From persecution to pride: The history of LGBTQ+ rights in Germany

With celebrations of Gay Pride taking place across Germany this summer, we look at the past and the future of rights for the LGBTQ+ community in Germany.

From persecution to pride: The history of LGBTQ+ rights in Germany
People hold hands at the CSD protest in Leipzig on July 16th 2022. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Sebastian Willnow

We updated this story in July 2022.

Throughout summer, several cities around Germany are holding events for Christoper Street Day (CSD) – now part of a global celebration for gay rights and equality – including Cologne and Berlin.

It comes after events were cancelled due to the Covid pandemic. 

A participant dresses up at the CSD in Frankfurt am Main on July 16th 2022.

A participant dresses up at the CSD in Frankfurt am Main on July 16th 2022. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Helmut Fricke

Gay Pride in Germany has come a long way since its founding 40 years ago. While the LGBTQ+ community was still heavily discriminated against in Germany, the beginnings of a Pride movement was developing in the country’s capital.

Inspired by the Stonewall riots in New York, Bernd Gaiser and the Berlin-based gay community initiated the first Pride celebrations in Germany in 1979.

As the festivities grew and homosexuality was decriminalized in 1994, so did Pride. Now all major German cities celebrate Pride.

In 2019, many of Germany’s Pride events seek to remind us of the ongoing struggle for gay rights. We look at the fight for gay rights since its very beginnings. 

The beginnings of a protest movement?

As early as the 1800s, public activists within the German Empire began to pave the path for gay rights. In 1867 Karl Heinrich Ulrich became the first self-proclaimed homosexual to speak out publicly for gay rights at the Congress of German Jurists in Munich. There he pleaded for the repeal of Paragraph 175, a critical law which had made sodomy illegal in 1871.

Another crucial figure was Marcus Hirschfeld. Hirschfeld invented the term transvestite, zealously opposed Paragraph 175, and founded the Scientific Humanitarian Committee in Berlin which pioneered research into transsexuality and stood at the forefront of protest opposing legal discrimination against homosexuals.

Whilst homosexuality was not widely accepted socially and it was not common to be openly gay, the arrest-rate under the terms of Paragraph 175 was low whilst the Empire reigned.

The ‘Golden Era’

Weimar Germany is commonly associated with the crippling financial and political crises which eventually led to its demise.

However, like many other Western countries at the time, the Republic experienced a brief period of booming cultural growth. A prominent gay subculture quickly developed in Berlin, and the city boasted of more than 80 gay bars in the 1920s.

A number of gay publications stemmed from Germany’s capital in this period. Die Freundin, originating from Berlin, was a lesbian magazine published between 1924 and 1933. The blossoming gay scene helped to further cultivate a culture of protest, with the first ever gay rights demonstration taking place in Berlin in 1922.

A participant dressed up for the CSD march in Cologne on July 3rd 2022.

A participant dressed up for the CSD march in Cologne on July 3rd 2022. Photo: DPA/Roberto Pfeil

Though it is certainly possible to overstate the liberalism of the era of the Weimar Republic, Paragraph 175 remained enshrined in the law. Weimar Germany, after all, was relatively open to the beginnings of gay culture and seemed to be on the path towards a more open and tolerant society.

Indeed, whilst paragraph 175 was a de jure aspect of life for homosexuals, policing policy was lax and merely monitored suspected homosexuals and rarely prosecuted them. 

A dark turn

This apparent flame of hope for the gay community in Germany, as well as the flourishing gay subculture in Berlin, was hastily vanquished following the Nazis’ rise to power in 1933.

The Third Reich’s persecution of homosexuals was immediate and relentless: National Socialists stormed and destroyed Hirschfeld’s Institute for Sexual Research in Berlin, Nazi newspapers called for the death penalty for homosexual acts and all active gay organisations in Germany were declared illegal.

Additions to the terms of Paragraph 175 in 1935 brought with them the illegalization of even the smallest gestures of affection between man and man and the number of prosecutions increased sharply.

The gay Holocaust, sometimes referred to as the ‘Homocaust,’ is a long-neglected facet of the atrocities perpetrated by the Nazis between 1933 and 1939. Nazis were vehemently homophobic – gays epitomised the concept of ‘degeneracy’ which was diametrically opposed to National Socialist ideology.

