Pride & struggle a century ago
'The war to end all wars'
By Leslie Feinberg
The outbreak of World War I derailed the
thrust of the movements for sexual and gender emancipation and
for women's rights in Germany--and created a profound political
split in the international working-class struggle.
It was no accident that the war began precisely at a time of
a worldwide upsurge of the working class in Europe and in the
United States, as well as stirrings in Asia, Africa and Latin
America. The workers' movements were gaining strength and
momentum. They were increasingly taking a stand against
There were no socialist countries or liberation movements to
blame for World War I. It was a plain, unvarnished racist war
for colonial empire. The principal capitalist countries, each
hungry to gobble up a bigger share of the markets and profits,
tried to redivide the colonial world.
In each of the capitalist countries the bosses appealed to
the workers to unite behind them in battle. The German ruling
class was able to rally its working class for the war on a
patriotic basis. Even the majority in the socialist movement of
that day, and the Homosexual Emancipation Movement, got swept
up into the chauvinist appeal.
Going along with this right-wing, murderous patriotism put
the brake on every social movement--gay, trans and lesbian,
women's rights, workers' and socialist struggles--because it
gave the ruling class the upper hand, strengthened the right
wing and set back the progressive movement.
Those in Germany who didn't fight against the war, instead
supporting their own ruling class with patriotic fervor, were
pulled in a rightward direction.
But not everyone gave in to frenzied national chauvinism. In
the German socia list movement, Rosa Luxemburg and Karl
Leibknecht took a principled stand against the German ruling
class. They were arrested and later assassinated as a result of
their opposition to the war.
World War I took the lives of 20 million workers.
A new revolutionary front
The inter-imperialist war interrupted the progress of the
working class movement in Europe and Russia. But as the war
dragged on for years, the intolerable conditions of life,
carnage and suffering sparked revolutionary workers'
The very same processes that had been either submerged or
driven underground by the outbreak of the war began to
resurface and speed up. Imperialist war accelerates all the
social, political and economic processes that exist during
peacetime. War is the most violent expression of the constant
clash of capitalist competition for profits.
World War I generated a huge area of struggle in Asia. It
laid the ground-work for the development of national liberation
movements around the world. And the war sparked a revolutionary
situation in almost every leading capitalist country in the
World War I contributed to making the monumental Russian
Revolution a necessity. It was not military defeat on the
battlefield, but revolutions in Russia and Germany, that
brought World War I to an end.
Just eight weeks after the October 1917 Russian Revolution,
which brought the workers', peasants' and soldiers' Soviets to
power, the new government led by Lenin abolished the czarist
anti-gay laws, which were similar to the German Paragraph 175.
This action went hand in hand with guaranteeing the rights of
workers, land for the peasants and equal rights for women.
Abolishing the anti-gay laws in Russia was a historic step
forward from the Napoleonic Code, established in 1804, that had
given legal expression to the French bourgeoisie's
revolutionary victory over feudalism in 1789.
The left wing of the Russian revolutionary movement did more
than just strip the anti-gay laws from the Russian penal code.
The Bolsheviks argued that the walls that separated same-sex
love from the rest of human sexuality should be torn down.
The new Soviet legislation stressed that all forms of sexual
gratification should be treated the same way--as "natural"--and
that sex was a private matter. Only the use of force or duress,
injury or encroachment on the rights of another person, was a
matter for criminal prosecution.
The fresh winds of the Russian Revolution also filled the
sails of struggle in other parts of the world, including
'Socialism means solidarity'
In 1918, mutiny broke out in the German Navy. Workers
throughout the country went on strike in support of the
On Nov. 7, a council of workers, soldiers and peasants
established the Republic of Bavaria. The revolutionary wave
spread to Berlin where a socialist republic was proclaimed on
Nov. 9. The kaiser abdicated the next day.
In this revolutionary wave, the lesbian and gay movement,
largely middle-class in its leadership, took its stand with the
The revolution gave the Homosexual Emancipation Movement new
energy. This insurrection lent inspiration to the lesbian and
gay movement's hope that their liberation was on the
The Scientific Humanitarian Com mittee had, like the Social
Democrats, taken a social-patriotic position during the war.
Yet it had published articles by and maintained solidarity with
gays from all the countries involved in the war. Many of the
early fighters for gay liberation had died on the imperialist
With the overthrow of the monarchy and militarism, the
committee expressed "firm hope that our movement, too, will
once again be able to move into the forefront and lead the
struggle for homosexual liberation to its long-desired
Magnus Hirschfeld, a leader of the Homosexual Emancipation
Movement, and members of the Scientific Human itarian Committee
supported the new republic. "We took the most active part in
all the revolutionary events," reported the committee.
