It is often assumed that modern LGBT movements had their origins in the United States, in the second half of the 20th Century. One only needs to examine the iconography of queer communities around the world in order to understand how US-centric queer activism can be. For instance, most pride parades are held in the summer months, to commemorate the Stonewall Riots of June 1969. And the rainbow flag, which is slowly becoming an international symbol of queerness, was created by a Californian artist. A number of other mainstays of LGBT communities around the world also have their origins in the US: academic queer theory, genderqueer identity, RuPaul, Cher, etc.. Indeed, the United States serves as a reference point, a place of origin of sorts, for contemporary LGBT activism.

But this is a misconception. Over fifty years before the first large-scale queer organizing in the US, German sexual minorities were developing sophisticated movements of their own, which would have probably garnered significant political and cultural victories had it not been for the Nazi terror of the 1930s. This post will take a close look at these movements and examine the extent to which their internal debates mirror the controversies dominating modern queer activism.

The German Homosexual Movements of the Late 19th and Early 20th Centuries: An Overview

The territory of present-day Germany went through enormous changes in the second half of the 19th Century. A series of nationalistic wars were used as a pretext for unifying 39 feudal principalities and statelets into a large German state by 1871. Industrialization and the domestic free trade system introduced by the Zollvereien (Tariff Union) swept away internal barriers and led to large-scale migration and urbanization. The increasing availability of work in city factories enabled more people to leave their families and villages, settling on their own in teeming urban metropolises. It is in this context, during the unification of Germany “by iron and blood,” that the first visible homosexual communities emerged. As historian James Steakley writes:

“Prior to the wave of urbanization, the vast majority of German homosexuals lived in peasant villages where it was impossible for them to imagine themselves as a minority, to recognize themselves as a group with shared interests. The eccentric bachelor or spinster…may have been the object of mild suspicion or concern to village neighbors, but they would not automatically associate such forms of deviance with the sin of Sodom…Urban homosexuals developed the ritualized forms of interaction which would facilitate mutual recognition, and effeminate behavior on the part of males first became a caste mark in the cities” (The Homosexual Emancipation Movement in Germany, 15).

Nevertheless, while groups of homosexuals lurked in the shadows of German cities, no organizations existed to represent their interests and fight against the criminalization of their sexual practices.* For most of the 19th Century, activism on behalf of homosexuals was carried out by lone lawyers and doctors, many of whom did not know each other personally and could not form associations. The most prominent and pioneering activist during this period was Karl Heinrich-Ulrichs, a gay jurist from Hanover who developed elaborate theories about the origins of homosexuality. At the time he was writing, homosexuality was considered an acquired trait, a vice that one can fall into. Ulrichs, however, argued the exact opposite: that homosexuality was a congenital feature, akin to left-handedness, the outcome of feminizing or masculinizing influences in the early stages of fetal development. This developmental androgyny made all gays a sort of “Third Sex” by default. For Ulrichs, male homosexuals (whom he called, Urnings) were essentially women’s souls trapped in men’s bodies, while female homosexuals (termed, Urningins) were men’s spirits inhabiting women’s bodies.

Ulrichs read and wrote voraciously, but he was no solitary bookworm. He dared to publicly advocate for the partial decriminalization of sexual relations between people of the same sex in an extremely homophobic era. And he often used his theoretical work on the origins of homosexuality as the foundation for his legal arguments. On August 26, 1867, for example, Ulrichs gave a speech at the Congress of German Jurists, declaring that “extant laws were based on a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of homosexuality and had the effect of subjecting an innocent minority to untold persecutions” (Steakley, 5). Since people were born Urnings or Urningins, and did not have a choice in the matter, Ulrichs contended, legal discrimination against them was unjust. Nevertheless, his numerous efforts did not bring many immediate benefits. Ulrichs was “shouted down” by the Congress of German Jurists and he never managed to reach a wide audience with his books (5). “At the age of fifty-five, physically and spiritually drained, Ulrichs abandoned the cause of homosexual emancipation…[and left Germany], moving first to Naples and then, in 1883, to Aquila, an isolated town…where he lived his last years in poverty and exile” (22).

But in the longer-term, Ulrichs’ work was extremely significant for the German gay movement. Influential doctors, psychiatrists and lawyers, such as Richard von Kraft-Ebbing and Carl von Westphal, became familiar with his texts and used them to develop a more accepting medical approach to homosexual issues. Furthermore, his work had an impact on the words people used to talk about homosexuality. Whereas previously, censorious terms such as Sodomit, Paderast, Knabenschander (which means, “boy-ravisher”) were used by most people, Ulrichs’ more benign terminology (Urning, Dioning) became much more popular, at least until World War I (Steakley, 13-14).

