Chapter One- Before the Storm

The Nazi war against Germany’s homosexuals, to be properly understood, must be seen against the backdrop of the terrible tensions and social traumas that ultimately were to cause the collapse of the Weimar Republic. For the severe economic depression, widespread unemployment, galloping inflation, and bitter civil strife that were to engulf Germany in the Wake of World War I also consigned the country’s small but vigorous homosexual-rights movement to oblivion. That movement, which began around the turn of the century, would reach its peak in the early 1920s, under the remarkable leadership of Dr Magnus Hirschfeld. It would enjoy its greatest influence at precisely the moment that the larger society whose prejudices it sought to change began to spin out of control. To understand the fate of Germany’s homosexuals it is necessary to grasp not only the specific events and warring ideologies that destroyed the Weimar Republic and created the conditions that permitted the rise of the Nazis, but also the general atmosphere of Germany between 1919 and 1933.
The anxiety and insecurity that would come to grip all social classes by 1933 began with the shock of military defeat at the end of World War I. it was a war that had left 1.7 million German soldiers dead and another four million wounded. The returning veterans, convinced that they had been betrayed, claimed to have been “stabbed in the back”. Most Germans agreed. How was it possible for the Kaiser’s mighty army to have been defeated? Only days before the end, hadn’t the army’s own press releases promised the certain victory of the “sacred German cause”? what the man in the street suspected, what the popular press trumpeted, was that traitors at home had caused the great catastrophe. War profiteers, foreigners from the East, Communists, Socialists, the Jews – all were to blame for Germany’s humiliation.

A tidal wave of shame and resentment, experienced even by younger men who had not seen military service, swept the nation. Many people tried to digest the bitter defeat by searching furiously for scapegoats. The belief that internal enemies had brought down the Empire, the Kaiser, and the “Golden Age of German Power” was widespread. Enraged ex-soldiers and younger men formed violent bands that roamed Germany. A palpable yearning could be felt on all levels of society, from farm and factory workers to middle class businessmen and big-city intellectuals, for security and vengeance. The old guard of the Empire had never given up their positions of privilege and power, and no truly democratic government ever really grew strong enough to dislodge them. Arch-conservatives still held most of the leading positions in the army and navy, the universities, the civil service, and especially the courts. Long before Adolf Hitler entered politics, long before anti-semitism and antiliberalism had become battle cries for the Nazis, the Weimar Republic’s experiment in democracy and social tolerance was steadily undermined by distrust, injustice, and violence. One is almost tempted to say that Hitler did not bring the Republic down; he merely saved it from suicide by murdering it himself. It was bankrupt long before he appointed himself as Germany’s saviour.

The social hurricane at the heart of the Weimar Republic was prompted and complicated by five factors: (1) fear of revolution; (2) racist and xenophobic paramilitary groups; (3) unprecedented inflation; (4) extreme unemployment; and (5) the Nazi party.

First, directly after World War I, many older people were frightened by the spectre of revolution. The Bolsheviks had accomplished it in Russia, and they had counted on the spreading of revolution in Europe to ensure their survival. The revolt in Munich in 1918 seemed to many to be but the opening shot in a class war. German newspapers were soon filled with hysterical reports of famine in the Ukraine. Many people feared that a Socialist triumph in Germany would doom the country to Russia’s plight.

Second, dozens of racist and virulently nationalistic groups began to flourish in this climate, each more fanatical than the other. Many participated in the civil strife that began to break out sporadically all over the country. These guerrilla skirmishes especially alienated those Germans (the majority, it is safe to say) who wanted an orderly society in which to live and work.

A third factor cracked open the thin walls of stability and did more than any other to destroy trust and hope: the mammoth inflation of 1922-23. In just sixteen months the German mark soared from 192 marks to the American dollar to a staggering 4.2 trillion marks to the dollar. The financial faith of the country was shattered beyond repair. The middle class lost its savings and its confidence in government. Persons on fixed incomes, such as pensions, war bonds, and annuities, found their dreams drowned in monetary quicksand. An incomprehensible economic sickness infected everyone, diminishing all salaries and gobbling up savings. Everywhere, pawnshops were packed, and relief rolls lengthened. The labour unions, too, in which many had put their trust, failed. Since the unions’ funds were gone, they could no longer resist the demands of employers: the ten-hour day returned to many industries. Unions began to lose members. Death and suicide rates rose; many children suffered from malnutrition. Those who had left the unions- and there were hundreds upon hundreds of thousands of them- found themselves politically adrift. Neither the left-wing Social Democratic Party (to which most labour unions belonged) nor the liberal or right wing parties offered any prescriptions to cure this epidemic.

That the middle classes and the workers lost faith in both the state and the economy is not surprising. When money loses its value, then government is robbed of its authority. As Alan Bullock, the distinguished British historian and biographer of Hitler, has observed, the “result of the inflation was to undermine the foundations of German society in a way that neither the war nor the revolution of 1918 nor the Treaty of Versailles had ever done. The real revolution in Germany was the inflation.” Berlin, the capital of the country, became the object of hatred for many Germans. A wave of anti-Berlin sentiment, always dormant on many levels of German society, swept through the provinces. Berlin, it was said, was different; it was evil, dominated by the Jews, homosexuals, Communists.

A fourth factor compounding the deepening crisis was the rapid rise in unemployment, especially after 1929 New York Stock Exchange crash, which toppled of half the financial institutions of Central Europe. Austrian banks collapsed first, then a number of leading German banks. In January 1930, the number of unemployed workers rose from 1.5 million to 3.2 million. Some economists estimate the actual number to have been more than six million by 1933. Many of the unemployed were teenagers or their early twenties; they waited in endless lines before the welfare agencies to receive their meagre welfare stamps worth less than twenty dollars a month. On every corner, peddlers offered trinkets nobody wanted; street singers and itinerant musicians played endlessly in courtyards for people who could not afford to drop a few into their empty caps. Many young men, without hope, sullen and bewildered, were filled with a rage that knew no release. Many began to join the extremist parties of both the left and the right; many joined first the left, then the right. The promise of dramatic change suddenly made sense. Men were hungry too long, and now they were angry and desperate.

