- Sex and the Weimar Republic: German Homosexual Emancipation and the Rise of the Nazis by Laurie Marhoefer
Since the Second World War, the sense of national identity among Germans has largely been burdened with embarrassment and guilt about the Nazi past. For the last decade or so, however, Germans have found reasons to be proud of their country again. A major contributing factor, apart from the achievements of the national soccer team, is Berlin's reputation for open-mindedness, permissiveness, and alternative lifestyles. Another factor, according to liberal progressives at least, is the history of liberal sexual politics. They point to the fact that the German homosexual rights movement, which emerged already before 1900, was the first and leading one in the western world. Sexual reform in the Weimar Republic, they also argue, was based on principles that from the 1960s on would basically become the model for sexual liberation across the western world, in particular among gays, lesbians, and transgender people. Such adoption of a "usable past," however, is not without problems, as the American historian Laurie Marhoefer amply demonstrates in her book about sexual politics in the Weimar Republic.
At a first glance, Marhoefer's study vindicates the view that the roots of modern sexual emancipation can be found in the democratic constellation of the Weimar Republic, which drew strength from a fairly open society. A coalition of feminists, homosexual rights activists, social democratic and communist politicians, and reformist doctors and other enlightened professionals effectively pressured more conservative groups to [End Page 226] compromises with regard to the management of supposedly non-normative sexualities and gender identities, pornography, birth control, abortion, and divorce. Censorship was relaxed, albeit not abolished; the homosexual rights movement could grow into a mass movement; gay, lesbian, and transgender subcultures and media were able to flourish; decriminalization of all forms of homosexual intercourse between consenting adults was on the agenda; and a pragmatic welfare approach of prostitution and venereal disease was implemented. A secular trust in rationality and scientific expertise as well as a liberal-democratic view of individual civil rights pushed back traditional religious morality and the legal imperatives of the state.
At the same time Marhoefer makes clear that sexual reform in the Weimar Republic was not unconditional and had its downsides. It was based on drawing clear boundaries between, on the one hand, tolerable sexual behaviour of consenting adults in private or in limited subcultural spaces, and, on the other, improper sexual expressions in the wider public sphere, such as female and male prostitution. Also, in order to counter the assumed danger of the seduction and moral corruption of youths, sex between adults and minors was increasingly subjected to sanctions. Granting sexual liberties to discreet and law-abiding citizens, including "decent" gays and lesbians, went together with the marginalization and intensified control of particular groups, such as female and male prostitutes, promiscuous individuals, lower-class venereal patients, and extravagant transgender people. Branded as irresponsible, asocial, and mentally inferior, these groups were subjected to police surveillance as well as coercive medical and welfare interventions. This was the essence of what Marhoefer characterizes as the "Weimar settlement on sexual politics" on which moderate progressives and conservatives could agree. It was grounded in the conviction that the rights of democratic citizenship were intrinsically connected to duties, responsibilities, and individual self-regulation. Homosexuality and alternative gender identities could be tolerated only as the innate and inevitable features of a well-defined minority of adults and as long as they were not expressed in public and did not spread to the mainstream. In that sense, Marhoefer's analysis is still relevant for present-day discussions about sexual politics. For example, the success of gay emancipation in many parts of the western world has been criticized by more radical "queer" activists in terms "homonormativity" and adaptive assimilation, which undermine the variety of sexual and gender identities and lifestyles.
The only major flaw of this study concerns the author's suggestion that the German homosexual movement was situated at the...