:: Donate now ::

Email this articleEmail this article 

Print this pagePrintable page

Email the editor


Post-WWII Europe

Struggle for decriminalization

Lesbian, gay, bi and trans pride series part 25

By Leslie Feinberg

In the "Cold War" following World War II, imperialist ideologues sought to make capitalist democracy synonymous with "freedom" and the workers' states out to be "totalitarian."

In fact both were based on the dictatorship of one economic class over another. However, the class character of the two social systems was the opposite.

The capitalist state brutally upheld the social relationship of exploiter and exploited, oppressor and oppressed. East Germany (GDR) and the Soviet Union (USSR)--
while not the pinnacle of workers' demo cracy that is possible in a socialist society--were based on liberating the working class from the exploitation and oppression of capitalist rule.

As this series has demonstrated, at the same time that the U.S., Britain and West Germany were excoriating East Germany as despotic, workers there enjoyed jobs, free health care and education, rent that could not exceed 10 percent of their income, vacations. And the advances made towards lesbian and gay liberation far surpassed anything that had been wrested by struggle under capitalism.

What was life like for gay men and lesbian women in other capitalist countries in Europe and in England during and after WWII?

An extensive historical exhibition at the Art Academe in Berlin in the summer of 1997 provided some important historical details. The art exhibit, co-sponsored by the Schwules Museum, was entitled, "Goodbye to Berlin? 100 Years of Gay Liberation." A limitation of the exhibit is that it did not incorporate the role of lesbians in the century of struggle.

This following information was provided in the published curator's notes.


With the rise of German fascism, Paris supplanted Berlin as the European gay center--that is, until Nazi troops goose-stepped into Paris.

"The end of the Third Republic in the late thirties was accompanied by social and political struggles. The Spanish Civil War and the Popular Front in France forced homosexuals to take a stand either on the right or left."

While the southern part of France was unoccupied, the northern region, including Paris, was under the rule of German Nazi forces. The quisling Vichy government, led by Marshall Pétain, collaborated with German fascism.

"One group of homosexuals took up opposition to Pétain and any form of collaboration with the Germans, joining the resistance movement. A second group, including André Gide and Giraudoux, waited. A third group collaborated. Once again, homosexuals were represented on both sides of oppressors and victims, collaborators and resisters."

In 1940, Pétain's regime instituted the Code Penal, which included statute 334, making homosexual behavior punishable by imprisonment.

"Although most of the laws initiated by the Vichy govern ment were rescinded when the Nazi regime was defeated, this clause was maintained under a new name, [Statute] 331, paragraph 3, and was enforced throughout France."

Homosexuality between consenting adults had been legal in the country since the Napoleonic Code was introduced in 1804. That code, following the French bourgeois revolution, formally removed the anti-gay vestige of feudal law. It was the first time in Europe that a criminal code omitted consensual same-sex relations.

"In the course of the 19th century, Holland, Italy and sev eral Swiss cantons adopted the revolutionary French penal code. The prosecution and persecution of 'pederasts' continued, however, in the scope of police disciplinary powers under which alleged offenses could still be pursued."

The end of German fascist occupation did not lead to gay and lesbian liberation in France.

In 1960, while transgender was celebrated entertainment in the Paris Variétés performances, the repressive De Gaulle government beefed up penalties for homosexuals.


Some gays who fled the rise of fascism in Germany emigrated to Basel and Zurich, Switzerland.

"There have been initiatives for organizing homosexuals in German-speaking Switz erland since 1922. After several failed attempts in Zurich and Lucern, the Schweizerische Freund schafts bewegung (Swiss Friendship Move ment) was founded in 1931 with the decisive participation of lesbian women in Zurich and Basel."

Together with the Damenclub Amicitia and the Excentric-Club Zürich, they published the first Swiss magazine for homosexuals. The first issue of the "Friendship Banner" was published in January 1932. Beginning in 1941, women took a less active role and the group became an exclusively male organization which called itself Liga für Menschenrechte.

"During World War II, when the Nazis destroyed the beginnings of a gay movement in occupied Czechoslovakia and Holland, the Zurich-based group was the only worldwide organization that could preserve the idea of homosexual emancipation.

Although the legal restriction against homosexuality had been formally lifted in Switzerland in 1942, anti-homosexual campaigns continued. The leader of the Swiss Homo erotic Movement, Karl Meyer--known by the nom de guerre "Rolf"--advocated "unobtrusive behavior" in public.

The gay group called the Reading Circle (Der Kreis) survived the war. "In 1945 Zurich's Reading Circle (Der Kreis) had an unbroken 13-year history which served as a model for other countries in the immediate post-war years. The group's magazine, Le Cercle, had an international focus."

After the war, the The Circle held regular meetings which drew members from many counties. "In order to protect themselves from police action, only subscribers to the magazine who were above 20 years old and had valid identity cards were allowed into the meetings. Members also had to vouch for any guests they had brought."

Near the end of the 1950s, the meetings ended altogether after the magazine "Tat" (Action) complained that The Circle was allowed to meet on state property.


The curators note, "The sexual openness that existed in England during the Second World War was pushed back in the years immediately afterwards.

"The gay spies Guy Burgess and Donald MacLean defected to the Soviet Union in 1951, events which became the subject of intense investigation by a press that had few limits."

And the case of Lord Montague of Beaulieu, charged with having had sex with working-class youths, exploded into another media-fueled scandal.

Calls to clamp down on the "increasing threat" of homosexuality led to the establish ment of a government commission in 1954.

Three years later the commission recommended decriminalizing homosexuality between consenting adult males.

It took another decade before the law was changed.

Demand for decriminalization

"The need for international contacts and exchange was very strong after the experiences in the Nazi period," the curators conclude. "In particular, the Inter national Committee for Sexual Equality (ICSE), which had been founded in Amsterdam shortly after the end of the war, made efforts to create an international network of newly formed gay movements."

Interdisciplinary conferences focusing on homosexuality took place in Amster dam in 1951, Frankfurt on the Main in 1952, Amsterdam in 1953, Paris in 1955 and Brussels in 1958.

"The newest research results were presented by doctors, psychologists, lawyers, sociologists and staff from various homophile organizations in Europe and America.

"In addition, demands for worldwide decriminalization of consenting homosexuality were formulated, individual cases of homosexual discrimination were denounced, and new strategies in the fight for legal equality were decided upon."

The Swiss "Circle" continued to hold influence. It played a role in creating an international connection. Editor Karl Meyer (Rolf) maintained contacts with homophile groups in France, Germany, Scandinavia and Holland.

In addition to poetry and short stories, The Circle reported on activities of homosexual organizations around the world.

"It created not only a singular forum for the most recent discussions about the theme of homosexuality, but also contri buted greatly to the international exchanges within homosexual movements."

Beginning in the mid-1950s, the trilingual magazine even reached the shores of the United States, where a ferocious storm of anti-gay state repression was reaching hurricane proportions.

Next: McCarthyite witch hunt.

Feinberg spoke at the Berlin Art Acad eme in July 1997, an event sponsored by the Spinnboden--the German lesbian archive. The event was part of the 100th anniversary of the start of the German Homosexual Emancipation Movement.

Reprinted from the Feb. 5, 2005, issue of Workers World newspaper

This article is copyright under a Creative Commons License.
Workers World, 55 W. 17 St., NY, NY 10011
Support independent news