Into this social cauldron was added the fifth and most poisonous ingredient: the Nazi Party. As the numbers of unemployed rose, the Nazi membership rolls grew. To be sure, just before Franz von Papen maneuvered Hitler into the chancellorship in 1933, the Nazis had lost quite a few members. Still, the rise in unemployment and the growing strength of the Nazis were indissolubly linked. The Nazi Party not only provided food, weapons, a splendid uniform, it proclaimed a new purpose, a new faith, and a new prophet. Inflation and unemployment catapulted into power a man who promised rebirth to all “Aryan” Germans, regardless of status. Hitler vowed to avenge the injustices of the Treaty of Versailles, and to punish the culprits who had been responsible for Germany’s defeat. As was so often the case, Hitler’s rhetoric was littered with sexual metaphors. Jews and other minorities, for example, were guilty of the “syphilitization of our people.” In 1935, Nazi lawyer Hans Frank would warn that the “epidemic of homosexuality” was threatening the new Reich. America, too, was an enemy, a “niggerized Jewish country” where women painted their faces- a practice that enraged Nazi moralists. Heinrich Himmler, head of the SS, would later boast that no Aryan woman he knew ever used lipstick. It was Himmler who would mastermind the attacks on homosexuals, whom he endowed with the same subhuman, dangerous qualities as were ascribed to Jews, Communists and Gypsies.

During the Weimar Republic, the homosexual subculture had managed an uneasy coexistence with the larger heterosexual society surrounding it. Of course, those in the spotlight – famous actors, designers, dancers, doctors, politicians, directors, and lawyers- had to live with a certain amount of abuse. But many had acquired power, money, and even connections to the Weimar government, which served as protection. The average gay man could live unnoticed and undisturbed unless he fell victim to police entrapment or blackmail. The average lesbian enjoyed a kind of legal immunity. During the Weimar years, organised lesbian costume balls were held; luxurious lesbian bars and nightclubs flourished. Their owners never feared a police raid. The reason: neither the Second German Empire nor the Weimar Republic had ever promulgated laws forbidding or punishing sexual acts between women. Lesbian magazines enjoyed healthy circulations, some even featuring personal ads, and a few lesbian plays achieved widespread popularity.

But the sexual tolerance so often associated with the Weimar republic began to disappear as rapidly as Germany’s economy began to crumble. (The unemployed are generally less tolerant of contragenics.) Germany, it must be remembered, had never been an ethnically pluralistic society. Almost all German churches were state churches. There were no large ethnic groups or religious sects other than the Jews, the Gypsies, and the Jehovah’s Witnesses-the latter relatively small in number. Homosexuals were an obvious, if largely invisible, scapegoat.

The years from 1929 to the end of the Weimar Republic were years of mounting tension. The Brown Shirts, or SA, under the leadership of Ernst Roehm, who was himself homosexual and would later be the target of Hitler’s wrath, became even more brutal and more repressively efficient. Hitler had promised Germany’s youth life as an endless military parade, replete with dashing insignia, badges, and banners. He invented special ranks for SA recruits and later for the SS. He proffered the vision of a brave, sunny world of soldiering for those who had given up hope. His enemies he threatened with war and extinction. They would be eliminated “ruthlessly” (his favourite word), and “heads would roll.” His various adversaries were united in nothing but blindness. Only when it was too late did some grasp that Hitler’s program of wholesale destruction would indeed be carried out, its scope widening year after year. The initial misreading of the implications of the Nazis’ policy of systematic violence was shared by almost all of those who were their victims: Union leaders, shrewd politicians of the centre and the right, Marxists, Jewish scientists, writers, lawyers, and, of course, homosexuals of all professions and educational levels. To be sure, a small minority did read the omens correctly and managed to leave Germany before it was too late; but many stayed behind to face their doom uncomprehendingly.


It is in this context that the successes and failures of the homosexual-rights movement in Germany must be measured. The movement began long before World War I, during the reign of Kaiser Wilhelm II, but didn’t assume the proportions of a significant reform movement until the arrival of Magnus Hirschfeld (1868-1935). It would be hard to overestimate Hirschfeld’s importance. The attacks on his person and on his life’s work anticipate the wholesale horror that was to be unleashed once Hitler had consolidated his rule.

Hirschfeld, a Jew, a homosexual, and a physician, was a man possessed of enormous energy, imagination, and ambition. He became the leader of several psychological and medical organisations, the founder of a unique institute for sexual research, and the organiser of numerous international congresses dedicated to research on sexual matters and to the promotion of policies that would lead to an acceptance of homosexuals by society. In his celebrated study, Homosexuality in Men and Women, Hirschfeld optimistically declared that 90 percent of the German people would vote to repeal the nation’s antihomosexual laws if only they had a chance to learn the truth. His optimism would later prove to be unfounded, even after Hitler’s defeat in 1945. Hirschfeld’s motto was “Justice Through Knowledge.” He was not alone in his belief that progress could be made through the exercise of reason. Other doctors and psychiatrists, such as Richard von Krafft-Ebing, Albert Moll, and Alfred Adler, shared this belief even as they contested Hirschfeld’s ideas while respecting his research.

Consumed by a kind of a missionary zeal, Hirschfeld wrote book after book, polemic after polemic, pamphlet after pamphlet. His total output (nearly two hundred titles) is staggering: Natural Laws of Love (1912), Homosexuality in Men and Women (1918-20), and Sexual Knowledge, five volumes published from 1926 to 1930, are his major works. Most of the books were quite lengthy; for example, the second edition of Homosexuality in Men and Women stretches to more than one thousand pages. In addition, Hirschfeld composed scores of articles, book reviews, political pamphlets, and petitions to government agencies. He also founded the Yearbook for Intersexual Variants, which he edited until 1923, and was published, with a few interruptions, until 1932-33. The yearbooks addressed legal, historical, medical, and anthropological aspects of homosexuality. They presented lengthy discussions with psychiatrists who disputed Hirschfeld’s work. For a long time Hirschfeld had believed that Homosexual’s formed a third sex. (He would abandon this notion in 1910.) He considered the archetype of the totally masculine male and the totally feminine female as unchanging throughout history, a law of nature as firmly rooted in reality as the laws of mathematics. He was convinced that homosexuals constituted a biologically distinct gender- a human being between male and female. He devoted much thought to establishing fine differentiations within this third sex. (The “third sex” thesis, however, would inadvertently help the Nazis in their crusade against homosexuals, as will be explained below.)

