Queer Identities and Politics in Germany

A History

Clayton J. Whisnant

400 pages
Paperback, $40.00 ISBN: 9781939594099
Hardcover, $95.00 ISBN: 9781939594082
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Germany in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries witnessed key developments in LGBT history, including the growth of the world’s first homosexual organizations and gay and lesbian magazines, as well as an influential community of German sexologists and psychoanalysts. Queer Identities and Politics in Germany describes these events in detail, from vibrant gay social scenes to the
Nazi persecution that sent many LGBT people to concentration camps.

Clayton J. Whisnant recounts the emergence of various queer identities in Germany from 1880 to 1945 and the political strategies pursued by early homosexual activists. Drawing on recent English and German-language scholarship, he enriches the debate over whether science contributed to social progress or persecution during this period, and he offers new information on the Nazis’ preoccupation with homosexuality. The book’s epilogue locates remnants of the pre-1945 era in Germany today.

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(since 2/09/17)

Why Study Queer German History?

Queer German history has a great deal of relevance for any reader interested in LGBTQ issues. Unfortunately for English-language readers, though, much of the recent work has been written in German and is therefore inaccessible to those who do not read this language. Even looking for primary sources can be hard. Many historians still find themselves regularly citing James Steakley’s The Homosexual Emancipation Movement in Germany—a pathbreaking book, but one published in 1975, at the very beginning of research into German LGBTQ history. Robert Beachy’s recent work, Gay Berlin: Birthplace of a Modern Identity, very good in so many ways, focuses only on Berlin, largely neglects lesbian life, and stops at the beginning of the Nazi era.

Queer Identities and Politics in Germany: A History, 1880–1945 offers a useful and readable account of the history of homosexuality in Germany between the end of the nineteenth century, when the homosexual movement formed, and 1945, when the Allies finally defeated the Nazi state. The conclusion looks forward to the present, suggesting the ways that the long history of LGBTQ life and politics in Germany continued to be felt after 1945: in the gay scenes that reemerged after the war, in the various political movements that eventually reappeared, in the scientific theories of sexuality that continued to evolve, and in the different sexual identities that LGBTQ individuals have adopted. Queer Identities and Politics in Germany not only looks at the individuals, events, and movements of the era, but also briefly surveys some of the scholarly debates that have defined the historical literature. This book offers opportunities to consider important issues still facing lesbians, gay men, bisexuals, transgender individuals, and others within the larger queer community—issues of identity, language, community building, and political strategizing.


(since 2/09/17)
1. The Birth of Homosexual PoliticsFree Chapter
The world’s first homosexual movement was launched in Germany in the 1890s. Magnus Hirschfeld organized the Scientific-Humanitarian Committee (WhK). The committee’s goals were to use the latest scientific research to repeal the country’s sodomy law, Paragraph 175, and to promote wider tolerance for homosexuals. A magazine founded in the same decade by the anarchist and independent publisher Adolf Brand advocated for a revival of “Greek love.” This magazine served as the focal point for a group of men who championed a return to the “manly culture” of the classical era, which the group’s chief intellectual, Benedict Friedlaender, believed would revitalize all of Western civilization. This chapter discusses the history of this homosexual movement: Enlightenment-era criticism of the sodomy laws; writers such as Heinrich Hössli and Karl Heinrich Ulrichs, who paved the way; and nineteenth-century scientific research that gave Hirschfeld and others ideas about how Paragraph 175 could be challenged. This chapter also considers the complicated interplay that developed among science, same-sex identities, and LGBTQ politics at the end of the nineteenth century. It relates the emergence of the homosexual movement to the wider political context, considering its connection with the socialist politics of the 1890s and the appearance of the life reform movement.


