Once, having just attended a seminar on the legitimization and legalization of Nazi ideology, I asked the historian William Meinecke about the degree to which the Nazis’ belief system had regulated the everyday lives of Germans. I was interested because Meinecke held that norms were more important than rules in regulating everyday life in Nazi Germany. In other words, he asserted that the standards established by the Nazis were so powerful that, even had they not been written into law, they would have dominated the lives of citizens in various spheres, public and private.
Meinecke had also related a historical joke that betrayed how each and every member of a given German household was, in their own way, complicit in Nazi Germany’s web of criminal activities and propaganda: “My son's in the Youth. My daughter’s in the League of German Girls. My husband's in the SA. The mother’s in the Women's League. The only time we meet as a family is at the Nazi Party rally in Nuremberg.”
Meinecke’s point also stands for all totalitarian regimes, which don’t leave any aspect of citizens’ lives alone. These ‘governments’ deploy a series of policies, laws, and persuasive and coercive methods to encroach upon the privacy of ordinary people and re-route their daily existence toward the dominant ideology.
An obvious example is totalitarian regimes’ uniform, obsessive and aggressive quest for control of women’s bodies, fertility and childbearing. The known history of Nazi Germany’s shows their thinking was based not only on racism, but on sexism. Men and women had very different roles in the Nazi imagination, both of which had been assiduously engineered.
In Nazi Germany, women were encouraged to get married early and limit themselves to the home. Men were to serve the party and the dominant ideology, and to fight for Hitler. The Nazis believed women should be concerned with the kitchen, churchgoing and childbearing to ensure the reproduction of both the so-called ‘Germanic race’ and the continuity of fascism. Jewish women and others the Third Reich considered ‘subhuman’ were meanwhile encouraged or pushed to abort their fetuses.
Nazi Germany had a masculinist bent, rooted in perceptions of manliness and power. But it also needed soldiers, which was why procreation was widely promoted – and came with financial reward, in the form of loans. The Nazis’ population policies were not limited to dishing out incentives, though; all contraception, and all forms of abortion, were forbidden. During World War II, a German woman who sought an abortion could be sentenced to death, as could any doctor or nurse who had helped her. Controlling women’s bodies in Nazi Germany was written into legislation, and thus affected the behavior of society at large.
In today’s Iran, too, the government tries to control innumerate aspects of citizens’ everyday lives, and to push its preferred ideology into the private sphere through norms and legislation. Ever since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, political changes have also been directly refracted onto the bodies of women. Women’s clothing, sexual relations, public comportment and fertility are tightly regulated, but also forced to reflect the male-proscribed political atmosphere at a given time, from changes to the marriageable age for girls to very recent, draconian laws restricting family planning.
In Nazi Germany at least, the fascists’ albeit misguided idea was to build up a supposedly healthy and strong generation that could in turn wield political power. By contrast, the Islamic Republic has little regard for the thousands of children now being born into harsh socio-economic conditions. Instead it has implemented aggressive population growth policies and cut women’s access to contraception and fertility medicine, including screenings for birth defects, in a time of national crisis – and in the name of ideology.
Totalitarian governments may hold different worldviews or push different content. But their commonality lies in their crazed desire to limit all spheres of life for citizens. Controlling women’s bodies, fertility and population growth is an ever-present, obsessive feature of these types of states. This is why, as Meinecke pointed out, it’s not surprising that these governments resort to building and popularizing norms, whether they are enshrined in laws or not, to attack the private sphere and infect all aspects of citizens’ lives with their own ideology.