Hirschfeld repeatedly tried to reform Germany’s laws, particularly the notorious Paragraph 175. This national law, enacted in 1871, stipulated that “A male who indulges in criminally indecent activities with another male or allows himself to participate in such activities will be punished with jail.” That such a law should have been passed is no surprise. Legal authorities in Germany had been obsessed with sexual practices for several centuries. In the seventeenth century, for instance, the German legalist Benedict Carpzow, in a legal commentary of 216 pages, condemned not only bestiality, masturbation, coprophilia, homosexuality, and intercourse with virgins, but sexual relations between Jews and non-Jews as well. Since the Jews were not human but animals, Carpzow reasoned, intercourse with them should properly fall under the legal category of the crime of sodomy-bestiality.

With the rise of the nation-state, homosexuality was regarded as particularly dangerous, although, as James D Steakley points out in his important study on the origins of the homosexual emancipation movement, “In France, the revolutionary Constituent Assembly had enacted a penal code in 1791 that removed homosexuality from the list of punishable offenses. This action was reaffirmed in the Napoleonic code…”French thinking on this matter was to have a liberalizing influence on several German states, especially Bavaria. Even Prussia was not immune. Still, Eduard Henke, in his influential Handbook on Penal Policy (1830), asserted that “sodomy damages the state – to be sure indirectly, but still in a disadvantageous manner. For it renders those individuals who practice it incapable of fulfilling their duties as citizens for the purpose of the state. This is due to several reasons: active sodomites waste their procreative powers instead of producing future subjects for the state. They weaken themselves through their debaucheries, whereupon, first, they cannot serve the state properly; second, they will finally be unable to take care of themselves and thus become an additional financial burden to the government. Furthermore, their bad example corrupts other citizens. The state must vigorously oppose this vice in the interest of its other citizens.”

Others found this too harsh. Carl von Westphal, for example, published in 1869 what is probably the first psychiatric look at homosexuality. He wrote that homosexuality “occurs more frequently than is realised,” and thought it a problem more for medicine than for the state. He sought the repeal of Prussia’s antihomosexual laws, hoping that when “the spectre of prison no longer appear[s] as a threat to the confession of perverse inclinations, such cases will certainly come to the attention of doctors –in whose area they belong- in greater numbers.” His view found an echo in the work of Richard von Krafft-Ebing, the leading psychiatrist of the late nineteenth century. In his book The Deviant Sexual Male Before the Court of Justice (1894), he concluded: “Such degenerates have no right to existence in a well-regulated bourgeois society, and they have no gift for doing so. They endanger society to a high degree and they do so as long as they live. Medical science has found no way to cure these victims of an organic disturbance. They should be put away for life; however, they should not be branded as criminals –they are unfortunates, deserving pity.” At least Krafft-Ebing tempered his attitude with a measure of charity. Refusing to stigmatise homosexuals as criminals was some improvement from the common practice in the seventeenth century, when Germany imprisoned convicted homosexuals with pickpockets, murderers, thieves, and the “workshy.” Indeed, over the course of many years, there had been a marked lessening of the punishment prescribed for homosexuals. In Prussia, the most homophobic of all the German states, homosexuals had risked burning at the stake until 1794, and imprisonment followed by banishment for life until 1837. Later, sanctions would be relaxed even further.
But only in Bavaria and three other German states (out of twenty-five) had a truly tolerant view prevailed. In 1813, under the combined influence of the Enlightenment and the French Revolution, and upon the urging of Anselm von Feuerbach, an influential liberal jurist, Bavaria liberalised all laws concerning sex, including those penalising homosexual acts between consenting adult males. Hannover followed suit a generation later, in 1840, when it repealed its antihomosexual legislation. But the old prejudices were ultimately to prove too strong. In the end, von Feuerbach recanted and reversed himself, condemning “indecencies of the coarser type, illicit licentiousness and bestiality.” In 1851, Prussia enacted Paragraph 143, which outlawed “unnatural sexual acts between men, and men and beasts,” and promised imprisonment for up to four years for violators. This law served as the legal basis for Paragraph 175, passed by the newly united Germany of 1871.

In 1898, Magnus Hirschfeld circulated a petition to abolish this law. He obtained the signatures of prominent writers, lawyers, politicians, and church dignitaries. The petition was discussed by the Reichstag and rejected. Only the Social Democratic Party, under the guidance of August Bebel, pleaded for reform. Most deputies were outraged and did not hide their abhorrence. All the old arguments of the past were marshalled: homosexuality corrupts a nation; it breaks the moral fibre of the citizens; its un-Germanic; it is connected with dangerously corrosive left-wing and Jewish elements (this from the right), or it is typical of the dissolute aristocracy and high bourgeoisie (this from the left). Above all, the spread of homosexual behaviour would lead to Germany’s decline, just as it had always spearheaded the ruin of great empires. Such arguments, recycled and sometimes imbued with Himmler’s special brand of crackpot fanaticism, would later reappear in numerous Nazi directives.

