The LGBT+ subculture in interwar Berlin and the Institut für Sexualwissenschaft

Submitted by martin on 16 July, 2019 - 3:07 Author: Natalia Cassidy
The Institut für Sexualwissenschaft

The end of the First World War meant the end of the Kaiser’s rule. The attempted Socialist revolution in Germany in November 1918 and the accompanying wave of strikes forced Kaiser Wilhelm II, as well as all 22 monarchical princes of the German federal structure, to abdicate.

From this it was not the revolutionary socialists, but the social democrats that took power. They established the Weimar Republic, with an SPD (German Social Democratic Party) majority in the Reichstag. It was at the establishment of this republic that, with a vibrant gay and lesbian subculture, the Institut für Sexualwissenschaft was founded. Before discussing the role played by the institute and its eventual fate, it is worth examining how the subculture in Berlin – whose openness on issues of sexuality would not be seen until the late 20th century, first developed.

The ability for this subculture to flourish, despite the continued illegality of homosexuality is said to be down to a piece of policing policy introduced in the late 19th century. Effectively what this policy meant is that one could only be convicted of a crime would be through a confession of the perpetrator or through an eye witness. This meant that because nobody would voluntarily confess their sexuality to the police at that time and the fact that consensual sexual relations were carried out in private, the law against homosexuality was incredibly difficult to enforce.

Police commissioner Meerscheidt-Hullesem was perplexed by this law when he encountered it and, rather than attempt to convict homosexuals, he eventually resolved that it would be easier and simpler to observe and monitor suspected homosexuals rather than try and convict them by catching them breaking the law. What this meant in practice is that the police force in Weimar Berlin tolerated a range of institutions flourishing. From bars and cafés, to large, transvestite formal dances. Places where people would gather openly and socialise.

With this level of socialisation in the community and exchanges of ideas taking place, not in hushed alleys but out in the open, we see the germination of an early public discourse around gay rights. In August 1867 a 42 year old Lawyer named Karl Heinrich Ulrichs went before the Sixth congress of German Jurists and stated that people with a “sexual nature opposed to common custom” were being persecuted for impulses that “nature, mysteriously governing and creating, had implanted in them.”

This was the first instance of someone, certainly in modernity, making the case within public discourse that sexuality was an innate and natural phenomenon. It is clear that it was through the basis is the burgeoning subculture taking hold in Berlin at the time that allowed such discourse to take place. Nowhere else would you have such a speech made and have calls for the speaker to stop met with cries for him to carry on.

By the 1920s, the LGBT+ subculture was flourishing. We can see the development of a gay press with the magazine Der Eigine (“the Self-Owning”) in circulation, a wealth of LGBT+ literature and even gay films and popular music. There was a culture of debate and discussion within the community, with the most prominent political schism being between those that saw themselves in an anarchist tradition, and those that were more politically mainstream and largely supported the SPD government in the 1920s. This even led to the tabling of the decriminalisation of homosexuality in the Reichstag in 1929, though this vote was delayed by the stock market crash and eventually never took place given the Nazi’s rise to power.

This side of German history is so often ignored, both globally and within Germany itself. This is typified by the fact that at Berlin’s Pride annual celebrations today take place on “Christopher Street day” In honour of the street where the Stonewall riots occurred in New York 1969. This represents just how gay rights are seen in Germany, largely as an import from the American movement in the latter 20th century.

A key factor for why this history is ignored is our tendency to read backwards through history. We all know what became of the Weimar republic, how it fell to Nazism and the disastrous impact that had on the freedoms that LGBT+ people were able to enjoy. This “headed for Hitler” narrative often obscures our understanding of progressive or even relatively innocuous social forces taking root. We should not view Germany in the late 19th and early 20th century exclusively through the lens of what came later, to do so is a disservice to the rich history and development of Germany at that time.

