Last edited: October 31, 2004

Denazification in Socialist Germany Opened Door to Gay Rights

Workers 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 murdered.

“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 intent.

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 itarian Committee.

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 Sexual Science.

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 movement.”

As a result, he stated, “Between 1948 and the late 1960s, lesbian and gay liberation lost any place in broad public discussions.”

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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