Lesbian, gay, bi, trans pride, part 5
Sexual freedom vs. fascism in Germany
By Leslie Feinberg
Decades of left-wing political activism,
agitation and education ushered in the short-lived era of the
"Golden Twenties" in Germany. Berlin rivaled Paris for its
flourishing gay and lesbian cultures-which included transgender
expression. The movement had forced the police to issue
certificates to trans people, allowing them to "cross-dress"
without threat of arrest.
Turn-of-the-century independent strug gles for sexual
reform, including the movement for women's right to vote-which
had held its first large protest in Berlin in 1894-were
coalescing into a broad political alliance between the women's
emancipation movement and the gay, trans and lesbian
The most prominent organization in that political coalition
was the League for the Protection of Maternity and Sexual
Reform, founded in 1905. Its leader, Dr. Helene Stoecker,
became a director of the Scientific Humanitarian Committee
headed by Dr. Magnus Hirschfeld, a leader of the German
Homosexual Emancipation Movement.
The First Congress for Sexual Reform convened in Berlin
Sept. 15-20, 1921. The gathering met at the Institute of Sexual
Science-the international center of the movement for sexual
emancipation. Experts traveled to Germany from around the world
for this ground-breaking discussion about sexology, genetics
and the law.
In his book "The Pink Triangle," Richard Plant--a later
refugee from Nazi Germany-noted that "The congress was such a
success that Hirschfeld was embold ened to create the World
League for Sexual Reform, which at its height claimed a
membership of 130,000."
In 1923 there were at least 25 gay/ trans/lesbian
organizations in Germany. And the movement was debating the
formation of a national homosexual political party.
Early targets of fascism
German fascism targeted the gay/ trans /lesbian and the
women's rights movements even before anti-Jewish and anti-gay
laws, codified in 1934-35, officially marked the unleashing of
the widespread campaign of terror.
Magnus Hirschfeld was an easy target for the Nazis because
he was Jewish and gay, as well as a movement leader and
socialist. In 1920 Nazis beat him up as he spoke at a meeting
in Munich. Again in Munich, in 1921, his skull was fractured
and the fascists left him for dead. In Vienna two years later,
Nazis hurled stink bombs and then opened fire on a meeting
where he was speaking.
On May 6, 1933, fascist youth were organized to march on the
Institute for Sexual Science, accompanied by a brass band. They
trashed the international archive, making a mountain of the
many thousands of books and journals, photographs and charts-at
that time the largest collection in world history. Storm
troopers showed up and took over the ransacking. Four days
later, the enormous heap of archive materials was publicly
burned on Opera Square. The Nazis threw a bust of Hirschfeld on
Hirschfeld was abroad on a worldwide speaking tour that had
taken him to the United States, China, Palestine, India, Indo
nesia and Japan. He later died in exile.
After 1933 the Nazis forcibly dismantled all independent
youth organizations, even the Catholic ones, by denouncing
their leaders as "homosexual degenerates."
"By the summer of 1933," Plant wrote, "Ernst Roehm's SA
[Sturm Abteilung] goons were raiding gay bars throughout
Germany. Many were closed, but others didn't shutter their
doors until 1935. That was the year when the campaign against
homosexuals shifted into high gear and the new Nazi laws
banning such gathering places and outlawing homosexuals as
'sexual vagrants' went into effect."
Roehm was himself an openly gay leader of the fascist storm
troopers--the "brown shirt" militias used as a weapon of
violent repression against the progressive and revolutionary
To some, it might seem a contradiction that a gay man led
raids on gay bars. But there are gay and lesbian, bisexual and
trans people in every economic class in capitalist society.
