Perpetrator Studies Network


Sontag, Susan. Fascinating Fascism

In this essay for The New York Review of Books, Susan Sontag shares her concerns with the 1970s cultural climate, in which an aesthetic and cultural fascination with fascism has become accommodated and culturally accepted by minimising engagement with its historical and ideological contextual framework. To discuss these issues, she turns towards two contemporary cultural objects.

Her first case study is German director Leni Riefenstahl, who had been getting increased attention as a female director who “was always concerned with beauty.”. Sontag particularly focuses on Riefenstahl’s The Last of the Nuba (1973), a photography book featuring photographs of the Nuba tribe in Sudan. Sontag shows that while the biographic information about Riefenstahl is largely incorrect in an attempt to minimise her involvement with the Nazis, the photographs and the accompanying text themselves are almost transparently emblematic of Nazi ideals through a “celebration of the primitive” and a “preoccupation with situations of control, submissive behavior, and extravagant effort.” The highlight of the incorrect information on Riefenstahl’s life and work is the suggestion that she “resisted” Goebbels by making Triumph of the Will, which was in fact “the most successfully, most purely propagandistic film ever made.” In fact, she was intimately befriended with both Goebbels and Hitler, and most — if not all — of her work is in some way illustrative of Nazi ideals. This includes The Last of the Nuba, which Sontag calls the “the third in Riefenstahl’s triptych of fascist visuals.” According to Sontag, “the force of her work is precisely in the continuity of its political and aesthetic ideas. What is interesting is that this was once seen much more clearly than it seems to be now.” Sontag thus sees the rehabilitation of Riefenstahl as a sign of the broader fascination with fascism she is concerned with: fascism “stands for an ideal, and one that is also persistent today, under other banners.”

Sontag’s second case study is an example of the erotic and aesthetic attraction with fascism: a British publication titled SS Regalia (1974), which gives a visual overview of military paraphernalia used and worn by the SS. Even though it is accompanied by an introduction that provides historical context, this hardly spans more than a few pages, and the rest of the book is dedicated to photographs of the objects in colour. Sontag argues that this attraction to uniforms has a sexual origin, and that in the SS this attraction is most overt, “because they dramatized [the relation between uniforms and (sexual) power] by linking themselves to certain aesthetic standards.” Sontag argues that this attraction thus comes from the attention paid to theatrical and performative aesthetics and sadomasochistic erotics by the Nazis themselves, and the SS in particular. This attraction has, apparently, not been countered by the historical context or the passing of time, and according to Sontag, neither has the fascination with Nazism and fascism in general. This erotic attraction thus forms the other side of Sontag’s concern: “If the message of fascism has been neutralized by an aesthetic view of life, its trappings have been sexualised.”

Author of this entry: Lotte van den Eertwegh

Sontag, Susan. “Fascinating Fascism.” The New York Review of Books, February 6, 1975.