2. Scandals and Alliances

The pioneering queer theorist Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick has suggested that the turn of the twentieth century was marked by “homosexual panic.” At that time we began to acquire the mental habit (familiar to us today) of constantly raising questions about people’s sexual preferences. The homosexual panic created a seeping paranoia about same-sex desire that worked its way into the fabric of our culture. It changed how we behaved in public and in private; it fundamentally reorganized the relationships between men and men, women and women, and women and men. This chapter examines several national scandals that played a significant role in Germany in promoting this homosexual panic. One involved a prominent businessman who headed up the nation’s principal steel company; a second revolved around a colonial governor in the far-off city of Dar es Salaam, the capital of German East Africa. The most important scandal, the Eulenburg affair of 1907, ended up taking down two central figures in the German Kaiser’s court.

These scandals created publicity for the homosexual movement, but not the kind that the movement wanted. In fact, the Eulenburg scandal produced a serious crisis for Hirschfeld’s WhK and created a political atmosphere in which the government seriously considered sharpening the law against homosexuality instead of repealing it. To get through this difficult period, homosexual activists tried to build alliances with other movements: feminism, Freudianism, and youth organizations. Not all these alliances would prove productive, but the effort to build them was a critical step in the maturation of the homosexual movement.

3. The Growth of Urban Gay Scenes

The Weimar Republic—the name of the democratic government that was born in Germany after the disastrous First World War and the fall of the Kaiser’s regime in late 1918—became famous for its experimental modernism and its relative openness with regard to sexuality. The gay scenes of Berlin, Hamburg, Cologne, and elsewhere contributed considerably to the country’s reputation for permissiveness. These scenes included not only a variety of bars, restaurants, and other meeting places for gay men and lesbians, but also a growing network of social clubs and even a surprisingly successful publishing industry. These scenes were not born in 1919, however; in fact, they have a history stretching back into the nineteenth century. This chapter examines not only the various dimensions of Germany’s gay scenes, but also the numerous social, economic, and cultural factors that contributed to their growth. Despite police efforts to watch and limit the areas that gay men and lesbians gradually made their own, Germany’s gay scenes expanded steadily, offering opportunities to establish relationships, fashion identities, and pursue political projects. By the middle of the 1920s, many of the social clubs that had arisen from the social networks of the gay scenes were united in a new national organization, the Federation for Human Rights (BfM), under the leadership of the publisher Friedrich Radszuweit.

4. Representations and Identities

Since the publication of the philosopher Michel Foucault’s work on sexuality, in the 1970s, historians, sociologists, and queer theorists have considered the emergence of sexual identities. Sociologists and many social historians have tended to emphasize the importance of urbanization and economic transformation in the formation of sexual identity. Others have taken their lead from Foucault by tracing the influence of scientific understanding and medical knowledge about sexuality. Still others have suggested the roles that the middle-class ideal of romantic love, changing gender norms, and even nationalism might play. Most fundamentally, perhaps, queer theory has made us attentive to the multiple ways of understanding and defining sexual identity. What seems clear is that multiple social and cultural forces were at work, forces that both created constraints on how people could behave and generated new opportunities for self-understanding.

As men and women began to develop identities in which deep physical or erotic attachments to members of the same sex played an important role, they found they had much available in their society and culture to work with. This chapter focuses mostly on the efforts of recent historians to broaden our understanding of science’s effects and in other ways expand the conversation to include additional factors. It considers the importance of the classical heritage in some detail, but it also examines the significance of the Romantic tradition, ideas about “modernity,” and the homosexual press for the articulation of homosexual identity. Special attention is given to the poems of Stefan George, the photographs of Wilhelm von Gloeden, the film Girls in Uniform, and novels written by Klaus Mann, John Henry Mackay, and Anna Elisabet Weirauch.

5. The Politics of Homosexuality in Weimar Germany

This chapter considers how the First World War and the German revolution of 1918 created both new opportunities and new challenges for the homosexual movement. In the context of the flourishing gay scenes of the Weimar era, the homosexual movement experienced an amazing upswing in interest and participation. Socialist and democratic ideas were in the air at the opening of the Weimar era, and homosexual activists across Europe watched with excitement as the victory of communism in the Soviet Union led to the repeal of that country’s laws against homosexuality. For many gay men and women it was an exciting time—especially for those in the big cities, where they found opportunities they had never seen before. Like many other Germans, gay men and lesbians were energized by the war and the revolution, which inspired them to make claims toward citizenship more forcefully than they had in the past.

