Written by Julie Mayhew

Arts

A History of the Nazis in Pictures: The Art of Seduction

Julie Mayhew is ‘the girl least likely to write a book about Nazis’. But she did. In a new series for Standard Issue, she shares what she discovered along the way…

Nazi youth girlI don’t know the name of the girl in this photograph, but I would like to. I wonder if she is still alive, because it is just about possible.

What would she make of her teenage years, looking back? Those warm, magical, woodland memories, touched by shafts of sunlight, days of laughter and song, nights of camping and camaraderie.

Because she must reconcile herself with what she knows now – that those years of joy and purpose in the name of the Fatherland were, in truth, in the name of hate and uncountable horrors.

From 1936, it was compulsory for all girls of German origin to enrol in the Jungmädel and then, when they reached the age of 14, the Bund Deutscher Mädel, the girls’ wing of the Hitler Youth.

But many needed no law to make them sign up. How seductive it must have been to join the ranks of these beautifully photographed girls, in their neat white tunics, their hair impressively knotted, their gaze fixed on the horizon and a promised victory.

In her biography Résistance, art historian Agnès Humbert, who was arrested for distributing protest literature during the Paris occupation and lived for months in filthy prisons, describes just how hard the Nazis made it to look away.

Recording the moment she was transported into a conquered and renovated Eastern European town, she said: “I mustn’t let myself be seduced by this outward show that flatters my craving for culture and beguiles my sense of aesthetics.”

I like to tell myself that, had I been a young girl in Nazi Germany, I would never have been bewitched. Then I think about how often I’ve fallen for the glossy assurances of a magazine advert and bought the dress/the skin cream/the holiday that I thought might somehow change my life.

We are hard-wired for beauty. We crave breathtaking landscapes because evolution tells us that they will feed us; we seek out handsome partners who will give us healthy children. We are born liking things that taste sweet, objects that feel smooth.

BIG_LIE_B_PB3Psychologist Nancy Etcoff, author of Survival of the Prettiest explains: “Turning a cold eye to beauty is as easy as quelling physical desire or responding with indifference to a baby’s cry.”

So this striking, clear-skinned, athletic girl was an obvious choice as a poster girl for the regime, featuring in the pages of teen magazine Das Deutsche Mädel (The German Lassie) and photo yearbook Glaube und Schönheit (Faith and Beauty).

She is also on the front of my novel, though we have graffitied out her face. A reminder that, as Naomi Wolf taught us, female beauty can also be used as a political weapon and sometimes our evolutionary senses will lead us, so wrongly, into those sunlit woods.

@JulieMayhew

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Written by Julie Mayhew

Julie Mayhew writes radio dramas about love and novels devoid of romance, most recently Nazi alt-history The Big Lie.