Queer Identities and Politics in Germany
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Queer Identities and Politics in Germany

A History, 1880–1945

Clayton Whisnant

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Queer Identities and Politics in Germany

A History, 1880–1945

Clayton Whisnant

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About This Book

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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CHAPTER 1
The Birth of Homosexual Politics
CHAPTER SUMMARY
This chapter examines the emergence of the early LGBTQ rights movement in Germany, in which Magnus Hirschfeld played an important role. It also considers the complicated interplay that developed among science, same-sex identities, and LGBTQ politics at the end of the nineteenth century.
OVERVIEW
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.
KEY TERMS
Magnus Hirschfeld; Adolf Brand; Scientific-Humanitarian Committee; Der Eigene; Karl Heinrich Ulrichs; Richard von Krafft-Ebing; Paragraph 175
Whisnant, Clayton J.
Queer Identities and Politics in Germany: A History 1880–1945
dx.doi.org/10.17312/harringtonparkpress/2016.08.qipg.001
© Harrington Park Press, LLC, New York, NY 10011
image
FIGURE 2 MAGNUS HIRSCHFELD
The German-Jewish physician and sexologist Magnus Hirschfeld emerged as the most important face of homosexual activism in the early twentieth century. From 1897 until 1929 he served as the chair of the Scientific-Humanitarian Committee (WhK). This chapter examines the emergence of the early LGBTQ rights movement in Germany, in which Hirschfeld played an important role. It also considers the complicated interplay that developed among science, same-sex identities, and LGBTQ politics at the end of the nineteenth century. Source: Schwules Museum, Berlin
In 1897 Magnus Hirschfeld (Figure 2) was a twenty-nine-year-old physician, himself the son of another physician, born and raised “on the shores of the Baltic.” Both of his parents were Jewish, and if Hirschfeld’s memories are any indication, they were prime examples of the modern, assimilated Jewish population that had emerged in the country by the second half of the nineteenth century. Little is known about his mother except that Hirschfeld remembered her as forgiving and affectionate. About his father, though, Hirschfeld had a great deal to say. In 1848 his father had been chosen by his fellow citizens of Kolberg as “the man for freedom and progress.” He worked very hard for his patients, often taking no fee from those who could not afford it. He was politically engaged, writing a weekly column for the local newspaper for nearly thirty years, and working to push through a modernization of the local sewage and water supply system. In short, Hirschfeld’s father left a lasting mark on his son, who would later remember, “My father was a doctor of high reputation, to whom we children looked up as to a higher being.”1
In 1887 Hirschfeld began his university studies, soon committing to medicine. As one of his biographers notes, however, he was “possessed by an inner restlessness,” becoming quickly “frustrated by the routine of academic life.”2 He studied in Breslau, moved to Strasbourg and then on to Berlin, only to end up in Munich, where he finally passed his intermediate exams in medicine. In Munich, which at the turn of the century was the artistic focus for the country, he made the acquaintance of the writers Henrik Ibsen and Frank Wedekind. But Munich could not keep him. Soon he was off to Heidelberg to do his six months of military service, and then back to Berlin at the end of 1891, where he would finally write his thesis for his medical degree. Next he went to Würzburg, where he successfully passed his final medical examination. And after all this work, he decided to try journalism! With a friend, he took a ship from Hamburg to New York, eventually ending up in Chicago to report on the Columbian World Exhibition in 1893. He loved traveling and writing, but journalism ultimately proved not to his taste. So by 1896 he found himself back in Berlin, ready to take up a new medical practice.
It is not clear when exactly Hirschfeld realized that he was homosexual. He never publicly admitted it, though his eventual political involvement for the cause would make it an open secret by the turn of the century. It is probably safe to say that he understood his sexual orientation by the time he arrived in Berlin, since he was clearly deeply affected by the suicide of one of his new patients. The young man, an officer in the German army, had been pressured to get married, but at the last minute, on the eve of his wedding, he shot himself in the head. The day after the young man’s death Hirschfeld received a letter from the man relating the story leading up to his suicide. The strain of living a double life had proved to be too much for the man, who lived, in his own words, under this “curse” against human nature. The letter provoked Hirschfeld to write his first work about homosexuality, a thirty-four-page booklet entitled Sappho and Socrates: How Can One Explain the Love of Men and Women for People of Their Own Sex? It was published with the help of Max Spohr, the owner of a publishing house in Leipzig who originally specialized in the subjects of homeopathic medicine and the occult, but who had also started to explore the market for material on homosexuality beginning in 1893.3