There has, however, been a tendency to exaggerate Weimar Germany’s tolerance of homosexuality. This chapter offers an important corrective. Conservative voices warning against the dangers of modern life were plentiful. Politically, parties such as the Catholic Center Party and the nationalist German National People’s Party quickly recovered, while fringe parties like the newly organized Nazi Party lurked ominously in the background. The WhK, consequently, had its work cut out for it. Magnus Hirschfeld carried on with his business of spreading public enlightenment about sexuality and fighting against Paragraph 175. He was joined by both old friends and new supporters, but he also encountered many new challenges: professional adversaries, rivals for control of the growing homosexual movement, and, most dangerously, nationalist opponents of his sex reform agenda who would have been happy to see him dead.

6. Nazi Persecution

When the Nazis took over Germany in 1933, they destroyed the constitutional framework of the short-lived Weimar Republic and thoroughly smothered much of the vibrant social and political culture that had developed in the country since the mid-nineteenth century. The urban gay scenes of Berlin and elsewhere, as well as the homosexual movement itself, were notable casualties. This chapter discusses the effects of the Nazi regime on gay men and lesbians. Although the Nazi Party had contained some homosexuals in its ranks during its rise to power—most notably Ernst Röhm, who headed up the party’s stormtroopers—this fact did not stop the party from strengthening the country’s laws against male homosexuality or from organizing a police crackdown. Hitler’s government closed most gay and lesbian bars, shut down the homosexual publishing industry, and eventually interned thousands of gay men in Nazi prisons and concentration camps. The Nazi regime did not target lesbians with anywhere near the same intensity that it targeted gay men, but that does not mean that lesbians were unaffected by Nazi policies. Their bars, publications, and social clubs were closed down, and they were subjected to the immense pressure brought by the Nazi Party on all women to conform to traditional gender norms, to get married, and to have children.

This chapter considers the motives behind these Nazi policies toward homosexuality. Furthermore, it examines the fate of those scientific and psychiatric institutions that had devoted so much time to homosexuality since the mid-nineteenth century. In the process, this chapter also probes the thorny issue of whether scientific research into homosexuality opened the door for Nazi persecution. It concludes with some reflection on the sexual opportunities created by the Second World War.

Gay and Lesbian Life after 1945

This chapter serves as an epilogue to the book; it considers the evolution of LGBTQ life and politics after the demise of the Nazi regime. The abilities to fnd relationships, to organize socially and politically, and to develop a sexual identity were very much affected by whether one lived in East Germany or West Germany. In the latter, the government for a long time actually retained the Nazi-era version of Paragraph 175, meaning that prior convictions were upheld and thousands more found themselves arrested in the coming decades. New gay scenes and a new homosexual movement did emerge, but it took some time before they had the vitality of their 1920s counterparts. In East Germany, on the other hand, the law against male homosexuality was initially less stringent and was rarely enforced after 1957. The conditions of communism, however, made it impossible to build gay scenes as vibrant as those that existed in West Germany or to organize a movement that could fight for homosexual rights. Moreover, East German sexual culture remained focused on high birth rates, “healthy” families, and a conservative vision of socialist manhood in a way that left little room for public LGBTQ life.

In the 1960s much began to change. Both countries removed their laws against consensual adult male homosexuality. The sexual revolution generated a new openness toward sexual relationships that did not ft the norm. By the 1980s homosexual activists in both East Germany and West Germany began to memorialize homosexual victims of Nazi persecution, suggesting that this era of brutality was being reclaimed and refashioned into an emblem of survival and strength. The unification of Germany in 1990 and the creation of the European Union shortly afterward laid the groundwork for achieving new rights and protections for LGBTQ people in Germany.

(since 2/09/17)


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