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How 1890s Germany led LGBT rights charge

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How 1890s Germany led LGBT rights charge
A commemorative plaque of Magnus Hirschfeld in Berlin. Photo: Wikimedia Comons
14:56 CEST+02:00
On May 14th 1897, German physician and sexologist Magnus Hirschfeld founded the Scientific Humanitarian Committee, the world's first official organization advocating homosexual and transgender rights.

Founded in Berlin, the committee campaigned for social recognition of gay, bisexual and transgender men and women, after homosexual acts between males had been made a crime as part of the German Criminal Code in 1871.

Hirschfield, a prominent scientist, nicknamed the "Einstein of sex", set up the committee in his apartment in western Berlin to campaign for the abolition of this paragraph.

Hirschfeld himself never came out, despite having years-long relationships with different men. He was the first to deal with homosexuality as a scientific topic of research.

To put the year 1897 into context of gay emancipation, Oscar Wilde was still in prison for his homosexuality, or "gross indecency" as it was described by the British court that convicted him.

Petitions to repeal Paragraph 175 were submitted to parliament in 1898, 1922, and 1925, but failed to convince it, despite signatures from the likes of Albert Einstein, Käthe Kollwitz, Herman Hesse, Thomas Mann, Rainer Maria Rilke and Gerhard Hauptmann.

Origins of the movement

This level of tolerance took time to develop and dates back to Karl-Heinrich Ulrichs, considered the world's first ever LGBT activist.

During the mid-19th century, homosexuals were understood to be victims of perversion. Most sexual dispositions that were considered as abnormal were grouped together under the Christian term "sodomy".

The state of Prussia had abolished the death penalty for homosexuality in 1794, and the influence of the Napoleonic code in the early 19th century led to decriminalization in many of the other German states.

Ulrichs was one of the first people of the period to come out, and he fought all his life for the recognition that homosexuality is genetic, even before 1868 when the word "homosexual" was first used in a pamphlet written by Karl-Maria Kertbeny.

Before this pamphlet Ulrichs used totally different terminology. In a pamphlet of his own published in 1864 he defined two biological sexual identities: "Urning", from the Greek god Uranus, for males attracted to men, and "Dioning", from the god Dionysus, for a male attracted to women.

He also coined terms of the female counterparts, bisexuals and intersexual people, and described the Urning as an equal form of being, a "third gender".

Karl-Heinrich Ulrichs. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

The tradition of publishing pamphlets was continued by the Scientific Humanitarian Committee into the 20th Century.

A particularly significant one entitled "What the public ought to know about the third sex" came out in 1901.

It included the most important facts, like the notion that homosexuality is biological, the restrictive laws, and examples of notable gay people from history, like Socrates, Michelangelo and Frederick the Great.

In 1907 the topic became a central issue during the Harden-Eulenberg affair, a controversy surrounding accusations of homosexual conduct among prominent members of Kaiser Wilhelm II's cabinet and entourage.

Post-war progress

Between the end of the First World War and the Nazi's rise to power in 1933, Berlin was the international centre of the LGBT scene.

Jens Dobler, who runs the library archives at the Gay Museum in Berlin, told Tagesspiegel : "Things looked much the same in 1920s Berlin as they do today."

In 1919 Hirschfeld established the Institute for Sexual Studies in Berlin, which offered sexual advice for heterosexuals and homosexuals, as well as being a world leader in research into sexology.

The liberal atmosphere of the Weimar Republic in the 1920s was crucial for the movement, which collaborated with the growing feminist movement in the capital.

In Weimar Berlin, 30 different newspapers were published for a homosexual readership. Worldwide there were only two others, one in Chicago and the other in Paris.

In 1919 Hirschfeld wrote the first ever film to openly deal with the theme of homosexuality. According to his estimations there were 100,000 gay and lesbian Berliners.

The French called homosexuality the "German vice", and for Italians, a gay person was called a "Berlinese".

Broken dreams

In 1929 a parliamentary committee decided to repeal Paragraph 175, but the rise of the Nazi party prevented this change being implemented.

Hirschfeld fled Germany when his institute was attacked and his books burnt in 1933. He died in exile in 1935 at the age of 67 in Nice, and is remembered today by a bust outside his house in Charlottenburg, Berlin.

Nazis parade outside the Institute of Sexual Studies before pillaging it and burning its books. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

The Nazis made the law even stricter in 1935, and it was only in 1969 after the student movement that this version was repealed.

During the Third Reich, an estimated 100,000 men were arrested for being homosexual and up to 15,000 were sent to concentration camps, of whom 60 percent are thought to have died.

It was not until the 1980s that the West German government began to recognize the Nazi persecution of homosexuality, and not until 2002 that the government officially apologized to the gay community.

Although it took a long time to undo the Nazi influence on gay rights in the west, East Germany repealed the Nazi version of the law in 1950, and fully decriminalized homosexuality in practice in 1957 and in law in 1968.

It was only in 1994 that paragraph 175 was finally abolished entirely.

The contrast between the Weimar and Nazi periods shows that any kind of emancipation is never a smooth, linear progression.

The Memorial to Homosexuals Persecuted under Nazism, situated just across the road from the vastly impressive Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, reflects the problems still present today.

Even in such a cosmopolitan, modern city with a proud LGBT history the TV screen of the memorial was smashed in on three separate occasions in the first year after it was built.

By Matty Edwards

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