The Gay Rights Movement in the Weimar Republic. Goals and intentions

Essay, 2012

16 Pages, Grade: 1,0


The Goals of the Gay Rights Movement in the Weimar Republic


It is commonly viewed that the struggle for gay rights is a rather recent phenomenon. According to this view, the Stonewall riots of 1969 mark a turning point in the advocacy of equality and tolerance for homosexuals as well as the birth of the gay rights movement. While it is important to stress the significance of Stonewall for the LGBT community, it would be wrong to perceive of the gay rights movement as an entirely contemporary phenomenon (Lau- ritsen and Thorstad 1995: 3). In fact, the struggle for equality and tolerance for gays and lesbians has been going on for quite some time now, more than 150 years to be precisely. Thus, it is important to historicize the course of the early homosexual liberation movement, not only to give credit to the pioneers in the fight for the advancement of sexual minorities but also to better understand the origins and therefore the tactics and obstacles of today's gay rights movement and social movements in general.

Germany is of special importance to the history of the homosexual emancipation movement: it is both the birthplace of the gay rights movement and the country in which the most gruesome atrocities against homosexuals were committed (Steakley 1975: 4, 103119). Over the last two or three decades, the Nazi crimes against sexual minorities have been examined by an increasing body of literature. The course of the gay rights movement and homosexuals in Germany before the Third Reich has also received quite some coverage in scholarly literature, but by far not as much as the Hitler years. Therefore, this paper examines the course of the homosexual liberation movement in Weimar Germany (1919-1932). My study is guided by the following research question: what were the goals of the gay rights movement in the Weimar Republic? In order to answer this question, I will first identify the main actors who belonged to this movement. This brief description of the homosexual emancipation movement in Weimar Germany is followed by an examination of its four main goals, which includes the context in which they were pursued, the means which were employed to achieve them and how successful the movement was in its efforts. A concluding section then summarizes the main findings of this study and connects them with the broader theoretical context of this topic.

Identifying the Gay Rights Movement in Weimar Germany

Before elaborating on the goals of the gay rights movement in Weimar Germany, it is necessary to clarify which organizations and individuals were part of this movement. This also requires giving a short history of the homosexual emancipation movement in Germany before 1919. As early as 1862, German writers approached the phenomenon of homosexuality and criticized the ongoing discrimination of homosexuals. Among them was the lawyer Karl Heinz Ulrichs whose theory of homosexuality, which views same-sex love as a congenital trait that is neither contagious nor dangerous, came to be very influential and built the basis for later theories on this topic. Ulrichs theoretical writings are of great significance for the history of gay rights and homosexual emancipation, as they represent the first systematic and sympathetic treatment of homosexuality. In addition to his theoretical writings, Ulrichs also was an active opponent of the growing influence of Prussia among the German states, which put pressure on smaller states like Hanover to adopt Prussian laws and statutes under which homosexuality was illegal (Steakley 1975: 4-8). His efforts, however, were unsuccessful, as Hanover outlawed homosexual acts in 1869. After German unification in 1871, Prussia's legal code became the basis for the legislature of the German Empire which made homosexuality illegal under the infamous Paragraph 175 (Beachy 2010: 807).

The German Empire soon witnessed the emergence of the first institutionalized efforts to advocate homosexual emancipation. Contemporary scholars identify two collectives as the most important representatives of the new gay rights movement in the German Empire. The first of them was the so-called “Community of the Special”, of which the most important members were Adolf Bran and Benedict Friedländer. In 1896, Brand founded Der Eigene (“The Special”), the first gay journal in the world. Brand and his fellows advocated a rather radical notion of sexual freedom, which also involved elements of anarchy and pederasty. The Community of the Special idealized a concept of male comradeship rooted in ancient Greek culture; according to Brand and his fellows, the existing state would never accept this kind of lifestyle, which is why they favored outright regime change instead of working within the system. Tied into this advocacy of male comradeship and ancient Greek culture was a feeling of superiority, which kept the Community of the Special largely from working with other segments of the homosexual emancipation movement as well as with other liberation movements in general, and led them to adopt a rather derogative attitude toward certain societal groups like Jews and especially women (Steakley 1975: 44-49, 60-62).

The second group which emerged at that time was the Wissenschaftlich-humanitäres Komitee (“Scientific-Humanitarian Committee”) founded by Jewish physician and sexologist Magnus Hirschfeld and others in 1897. The foundation of the Scientific-Humanitarian Committee marks another important point in the history of gay rights and homosexual liberation, as it was the “world's first self-consciously homosexual political organization” (Beachy 2010: 805). It published the Jahrbuch für sexualle Zwischenstufen (“Yearbook for Intermediate Sexual Types”), which appeared quite regularly between 1899 and 1923 and then more sporadically until 1933. This publication contained reports on the Committee's activities as well as literary, historical, anthropological, polemical, and scientific studies on the subject of homosexuality and other sex-related phenomena (Lauritsen and Thorstad 1995: 8). The approach of the Scientific-Humanitarian Committee was based on scientific research on homosexuality, which is reflected by its slogan “justice through science” (Lauritsen and Thorstad 1995: 30). The Scientific-Humanitarian Committee had well-established connections with gay rights groups in other countries (Wolff 1986: 258-283) as well as with other social movements. Hirschfeld, for example, was working together closely with the German and international women's movement (Wolff 1986: 86-99). This brought him the respect of many leading figures of progressive movements around the globe, including famous American anarchist and political activist Emma Goldman, who “deeply admired [Hirschfeld's] courageous intervention” (Goldman 2001: 3).