Most importantly, however, Ulrichs laid at least part of the theoretical groundwork for the emergence of an organized gay movement in Germany. His ideas were resurrected by sexologist Magnus Hirschfeld who, together with Max Spohr and Erich Oberg, founded Germany’s first gay rights organization – the Scientific-Humanitarian Committee (Wissenschaftlich-humanitares Komitee) – on May 15, 1897. For the next three decades, the Committee was the most prominent sexual reform organization in the country, campaigning for the legalization of homosexual relations, writing petitions, co-opting members of parliament, outing politicians, developing educational pamphlets for the public, and fostering connections with the feminist movement and social democratic political parties. In the run-up to World War I, the Committee also began to establish an international network, opening up branches in Amsterdam (1911), London (1912) and Vienna (1914) (Steakley, 60).

But the Scientific-Humanitarian Committee did not have a monopoly. German sexual minorities joined other groups, some of which were markedly different from Hirschfeld’s organization. For instance, the Community of the Special (Gemeinschaft der Eigenen), founded on May 1, 1902 by Adolf Brand, Wilhelm Jansen and Benedict Friedlander, was primarily a cultural organization, whose members were drawn from the readership of Der Eigene, Germany’s first homosexual periodical. While the Community focused more on art, philosophy, literature and aesthetics, it was also a site of political commentary and debate. In fact, its members engaged in often fierce polemics with the Scientific-Humanitarian Committee, which caused major ideological rifts within the German homosexual movements of the 1910s.

According to Steakley, “World War I brought the efforts of the homosexual emancipation movement to an almost complete halt” (61). Nevertheless, in the heady aftermath of one of the world’s bloodiest conflicts, there was a veritable explosion of homosexual activism, art, and culture. 30 gay periodicals were published during the Weimar Republic** and Steakley estimates that, in 1923, at least 25 gay organizations were operating in Germany (60). But this eruption of community action did not bring about any concrete political changes. The focus of most of these gay groups was social rather than political. They were a means for German homosexuals to meet, have sex, and form relationships, but few engaged in campaigns for legal reform or broader social acceptance. While the Scientific-Humanitarian Committee remained in existence, its influence waned as a result of the party atmosphere fostered in gay communities during the 1920s. This was bolstered by a degree of official tolerance in big cities, some societal liberalism, and the relaxation of censorship regulations. For instance, trans citizens could be issued police certificates, allowing them to dress as their preferred gender in public, and lesbian bars were sometimes permitted to sell drugs (Steakley, 81).

But one organization did push for legal reform in the early 1920s. The German Friendship Association (Deutscher Freundschafts-Verband) was founded in the wake of World War I as a purely social organization – but ironically, it quickly engaged in active efforts to repeal homophobic laws, in cooperation with the Scientific-Humanitarian Committee and some members of the Community of the Special. Indeed, the three organizations briefly formed an Action Committee (Aktionsausschuss), which attempted to develop a mass-based homosexual movement at the national level. Unfortunately, with the onset of hyperinflation in 1923 and the increasing disillusionment of the homosexual population with political struggle, the Action Committee soon became obsolete. In Steakley’s words, it became “far easier to luxuriate in the concrete utopia of the urban sub-culture than to struggle for an emancipation which was apparently only formal and legalistic” (81).

Notably, there was one more large-scale attempt at political change in the late 1920s: the formation of the Coalition for Reform of the Sexual Crimes Code (Kartell fur Reform der Sexualstrafrechts). This was an alliance of a variety of reformist organizations, only one of which (the Scientific-Humanitarian Committee) “was a homosexual group” (Steakley, 83). The group did have some success campaigning for the reform of the anti-sodomy law (Paragraph 175). And with the support of left-wing political parties, it even managed to get a Reichstag Committee to approve the legalization of homosexual relations in October of 1929 (84-5). However, the start of the Great Depression overshadowed all other policy issues and the Parliament did not end up discussing the issue in its Plenary sessions (85).

Overall, the relative liberalism of the 1920s provided a short-lived window of opportunity for German homosexual emancipation movements. But they failed to take advantage of it, and after the Nazis consolidated their stranglehold on power in the early 1930s, the gay subculture and gay organizations were driven underground and into exile. Hitler’s rule resulted in unparalleled levels of state brutality towards sexual minorities. Paragraph 175 was expanded to make “nine possible ‘acts’…punishable, including a kiss, an embrace, even homosexual fantasies” (Steakley, 110). And tens – perhaps hundreds – of thousands of homosexuals were exterminated in the concentration camps. The burst of a fiery queer culture and activism in early 20th Century was brutally extinguished in the space of only a few years by a regime bent on eliminating anyone who could not contribute to the progress of the Aryan race through reproduction.

