Denazification in Socialist Germany Opened Door to Gay Rights
World, October 28, 2004
Workers World, 55 W. 17 St., NY, NY 10011
By Leslie Feinberg
Three major English-language sources written over the
course of a decade and a half offered rich examples of the advances for gays
and lesbians that took place in the German Democratic Republic—”East
Germany”—after it was established in 1949.
Canadian historian Jim Steakley wrote the earliest of
these accounts, “Gays under Socialism: Male Homosexuality in the German
Democratic Republic.” The article, containing material from his seven months
of research in the GDR during the 1970s, appeared in the December 1976-January
1977 issue of The Body Politic.
A noteworthy contribution of Steakley’s extensive
research was his initial admonition that each socialist country has local
features that it inherits from its past and its material realities.
He was followed by John Parsons, who made four research
trips to the GDR over a six-year period. Parsons elaborated on the arduous
political task the young workers’ state had inherited. In his published
findings—a 10-page article entitled “East Germany Faces Its Past: A New
Start for Socialist Sexual Politics” (OUT/LOOK, Summer 1989)—he wrote:
“The work of both the Scientific-Humanitarian Committee and the Communist
Party was put to an end with the Nazi rise to power. Homosexuals, Communists,
Social Democrats, and especially Jews were all ruthlessly persecuted and
“The Nazis succeeded, moreover,” he continued, “in
thoroughly tearing out the roots of cooperation that had existed among various
people on the issue of sexuality. During the Nazis’ 12-year rule, they
reorganized the medical, legal and teaching professions—promoting confirmed
Nazi ideologues, searching out those who were not, and raising a generation on
Nazi propaganda. What few threads of the earlier cooperation the Nazis
themselves did not destroy, the devastation of the war and the battle lines
drawn in the Cold War finished off.”
Even before the founding of the German Democratic
Republic on Oct. 6, 1949, the United States and Britain were maneuvering to
stop socialist revolution from spreading across Germany.
By the end of World War II, the Soviet Red Army had
crushed the Nazi invaders and forced them to retreat westward. As the
collapsing army of German imperialism fled, the Red Army marched into Berlin
and the fascists were defeated. But under pressure and threats from the U.S.
and British, the Soviet Army was forced to pull back.
Nazis: Uprooted vs. replanted
After the defeat of fascism, Germans in the east, with
Soviet help, worked to root out the Nazis and their capitalist collaborators
and mobilize the population to rebuild.
Steakley offered an overview of conditions for gays and
lesbians—his particular focus was on gay men—in the period of
“Anti-fascist Democratic Renewal” from 1945 to 1949.
He wrote: “During this period of de-Nazification, the
gay scene in the Soviet Occupied Zone was marked by a rapid recovery from the
genocidally homophobic politics of German fascism. Homosexuals came out of
hiding or returned from concentration camps, and gay bars began to reopen in
both the East and the West.
“Overall,” he added, “the de-Nazification program
carried out in the Soviet Occupied Zone was far more aggressive and thorough
than those in the Western zones.”
In fact, in the West, the occupying forces of imperialism
tried to prop up capitalist rule with massive infusions of financial aid, most
from the U.S. Marshall Plan, while permitting tens of thousands of Nazi war
criminals to emigrate or to re-enter Bonn’s political arena. The United
States and Britain allowed these former Nazis to resume their place in West
German industry and government because they were the anti-communist bulwark.
Richard Plant emphasized this point in a June 1990
article in Outweek, “East German Journal: East German Gay Laws Years Ahead
of West.” Plant had been forced to flee Germany on the day of the infamous
1933 Reichstag fire that Hitler used to consolidate his power.
After the war, he wrote, “East German leaders tried to
indict and convict as many high-ranking former Nazis as possible.
“The West German government, on the other hand,
continued to employ some notorious Nazis in high positions long after the
beloved Fuehrer’s suicide.”
The first chancellor of West Germany, Conrad Adenauer,
who was approved by the U.S. occupiers, continued to keep Hans Globke as his
secretary of the chancellery despite protests. Plant explained, “Globke was
instrumental in drafting Nazi laws, enacted during the 1930s, which deprived
Jews of their citizenship.” Even after an East German court indicted Globke
in absentia in 1950, Adenauer would not budge.
“Neither did Adenauer rescind the tough anti-gay Nazi
decrees of 1935, which, for example, declared that a man observed ‘glancing
lewdly at another man’ could be taken into police custody.”