Despite the setback in 1898, Hirschfeld refused to give up. Soon afterward, he issued one of his many pleas for understanding; an appeal entitled What People Should Know About the Third Sex. By the outbreak of World War I, more than fifty thousand copies had been distributed. Hirschfeld’s tireless efforts, while in many respects enlightened, nevertheless did much to establish the notion of homosexuals as a medically defined, vulnerable, and official minority. Like many turn-of-the-century psychiatrists, he wanted legal punishments to be replaced by treatment of patients who deserved to be pitied and helped rather than censured and ignored. He followed the conventions of his time when he sought the key to homosexuality by measuring the circumferences of male pelvises and chests in an attempt to define a physiologically recognisable “third sex”. Only after the Nazis had turned his lifework into ashes did he concede that, on the one hand, he had failed to prove that homosexuals were characterised distinct and measurable biological and physiological qualities and that, on the other hand, he unwittingly deepened popular prejudices by endowing male homosexuals with “feminine” characteristics. This had only served to confirm the prevailing assumption that because homosexuals were “not really men,” they were therefore inferior.

The notion of homosexuals as “basically different” permitted the left as well as the right to revile them whenever it was politically expedient to do so. The very word homosexual could be used as an epithet and a term of opprobrium. For example, Hirschfeld’s main political ally, the Social Democrats, deserted him during a famous scandal that rocked Germany during the reign of Kaiser Wilhelm II. Alfred Krupp, who had refused to sign the Hirschfeld petition, was heir to the giant munitions fortune. Wealthy, right wing, moving among the nobility, he had been caught with a few young men on the island of Capri and in a Berlin hotel. He committed suicide a week later. The Social Democratic newspapers could not pass up the chance to twit the upper class, just as, years later, they could not resist exploiting the revelations about the homosexual activities of Hitler’s deputy, Ernst Roehm, chief of the SA. In the Krupp affair, the party’s hacks revelled in phrases like “capitalist culture in garish colours,” “fateful errors of nature,” “gratifications of a certain sickness.” Similar phrases were served up during an even more notorious and publicised affair, that of Prince Philipp von Eulenburg and Count Kuno von Moltke, both members of the Emperor’s inner circle. Hirschfeld’s hopes for sexual tolerance would founder the moment accusations of homosexual conduct were used to blacken an opponent’s reputation.
The rank and file of the two labour parties (Communist and Social Democratic) probably did not care one way or the other what happened to homosexuals. The leaders, however, wanted to have it both ways. Officially, they fought to overturn Paragraph 175, and when speaking before special legislative committees or in the Reichstag, they often voted for Hirschfeld’s petition, which, by 1913, had been debated five times by special councils. But in the sordid world of party rivalry, the charge of homosexuality was a useful weapon.
Among those who repeatedly rose to speak on Hirschfeld’s behalf was August Bebel, the respected leader of the Social Democratic Party. As early as 1898, he had taken the petition to the floor of the Reichstag. He argued that because so many gays were to be found in all levels of society, the government would have to build countless new jails if the police were actually to prosecute every violation of Paragraph 175. When he encountered acute opposition from the Catholic Centre Party, Bebel pointed out that thousands of people from all walks of life were probably homosexual. Should the truth of this social reality be known, he emphasized, the ensuing scandal would make the Dreyfus affair look like “kid stuff.” Bebel’s remarks were virtually ignored by his aristocratic and middle class fellow legislators in the Reichstag.

Like Anselm von Feuerbach before him, Bebel also favoured a more conservative position. In his famous study, Women and Socialism (1883), Bebel sounded the by now standard view that sexual indulgence inevitably leads to impotence, spinal paralysis, and idiocy. Young men, he wrote, today age prematurely, become “roués,” and demand ever new forms of titillation. True, some people are homosexuals from birth, but others indulge in it because it offers new thrills. Bebel called it “Greek love,” which included “Sappho’s love,” prevalent among the better classes of Berlin and Paris, and among prostitutes. In a footnote added in the 1907 edition, Bebel paid tribute to the von Eulenburg-von Moltke scandal and suggested that homosexuality was more frequent among the military and the upper middle class- thus confounding his earlier view that love among men reached equally into every sector of society.

The same confused mix of liberal sentiment and traditional intolerance is exemplified by Bebel’s contemporary, Eduard Bernstein, the prominent theoretician and right wing socialist, a man bitterly attacked for his revisionism. In the Social Democratic Party’s theoretical magazine Neue Zeit, Bernstein covered the Oscar Wilde trial (1895), and later wrote a revealingly muddled commentary on homosexuals. He begins by expressing his disapproval of the spirit of decadence, so apparent in Wilde’s circles. He discovers in this spirit an affinity to Baudelaire and French aestheticism. Still, he repeatedly deplores those who would use the word “unnatural” (widernaturlich) for Wilde’s activities. He pleads against punishment of people attracted to their own sex. Yet he speculates that homosexual activities probably begin when heterosexual outlets are unavailable. A few lines later he challenges the popular notion that Greece fell because of pederasty. He recognises that throughout history the treatment of women and sexual minorities stems from the same sociocultural perception. He acknowledges that punitive proceedings against homosexual acts are carried out rarely, perhaps in only one out of a hundred cases. He approvingly quotes Richard von Krafft-Ebing to the effect that homosexuality is a sign of pathological disturbance, that it should not be punished, and that it is not always the consequence of a hedonistic, thrill-seeking life-style. What most people think about such sexual practices does not matter to Bernstein; most people are prisoners of ancient prejudice. Toward the end of the essay, he seeks a connection between the structure of society and the development of homosexuality. He writes that “as long as social conditions, which, so to speak, threaten natural sexual pleasure with punishment, as long as our entire way of life does constant injury to the requirements of health and body and spirit- then so long will abnormal sexual intercourse not cease. On the contrary, it will reveal a tendency to become the norm.” Therefore, he concludes, homosexuality is but a symptom of “our entire way of life.” It does not arise from a lack of discipline; it is rooted in a defective society.