German Homosexual Activism in the Early 20th Century: Three Approaches

Magnus Hirschfeld, the founder of the Scientific-Humanitarian Committee, once wrote: “homosexuals are in reality almost totally lacking in feelings of solidarity; in fact, it would be difficult to find another class of mankind which has proved so incapable of organizing to secure its basic legal and human rights” (Steakley, 82). While the sweeping nature of this statement betrays ignorance about divisions within other movements, Hirschfeld’s frustration is understandable. The various organizations within the German homosexual movement of the early 20th Century were bitterly divided. This section will describe some of these divisions, arguing that there were three distinct approaches to homosexual activism during this time

(i) The “Committee Approach”
The Scientific-Humanitarian Committee was, without a doubt, the leading gay rights group in Germany (Steakley, 52-60). Using Ulrichs’ theories, the Committee based its arguments for emancipation on the notion that homosexuality is an essentially un-chosen characteristic, resulting from the feminization of male brains and the masculinization of female brains before birth. These prenatal processes were seen as leading to an androgyny of the soul in adult life. Hirschfeld couched explanations of this phenomenon in medical and scientific language and developed elaborate theories to explain the causes of homosexuality. If one is born gay, rather than choosing to be that way, what could possibly justify the penalization of same-sex relations? The Committee took this insight and used it as the basis for advocacy to reform Paragraph 175. The Committee’s main goals were legal and political change and its members spent a considerable amount of time lobbying the Reichstag and collecting signatures for numerous petitions. By 1914, the Committee had published over 100,000 propaganda materials and developed strong connections with the women’s movement and some members of the Social Democratic Party (SPD).

(ii) The “Community Approach”
This “Committee Approach” was markedly different from the strategy adopted by the Community of the Special. In fact, while their memberships overlapped, leaders of the two organizations often engaged in fierce polemics. In Steakley’s words, there was “a deep factionalization between the Committee and the Community” (60). For instance, the following was Benedict Friedlander’s take on the activist approach taken by Hirschfeld’s group:

“Taken by itself, the very fact that the general public never sees anyone but doctors in the movement’s leadership must further the erroneous notion that the movement is concerned with disease or at least some kind of sickness. Certainly sickness can be pitied, the sick can be treated “humanely,” and a ”cure” can even be attempted, but equality will never be accorded to those who are held to be physically inferior.” (Steakley, 48).

Members of the Community also resented Hirschfeld’s ignorance about bisexuality. In fact, Friedlander believed that bisexuality was a superior sexual orientation, calling those who had an exclusively heterosexual or homosexual orientation, Kummerlinge, which means “atrophied or puny beings” (46-7). And while the Committee took great pains to emphasize that it was not seeking to offend Christian morality,*** the Community sneered at modern society, advocated public nudity, and emphasized the superiority of men who have sex with men in style and taste (61). According to Steakley, the overall vibe of the Community was one of “elevated and aristocratic aestheticism” (50).

It may be tempting to view the “Community Approach” as a forbearer of modern queer theory, given its embrace of bisexuality, its trenchant critique of heteronormative society, and its resistance to medicalizing homosexuality. But the differences between the Community of the Special and today’s queer theorists are just as striking as the similarities. Firstly, the Community was an all-male chauvinist organization, in which the belief that women exist to have children and tend to the household was very popular (Steakley, 61). This is a far cry from today’s queer theorists, who engage extensively with feminist politics and reject all imposed gender norms.

Secondly, the Community shunned collaboration with other oppressed groups in society, aiming for a revival of Hellenic chivalry and the transformation of the German public sphere into a space where masculine homoeroticism would dominate (Steakley, 61). Again, as queerthestorm described in a recent post, queer theorists are – at least in principle – committed to struggling against all forms of oppression. Systems of racial, sexual, economic, political or gender stratification are all objects of sharp critique among queer theorists. They are also definitely not advocates for the masculinization of public space, preferring instead to debate how socially constructed spaces create or foreclose possibilities for non-heteronormative genders and sexualities to express themselves.

Finally, one of the Community’s most cherished causes was love between men and boys. Community members, believing that they were realizing the Hellenistic ideal, valued the nurturing of “bonds between men of unequal ages,” and called for “erotic,” but non-sexual pedophilic relationships between male family members (Steakley, 43). One of the sharpest disagreements between the Community and the Scientific-Humanitarian Committee was actually over the latter’s desire to legalize homosexual relations, but only for those over the age of 16 (47-8). While modern queer theorists may question the arbitrary nature of ages of consent (who is to say whether someone is ready to have sex at 16 or 18?), they would certainly equate pedophilia with non-consensual sex.

Overall, while there are surface parallels, the Community of the Special had a profoundly sexist, elitist, and pedophilic agenda that, ultimately, has little to do with contemporary LGBT activism, especially queer theory. Similarly, it is tempting to the view the “Committee Agenda” as the forbearer of the U.S. gay conservatism of the 1990s. Both certainly use the notion that sexuality is essentially un-chosen as the basis for gay rights advocacy. They also share a focus on legal reform, instead of cultural/normative change and tend to fret considerably about not offending the heterosexual majority.