That law, Paragraph 175A, was a Nazi amendment to the
1871 Prussian anti-homosexual Paragraph 175. The amendment allowed the Nazis
to criminalize and snare those they accused of even homosexual fantasies or
In the East that Nazi amendment—Paragraph 175A—was
immediately removed from the books. Steakley stressed that in the GDR: “The
immediate benefit for gay people came with the repeal of Paragraph 175a, the
Nazi law which had led to the arrest and imprisonment of tens, perhaps
hundreds of thousands of homosexuals. This law was struck down by the Superior
State Court of Halle in 1948. By contrast, it remained in effect in West
Germany until 1969.”
Paragraph 175, however—the Prussian law against male
homosexuality that had long been part of German criminal code—remained on
the books in the Soviet Occupied Zone. It made sex between men punishable by
up to four years in jail. The law remained on the books in West Germany, too.
Picking up the torch
Parsons gave thoughtful attention to the early struggles
in the East to repeal Paragraph 175 itself.
“At the end of the war,” he explained, “the earlier
difference within the Communist Party again appeared as a discussion arose
about how to reconstruct the society. Some people argued that the democratic
reconstruction of the country should include progressive reforms of the laws
and customs regarding sexuality.
“Articles appeared in many newspapers advocating the
elimination of Paragraph 175. In Saxony, which later became a part of East
Germany, the legislature endorsed repeal of the Paragraph.”
One communist in particular deserves credit for these
efforts: Dr. Rudolf Klimmer.
As a medical student in Dresden during the Weimar
Republic, Klimmer, a gay man, had traveled to Berlin many times to follow
developments within the homosexual emancipation movement. He particularly
developed an association with Dr. Magnus Hirschfeld’s Scientific-Human
Klimmer was a member of the Communist Party. So was the
committee’s secretary and later chairperson, Richard Linsert.
During 12 long years of fascism, Klimmer kept his
political views and sexuality under wraps, marrying a lesbian for mutual
protection. After the Nazis were defeated, he chose to live in the Soviet
Occupied Zone and joined the Communist Party once again.
Steakley noted, “He launched a one-man campaign which
aimed at repealing all laws against homosexuality, re-establishing
Hirschfeld’s Institute for Sexual Science, and agitating with Soviet and
local authorities for the full equality of gay people.”
Klimmer, Steakley said, “also embarked upon a career
similar to Hirschfeld’s, continuing his medical practice and appearing as an
expert witness in numerous court cases involving homosexuals, arguing at every
turn for the repeal of Paragraph 175.”
Although his tireless efforts were successful in helping
to overturn the amendment to Paragraph 175, he was not able to repeal the old
law itself. Nor was he able to win the establishment of a new Institute for
Instead, he was appointed medical director of Dresden’s
Polyclinic, where he set up the first Marriage and Sexual Counseling Center of
the Soviet Occupied Zone, which became a forerunner of dozens of similar
centers across the GDR.
Cleaning up old cesspool
John Parsons examined the struggle for sexual liberation
in a material context. He stressed that the efforts of Klimmer and others
proved to be exceptional for two key reasons.
The GDR had to pull itself up out of the ashes of wartime
devastation—hunger, homelessness, dislocation and poverty. The USSR, unlike
the United States, had suffered tremendous destruction during the war and had
no resources to send to Eastern Europe. Furthermore: “A generation of
children had been raised and educated in Nazi schools. The problems of de-Nazifying
the country, of creating new, democratic educational programs and new legal
and medical professions took center stage.
“The Communist Party turned its attention to mobilizing
the population for the barest of economic needs and towards stabilizing social
life in the most orthodox of all structures.”
The second cause, he wrote, “lies with developments in
the communist movement itself.”
The rise of a bureaucratic current in the Soviet
leadership and the re-establishment of an anti-gay law in the USSR were to
have an impact in East Germany as well. “Stalin’s rise ended the Communist
Party’s advocacy of sexual reform. The same reversal occurred in Germany,
with the growth of the influence of Stalinism throughout the world communist
As a result, he stated, “Between 1948 and the late
1960s, lesbian and gay liberation lost any place in broad public
Steakley concluded that during the period of the
Antifascist-Democratic Renewal, “Homosexuals were generally able to return
to the place in German society which they had held before Hitler’s rise to
power”—gains that had been made possible in the Weimar Republic because of
the mass German Homosexual Eman cipation Movement—”but no further.”
However, the work to provide jobs, education, housing and
health care for the East German population as a whole continued to raise
living standards. As material conditions improved, the struggle for sexual
emancipation reached new heights.
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