In Bernstein we encounter the Marxist version of the theory of “degeneracy,” only the emphasis has shifted. Conservative German legislators, politicians, and clergymen had always insisted that homosexuality inevitably brought about the dissolution of marriage, the decline of morals, and the ruin of the body politic. Marxists, on the other hand, had generally regarded homosexuality as a consequence of the antisexual, repressive nature of society; homosexuals were, so to speak, not the pathogenic agents of the “fatal disease” but its victims.
Marx and Engels, unfortunately, were not of much help in guiding the average socialist of the period through the thicket of these contending theories. None of their major published works addresses in a systematic manner the problem of homosexuality. Repeatedly, Marx and Engels analysed the structure of the nuclear family and the change in the family’s role brought about by capitalism. They regarded sexual phenomena only within the framework of their materialism. However, Marx and Engels express themselves quite candidly in their correspondence. There they occasionally crack jokes about “warm brothers,” a derogatory German phrase for homosexuals. They entertain each other with vitriolic sketches of allies and enemies.

In 1896 a quarrel erupted at the Universal Congress of German Workers held in Eisenach. Here the Social Democratic Party was founded; its platform and bylaws were formulated. The essential features had been worked out beforehand by August Bebel. But followers of the populist leader Ferdinand Lassalle, headed by Jean-Baptiste von Schweitzer, tried to sabotage the congress. Thirty-four years before, von Schweitzer, a lawyer, had been indicted for “public indecency” with a boy and had been jailed. Engels, recalling this incident, used it to make a number of acid remarks about the effeminate disciples of Lassalle who were threatening to wreck the congress. And, in a letter to Marx discussing a book by Karl Heinnrich Ulrichs (1825-95), an early pioneer of homosexual emancipation, Engels wrote:

The pederasts start counting their numbers and discover they are a powerful group in our state. The only thing missing is an organisation, but it seems to exist already, though it is hidden. And since they can count on important personalities, in all old and even new parties, their victory is assured. Now the motto will be “war against the frontal orifices, peace to those behind.” How lucky we are that we are both too old – otherwise we might have to submit personally to the victors. But the younger generation! Really, it can only happen in Germany, that such a no-good can transform lechery into a theory and invite us to “enter.” Unfortunately, he hasn’t the courage to openly confess what he is and is forced to operate in full view of the public, though not “frontally” as he once called it by mistake. But just you wait until the North German legislation has recognised the “rights of the behind,” then he’ll sing another tune. We poor frontal fellows with our childish passion for women, will have a bad time.

Despite such bigoted witticisms in the correspondence between Engels and Marx, the Bolsheviks were to take a forthright stand in favour of homosexual rights when they took power in 1917. They quickly abolished the Tsarist antihomosexual laws two months after the storming of the Winter Palace. Only under Stalin in 1934 were antihomosexual laws reintroduced. Until then, Communist parties hewed to the liberal Soviet stance. The German Communist Party’s official position toward homosexuality was clearly summed up by one of its more prominent lawyers, Felix Hale:

The class-conscious proletariat, uninfluenced by the ideology of property and freed from the ideology of the churches, approaches the question of sex life and also the problem of homosexuality with a lack of prejudice afforded by an understanding of the overall social structure…. In accordance with the scientific insights of modern times, the proletariat regards these relations as a special form of sexual gratification and demands the same freedom and restrictions for these forms of sex life as for intercourse between the sexes, i.e., protection of the sexually immature from attacks…. Control over one’s own body, and finally respect for the rights of non-involved parties.

As we have seen, however, this enlightened official attitude was often considerably diluted in the party’s propaganda; the Communists did not hesitate to tar their enemies with the charge of homosexuality if they thought that doing so would weaken them in the public’s eyes. Ultimately the Marxist message rang loud and clear: problems of sex are secondary to the contradictions of class; they have no enduring relevance for society’s workers; they will disappear come the revolution.

Before World War I the Social Democrats were the only political party willing to assist Hirschfeld in his struggle toreform Paragraph 175 and educate the German people about homosexuality. Although the party had wavered during the Krupp affair, and would betray Hirschfeld’s cause during later scandals, whenever this was thought to be politically advantageous, it nevertheless backed him during the parliamentary debates over Paragraph 175, which took place until 1927-29.


In 1903, after the storm over Krupp had calmed down, Hirschfeld and his Scientific-Humanitarian Committee, founded in 1897, initiated something unprecedented: they distributed 6,611 questionnaires on contemporary sex habits and attitudes to Berlin factory workers and university students. The results, published in the 1904 Yearbook for Intersexual Variants, surprised everybody but Hirschfeld, as he was happy to point out. On the basis of the data he had gathered, Hirschfeld concluded that 2.2 percent of Germany’s males were homosexual, or about 1.2 million men. (One must regard these statistics with some scepticism. Berlin had long maintained a greater degree of hospitality toward homosexuals than had most other German cities. By 1914 there were about forty gay bars in the city. And the Berlin police, according to Steakley, “had a tradition of tolerance toward homosexuality which reached back to the eighteenth century.” Thus, there may have existed in Berlin not only a greater willingness on the part of homosexuals to profess their sexual preference openly, but also a greater proportion of the city’s population may have been homosexual than that of the country as a whole.)

Hirschfeld’s statistics were of no help in the Reichstag debate. In 1905 another attempt to reform Paragraph 175 was soundly beaten. Only August Bebel again dared to raise his voice in favour of total revision. Hirschfeld may have been a pioneer – after all, he probably initiated the first statistical sexual survey, nearly half a century before Kinsey- but he soon committed a political blunder. Asked to give psychiatric testimony in court during the Eulenburg proceedings, he let himself be persuaded to testify that one of the members of the Emperor’s cabinet, Kuno von Moltke, was, in his professional opinion, a genuine homosexual. This mistake undid years of hard work. Prominent members of the committee deserted it, and the movement splintered.
Fortunately, Hirschfeld found some unexpected allies in the women’s emancipation movement. The most active organisation was the League for the Protection of Maternity and Sexual Reform, founded in 1905. Its guiding spirit was Dr, Helene Stoecker (1869-1943), an indefatigable organiser, as unswervingly optimistic as Hirschfeld,, who joined Hirschfeld’s committee in order to squelch attempts to make sexual relations between women a criminal offence. (The laws were never passed.) Stoecker believed, and wrote in various articles, that it was senseless to punish homosexual acts. A bond was established between the women’s movement and the Scientific-Humanitarian Committee when Stoecker became one of the committee’s directors. Nazi propagandists would later stress that activities for the emancipation of women and for the repeal of antihomosexual laws were part of one invisible conspiracy. This, of course, was rubbish. What was true was the rather sudden appearance around the turn of the century of a number of independent sexual reform movements, including the movement for women’s suffrage, which held its first big demonstration in Berlin in 1894. In the early twenties, a number of homosexual associations sprang up in Breslau, Frankfurt, Lubeck, and other large cities. Hirschfeld had tried unsuccessfully to unite them under one umbrella organisation, but internecine squabbles made unity a mirage. Nevertheless, cooperation among some of the movements grew over time as natural affinities came to be recognised.