The appearance of the booklet was timely. Only a year beforehand, Oscar Wilde had been sentenced to two years in prison because of his homosexuality. This infamous trial had provoked a great deal of public discussion about the “love that dares not speak its name,” and Hirschfeld hoped injecting science into the debate might finally lead to some progress in popular attitudes and legal treatment. As one recent study of Hirschfeld notes, “Hirschfeld did not believe in practicing science for science’s sake. For Hirschfeld, science not only increased knowledge but was a tool against injustice.”4 In this early work, he relied heavily on a theory of homosexuality developed by psychiatrists and a few other writers since the 1850s that argued that homosexuality was rooted in an individual’s biological makeup. He supported this theory with more recent evidence presented by the embryologist and early Darwinian supporter Ernst Haeckel. Hirschfeld added his own ingredient to the theory, namely an emphasis on the strength of the sex drive. This strength played a large role, Hirschfeld argued, in explaining certain character differences that inevitably emerge among homosexuals. More important, though, it was further evidence of the congenital nature of sexuality. It could “neither be acquired through environmental factors or suggestions, nor extinguished through medical treatment or psychological conditioning.”5 Legally and morally, then, the only rational conclusion was to repeal all the laws against homosexuality.
His first book was published under a pseudonym, but by the following year Hirschfeld was ready to take a more public stance. On May 15, 1897, he invited Max Spohr and Eduard Oberg, a railroad official from the northern city of Hannover, to his home in the fashionable, middle-class Berlin suburb of Charlottenburg. Together, the three of them wrote the articles of association for the world’s first homosexual organization, the Scientific-Humanitarian Committee (WhK).6 Relying initially on the financial support of several wealthy donors, the WhK gradually picked up members and supporters, including doctors, lawyers, writers, and other professionals. The group met initially in Hirschfeld’s apartment, but within a few years it had grown enough to justify renting rooms in the Prinz Albrecht, one of the city’s fanciest hotels. The WhK drew on both enlightenment ideas and scientific perspectives in its campaign against Paragraph 175, Germany’s sodomy law. It also pursued a wide range of related activities, from promoting scientific research on homosexuality to combating prevailing social prejudices against the “vice.”
The WhK was soon joined by other individuals and groups that wanted to change the country’s attitudes and perhaps in the process lay the groundwork for a more thorough transformation of German culture. Together, these many people, organizations, and publications formed a vibrant and dynamic movement. As in any political movement, there were disagreements and tensions, personality conflicts and power struggles. Nevertheless, the growth of the movement and, perhaps equally important, the way that the movement was able to interact with wider social and political transformations boded well for its future.
EARLY HOMOSEXUAL ACTIVISTS
Although Paragraph 175 had been created only recently, the criminalization of male homosexuality in Germany dated back centuries. Several nineteenth-century writers traced a history of persecution stretching back to Roman tribes. According to Tacitus, the German tribes at the time punished sodomites by drowning them in swamps. The early Christian church repeatedly issued proclamations against male-male love. And the Roman emperors Justinian and Theodosius both wrote legal codes with strict punishments against adultery that were broadly defined to include homosexual acts. The death sentence for male homosexuality was then picked up by the first major criminal code of the Holy Roman Empire, the Constitutio Criminalis Carolina issued by Emperor Charles V in 1532, which called for such criminals to be burned at the stake.
