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  • Sex, Freedom, and Power in Imperial Germany, 1880–1914 by Edward Ross Dickinson
  • Marti M. Lybeck
Sex, Freedom, and Power in Imperial Germany, 1880–1914. By Edward Ross Dickinson. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2014. Pp. 340. $99.00 (cloth).

Sex, Freedom, and Power in Imperial Germany culminates Edward Ross Dickinson’s recent series of influential articles on German public-sphere sexual politics. The book ambitiously proposes to follow the course of debates on sexuality through histories of the many organizations (and some individuals) that politicized sexual issues in the newly unified German state. The book does much more than simply collecting group biographies. Dickinson provides a fascinating view of publicly articulated concerns about sexuality “in the round,” dramatizing the connections, influences, overlaps, and conflicts between organizations and individuals. He convinces us not only that sexual issues were “one of the most important [End Page 325] political and cultural conflicts” in modern German history but also that the intricate interrelationships portrayed here are significant to understanding the development of German sexual politics (1). In addition to tracing activism on issues of prostitution, venereal disease, reproduction, popular culture, and gender roles, Dickinson carefully analyzes the worldviews supporting these positions, leaving no doubt that the most vehemently opposed groups often shared strategies and philosophies, while allies became bitter enemies. Philosophies explaining the significance of sexuality to modern life developed within escalating contentions Dickinson compares to “a Hollywood saloon brawl” (304).

Dickinson finds that three broad approaches to sexuality developed over this thirty-five-year period. The book follows the development of these three trends chronologically. Religious groups, especially Protestants, led the way by organizing to combat the moral decline and secular trends they saw in Germany’s growing industrialization. Religious critics defined sexuality as a bestial or demonic aspect of the human being that required moral and spiritual discipline. They explicitly linked nonmarital sex to socialism and capitalism as promoters of materialist values and desires. The bourgeois women’s movement also promoted morality, broadly sharing the concerns of Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish morality organizations.

The second trend comprises movements that opposed Christian views of sinful sex with the idea that morality derived from nature. Sexual activity was natural to the fully developed human being. Here Dickinson emphasizes similarities between Social Democratic thinkers, homosexual rights campaigners, antivenereal disease activists, and the progressive sex-reform feminists. The radicals in each group created utopias of sexual freedom. Yet thinkers within each group also struggled to justify some kinds of limits on sexual freedom, whether essentialist feminist maternalism, homosexual masculinist ultrapatriarchy, working-class comradeship, or eugenic controls on reproduction.

Dickinson identifies a third view among professional sexologists, who had begun to organize themselves politically after 1900. They assumed that society and government were best guided by doctors’ privileged access to scientific knowledge. Although these doctors had earlier cooperated with the sexual reformers, they eventually became hypercritical of the female influence and “romanticism” they saw guiding these approaches.

Dickinson concludes that while none of these groupings succeeded in dominating public opinion or politics, collectively they brought sexual issues into the forefront of political and social debate. The growth of local governments’ welfare and policing initiatives over the period indicates a growing consensus that something needed to be done about sexual disorder. Dickinson intends to follow up these unresolved questions in a second volume continuing these discussions into the post–World War I period. [End Page 326]

The book will be indispensable for readers needing a convenient and readable, yet incisive, guide to the topic. Beginning researchers will also find a bonanza of references and primary sources to guide their projects. Specialists in the field may find themselves surprised and jarred by some of Dickinson’s specific choices. Anita Augspurg as a spokesperson for sexual reform is one example. Augspurg wrote relatively little on the topic and was much more conservative and circumspect than Helene Stöcker or Gretel Meisel-Hess. Likewise, Dickinson is right to focus on the scientific basis of homosexual rights campaigns but ends up giving a misleading picture of the social and legal aspects of the formation of homosexual identity and community. Gender historians may well be surprised at Dickinson’s rather...


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pp. 325-327
Launched on MUSE
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