The Memorial to Homosexuals Persecuted Under Nazism in Berlin. Photo: DPA
The Memorial to Homosexuals Persecuted Under Nazism in Berlin. Photo: DPA

According to testimonies from survivors, persecuted homosexuals were at the bottom of the concentration camp hierarchy, receiving particularly brutal treatment and frequently subjected to horrific medical experiments which used an excess of male hormones to try and ‘cure’ inmates’ homosexuality.

Recent research suggests that between 5,000 and 15,000 homosexuals were sent to concentration camps and up to 60% of these are said to have been murdered.

Liberal for lesbians?

Lesbians were not systematically persecuted by the Third Reich: women were not seen to pose a threat to social order as they were generally never allowed to enter into positions of power and influence. 

This is not to say that lesbians lived enviable lives under the Third Reich; there are records of some lesbian concentration camp inmates and the socio-cultural climate of the Third Reich would not have been an easy one for openly gay women.

Reluctant recognition

When it comes to both memorial culture as well as government policy regarding the Holocaust, the gay community have historically received less recognition than other persecuted groups.

At the Dachau concentration camp memorial, a sculpture consisting of the triangles that identified camp inmates is conspicuously absent of the pink triangle which denoted homosexuals within concentration camps.

When the sculpture was created in 1968, homosexuals did not fall into the ‘recognised’ persecuted groups meaning they were left out of the sculpture which commemorated the suffering of persecuted minorities.

This was a pattern at other memorial sites and reflects the continued persecution and side-lining of the gay community. Many homosexuals left concentration camps only to be seen as common criminals upon their return to society; many were repeatedly jailed and died before seeing the liberation of gays or acknowledgement of and compensation for their suffering at the hands of both the National Socialists and the post-war German governments.

It was only in 2002 that the German government agreed to provide compensation to victims of Paragraph 175 and it was a mere two years ago that this compensation legally included those who had been prosecuted after World War II.

East versus West

Contrary to common assumption, it was the East German government who, despite the strict censorship, rife surveillance amongst citizens and the feared Stasi, were ostensibly more liberal when it came to gay rights.

Unlike their West German counterparts, the East German government repealed the Nazi additions to Paragraph 175. These changes to the law meant that East Germany convicted approximately 4,000 men under the statute between 1949 and 1968. In contrast, between 1949 and 1969, 50,000 men in West Germany were convicted of homosexuality.

Even after the Nazi additions to the law were removed in 1969, 3,500 men in West Germany were convicted before the law was finally rescinded in 1994.

Egalitarian East?

Indeed, these apparent improvements for the gay community in East Germany did not necessarily reflect a lack of homophobia but rather a pragmatic approach to homosexuality and gay rights. The East German government sought to break from previous fascist discrimination against homosexuals and possibly wished to appease those who criticized socialism.

An assessment of East Germany as a haven for gays would be unfounded. The 2013 documentary film, ‘Out in East Berlin,’ told the personal histories of 13 openly gay individuals under the GDR government and the film exposes the less rosy everyday reality for homosexuals in East Germany.

Despite policy, homophobia still remained an issue and gay communities and groups were observed closely by the Stasi.

Political progress

Progress has only been made relatively recently when it comes to the advancement of gay rights in Germany.

The 2017 legalisation of same-sex marriage in Germany had a slightly bitter undertone as the former German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, voted against the legalisation in a move consistent with her stance in opposition of gay marriage.

Although Berlin famously had an openly gay mayor, Klaus Wowereit, the fact remains that the conservative CSU and CDU have often had an ambiguous approach to more liberal pieces of legislation.

Klaus Wowereit at Berlin's Brandenburg Gate in 2012
Klaus Wowereit at Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate in 2012. Photo: DPA

Repeated vandalism of the ‘Memorial to Persecuted Homosexuals’ in Berlin, ongoing difficulties in terms of adoption for gay couples and increases in attacks against gay couples in Germany should all serve as a reminder of the continued threat to LGBTQ+ individuals in Germany.

