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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 movement.

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 the pyre.

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 political movements.

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 on?"

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 1970s

What is ironic is that Roehm drowned in his own ideological current.

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 brass.

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 second-in-command."

Roehm's purge was the harbinger of a storm of violence against left-wing movements for sexual, gender and sex liberation.

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 struggles.

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 currents.

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 day.

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 175.

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 future."

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 enemy."

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 chauvinism.

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.

Capitalist counter-revolution

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 fascist platform.

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 economic rights.

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 banned abortion.

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 abortion."

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 Germany).

Reprinted from the July 1, 2004, issue of Workers World newspaper
This article is copyrighted under a Creative Commons License.
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