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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 imperialist war.

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' uprisings.

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.

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 Germany.

'Socialism means solidarity'

In 1918, mutiny broke out in the German Navy. Workers throughout the country went on strike in support of the rebellion.

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 working class.

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 horizon.

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 battlefields.

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 end."

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 socialism."

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 government."

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 research.

"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 questions.

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.'"

Momentum accelerates

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 working-class lesbians.

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 other.

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.

Next: Counter-revolution

Reprinted from the June 24, 2004, issue of Workers World newspaper
This article is copyrighted under a Creative Commons License.
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