Germany’s looming defeat in the First World War meant political crisis. In November 1918 the fleet mutinied and revolution began. The Kaiser – the German emperor – fled to Holland and a republic was proclaimed, beginning a period of radicalisation that was to last until 1923. But, while they had started a revolution, German workers never took the decisive final step of seizing power, as the Russian working class had done in October 1917.
This meant that political conflict and ambiguity were inherent in the whole history of the Weimar Republic. On one hand there were great advances in some of the most undemocratic aspects of German society: free speech, and equal and universal suffrage were introduced. Changes that were already happening in German society, such as urbanisation and industrialisation, accelerated. In big cities women formed part of the new industrial workforce. Family sizes fell dramatically – few people wanted to have more than two children, whereas 50 years before big families had been the norm. And the revolution brought about huge cultural changes – the Bauhaus designed furniture which still looks modern today, while short hair for women became fashionable.
The right never accepted any of this. For much of the 1920s a stalemate between left and right gave the appearance of stability. But the Wall Street Crash of 1929 led to financial and political crisis, and the right seized the advantage, with the Nazis coming to power in 1933.
The revolution of 1918 transformed the lives of German lesbians and gay men. Magnus Hirschfeld had been campaigning for lesbian and gay rights equality since 1897, when he had first circulated a petition calling for anti-gay laws to be repealed. His approach was moderate and respectable – in particular, he tried to win support from doctors and lawyers. Some of his ideas now seem eccentric – he claimed, for example, that lesbians and gay men were a “third sex”, neither fully male nor female.
In any case, the government had ignored him. Now, in 1919, the Prussian state government offered him a Berlin mansion as a base. He established the Institute for Sexual Science, which offered advice on sexual problems, held talks, organised question and answer sessions and produced publications. In January 1919 he wrote, “We can only greet the great changes of the last few weeks with joy,” and argued that the liberation of gay people, and all the oppressed, was near. In fact, though Hirschfeld continued to campaign for law reform in the Weimar Republic, it was never achieved.
In other areas, however, the revolution transformed the lives of lesbian and gay people enormously. Lesbian and gay clubs were established in every German city; magazines were published in thousands of copies and available from newsstands. The first mass organisations of lesbian and gay people came into existence. The League for Human Rights, for example, which campaigned for gay rights, had at its peak 48,000 members, both men and women. They organised social activities and also took part in campaigning, mailing out thousands of brochures and sending letters to the press. In 1919 a feature film – Different from the Others – was even released. It included scenes of men dancing together, showed how the legal ban on sex between men led to blackmail, and called for the law to be changed.
Attitudes also changed to sexuality more generally. Abortion was banned in Germany – activists estimated that over 10,000 women died each year from botched illegal abortions. The legal status of contraception was unclear – campaigners were put on trial in 1930, for example, for distributing contraceptives. Thousands of people, including many workers, became involved in organisations to make abortion and contraception available to all. All these “sexual reform” movements were linked to the left. The parties of the centre and right argued that homosexuality and abortion must continue to be illegal. The Nazis were particularly hostile, though a small minority of Nazis were gay – most prominently Ernst Röhm, leader of the SA, the Nazis’ paramilitary organisation.
In general, these were inspiring times to be a socialist, whether in the revolutionary Communist Party or the more moderate, reformist Social Democrats, both of which had tens of thousands of members by the end of the 1920s. The Communists looked for inspiration to the workers’ state newly established in Russia. As one German historian put it, “Everything seemed possible: the end of all war, a rational organisation of society, international cooperation, a human-centred development of production without exploitation, the development of each individual’s potential and a just division of society’s wealth.”
These changes also affected people’s personal lives. In memoirs of the period young women tell of joining the Communist Youth League at the same time as they had their first lesbian relationships. Sexuality and politics were all part of the same environment. Hilde Radusch was a member of the Communist Party: she worked in a telephone exchange, where she became a shop steward, and in 1929, when she was 26, she was elected to a three-year term as a Berlin city councillor. She also recalled going to the lesbian Topkeller Club, where women did the “petticoat dance”: “Skirts were rather long back then, and underneath we wore lace petticoats. So we danced, and lifted our skirts ever so slightly, and that was terribly sexy. Then came the polonaise, where you had to follow the leader, climbing over the chairs in the basement corridor in order to get that longed-for kiss. It was so exciting that women from all walks of life came, even actresses. It was always so crowded, and on Fridays you could hardly get in at all.”
