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  • Adolescence, Psychology, and Homosexuality in the Weimar Republic
  • Javier Samper Vendrell (bio)

Adolescence has a history of its own. This phase of life is commonly characterized by physical transformation, including sexual development, yet the evaluation of data about height, weight, and the age of the first menstruation in order to understand what it means to grow up has changed over time. The transition between childhood and adulthood in European countries is generally marked by coming-of-age rituals such as religious confirmation, the start of working life, and the end of mandatory schooling.1 More than a physical state or an integration into adult social roles, adolescence, especially in literature, is often depicted as a period of psychological turmoil and rebellion against authority. Such tribulations were famously depicted in Goethe’s novel Die Leiden des jungen Werthers (The Sorrows of Young Werther, 1774), but they gained even more force as a literary trope with the production of Frank Wedekind’s play Frühlings Erwachen (Spring Awakening, 1891) and the publication of other early twentieth-century texts that took as their main theme the problems of young age: suffering under authoritarian parents and schools, excesses of emotion and a predisposition for suicide, and a confusing sexual awakening.2 [End Page 395]

To borrow a phrase from Michel Foucault, there was a “multiplication of discourses” concerning adolescence around the turn of the twentieth century, when adolescence became a legitimate topic of study in physiology, psychology, psychoanalysis, criminal justice, pedagogy, and sociology.3 The American psychologist G. Stanley Hall integrated all these disciplines in his monumental 1904 study Adolescence, which promoted the idea that young people should be given access to play and leisure as long as these pursuits did not threaten the established social order.4 He incorporated Charles Darwin’s evolutionary theory and Ernst Haeckel’s recapitulation theory to argue that the trajectory of individual human development repeated the evolutionary stages of the species and that inherited traits manifest themselves during adolescence. Hall maintained that individual development mattered a great deal. In his view, developmental irregularities compromised the prosperity of the nation and “the race,” as well as the overall success of civilization.5

Hall’s multidisciplinary approach to the study of adolescence was influential throughout Europe in the early twentieth century.6 German psychologists, however, paid less attention than he did to the physiological transformations of adolescence and focused instead on the adolescent’s social and spiritual development.7 Their emphasis on the soul or psyche (Seele) allowed them to underplay the significance of sexuality in the process of growing up. In this article, I examine how pioneers in the field of youth psychology, particularly William Stern, Walter Hoffmann, Eduard Spranger, and Charlotte Bühler, reacted against psychoanalytic interpretations to emphasize how prevailing gender and sexual mores influenced adolescent sexuality. With attention to woman’s suffrage, increasing expectations for sexual satisfaction within marriage, demands for birth control, rising rates of premarital sex, and the growth of a robust homosexual subculture and rights movement,8 each of them established institutions and methodologies that shaped debates on adolescent psychology during the Weimar Republic (1919–33). Stern and Bühler ran internationally respected psychology [End Page 396] institutes in Hamburg and Vienna, where they conducted controlled experiments on the relationship between physiological and psychological development.9 Spranger, a professor of philosophy and pedagogy at the University of Berlin, garnered significant fame with his 1922 book Psychologie des Jugendalters (Psychology of adolescence), which was in its tenth printing by 1925, a real success among contemporary books in the field. Spranger influenced Hoffmann and Else Croner, who understood psychological development as a process of individualization and socialization.10 All three practiced humanistic psychology (geisteswissenschaftliche Psychologie), which focused on ideal types and on understanding how not only physiological changes but also social, cultural, religious, and ethical values shape the development of the youthful psyche.11 They agreed that the end goal of development was “conformity to cultural life,” though in practice their theories concentrated on the experiences of bourgeois youths.12 Together, these experts helped create the field of adolescent psychology.

Although interwar experts in adolescent psychology followed prevailing cultural norms in their naturalization of...


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