Colin Wilson reviews Sex and the Weimar Republic: German Homosexual Emancipation and the Rise of the Nazis by Laurie Marhoefer.
This book offers a glimpse of a different kind of LGBT politics. Today we’ve made advances, but in the context of neoliberalism. In the Weimar Republic – Germany from 1918 to 1933 – there also existed a big LGBT movement, with the largest organisation’s membership exceeding 100,000. But this was a republic established by revolution in 1918, and where Communist Party membership also never fell below 100,000.
The revolution was led by soldiers, sailors and workers – many of them women, who got jobs in factories as men went off to fight. It had a huge impact on LGBT people. Censorship was weakened and over twenty magazines for LGBT audiences became available. A film was produced calling for legal equality, a pro-gay sex education institute opened and commercial bars and clubs mushroomed.
People then had different concepts around gender and sexuality. Magnus Hirschfeld, the best-known LGBT campaigner at the time, argued that gender and sexuality both existed along spectrums – nobody was, biologically, completely male or female. If a woman desired other women, that reflected some masculine element in her. Frequently the distinction wasn’t made, as it is now, between gay and lesbian people on the one hand and trans people on the other – it was all part of the same thing. In the words of the lesbian magazine Girlfriend, “For many people, it’s about taking control of their life and dressing as much as possible like a boy.” Lesbian magazines included supplements or columns for what was called the transvestite community.
The left were generally supportive of the LGBT movement. The Social Democrats were reformists, comparable with the Labour Party in Britain – they made positive statement but, although they controlled the government, they never abolished the legal ban which existed on sex between men. The Communists argued strongly for legal equality. Both Social Democrats and Communists were involved in broader campaigns to make healthy housing and food, accurate sex advice and free contraception available to workers. Access to abortion was tightly restricted, and when two doctors were jailed for carrying out abortions the Communist Party played a major role in the campaign that got them released, under the slogan “Your Body Belongs to You.”
Weimar ended, of course, in disaster, when the Nazis took power in 1933. A major problem was that the Communists let their strategy be guided from Moscow – Russia had huge prestige after the successful revolution of October 1917, but was itself sliding backwards under the growing influence of Stalin. As this book’s final chapter makes clear, the Nazis didn’t rise because of “Weimar decadence”.
This is an academic book but an accessible one – activists can draw much inspiration from this brief period when struggles for socialism and for sexual and gender liberation came together.
This review originally appeared in the Spring 2016 issue of the rs21 magazine