Physical Culture & Aesthetic Norms in Nazi Germany


place/state: Berlin
INSTITUTION: Gedenk- und Bildungsstätte Haus der Wannsee-Konferenz
AUTHOR: Lore Kleiber
age group: 18 years and older

learning activities
Analyzing a film
Analyzing career experience in a historical context
Analyzing propaganda
Learning by research at memorial sites
Visiting an exhibition
Working with archives

History of a profession in Nazi Germany
Racial theory

Apprentice hairdressers attended a seminar at the House of the Wannsee Conference Memorial and Educational Center. They learned about the political and social implications of Nazi physical culture and aesthetic norms based on skin and hair. The students saw part of Claude Lanzmann's film, "Shoah," in which a barber from Treblinka tells his story showing the consequences of the Nazis' racial ideology.


Eighteen second-year apprentice hairdressers (sixteen female and two male), accompanied by their social studies teacher, visited the Memorial and Educational Site House of the Wannsee Conference for the first time. Classes of apprentices from the same school had previously visited the House of the Wannsee Conference to see the permanent exhibition. This was, however, their first full-day study program.

Apprentice hairdressers do not see themselves as students, but as working professionals. Their work entails heavy stress. In the theoretical part of their education, the subject area of politics and history is not particularly important to them, especially because social studies is not included in their final examination. The youngsters were at first uncertain how to confront historical subjects and had difficulty in dividing up into work groups. During initial preparation for this project, it was already clear that their interest and motivation would develop from strong.visual material. This influenced our selection of documents and media.

The Project Day

At the beginning of the project, we established how much the students/apprentices knew and whether they had already visited other memorials. One of the students described in detail his visit to the Auschwitz memorial. Consequently, the class requested that the teacher organize a similar trip for them. The class then worked on two specific foci of the permanent exhibition:

  1. How and through what methods were Germans conditioned to use and accept physical stereotypes as part of racial segregation?
  2. How is the concept of race visualized?

Today, we interpret the attribution of negative Jewish physical characteristics, the use of the Star of David, and later on the tattooing of prisoners with numbers, as a gradual process toward physical annihilation. The significance of propaganda photographs and the stigmatization of Jews as "racial aliens" were explored in the exhibition.

After a break, the students viewed an interview with a barber who had survived Treblinka and who, in his barbershop in Israel today, describes cutting women's hair before they were gassed at Treblinka. This film sequence, a segment of Claude Lanzmann's film "Shoah," does not permit emotional detachment. It reveals the difficulties of survivors who break down when they are still overwhelmed by memories so many years later. This film puts the career of a barber/hairdresser in a totally different context, previously inconceivable to the apprentices. The youngsters then asked detailed questions about the process of annihilation in the killing centers and the reutilization of the parts of human beings, especially hair.

Overhead transparencies were used to study various Nazi advertisements as a transition to the topic of "the setting of aesthetic norms and racism" in Nazi Germany [see Documents]. This was followed by work groups about the subject "Nazi Body Culture and gender-specific roles." An assortment of advertisements from various newspapers and magazines during the Nazi period were used to assess the significance of the body, hair, and outward appearance, to the valuation, acceptance, and opportunities granted to a person. The context and importance of these advertisements and their target audiences was explained.

Because the small work groups were weary from the long reading period, it was suggested that they view the materials that were handed out and locate photographs and illustrations in books to make large collages. The historical readings were supplemented by contemporary advertisements for comparison as follows:

  • What aesthetic norms were called for in the Nazi period?
  • Which norms were central (dominant)?
  • Were they formulated differently for men and for women?
  • What happened to those who did not conform to these norms, and what did this mean for their daily lives?

In the closing plenary session, the three work groups presented their collages. They arrived at different conclusions.

  • One group focused on the situation of the handicapped by visualizing their exclusion and limitations through photographs and drawings.
  • The second group dealt critically with the Nazi image of women. The group analyzed the requirements for married women and the characteristics of married life based on Nazi advertisements.
  • The third group concentrated on current body and fitness culture and compared today's ideas of beauty with the Nazi sculptures of Arno Breker.

The group was surprised by their own accomplishments and the project was successful. The group decided to show their collages in their own school.