While Hirschfeld’s Scientific-Humanitarian Committee was the largest and most influential group within the homosexual rights movement (it had one thousand members in 1914), there were others as well - for example, the Committee of the Special, founded in 1902. Headed by Benedict Friedlander and Adolph Brand, it maintained that relations between older men and younger men had contributed to the “glory of Greece”- a theory that Hirschfeld opposed. Friedlander and Brand sought to refashion the image of the homosexual man as even more masculine and athletic than the heterosexual. The ancient Greeks were cited repeatedly; it was asserted that sexual friendship between soldiers had made Sparta’s armies nearly invincible. The vision of a constructive, overtly masculine society, bonded by homoerotic ties, was pursued by Hans Bluher (1888-1952) in two controversial books: The German youth Movement as an Erotic Phenomenon (1912) and The Role of Eroticism in Male Society (1917). Bluher, originally a follower of Freud, later turned to the anti-Semitic right. He, too, ridiculed the idea of a “third sex” and adopted a contrary position. Throughout history, he wrote, the soldierly, aggressive homosexual male had fought wars, conquered nations, founded empires. Frequently he not only had a wife but kept a male lover as well. Despite Bluher’s later embrace of the right, the Nazis did not hesitate to attack him vehemently, once they came to power. The Wandervogel movement, already riven by factionalism, was embarrassed by Bluher, and insisted that he had exaggerated the homoerotic component. In the end, the Youth Movement was first absorbed and then destroyed by Hitler Youth leaders, when its “decadent” and “elitist” homoeroticism succumbed to the “racially productive” blood-and-soil philosophy of the Nazis.

Today Bluher’s ideas may seem like pop Freudianism, spiced with homosexual imperialism and Black Forest romanticism, but to many gay Germans in the Youth Movement before World War I who felt uncomfortable at being branded as a “third sex,” Bluher’s views helped to impart a sense of being acceptable as men among men.

Hirschfeld’s major achievement was to establish the Institute for Sexual Research, which opened its doors to the public on 1st July, 1919. He amassed a unique library of twenty thousand volumes- an incomparable collection of rare anthropological, medical, legal, and social documents. He also gathered some 35,000 photographs. He employed four physicians and several assistants, and provided various research facilities. He welcomed scientists from all over the addition, the attending physicians offered various kinds of sexual counselling- a practice that was considered radically reformist. His doctors also tested and treated people for venereal diseases, charging minimal fees and giving advice on abortion procedures. Eventually, Hirschfeld relinquished charge of the institute to Kurt Hiller (1885-1972), a lawyer and left wing anti-Marxist journalist. In the 1920s a branch of the institute was set up in Amsterdam. It functioned until May 1940, when the Nazis invaded the Netherlands.

Hirschfeld’s triumphant moment may have arrived in September 1921, when he organised the First Congress for Sexual Reform. Experts came from all over the world to discuss such topics as genetics, sexology, and the law. The congress was such a success that Hirschfeld was emboldened to create the World League for Sexual Reform, which at its height claimed a membership of 130,000.

Nobody has written more vividly about the institute than Christopher Isherwood, especially in his memoir Christopher and His Kind (1976). For a time, Isherwood lived in one of the upper rooms of the institutes buildings. Photographs in the institute’s collection depicting the sexual organs of hermaphrodites shocked him, as did the drawings of one of Hirschfeld’s psychotic patients, in which phalluses reigned and strange couplings took place. Isherwood reveals a more complicated reality than the one he had described earlier in Goodbye to Berlin (1939), in which he presented a gravely distorted vision of a city peopled by rough working men, charmed by the handsome writer from England. In 1976, Isherwood acknowledged certain brutal realities: that Hirschfeld had repeatedly been beaten up by right wing thugs, and that he barely escaped an assassination attempt in Vienna. What Isherwood doesn’t mention is the abuse Hirschfeld suffered at the hands of the right wing press whenever he lectured. After one physical assault, for example, a Nazi paper sneered: “It is not without charm to know that…. Hirschfeld was so beaten that his eloquent mouth could never again be kissed by one of his disciples.” Das Schwarze Korps, the official propaganda sheet of the SS, and Hitler’s personal newspaper, the Volkischer Beobacther, were particularly vicious. They usually varied three invectives in several combinations: Hirschfeld, the Jewish homosexual commie pervert, masquerading as a scientist, seeks only one aim- to permit homosexuality to flourish, which would mean fewer babies, and thus the German nation would be weakened.

However, neither the Nazi propaganda sheets nor the few liberal papers that took a more benevolent view of Hirschfeld had as much impact on the majority of Germans as did the mainstream yellow press. There his institute was lumped together with transvestite nightclubs, houses of prostitution, gay bars, and general rot in Berlin. The capital was Sodom anyhow, it was said; a city where bureaucrats swindled decent people out of money, a city without a soul, a city controlled by Jews and perverts. People in small provincial towns came to loathe Berlin as a centre of corruption. Whatever opinions they might have held about Hirschfeld’s committee weren’t helped by a clumsily produced film about homosexual blackmail, Different from the Others, released in 1919. It starred Conrad Veidt (who became famous a year later for his portrayal of the somnambulist in The Cabinet of Dr Caligari) and, in a small part Magnus Hirschfeld. The film was banned in Munich, Stuttgart, and Vienna. In 1927 it was rereleased, but Hirschfeld’s part was cut out. Moreover, the problems of belonging to a “third sex” must not have seemed very compelling to the vast majority of heterosexual Germans struggling to cope with unemployment and inflation.