When the class struggle is raging, the real question is, as the
timeless U.S. labor union song demands, "Which side are you
Roehm's role in attempting to crush the liberation movements
that sought to overturn capitalism is no more paradoxical than
the reactionary J. Edgar Hoover-reportedly a gay
cross-dresser--laying siege to the left-wing struggles,
including gay liberation, in the United States in the 1960s and
What is ironic is that Roehm drowned in his own ideological
In 1934, Roehm was purged from the Nazi Party and shot. His
homosexuality was the political flashpoint. But his violent
removal resulted from internal rivalries and Roehm's struggle
to supplant the standing army with his own fascist militia,
which ran counter to Hitler's attempts to appease the military
Plant concludes, "'The Night of the Long Knives'--the
popular phrase for the [internal] bloodbath that began on June
28 and lasted until July 3, 1934--saw Adolph Hitler wreck the
SA militia and order the shooting of its chief, Ernst Roehm,
the man who, since 1919, had been Hitler's sponsor and faithful
Roehm's purge was the harbinger of a storm of violence
against left-wing movements for sexual, gender and sex
A harsh new anti-gay edict was publicly issued one year to
the day after the Night of the Long Knives began--June 28,
1935. Paragraph 175A criminalized kisses, embraces, even
homosexual fantasies. The law gave the fascist state license to
carry out arrests and internment in camps with impunity under
the mantle of "criminally indecent activities between men."
Plant estimated that between 50,000 and 63,000 males were
convicted of homosexuality from 1933 to 1944, of which nearly
4,000 were juveniles.
Although laws against lesbianism had not been codified,
German women were snared in the state web, as well--rounded up
in SS raids on lesbian bars, sentenced by the Gestapo and sent
to concentration camps where they faced horrific brutality.
Estimates of the total number of lesbian/gay/trans prisoners
forced to wear the pink triangle on their uniforms in Nazi
concentration camps range from 100,000 to 600,000.
Learning from the mistakes
Communists and socialists of all sexualities and genders
fought the Nazi attacks on the gay/trans/lesbian and women's
Yet was there backwardness about homosexuality on the part
of socialists and communists in the German left? Yes.
"The Left" was not politically monolithic. Frequently even
activist historians lump together the German communists and
social democrats as "the left," "the socialists." But like a
fast-moving river, political movements are made up of many
Before World War I, the Social Demo cratic Party was the
party of revolutionaries. But after its cowardly capitulation
at the outbreak of World War I--the overwhelming majority
supported their own capitalist class in that inter-imperialist
rivalry for colonies--the party lost its revolutionary
character. After the war and the Russian Revolution, those who
had opposed the capitulation formed a new communist party.
Revolutionaries must constantly be working to shed centuries
of ruling class indoctrination that serves to divide and
conquer the vast laboring class. Every form of bigotry and
backwardness holds back unity and progress in a revolutionary
struggle of all sexualities, genders and sexes to abolish
capitalism and liberate humanity.
However, some in the Social Demo cratic and Communist
parties in Germany --and in the Communist Party in the Soviet
Union, which by then had retreated from some of its earlier,
more revolutionary positions--took easy political advantage,
especially immediately after the purge of Roehm in the Nazi
Party, by gay-baiting the fascists.
That was a serious political error. It was like a striking
worker shouting an anti-gay epithet at scabs or police
attacking the picket line. Anti-gay bigotry goes against the
workers' own class interests.
The U.S. and British imperialist bosses were gay-baiting the
Nazis, too. But in that case it actually did serve the
interests of their side of the class barricades.
Error vs. ideology
There is a profound difference, however, between political
error and political ideology.
In the heat of the struggle, the actual positions the German
Communist Party and the Nazi Party took on homosexuality and on
abortion demonstrate class objectives as different as night and
In 1928 gay publisher Adolf Brand, a founding member of an
elitist and male chauvinist German gay group called the
Community of the Special, polled the political parties of
Germany about their position on Paragraph 175.
After the Second International collapsed following its
surrender to the inter-imperialist chauvinism of World War I,
German revolutionary elements joined the Communist Party. As
the Communist Party became strong, it responded to the call by
the gay/trans/lesbian movement for support against Paragraph
The Communist Party replied that it had "taken a stand for
the repeal of Para graph 175 at every available opportunity.
There is no need to emphasize that we will continue to wage the
most resolute struggle for the repeal of these laws in the
Communist lawyer Felix Halle, a co-worker in the Coalition
for Reform of the Sexual Crimes Code, provided this formulation
of the German Communist Party's stance:
"The class-conscious proletariat, uninfluenced by the
ideology of property and freed from the ideology of the
churches, approaches the question of sex life and also the
problem of homosexuality with a lack of prejudice afforded by
an understanding of the overall social structure. ... In
accordance with the scientific insights of modern times, the
proletariat regards these relations as a special form of sexual
gratification and demands the same freedom and restrictions for
these forms of sex life as for intercourse between the sexes,
i.e., protection of the sexually immature from attacks, ...
control over one's own body, and finally respect for the rights
of non-involved parties."
