Same-sex rights in East Germany
Legal and material progress
Lesbian, gay, bi and trans pride series part 19
By Leslie Feinberg
After World War II, as productivity and social
reorganization in the German Democratic Republic--"East
Germany"--rose to meet the needs of the population as a whole,
the more specific needs of individuals and groups within
society, including gay men and lesbians, could be more easily
Canadian researcher Jim Steakley, who published the results
of seven months of research in East Germany in 1976, outlined
some of the concrete conditions under which East German workers
tried to construct a planned economy--socialism.
He paid careful attention to the period between the
establishment of the GDR in 1949 and the construction of the
defensive Berlin wall in 1961. "With the formal founding of the
GDR in 1949," Healey explained, "the cold war hostilities
between socialism and capitalism intensified and entered a
period of chronic crisis. The West used every means at its
disposal to destroy the GDR, ranging from economic sabotage to
He noted that a calculated "brain drain" lured away some 10
percent of the GDR's population--mostly middle-class
professionals--and that a campaign of smuggling across the open
border also served to bleed the resources of the workers'
"By subsidizing the costs of food, rents, and basic
commodities, the GDR held living expenses at their 1945 level
(which they continue to have today)," he wrote at the end of
1976. "Faced with costs five to 10 times higher at home, many
West Germans did all of their shopping in the GDR, particularly
in Berlin. Thus the GDR made relatively slow economic and
social advances during this period, which was closed in 1961 by
the construction of the tragically necessary wall along the
border between the German states."
During the period between 1949 and 1961, he said, the "gay
scene" in both Germanys was generally similar. Gays could visit
a variety of clubs on either side of the border. He added,
however, that some gays from the GDR felt uncomfortable about
their clothing not being considered as "fashionable," and the
price of drinks was steep in the West.
However, he added, considering that at 17 million the GDR
had only about 30 percent of the population of West Germany,
"the GDR matched the West in terms of subcultural institutions
such as dance bars, steam baths, access to homophile
periodicals, and so on."
And, Steakley stressed, "West Germany was scarcely a haven
for homosexuals during these years. Ruled by the
Christian-Democratic Party (the name tells it all), the federal
government was adamantly opposed to law reform which might
improve the situation of gay people; and local authorities were
extremely intolerant of the gay subculture. Police entrapment
and raids on bars and baths, unheard of in the GDR, were common
in the West."
The published curators' notes from a 1997 Berlin art exhibit
commemorating the 100th anniversary of the German Homosexual
Emancipation Movement stated that the number of convictions of
individuals accused under the anti-gay statutes in West Germany
was 1,920 in 1950; by 1959, the number soared to as many as
3,530--an all time record.
"Even people not sentenced suffered a great deal," the
exhibit curators pointed out, "as employers and family members
found out in the course of proceedings that they were gay."
Progress, not perfection
The Nazi anti-gay amendment was immediately struck from the
laws of the newly created German Democratic Republic in
Formally the old Prus sian Paragraph 175 remained on the
books in the GDR. But the activist efforts of Dr. Rudolph
Klimmer--a gay communist and physician--during the 1950s had an
Steakley explained that Klimmer set out to win the support
of prominent people in the GDR for the campaign to rescind
Paragraph 175 and win full equality for homosexuals. "His
efforts were strongly backed by the GDR's then Minister of
Justice, Hilde Benjamin; she urged repeal of Paragraph 175 in
the country's leading legal journals. There was (and still is)
a high degree of acceptance of homosexuals within the cultural
sector of the GDR," he reported, "but the GDR's then Minister
of Culture, the poet Johannes R. Becher, refused to take a
public stand on law reform."
Becher's homosexuality was well known, since West German
reporters had "outed" his relationship with a male construction
"Klimmer did, however, receive the support of numerous other
agencies and individuals," Steakley said, "including one of the
GDR's most famous writers, Ludwig Renn, a party veteran whose
novels frequently turned on gay themes."
The 1950s and 1960s were defined not by perfection, however,
but by progress.
Backward views about root causes of homosexuality still
circulated. And when Klimmer wrote a 1958 opus to answer this
old prejudice, he could not find a publisher in the East.
Klimmer had written that only two things differentiate
homosexuals from heterosexuals: the object of sexual attraction
and social discrimination.
However, Steakley wrote, "Klimmer's efforts during this
period were rewarded by the judicial decision in 1957 to
discontinue prosecutions on the basis of Paragraph 175 except
in cases involving assault, coercion or minors."
Gains in East push West to follow
The year 1961 marked a period of economic change in the GDR
that brought social change in its wake.
"Beginning in 1961," Steakley continued, "the GDR finally
took measures which had long been delayed: the complete
collectivization of farmlands and the expropriation of
privately owned stores and industries. Since most bars and
baths were privately owned and managed up to 1961, this had a
direct impact upon the urban gay scene."
However, Steakley found that virtually every city with a
population of more than 50,000 had a gay bar; Dresden and
Leipzig each had four; and Berlin had five and a steam bath. In
some cases these state-owned clubs were frequented by
heterosexual patrons in the daytime, and gay clientele in the
evenings. "Frictions have developed when a homophobic manager
was assigned to a gay bar," he concluded, "but such managers
generally request a transfer after a short time."
At last, in 1968, the hated Paragraph 175 was removed from
lawbooks after almost a century of struggle since its inception
in 1871--but only in the GDR.
Richard Plant, a Jewish gay man forced to flee Germany in
1933, hailed this progressive move in his 1990 article "East
German Gay Laws--Years Ahead of West."
Plant wrote that "finally in 1968, perhaps spurred on by
sexologists, scientists and gay activists, East Germany revoked
all penalties concerning sexual relations between consenting
male adults. This caused consternation for the leaders of other
Eastern European nations. Officials in Prague, Budapest and
Bucharest were bewildered.
"But more troubled were conservative power brokers of West
Plant said the legislative move by the GDR pushed West
Germany to follow. "In 1969 the Bonn government began timidly
to draw up new regulations; the legislators, however, were so
scared of right-wing fanatics that another year passed before
the rulings resembled those drafted in the East."
While the welcome legal move in the GDR did not in and of
itself wipe out centuries of homophobia that lingered as a
legacy of class society, the Communist Party in the GDR would
soon demonstrate what strides in social progress could be made
when the workers' party and the workers' state put energy into
Next: Stunning gains for same-sex rights.
Reprinted from the Nov. 4, 2004, issue of
Workers World newspaper
This article is copyright under a Creative
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