The film, however, was of minor importance for the homosexual rights movement compared with the shocking murders that occurred in Hannover in 1923 and 1924, culminating in the trial of a certain Fritz Haarmann. Simply put, it was a disaster for Hirschfeld’s and the committee’s effort s to liberalise the law. It splintered the movement irreparably, fed every prejudice against homosexuality, and provided new fodder for conservative adversaries of legal sex reform. In addition, it pitted the Social Democrats, unwillingly, against the Communist Party. Most historians of the Weimar Republic have neglected the trial. But Haarmann dominated the headlines for months, and the passions he aroused did much to weaken the struggle to abolish Paragraph 175.
The trial took place during July 1924 in Hanover, a medium sized northern city, a place known as much for its black market as for its huge number of prostitutes and hustlers. Interestingly enough, Hanover had been the birthplace of Karl Heinrich Ulrichs, who, it will be recalled, had been among the first in the nineteenth century to urge greater tolerance toward homosexuals, writing over the course of many years a dozen books that were collectively titled Researches on the Riddle of Love Between Men. Until 1869, when the stringent Prussian penal code was extended, Hanover was one of the handful of German states that did not punish homosexuality.

Fritz Haarmann, a homosexual small time crook who had spent most of his life in and out of insane asylums and prisons, sold second hand clothing and jewellery and third-rate food, mostly meat. He also acted as a police informer, which, for a time, saved him from being suspected of a series of spectacular murders. It was Haarmann’s habit to pick up (“for interrogation”) destitute youngsters at Hannover’s railroad station or some other centre of the black market. He then took them to one of his ever-changing slum apartments near the banks of the Leine River. He murdered some, but others he let go. Of those he killed, he cut off head and limbs, severed the flesh, fed it through a grinder, and sold it in small, well wrapped packages as horsemeat. The black market absorbed all this until too many skulls and bones were found washed up on the banks of the Leine River. As more details were uncovered, it emerged that Haarmann not only carried a police badge but had founded his own phony detective story. Haarmann, though a psychopath of low intelligence and no grasp of reality, did possess a shrewd talent for deceit, and he had actually assisted the police in solving several crimes.

He confessed readily. He did not recall details, names, faces. He remembered that sometimes, overcome by sexual rage, he bit through his victims’ throats –and thus ancient tales of werewolves and vampires were thrown into the legal proceedings. Altogether, criminologists and pathologists reconstructed 147 cases of missing persons. Hirschfeld was called from Berlin as an expert witness, but he never wrote about the case. Conservative businessman Friedrich Radzuweit, head of the League for Human Rights, did. He sent a letter to the leading newspapers in which he strongly protested “the yellow press which tried to identify homosexuals with this feebleminded criminal… The homosexual minority in our nation emphatically rejects these insulting remarks which equate homosexuality with criminality.” Haarmann admitted to 127 murders and asked to be executed. He alternated between crying and cajoling, and pleaded insanity. The court sentenced him to death.

Journalists were admonished to ply everything down; the Hanover officials wanted no panic. Reporters were also encouraged not to investigate the role of the police. It was on this point that the Communists unleashed an avalanche of criticism against the hated Social Democrats. The post of police commissioner of Hanover was held by Gustav Noske, who, years before, had beaten back left wing demonstrators by using Reichswehr and re Crops troops. Officially, Gustav Noske was a Social Democrat, but he had acted with a vengeance that the radical labour rebels never forgave. He was hated as much as superior, Karl Severing, the Prussian minister of the interior, and also a Social Democrat. Altogether, Severing and Noske had put behind bars about seven thousand workers. When the local Communist paper, the Niedersachische Arbeiterzeitung, began to reveal the net of police connections Haarmann had established as a stool pigeon, its circulation jumped from 8,000 to 35,000. As soon as Noske returned from vacation, he had the newspaper declared injurious to public safety and banned it. In Berlin, the Communist Rote Fahne protested “energetically the ban of the workers’ newspaper… It remains a scandal that the police hire such criminal stool pigeons, using them against our party…. It has been proven that the campaign against the Communist Party… has been led by stool pigeons of the Haarmann type…. We demand the resignation of Police Commissioner Noske… We demand the release of all victims of the Severing-Noske-Haarmann police.” The Rote Fahne then went on to speak of “Haar-men,” which meant the sadistic policemen who had attacked the Communist workers, and declared that “since no sane man would stoop to work for the Haarmann-police, the system is forced to hire its tools and agents from the underworld… abnormal, perverted, sick people… the entire system is truly characterised by a mass murderer and cannibal such as Haarmann.” Later the Communists used expressions such as “homosexual sadists” to condemn the police, and demanded that “the police be purged of monarchist, sadist, homosexual, and fascist elements.” The equation of homosexuals with criminals ran counter to the official policy of the party. But in their fervour to get even with the despised Social Democrats, the Communists did not hesitate to put the stigma of sadism, brutality, and cannibalism on all homosexuals. The pitch of public hysteria mounted. Many mothers now panicked when their children did not return on time from school, which was all the more understandable because the police had begun arresting child-murderers in other cities as well. In Berlin high schools, a grim ditty made the rounds:

Wait with patience, little mouse,
Fritz will soon come to your house,
With his axe so sharp and neat,
He’ll make you into red chopped meat.

