DECEMBER 16, 2012 9:12AM

Nazi sex gynoids, and why we still need them

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Woman of Glass

Franz Tschakert and his "Woman of Glass" (1936)

SAY WHAT YOU LIKE about SS leader Heinrich Himmler, he sure had the well-being of his soldiers at heart. More than anything else, their physical happiness and sexual hygiene cost the bespectacled Reichsführer countless hours of precious sleep. He had already received far too many reports of SS men and regular soldiers succumbing to syphilis and gonorrhea in the unwholesome bordellos of Paris and Poland, and the army's own mobile "field brothels" were costly and woefully overextended. Why not use true Aryan ingenuity to come up with a “final solution” to one of the oldest problems of warfare?

Himmler found his man in technician Franz Tschakert, the creator of the celebrated “Woman of Glass” model for the Dresden Hygiene Museum. According to research by the German journalist Norbert Lenz, in early 1941 Tschakert and his team at the museum were put in charge of a top-secret “Reich project” to construct a fully functional, lifelike “gynoid” or sex doll called “Borghild” that could be mass produced like so many V-2 rockets to service soldiers in the field. They worked under the close supervision of chief SS hygienist Dr. Joachim Mrurgowsky, who reported to Himmler personally. These Nordic-looking “galvanoplastical dolls” were to be manufactured out of special polymers developed by the IG Farben conglomerate and then dispatched to the front by the thousands in specially-designed “hygiene trailers” for the discreet use of Wehrmacht troopers. The SS held the technicians to the highest standards:

1. The synthetic flesh has to feel the same as real flesh

2. The doll’s body should be as agile and moveable as the real body

3. The doll’s organ should feel absolutely realistic.

The project was certainly feasible for the Reich's best and brightest, but it brought up a whole range of new concerns. One worry was that the gynoids could become too popular. As one of the engineers on the project noted: “The doll has only one purpose and she should never become a substitute for the honorable mother at home... When the soldier makes love to Borghild, it has nothing to do with love. Therefore the face of our anthropomorphic sex machine should be exactly how {notorious misogynist Otto} Weininger described the common wanton’s face.” However, the project was abandoned after the defeat at Stalingrad reset Germany’s military priorities and both the prototypes and the blueprints were destroyed in the bombing of Dresden in February, 1945.

Borghild gynoid

The Borghild gynoid (historical reconstruction)

Now, how many readers have already figured out that the “Borghild” saga is nothing but a mischievously clever Internet hoax? Not very many, I suspect. After all, the project sounds plausible enough. Himmler, Tschakert, Mrugowsky, the “Woman of Glass,” the Dresden Hygiene Museum, and IG Farben all existed. Everyone has heard of the Lebensborn human-breeding project. Many leading Nazis, including Himmler himself, Goebbels, and Streicher, were notorious sex addicts, and a mass-produced, zombie-like sex robot sounds like just the sort of inhuman thing the Nazis would come up with on a slow day at the office. And it's also the precise sort of twisted fantasy that tabloid buyers will pay money to read about. But “journalist Norbert Lenz” himself is a fake and the Dresden Hygiene Museum has never heard of any such project. A mere two-minute Wikipedia search proves the story is bogus. Borghild's lasting popularity demonstrates just how few people are willing to engage in even the simplest form of fact-checking.

Why do people perpetrate hoaxes in the first place? Hoaxes, unlike ordinary scams or cons, usually contain a whimsical element (it’s not for nothing that the word itself derives from “hocus pocus”). Sometimes they have some sort of political content, but they frequently arise from a desire to sabotage or subvert a stuffy social order and thus are not always about personal fame or money. It is not clear just what the Borghild hoaxer was after, although we have to suspect he wanted to see how quickly his “discovery” would wriggle its way through the web and become accepted as historical “fact.” (Both the German tabloid Bild and the Italian daily Corriere della Sera finally did him the favor and swallowed the story in 2005, relying solely on the phoney website as their “source.”)

The recent “Kenyan birth certificate”, supposedly proving that President Obama was born in Mombasa, was a clever (and brilliantly successful) attempt to "punk" the equally bogus “Birther movement.” Massive government-sponsored hoaxes with criminal intent, such as the forged "Protocolls of the Elders of Zion," Reinhard Heydrich’s faked attack on the Gleiwitz radio station on the eve of World War II, or, more recently, the Gulf of Tonkin Incident or the faked “yellowcake letters” that helped tip American public opinion towards supporting the impending Iraq War, are better described as swindles and war crimes. However, if large-scale con tricks like these are plausible enough and fit both preconceived notions and also a perceived need (e.g. the “Kuwait incubator hoax” in the run-up to the Gulf War, or the Jessica Lynch “rescue”), they may become accepted reality – in other words, “history.”

Hoaxes can indeed cause a great deal of damage. But they also contain a wholesome, trickster element that keeps us honest. A clever hoax can test society’s credulity and explode its pretensions. In 1869, the “Cardiff Giant” was excavated outside of Cardiff, New York. This crude statue had been carved out of gypsum and planted in the ground by an atheist who wanted to poke fun at the Biblical claim that “there were giants in those days.” The “giant” was soon exposed as a hoax, but not before its creator got a good laugh at the expense of some gullible true believers.

Cardiff Giant

The "Cardiff Giant" (1869)
"There were giants in those days..."

Another example is the Cottingley Fairies hoax of 1917, where two English working class girls duped none other than Sir Arthur Conan Doyle into believing in the existence of supernatural beings hovering around hollyhocks. Although the girls’ “fairy photos” were ludicrous fakes, they were nonetheless taken at face value since no one could imagine that young females of their social station were intelligent or malicious enough to pull off such a fraud. In fact, the girls perpetrated a double hoax, ridiculing both the idea of fairies and the belief in female submissiveness.

Cottingley fairies

Clap if you believe in fairies

Hoaxes are possible on every subject. Physicist Alan Sokal’s 1996 nonsense article “Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity,” which he surreptitiously published in the serious journal Social Text, deliciously exploded the absurd premises behind much postmodern theory.

One of my favorite hoaxes is not real but rather a literary invention. This is Irving Wallace’s 1972 novel The Word, in which a vengeful biblical scholar forges a heretical but entirely plausible “Gospel According to James,” with which he intends to sabotage Christianity itself. Change a few words here, change a few words there, add some pious and heart-warming wishful thinking, and you get a whole new religion. This gives the reader an extra helping of food for thought. Of course, Wallace’s work is pure fiction. Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code approaches hoax status by seeming to claim genuine sources for its outlandish speculations on the origins of Christianity. While it is rubbish by any historical (or literary) standards, it nevertheless launched many a quasi theological debate on “Oprah” and at hundreds of local reading clubs that never would have occurred otherwise.

Hoaxes are the leaven in our daily bread. Without them we risk becoming too smug about who we are and what we imagine we know about ourselves and the world we so briefly inhabit. In Nordic mythology, Loki is the trickster god, a troublesome spirit who is not entirely evil but rather keeps things in motion by needling the other gods whenever they start feeling too comfortable. Certainly the most visible (and subversive) trickster of our day is Sacha Baron Cohen, whose “Borat” and “Brüno” have brought blatant hoaxing to the silver screen. Cohen’s antics not only make us laugh but provoke us to ask questions where we only had answers before. As befits a proper trickster, his character “Ali G” never fails to remind us to “keep it real.”

Ali G

"Keep it real!"

(Reposted from August 11, 2009)

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You almost had me there for a moment :-)