Claire Waldoff was a lesbian and had been a cabaret star since before the First World War. In the 1920s she sang songs including Hannelore, celebrating a “pretty kid from Hallesches Tor”, a working class district of Berlin. The lyrics explained that “she’s the most charming creature with her lovely short haircut, but no one can work out if she’s a woman or a man!” In the early 1930s Waldoff took part in solidarity events for the unemployed, and worked with Red Aid, a Communist organisation.
Both Social Democrats and Communists were involved in the sex reform movement. For example, by 1933 there existed over 1,000 counselling centres across Germany, including 34 clinics in Berlin, offering contraception.
Many of these clinics were staffed by socialist and communist doctors, many of them women. Some clinics provided women with advice about breastfeeding, child abuse and domestic violence. Others were located in newly-built “houses of health”, serving the local area and providing a range of services – one offered school health services, a general polyclinic, sports medicine, marriage and sex counselling, tuberculosis, venereal disease, mental health and substance abuse treatment, a lecture hall for 500, a library and an exhibition room. More disturbingly, ideas of healthy living also often included eugenics – thousands of people volunteered to be sterilised.
The left’s commitment to sexual liberation dated back to the 1890s. In 1895 Eduard Bernstein, a leading Social Democrat theorist, had condemned the persecution of Oscar Wilde, jailed in England in that year for his homosexuality. In 1898 August Bebel, the Social Democrat leader, had called for anti-gay laws to be reformed in the German parliament. Bebel not only supported lesbian and gay struggles, but had authored a widely-read book opposing women’s oppression. But some social democrats could also take homophobic positions out of opportunism. In 1902 their newspaper revealed that the industrialist Krupp, a friend of the Kaiser, was gay – Krupp died a week later, probably as a result of suicide.
Before the First World War, the social democrats had been the only left party. Some of their members were revolutionaries, who wanted to destroy the German state as part of building a socialist society. Others were reformists, who wanted to use the state to improve workers’ lives. War and revolution made these divisions all too plain: some Social Democrats even worked with the right-wing gangs which murdered revolutionary leaders like Rosa Luxemburg.
The Social Democrats’ desire to work respectably within the system was also shown in their attitude to lesbian and gay legal equality. When Hirschfeld wrote to Friedrich Ebert, the first president of the Weimar Republic and a Social Democrat, calling for reform, he received a pompous and noncommittal reply. Ebert accepted that “a modern reform of our penal law is certainly necessary,” but explained that it could only be “taken in hand as soon as the political situation and the government’s working conditions make it at all possible”.
The radical Communist Party was, historians agree, more determined to fight for sexual freedom. Calling for law reform in the parliament in 1927, Communist Bernard Koenen stated, “As regards this law, it is our duty to represent the persecuted, the oppressed, the victim of the courts.” Richard Linsert, a leading Communist, was employed at the Institute for Sexual Science, and from 1931 took over from Magnus Hirschfeld as chair of Hirschfeld’s campaigning organisation. A 1931 book made the Communist’s position clear: “Regarding same-sex inclination, and acts between adults, the proletariat considers these things in the light of the scientific knowledge of the new era. The proletariat demands the same freedoms and restrictions as apply to intercourse between the sexes.”
Communists and sex reformers worked together in the World League for Sexual Reform, which held several international conferences. As well as same-sex issues, Communists were prominent in the fight for abortion rights: they called for legal and free abortion to be available to all. When two abortion doctors were imprisoned in 1931, Communists played a major role in the campaign to free them, the high point of which was a rally of 15,000 people in Berlin, with its main slogan “Your body belongs to you”.
For all their great strengths, the Communists had weaknesses. They completely accepted Hirschfeld’s “third sex” theory, never developing a Marxist theory of sexuality – for example, one which built on the insights of Marx’s collaborator Engels, who pointed out how the history of women and sexuality was connected to the development of class society.
The German Revolution hugely improved the lives of lesbians and gay men. The Communists, committed to driving the revolution forwards into the overthrow of capitalism, were also the best fighters for sexual liberation. In the end, however, all the gains of the 1918 revolution were abolished in 1933 when the Nazis took power. The legacy of Weimar should inspire us today – but it also reminds us of the dangers of economic crisis and fascism.
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