World War I brought the German gay rights movement to a temporary halt. After the end of the war and the creation of a democratic Germany, the homosexual community was hoping for the legalization of homosexuality. Their hopes, however, were soon dashed, as Paragraph 175 remained intact in the Weimar Republic. Thus, both the Community of the Special and the Scientific-Humanitarian Committee resumed their activities. In addition to these two established organizations, a third major group emerged which some associate with the struggle for homosexual emancipation in Weimar Germany: the Deutsche Liga für Menschenrechte (“German League for Human Rights”). The League was established in 1914 as the Bund Neues Vaterland (“New Fatherland League”) and changed its name in 1922 in order to express its link to similar organizations in countries like France, Austria and Italy. The German League for Human Rights published the journal Die Menschenrechte (“The Human Rights”), in which it informed about its activities and upcoming events and provided a forum for discussion on human rights issues for its members. The reason why the League is often associated with the German gay rights movement is that one of its members, Kurt Hiller, was also one of the most prominent members of the Humanitarian-Scientific Committee and an outspoken proponent of homosexual liberation (Reisner 2009: 114).

These three organizations - the German League for Human Rights, the Community of the Special and the Scientific-Humanitarian Committee - are the ones most commonly affiliated with the gay rights movement in the Weimar Republic. The question, then, becomes: what exactly were the goals of these groups? In its statute, the League describes the “achievement and protection of human rights” as its main aim (no author 1927: 7). Because of this rather vague description, the League felt compelled to clarify what is exactly meant by “achieving and protecting human rights”. According to the League's interpretation, achieving and protecting human rights means establishing conditions in which violations of individual and collective rights are unlikely to occur; such conditions require the establishment of a socialist republic based on democratic principles as well as the reconciliation of the peoples of Europe (Kuczynski 1926a: 11-12). Consequently, the League was more concerned with issues such as disarmament, anti-militarism and European unification (Kuczynski 1926b: 11-15; Der Brüsseler Kongreß 1926: 1-9) and less with the liberation of homosexuals, which is why I do not consider it part of the gay rights movement in Weimar Germany for the purpose of this paper.1

The goals of the Community of the Special were laid out by Brand in his 1925 essay “What We Want”. Brand identifies 20 points as the main goals of his collective, which include the promotion of nudity, the opposition to prostitution and the legalization of homosexuality and abortion. What he does not elaborate on is the means by which he wants to achieve these goals (Brand 1997: 163-169). By the time Brand wrote this easy, however, the Community of the Special had already become widely depoliticized and lost a lot of its earlier significance. Instead of actively participating in the national struggle for homosexual emancipation, the Community of the Special became increasingly isolated and focused on cultural rather than political issues (Lehmstedt 2004: 44; Steakley 1975: 77, 83-84). Thus, I will only marginally focus on the Community of the Special in the remainder of this paper.

Therefore, it can be said that during the years from 1919 to 1932, the Scientific- Humanitarian Committee with its two leading figures Hirschfeld and Hiller was the single most important organization within the German gay rights movement (Steakley 1975: 77). In one of the early issues of its yearbook, the Committee stated its goals as follows: “(1) to win legislative bodies to the position of abolishing the antigay paragraph of the German penal code, Paragraph 175; (2) enlightening public opinion on homosexuality; (3) ‘interesting the homosexual himself in the struggle for his rights’” (Lauritsen and Thorstad 1995: 8). Later, Hirschfeld added a fourth goal to this list, which was to put an end to the ongoing blackmailing of homosexuals (Hirschfeld 2000: 979-1005). In the following sections, I will elaborate on these four goals in greater detail, which includes the context in which they were pursued, the means which were employed to achieve them and how successful the Committee was in its efforts.

Goal #1: Legal Reform

In the Weimar Republic, homosexuality was illegal under Paragraph 175, which read as follows: “Unnatural vice committed by two persons of the male sex or by people with animals is to be punished by imprisonment; the verdict may also include the loss of civil rights” (no author 1997: 63). The wording of this paragraph reveals two things about notions of sex and sexuality in the Weimar Republic. First, lawmakers (as well as a significant part of the population) did not make a distinction between beastiality and homosexuality; both phenomena were seen as equally condemnable in moral terms and thus subsumed under the label “sodomy”. Second, homosexuality was tantamount to man on man sex; lesbianism was not illegal under Paragraph 175. This was due to prevailing notions about sex at the time, which were solely based on the act of penetration and therefore excluded lesbian acts. The enforcement of this law was quite arbitrary, as the police tolerated the emergence of homosexual subcultures in some areas, especially in Berlin (Blasius and Phelan 1997: 133-134). Moreover, Germany's courts had difficulties with creating a coherent and consistent interpretation of Paragraph 175 (Beachy 2010: 808-809). Between 1919 and 1932, 7,957 men were convicted under Paragraph 175 and sent to prisons, penitentiaries or sanitariums, where they usually served up to four years (Hoffschildt 2008).


1 A survey I conducted of the 32 issues of Die Menschenrechte that were published in the years 1926 and 1927 revealed that none of the articles focused on homosexuality or other sex-related phenomena.

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The Gay Rights Movement in the Weimar Republic. Goals and intentions
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Michael Neureiter (Author), 2012, The Gay Rights Movement in the Weimar Republic. Goals and intentions, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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