We should point out that this story of unswerving persecution has been undermined over the years. More recent historians have raised doubts about how rigidly and consistently any of these laws were actually enforced. And, famously, John Boswell’s book Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality opened up questions about how unequivocal the early Christian condemnation of homosexuality actually was.7 There were certainly moments of “moral panic” set off by epidemics or other disasters that sent the rulers looking for scapegoats; however, most same-sex acts probably never came to the attention of the authorities, and even Christian clerics gave out relatively minor penances when such acts were confessed to them. Still, the death sentence remained the official rule, and some historians have argued that the persecution of “sodomites” was stepped up in the eleventh and twelfth centuries—an effect of the growing power of state institutions and a growing obsession with social and sexual “pollution.”8 Boswell also cited the possible influence of natural law theory, which was revived around this time and provided a justification for calling same-sex desire unnatural. The Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century, in turn, created many opportunities to seek moral scapegoats and to brand many Catholic priests and monks as sodomites. Moral panics were rampant in this era of religious turbulence, creating the backdrop for the death penalty’s being maintained by the emerging absolutist states of seventeenth-century central Europe.9
In the course of the eighteenth century, however, several Enlightenment thinkers began to raise questions about criminalizing sexual behavior. The general admiration that philosophes felt for ancient Greek culture, as well as their suspicion of state and church involvement in private life, tended to push many of them in the direction of official toleration—even when the very same people could still express disgust toward this “unnatural” behavior.10 The Napoleonic conquests of central Europe paved the way for a series of legal reforms in the first half of the nineteenth century that either decriminalized same-sex contact between men (in Bavaria, Hannover, Württemberg, and Brunswick) or more commonly lessened the penalty to imprisonment (most in notably in Prussia). The decriminalization that occurred in a few cases was unfortunately undercut by public hostility to the reform as well as the continued existence of numerous police codes that, in contrast to the penal codes, could punish “sodomites” with prison sentences and fines.11 Most important, though, the repeal of the laws against homosexuality did not last long. In 1871 Prussia united Germany under a single government, which caused its own sodomy law to become valid for the entire nation. Paragraph 175, as the law would be known from this point on, declared that “the unnatural vice [widernatürliche Unzucht] committed between men or between humans and animals” was to be punished by imprisonment.
Nevertheless, enlightenment criticisms of sodomy laws were not forgotten. Furthermore, science was raising new questions about the origins or same-sex desire, which itself caused some people to wonder if this sexual preference was really so unnatural after all. Even before 1871, several individuals had written works attacking the criminalization of sexual contact between men. One of the earliest was the Swiss author Heinrich Hössli, who in the course of the 1830s published two volumes of his work Eros: The Greek Love of Men, Its Relationship to History, Education, Literature, and Legislation of All Ages (Eros: Die Männerliebe der Griechen, ihre Beziehung zur Geschichte, Erziehung, Literatur und Gesetzgebung aller Zeiten). Inspired by French Enlightenment thinkers such as Charles de Montesquieu and the liberal Swiss writer Heinrich Zschokke, Hössli fashioned a fascinating argument against the persecution of homosexuality out of anti–witch trial rhetoric, pleas for the legal emancipation of Jews, and the admiration for Greek society then fashionable among German literati.12
Another major writer was the Hungarian Karl Maria Kertbeny. From Austria, he lived much of his adult life in Germany. Reacting to the growing influence of Prussia in north Germany and the possibility that the Prussian law might become the law of the land, Kertbeny anonymously wrote two small political tracts. These works have attracted some attention over the years, since in them he coined the word homosexual, a term that by the mid1880s would begin to circulate as a popular alternative to other, more pejorative terms widely used at the time. In other ways, though, his arguments drew on an older, Enlightenment tradition. He argued that modern notions of justice “necessarily proceeding from human justice through acknowledgment of the subjectivity of human nature” required a radical rethinking of old laws.13 Modernization of social and political conditions called for a state that no longer played “the role of guardian, which is, anyhow, a thankless and irritating role.” Instead, it needed to recognize the right to “one’s own life, with which one may do as one pleases, fully free from the start to finish as long as the rights of other individuals of society or of the state are not injured by these actions.”14 History, he argued, had proved that all efforts to suppress homosexuality had had little to no effect on its practice. Moreover, it was time to rectify the hypocrisy and logical contradiction of a state that imprisoned two consenting adult males for engaging in harmless sexual activity while at the same time doing little to stop public prostitution, solitary masturbation, or various “unnatural acts” that were committed between husband an...

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