The Nazis deliberately hid the fascist nature of their party
by calling themselves "National Socialists." But their response
to the poll shows that their program was just the opposite of a
communist workers' party. The Nazi reply included this succinct
sentence: "Anyone who even thinks of homosexual love is our
Some theorists have explained this ferocious enmity as part
of the Nazi effort to build a "Rambo" fighting machine. That's
true. But the fact that the fascists despised and destroyed the
movements for sexuality, gender and sexual freedom was also
rooted in their entire political ideology and the capitalist
class objective it served.
Imperialists laid groundwork for fascism
Today understanding the class basis of German fascism and
the strengths and weaknesses of the communist resistance to it
are especially important because governing ideologues in the
U.S.--the expand ing imperial empire of capital--have fashioned
their own "bad-guys-good-guys" version of the rise and demise
of German fascism.
In that version, fascism and communism are evil twins. And
the great democratic U.S. imperialism, with a few imperialist
powers in its posse, rode in and saved the day.
But in reality, the banking and industrial class of the
United States and its imperialist allies had laid the basis for
the growth and development of the Nazi regime with the
Versailles Treaty that formally ended WWI.
The U.S., England and France redrew the map of Europe and
re-carved Ger many in a way that was designed to arouse
national hatreds and pit peoples against each other in order to
preclude internationalist working-class solidarity.
That gave the right wing parties in Ger many, especially the
Nazis, the oppor tunity to fan the flames of national
The victorious Allies also ordered defeated Germany to pay
reparations for the war, with a provisional payment of
20,000,000,000 Marks. The bankers and politicians who had
started the war were not the ones to be bled to death by these
payments. The workers and middle class were saddled with the
bill. However, the decision on reparation payments was
postponed until 1921 in order to give the capitalist class of
Germany the chance to destroy the rising revolutionary struggle
of the workers.
The economic dislocation that followed World War I was
staggering. In the face of the reparations and penalties
imposed on Germany, the government began printing money to meet
expenses, resulting in runaway inflation. The financial system
was in a tailspin.
Only when the bankers and industrialists abroad realized
that a ferocious class struggle in Germany was raging did they
begin to relent somewhat on their economic bloodletting. But
this was only a way of stifling the growing revolutionary
working class movement in Germany.
By the late 1920s, the fascist movement--with its base in
the economically devastated middle class--began to win the
backing of a sector of German industrialists and bankers to
carry out the dirty job of counter-revolution. State repression
of sexuality, gender and sex to enforce the capitalist economic
unit of the patriarchal nuclear family was a key plank in the
The progressive movements were battling the state to
decriminalize variance in sexuality and gender. And they were
trying to free the lives of women of all sexualities and
genders that were tightly corseted by lack of basic social and
These modest but vital goals, raised during a period of
working-class struggle and capitalist economic depression, made
these movements enemies of the Nazis.
Nazi campaigns focused on eradicating homosexuality and
abortion, mandating procreation, and sharply restricting
women's rights and role in society, in addition to vicious
racism and national chauvinism.
However, in 1931, a militant battle broke out against
passage of the fascist Paragraph 128 of the Criminal Code that
Feminist historian Atina Grossmann provided a valuable
account of this struggle in her essay "Abortion and Economic
Crisis: The 1931 Campaign Against Para graph 218":
"The 1931 arrests of two physicians and Sex Reform activists
on charges of having performed illegal abortions sparked a
storm of protest from feminists, Com munists, and Socialists.
Under the leadership of the Communist Party, they organized an
extraordinary coalition campaign for the legalization of
Next: The dual role of the Soviet bureaucracy;
lesbian/trans/gay and women: political setbacks in the Soviet
Union, gains in the German Democratic Republic (East
Reprinted from the July 1, 2004, issue of
Workers World newspaper
This article is copyrighted
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