- Reforming Sex: The German Movement for Birth Control and Abortion Reform, 1920–1950
Scholars working on the medicalization of sexuality have long been aware of the historical importance of the German discourse on the subject. Owing to complex reasons, however, this awareness has not led to sufficiently comprehensive exploration and analysis of the German material. Atina Grossmann’s superb study of the medical and political history of abortion-reform and birth-control movements in Weimar Germany is one of the very few exceptions. Weimar Germany, of course, is not the easiest area to explore—least of all when one is interested in sex reform, which the Nazis stamped out with such thoroughness that many a historical project is now impossible simply because of the unavailability of records. Through years of patient and heroic sleuthing, however, Grossmann has accumulated a fascinating range of primary sources that will be the envy of scholars working on the subject, and she uses them with rare effect in her monograph.
That the Weimar period was the golden age of medical sex-reform movements is almost common knowledge among scholars, but the complexities, nuances, links, and internal conflicts of those movements remain largely unknown and sometimes even unsuspected. There is, moreover, a tendency to assume that German sex reformers were primarily concerned with somewhat unorthodox subjects such as nudism, homosexuality, or prostitution. As Grossmann shows in almost numbing detail, however, German sex reformers were at least equally involved in such preeminently heterosexual subjects as abortion and birth control. Much of this work was intimately related to the political convictions of the reformers, almost all of whom were leftists but did not necessarily regard one another as comrades. Perhaps the most rewarding feature of Grossmann’s treatise is its documentation of the substantive and ideological differences between the Social Democrats and the Communists, and the tensions arising therefrom.
The story is too complex to summarize here, but basically, Grossmann shows that the struggles to legalize abortion in Germany and to popularize birth control were inseparable from the utopian leftist vision of a just, humane, and classless society. And that vision was fundamentally eugenic—a just society could be constituted only by a noble and healthy race. Did the Weimar reformers, then, merely foreshadow the Nazis, as several historians have claimed? Disagreeing strongly, Grossmann argues that while the Weimar reformers were certainly motivated by some eugenic ideals, their interest in abortion and birth control marks them as fundamentally different from the Nazis, who encouraged abortion only in strictly limited cases and were essentially pronatalist in their reproductive politics. Not all scholars will necessarily agree with her—especially since she does not discuss such key differentials as attitudes toward homosexuality, and she says surprisingly little on race—but her argument should trigger stimulating debates. Some historians will also disapprove of Grossmann’s rigid social-historical approach and will urge her to pay greater attention to representation, language, and scientific and social thought. But even such critics, among whom I number [End Page 554] myself, would have to applaud the thoroughness of her research and her masterful analysis of a vast and hitherto untapped body of material.
All in all, then, this is a splendid treatise and a valuable contribution to the historiography of sexuality and of modern Germany. Much about Weimar sex reform remains to be investigated and one hopes that Grossmann’s work will inspire other scholars to follow her into this fascinating territory.