Future freedom

There are plenty of lessons to be learned from the LGBTQ+ history of Germany. In particular, progress is rarely linear and can always be reversed. Homosexuality is still illegal in dozens of countries globally and Germany’s history reminds us that liberalism can quickly give way to a restriction of rights and persecution in times of economic crisis.

Many of Germany’s Pride events seek to remind of the ongoing struggle for rights both within and out of Germany and German history is a constant reminder of the need for the vibrant protest and celebration that Pride entails.

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‘Lost’ manuscript of pro-Nazi French author published 78 years later

A book by one of France's most celebrated and controversial literary figures arrives in bookstores this week, 78 years after the manuscript disappeared

'Lost' manuscript of pro-Nazi French author published 78 years later

It is a rare thing when the story of a book’s publication is even more mysterious than the plot of the novel itself.

But that might be said of Guerre (War) by one of France’s most celebrated and controversial literary figures, Louis-Ferdinand Celine, which arrives in bookstores on Thursday, some 78 years after its manuscript disappeared.

Celine’s reputation has somehow survived the fact that he was one of France’s most eager collaborators with the Nazis.

Already a superstar thanks to his debut novel Journey to the End of the Night (1932), Celine became one of the most ardent anti-Semitic propagandists even before France’s occupation.

In June 1944, with the Allies advancing on Paris, the writer abandoned a pile of his manuscripts in his Montmartre apartment.

Celine feared rough treatment from authorities in liberated France, having spent the war carousing with the Gestapo, and giving up Jews and foreigners to the Nazi regime and publishing racist pamphlets about Jewish world conspiracies.

For decades, no one knew what happened to his papers, and he accused resistance fighters of burning them. But at some point in the 2000s, they ended up with retired journalist Jean-Pierre Thibaudat, who passed them – completely out of the blue – to Celine’s heirs last summer.

‘A miracle’
Despite the author’s history, reviews of the 150-page novel, published by Gallimard, have been unanimous in their praise.

“The end of a mystery, the discovery of a great text,” writes Le Point; a “miracle,” says Le Monde; “breathtaking,” gushes Journal du Dimanche.

Gallimard has yet to say whether the novel will be translated.

Like much of Celine’s work, Guerre is deeply autobiographical, recounting his experiences during World War I.

It opens with 20-year-old Brigadier Ferdinand finding himself miraculously alive after waking up on a Belgian battlefield, follows his treatment and hasty departure for England – all based on Celine’s real experiences.

His time across the Channel is the subject of another newly discovered novel, Londres (London), to be published this autumn.

If French reviewers seem reluctant to focus on Celine’s rampant World War II anti-Semitism, it is partly because his early writings (Guerre is thought to date from 1934) show little sign of it.

Journey to the End of the Night was a hit among progressives for its anti-war message, as well as a raw, slang-filled style that stuck two fingers up at bourgeois sensibilities.

Celine’s attitude to the Jews only revealed itself in 1937 with the publication of a pamphlet, Trifles for a Massacre, which set him on a new path of racial hatred and conspiracy-mongering.

He never back-tracked. After the war, he launched a campaign of Holocaust-denial and sought to muddy the waters around his own war-time exploits – allowing him to worm his way back into France without repercussions.

‘Divine surprise’
Many in the French literary scene seem keen to separate early and late Celine.

“These manuscripts come at the right time – they are a divine surprise – for Celine to become a writer again: the one who matters, from 1932 to 1936,” literary historian Philippe Roussin told AFP.

Other critics say the early Celine was just hiding his true feelings.

They highlight a quote that may explain the gap between his progressive novels and reactionary feelings: “Knowing what the reader wants, following fashions like a shopgirl, is the job of any writer who is very financially constrained,” Celine wrote to a friend.

Despite his descent into Nazism, he was one of the great chroniclers of the trauma of World War I and the malaise of the inter-war years.

An exhibition about the discovery of the manuscripts opens on Thursday at the Gallimard Gallery and includes the original, hand-written sheets of Guerre.

They end with a line that is typical of Celine: “I caught the war in my head. It is locked in my head.”

In the final years before his death in 1961, Celine endlessly bemoaned the loss of his manuscripts.

The exhibition has a quote from him on the wall: “They burned them, almost three manuscripts, the pest-purging vigilantes!”

This was one occasion – not the only one – where he was proved wrong.