But the similarities end there. The Committee developed close links with the women’s movement and with social democratic politicians, while the modern gay right eschews alliances with most other anti-oppression movements and avoids any association with left-wing politics. Similarly, today’s gay conservatives tend to extol the virtues of conformity to gender norms – a sharp contrast to Hirschfeld’s idea that homosexuals constitute a sort of “Third Sex,” with women’s souls in male bodies and men’s souls in female bodies. In sum, the Committee’s involvement with progressive politics, and its championing of gender non-conformity, decisively separate it from the likes of Andrew Sullivan and Bruce Bawer.

(iii) The “Action Approach”
Was there an alternative to the “Committee” and “Community” Approaches in early 20th Century Germany? As mentioned earlier, for a brief period in the 1920s, German homosexual organizations united under the framework of a national Action Committee. This group did develop its own distinctive perspective on gay emancipation, which I will call, the “Action Approach.” Its main goal was to foster the development of a mass movement, countering the elitism of the Community and the technical-scientific isolation of the Committee. For instance, an Action Committee pamphlet from January 1921 stated:

“We no longer want only a few scientists struggling for your cause, we want to demonstrate our strength ourselves. Here we stand, demanding that which is our right—and who would dare to challenge us? For this reason, we must work steadily and everyone must take part in our work. No homosexual should be absent – rich or poor, worker or scholar, diplomat or businessman. We cannot deprive ourselves of any support. Therefore, join us, swell our ranks before it is too late.” (Steakley, 76)

It is notable that the “Action Approach” called for the uniting of homosexuals across divisions of class and occupation – a startling appeal in a society that had, until the 20th Century, been completely dominated by these categories. The Action Committee’s goal was basically to “swell the ranks” of those identifying as homosexual and use that power-in-numbers to struggle for social and political transformation. Furthermore, the “Action Approach” called for homosexuals to take up spontaneous activism on their own. In an implicit critique of the Committee’s dependence on social democratic politicians, and the Community’s isolation from society, its proponents argued as follows:

“Homosexuals, you know what the reasons and motives of your opponents amount to. You also know that your leaders and advocates have toiled untiringly for decades to banish prejudice, disseminate truth and win the rights due to you… But in the final analysis, you yourselves must win your rights. Justice for you will finally be the fruit of your efforts alone. The liberation of homosexuals can only be the work of homosexuals themselves” (Steakley, 76).

The “Action Approach” is actually quite similar to Harvey Milk’s successful organizing strategies in San Francisco (described in more detail in this previous post). But unfortunately for the German gay movement, this mass-based and national-level approach was unable to take hold. Hyperinflation, economic struggles, a degree of official tolerance, and the increasing appeal of a relaxed and decadent gay sub-culture in German cities, meant that the Action Committee’s calls fell on deaf ears. Had German gays been able to organize as a group and develop a numerical power base at the grassroots, they may have been able to achieve the legal victories that had eluded the activists of the Scientific-Humanitarian Committee and the Community of the Special for most of the early 20th Century. Indeed, the Weimar Republic was a window of opportunity, a relatively liberal interval between World War I and the Nazi terror, that German homosexual organizations basically failed to take full advantage of.

*Homosexual sex, classified under the rubric of “sodomy,” was a crime in Germany. In 1871, a penal code was enacted for the new German state, based on the Prussian legal tradition. Paragraph 175 made homosexual acts between men illegal and punishable with a prison term. In 1909, the law was extended to penalize sexual relations between women, but this was discarded in 1919. Paragraph 175 remained on the statute books for most of the 20th Century and it was only reformed to legalize some homosexual sex in 1969.

**Weimar Republic is a term used by historians to describe the political regime in Germany from 1919 until the beginning of the Nazi dictatorship in 1933. The Republic replaced an imperial regime with an often unstable parliamentary democracy.

***One Scientific-Humanitarian Committee pamphlet read: “We expressly emphasize that we do not contest the demands of Christian morality, whose ideals everyone should strive to fulfill…” (Steakley, 32)

***For More Information***
Most of the information for this post came from James Steakley’s 1975 book, The Homosexual Emancipation Movement in Germany. It is a short and interesting read, but may be difficult to find outside of libraries. For further information about Karl-Heinrich Ulrichs, please view Hubert Kennedy’s website – here, you can find Kennedy’s biography of Ulrichs, downloadable for free in PDF format. To read more about queer theory, I would recommend Nikki Sullivan’s A Critical Introduction to Queer Theory and Annamarie Jagose’s Queer Theory: An Introduction.

Creative Commons License