersexualization of a unified, post-1990s Germany resulted in a distinct and growing Lustlosigkeit, a lack of desire, compared to the '70s. (A fuller version of this story would have to take up what has happened to German family size, among the lowest in Europe. The proliferation of masturbation aids and pornographic websites may have more to do with the fact that more people live alone in Germany than almost anywhere else.) Memory enters Herzog's picture of the GDR only in the '90s, when the good old days of easy nakedness, harkening back to Weimar Germany and beyond, made real intimacy a key component of Ostalgie.

The last chapter and an epilogue try to make sense of how the revolutions of the '60s and '70s have played out in subsequent decades. This story tracks in many ways that of the rest of Europe and the United States: a backlash against feminism; a mocking of the New Left's sexual politics, for both its overweening ambition and its misogyny; an effort by conservatives to regain moral ascendancy. Unease about how the Holocaust was all too easily elided with less weighty matters gives the story a particularly German twist. It is an ongoing tale and by its nature inconclusive.

Herzog has no truck with '60s-bashing. Even as she shows that the '68ers profoundly misremembered the past by conflating a fascist formation with a postfascist one, she remains profoundly respectful of their struggles. They got it wrong: It was, in fact, an antibourgeois incitement to desire that was somehow linked to mass murder. But this does not detract from the seriousness of their effort to rethink the past critically and to query "the possible relationship between pleasure and evil."

Sex After Fascism is one of the best books of the past twenty years on the history of sexuality, and certainly the best book on this particular subject. But it is also a book for anyone who wants to figure out why homophobia, antifeminism, and a passionate opposition to abortion and premarital sex have become the emotional core of right-wing politics in the United States. Other possibly than death, nothing is more important to making meaning than sexuality.

Thomas Laqueur is professor of history at the University of California, Berkeley, and the author of Solitary Sex: A Cultural History of Masturbation (Zone Books, 2003).