Socialist Worker

A glimpse of gay liberation in Berlin

by Noel Halifax
Issue No. 2341

Germany after the First World War was a great hope of world socialism.

The revolution of 1918 had thrown out the Kaiser. Sailors, soldiers and workers set up their own councils, and the country was in fervour.

It was a time of new ideas when anything seemed possible.

The SDP, Germany’s Labour‑type party, had been at the heart of the European socialist movement before the war and retained its hold on the working class.

It was now being challenged from the left by the new Communist Party, the KPD, which strove to emulate the Russian Revolution.

Germany was also the home of a large gay reform movement.

Berlin, the capital, was the base of Magnus Hirschfeld and the institute he established in 1919. They agitated for sexual tolerance and were a direct product of the revolution.

Hirschfeld was the most famous of gay campaigners. He shared the SPD’s ideas of gradual reform and had campaigned for the legalisation of homosexuality since the 1890s.

The SPD paper, Vorwarts, championed these campaigns and the SPD leader, August Bebel, was the first to argue for gay rights in parliament.

The 1918 revolution did not lead to socialism but a compromise with capitalism, known as the Weimar Republic.

Germany was gripped continually by the possibility of a new revolution and by the threat of a right wing coup.

The republic was an attempt to put the reformist ideas of the SPD into practice. It made Germany, and Berlin in particular, a haven of progressive ideas.


Gays and lesbians flocked to Berlin. This was the city portrayed in Christopher Isherwood’s novels and the film Cabaret.

It was the first time a large and vibrant commercial gay scene could be openly enjoyed, as many visitors noted. The poet WH Auden put it bluntly, saying, “To us Berlin meant boys”.

The gay scene was liberating for most. But the rough economic times made it far from glamorous for the thousands of young working class rent boys in the bars.

In 1921 the first Congress of the World League for Sexual Reform was held in Berlin. It held up the Russian Revolution as the ideal for all.

As the Russian delegate to the Congress in 1921 stated, “The present sexual legislation in the Soviet Union is the work of the October revolution…it declares the absolute non-interference of the state and society into sexual matters, so long as no one is injured… concerning homosexuality, sodomy and various other forms of sexual gratification… soviet law treats these exactly the same as so-called ‘natural’ intercourse.”

But in Russia the revolution itself was in trouble. The failure of workers’ power to spread across Europe plunged Russia into the grip of Stalin’s counter-revolution. This in turn influenced the politics of the KPD.

Hopes of a renewed and more profound revolution in Germany were lost by 1923. The initiative passed to the right. By 1933 the Nazis were in power.

Initially, some within the progressive movement failed to see the Nazis as a threat because some of its leaders were gay. They were to be dispelled of this illusion in the years that followed.

Along with Jews, Communists and socialists, gypsies and disabled people, gays joined the victims of the concentration camps. They wore the infamous pink triangle.

Just as the gay scene in Berlin had been a product of the German Revolution, so its death was determined by the rise of the right.

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Tue 19 Feb 2013, 16:26 GMT
Issue No. 2341
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