The Institut für Sexualwissenschaft (institute for Sexology) was founded in 1919 by one Magnus Hirschfield who, since 1897 had run the Wissenschaftlich-humanitäres Komitee (Scientific-humanitarian committee), which campaigned on conservative and rationalistic grounds for gay rights and tolerance. The institute itself acted as a research library and archive, as well as housing medical, psychological and ethnological departments. 20,000 people a year visited the institute for a myriad of reasons, the poorest of whom received free treatment.

One prominent aspect of the institute was that it was a key pioneer in advancing the clinical treatment of trans people. Hirschfield himself coining the term Transsexualism. The clinic offered access to hormone treatments as well as surgery. The first modern sex reassignment surgeries were undergone in Germany in the 20s and early 30s. These practices were continued in Denmark for some time after they stopped in Germany.

There is no doubt that the institute played a key role in furthering the understanding of sexuality and gender even in the relatively short period of 14 years in which it operated. It offered an approach to LGBT+ people not based on the idea of mental illness that had to be cured, but rather as something which should be facilitated in the way such things are facilitated now. Indeed, such a level of trans healthcare as was available to people in Berlin would not be available again for the better part of a century.

In 1933, the Nazis came to power. The entirety of the gay community in Berlin was effectively purged. Gay clubs were seized, gay publications were banned and, at the institute, the buildings were occupied whilst its main administrator was sent to a concentration camp. A matter of months later, the contents of the rich archives and research library were taken out onto the streets and burned. Around 20,000 books and 5000 images were lost in the book-burning, representing the loss of 14 years of progress in the understanding of sexuality and gender identity.

Whilst this burning took place, the Nazis seized extensive lists with the names and addresses of visitors to the institute. This largely served as the function by which anti-LGBT+ repression by the Nazis was able to be carried out.

It is worth stating that the Nazis had a conception of homosexuality that was influenced by the eugenicist thinking around the science of sexuality that came to dominate the late 19th century. The Nazi’s conception of gay and trans people were lumped together under the banner of “homosexual” and categorised as a “sexual inversion” (and exclusively applied to those assigned male at birth). The early eugenicist view of sexology to homosexuality and consequently of the Nazis was essentially understood through the lens of gender. Specifically the idea that the male body and psyche were being corrupted by femininity.

The treatment of Lesbians living under the Third Reich has been explored less, though from what records we have many lesbians under investigation were released without charge. Those that were charged were largely charged due to their social role being too public facing. Nazism regimentation over the lives of women saw their role as being confined to the private sphere. In this sense, lesbians were restricted in their being women then they were in their homosexuality.

The category “homosexual” under Nazism was divided broadly into four categories: firstly, only a slight sexual inversion, which only affected desire; secondly, a feminine demeanour, then the practise of dressing in women’s clothing, most severely, delusions of being a woman and desire for a different body. We can thus see that transfeminine people were understood to embody the most severe and thus most deplorable form of homosexuality. Transness is here understood as a dysgenic biological defect that must be eliminated for the health of the species. There were in fact a small number of same-sex-attracted men in the Nazi party, such as Ernst Rohm and other SA (the original Nazi paramilitary) members.

It is worth noting they did not actually see a contradiction in these two things: that is, being gay and being a Nazi. They, through their own understanding of sexuality, did not themselves constitute homosexuals. Rather, their same sex attraction was between two forms of “Manly Eros” (the Greco-Roman term for love) and not a kind of feminisation.

There is an important historiographical principle to be drawn out of this. That is, we must not read history through the lens of our own time. The homophobia that was a fundamental to Nazism’s understanding of sexuality is not the same as what we would today understand by the term.

100 years since the foundation of the institute that existed decades before anything that would come close to the progress it would make in elucidating our understanding of sexuality and gender what can we take from this?

Firstly that it shows how a community can flourish even in unlikely conditions: the LGBT+ community in Berlin doing so whilst still under the Kaiser’s rule.

And secondly that the fight is on-going, the history of the institution and the wider community ultimately shows the precarious nature that social progress can rest on and that things can just as much get worse just as much as they can get better.

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