Hirschfeld’s appearance as an expert during the Haarmann trial seems only to have deepened the public’s animosity towards his committee. It infuriated the Nazis. That the main vehicles for sexual reform – the Scientific Humanitarian Committee and the Institute for Sexual Research- were founded by Magnus Hirschfeld, a Social Democrat, a Jew and a homosexual, and that Kurt Hiller, his administrative successor, and many other members were Jewish and liberal made it easy for Hitler’s early followers to vilify all efforts to abolish Paragraph 175. As early as 1920, Joseph Goebbels’s weekly Der Angriff had expressed its malevolence after Hirschfeld was beaten following a lecture in Munich. The newspaper praised the students for the “sound thrashing” administered to Hirschfeld. Seven years later, Wilhelm Frick, a lawyer, later famous for drafting the anti-Jewish Nuremburg laws in 1935, denounced the Social Democrats on the floor of the Reichstag; “Your party, at its last convention, has demanded the repeal of all laws concerning adultery and homosexuality, and you seem to believe that this will contribute to the moral regeneration of the German nation. We National Socialists are convinced, on the contrary, that men practicing unnatural lechery between men must be persecuted with utmost severity. Such vices will lead to the disintegration of the German people.” When, in 1929, the Social Democrats and the Communists had succeeded in getting a crucial parliamentary committee to vote in favour of bringing before the Reichstag a bill to strike down Paragraph 175, Hitler’s official newspaper wrote:

We congratulate you, Mr Hirschfeld, on the victory in committee. But don’t think that we Germans will allow these laws to stand for a single day after we have come to power…. Among the many evil instincts that characterise the Jewish race, one that is especially pernicious has to do with sexual relationships. The Jews are forever trying to propagandise sexual relations between siblings, men and animals and men and men. We National Socialists will soon unmask and condemn them by law. These efforts are nothing but vulgar, perverted crimes and we will punish them by banishment or hanging.

Perhaps the Nazi Party’s most explicit statement on homosexuality is the one it published on May 14th 1928, in response to a query about its stance toward reform of Paragraph 175. It is worth quoting in full:

It is not necessary that you and I live, but it is necessary that the German people live. And it can only live if it can fight, for life means fighting. And it can only fight if it maintains its masculinity. It can only maintain its masculinity if it exercises discipline, especially in matters of love. Free love and deviance are undisciplined. Therefore, we reject you, as we reject anything that harms are nation.

Anyone who thinks of homosexual love is our enemy. We reject anything which emasculates our people and makes it a plaything for our enemies, for we know that life is a fight, and it is madness to think that men will ever embrace fraternally. Natural history teaches us the opposite. Might makes right. The strong will always win over the weak. Let us see to it that we once again became strong! But this we can achieve only in one way- the German people must once again learn how to exercise discipline. We therefore reject any form of lewdness, especially homosexuality, because it robs us of our last chance to free our people from the bondage which now enslaves it.

Despite these attacks, the effort to reform Paragraph 175 continued, albeit fitfully, until the end of 1929, when the Nazis gained 107 seats in the Reichstag, making parliamentary reform impossible.

On January 30th, 1933, Hitler was named Chancellor of Germany. On February 23rd pornography was banned along with homosexual rights organisations. As luck would have it, Hirschfeld was out of the country on a lecture trip. On March 7th the SS burst into and searched Kurt Hiller’s apartment. On March 23rd he was arrested and packed off to the concentration camp at Oranienburg, near Berlin. Nine months later, incredibly, he was released. He made his way first to Prague and then to London. Hiller’s arrest and incarceration was the opening salvo in the Nazi campaign to rid Germany of its homosexuals. On May 6th the full frenzy of hate was unleashed. The target: Hirschfeld’s Institute of Sexual Research, condemned by the Nazis as “the international centre of the white slave trade” and “an unparalleled breeding ground of dirt and filth.” A band of about one hundred young fanatics descended upon the institute, smashing everything they could lay their hands on. They confiscated more than twelve thousand books and the precious collection of photographs. Four days later, in a public ceremony, these were burned. The crowd roared approval, especially after somebody threw in a bust of Hirschfeld.

By the summer of 1933, Ernst Roehm’s SA goons were raiding gay bars throughout Germany. Many were closed, but others didn’t shutter their doors until 1935. That was the year when that was the year when the campaign against homosexuals shifted into high gear and the new Nazi laws banning such gathering places and outlawing homosexuals as “sexual vagrants” went into effect. As for Hirschfeld, he died of heart failure on May 14th, 1935- his sixty-seventh birthday.


After years of frustration, Nazi totalitarianism brought to the disenfranchised masses a stable, rigidly structured society and bread and circuses. Hitler’s storm troopers now had their opportunity to smash their enemies: the lame, the mute, the feebleminded, the epileptic, the homosexual, the Jew, the Gypsy, the Communist. These were the scapegoats, singled out for persecution. These were the “contragenics” who were to be ruthlessly eliminated to ensure the purity of the “Aryan race.” At last, shops could be looted with impunity and people could be beaten up, all in the name of the Fuhrer’s new laws.

To the rampaging fascist gangs, the Jews were money grubbing subhumans. Many Germans knew this stereotype to be untrue. But hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, wanted to believe it, or at least did not protest when the Nuremburg laws of 1935 deprived Germany’s Jews of their citizenship and turned them into legal targets for persecution. Homosexuals were less easy to scapegoat and harass. Unlike the Jews, they could not be readily identified and registered- which enabled many homosexuals to “pass” undetected during the twelve years of the Third Reich.

At first the Nazi attacks against homosexuals were interpreted by many gays solely as prompted by anti-Semitism, directed at Hirschfeld and Hiller. Just as many Jews, even after the Nuremburg laws of 1935, still hoped that “things would quiet down,” that Hitler would not carry out the methodical oppression he had threatened since 1925, the year Mein Kampf was published, most homosexuals too did not read the danger signals correctly. Perhaps some found reason for optimism in the widely known fact that one of the most influential Nazi leaders, Ernst Roehm, was himself a homosexual. Perhaps it was thought that Roehm would offer protection. If so, it was an exceedingly dangerous delusion. For it would not be long before Hitler would order Roehm’s murder and the massacre of the SA’s leadership. What this bloody purge meant for Germany’s homosexuals needs now to be understood.