Hirschfeld spoke at a mass rally in Berlin on Nov. 10. Held
at the height of the revolution, it was in front of the
Reichstag building. Between 3,000 to 4,000 people gathered near
to where the revolutionary Red Guards were fighting pitched
battles with reactionary officers who supported the kaiser.
Recalling Karl Marx, Frederick Engels, August Bebel, Wilhelm
Liebknecht and other revolutionaries, Hirschfeld said that not
only in Germany, "but elsewhere too, nationalism attempted to
destroy internationalism, and militarism attempted to destroy
Hirschfeld stressed to the crowd why socialism was so
important: "Socialism means: solidarity, community, mutuality,
further development of society into a unified body of people.
Each for all and all for each!"
In addition, he said, "We want: the community of peoples,
struggle against racism and national chauvinism, removal of
limitations on economic and personal communication between
peoples, the right of peoples to self-determination regarding
their relationship to a state and their form of
Historians John Lauritsen and David Thorstad explain that as
soon as the revolution had broken out, "The Com mit tee
immediately sent a delegation to the new government to press
for a total amnesty that would include the release from jail of
all inmates convicted of homosexual acts. The removal of
censorship and the greater freedom of the press and speech that
ensued following the revolution were a boon to the gay rights
struggle for a time. But perhaps the most tangible benefit to
the gay movement was the acquisition of a building that was to
become an international center for gay liberation and sex
"The institute was housed in a lovely building that had
belonged to Prince Hatzfeld prior to the revolution. It was one
of the finest palaces in Berlin."
The first of its kind, the institute compiled historical,
biological, anthropological, statistical and ethnological data
and documentation regarding human sexuality and gender. It also
housed the Scien tific Humanitarian Committee. So it was an
international lesbian and gay community center.
At the opening of this Institute for Sexual Science,
Hirschfeld spoke about this concrete gain: "In his speech to
the scholars, doctors and politicians who attended the opening
in July 1919, Hirschfeld called it 'a child of the
revolution'--not only of the uprising that swept Berlin on
November 9, 1918, but also of the 'great spiritual revolution'
that had begun decades earlier with the first stirrings of the
homosexual rights movement." ("The Early Homosexual Rights
Movement (1864-1935)," Times Change Press)
Thousands came through its doors, including a number of
socialist youth groups and parties that were struggling to
inform themselves on homosexuality and other sexual
One such delegation consisted of Soviet doctors. The group
was headed by the peoples' commissar of health, who proudly
described how their revolutionary Soviet government had
immediately removed the czarist anti-gay laws.
In January 1923, the Soviet minister of health traveled to
Germany. "He is reported to have expressed to members of the
Institute for Sexual Science how pleased he was that the former
penalty against homosexuals had been abolished in the Soviet
Union. He also said that 'no unhappy consequences of any kind
whatsoever have resulted from the elimination of the offending
paragraph, nor has the wish that the penalty in question be
re-introduced been raised in any quarter.'"
In Germany the Social Democratic Party, which had swung to
the right to support the war, helped curb the revolutionary
uprising. Those who were for a revolutionary alternative looked
to the gains of the Russian Revolution for inspiration, and
organized communist parties through out the world.
Within a few short years after the defeat of the November
uprising in Germany, the revolutionary movement there had grown
from representing only a vanguard of the working class to
obtaining the adherence of millions of workers.
In August 1920 the Scientific Human itarian Committee held
its first post-war general membership meeting. The next year a
new minister of justice who was himself a signer of the
petition was appointed.
The struggle opened up more social and political space for
lesbians. In Berlin there were 60 spots where lesbians could
meet, some geared for middle-class women, others for
There was even a lesbian newspaper called The Girlfriend:
Weekly for the Ideal Friendship. It was sponsored by the Fed
eration for Human Rights, a gay group whose membership had
swelled to 48,000. This newspaper advertised lesbian night
spots and ran personal columns to help women meet each
In 1921 Hirschfeld helped organize the first congress of the
World League for Sexual Reform, in Berlin.
By 1922 the Committee had 25 branches throughout Germany and
had spread to Austria, Switzerland, Holland, Denmark, England,
Italy and Belgium.
At the same time, however, the German
counter-revolution--headed by Hitler and bank-rolled and backed
by a segment of the industrial and banking class--had obtained
a base in the middle class. And the Homosexual Emancipation
Move ment would be one of its first targets.
Reprinted from the June 24, 2004, issue of
Workers World newspaper
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