Kurt Weill and Bertholt Brecht's Berlin


From the very outset of the Weimar Republic, it was evident that German attitudes about sex and sexuality were changing. Before the war and the Revolution, birth rates had been steady, prostitution highly regulated, and the state censored all varieties of media. After the war’s end, however, birth rates were low, and cabarets and magazines began to deal in more explicit content. Due to both the relaxation of censorship and changing material circumstances, with the advent of the Republic, questions of prostitution, pornography, birth control, abortion, gay rights, premarital sex, and the family suddenly became topics of open debate.

The early Republic’s sudden social changes were often met with moral panic. In particular, many Germans were concerned with how the youth of the Republic appeared to be devoting themselves to more hedonistic activities. Conservatives argued that the Revolution had brought with it a disregard for Christian values, which had manifested itself in the erotic sphere as “Sexual Bolshevism.” Right-wing political parties like the Deutschnationale Volkspartei (German National People’s Party), and social and religious organizations such as the Vereinigung Evangelischer Frauenverbände (Union of Evangelical Women’s Associations), campaigned for such causes as reinstating censorship of sexually explicit media and maintaining the criminal status of prostitution.

While the political Right was almost uniformly invested in the maintenance of old sexual norms, the Left had a more complicated relationship to sexual mores and their moral statuses. For instance, both Social Democrats and Communists were proponents of liberalizing prostitution law in Weimar Germany, but to different degrees and for different reasons. Social Democrats supported welfare provisions aimed at supporting sex workers, and ultimately supported the decriminalization of prostitution, but because of their investment in the Republic and its democratic functions, they also felt the need to maintain the moral fabric of society. A fine example of the almost contradictory social-democratic attitude of combined sympathy and moral revulsion can be seen in Berlin is Becoming a Whore, an article from a center-left broadsheet which is included in the attached selection of objects. Communists, on the other hand, supported prostitutes’ rights with a fervor on the principle that they were proletarians exploited by capitalism, but under a Communist regime, such women would have been considered ‘parasites’. Both political tendencies were open to eugenic rhetoric and explanations of the inferiority of prostitutes, although Social Democrats tended to be more open about these justifications.

On other issues like abortion, both Communists and Social Democrats took a far more firm and radical stance. The struggle over article 218, the German law which mandated penalties for both the doctors who provided abortions and the women who underwent them, lasted throughout the entire Weimar period. In 1920, every country on earth, with the exception of the Soviet Union, criminalized abortion, but that same year, the Independent Social Democratic Party of Germany demanded its total repeal. And even though 10 years later the Republic was in crisis and the Communists and Social Democrats were in conflict with each other they were still allied on the topic of abortion reform. There was, of course, electoral incentive in the appeal of abortion reform to women, as well as Soviet influence pushing the Communist party to this position, but the consistency with which the Left pushed these policy ideas throughout the period is a strong demonstration of the centrality of birth control to working-class politics at the time.

Meanwhile, many more independent scientists and researchers took an interest in the sexual culture of Weimar Germany. Perhaps the most prominent of these was Magnus Hirschfeld, founder of the Institut für Sexualwissenschaft (Institute for Sex Research). Hirschfeld was an avid advocate for sex education, birth control use, and gay rights. While the political dialogue often centered on the morality of various policies and practices, Hirschfeld framed these discussions in terms of public health. Hirschfeld always insisted on discussing problems like STIs, sexual dysfunction, and unwanted pregnancies in terms of the factors that contributed to it, rather than in terms of personal responsibility As such, a substantial part of the Institute’s function was to provide sex education to the public. For instance, the Institute would hold weekly question and answer sessions where couples could freely ask any questions they had regarding sex and contraception.

Beyond education, the Institute also participated in public advocacy to remove the negative moral connotations surrounding issues like homosexuality. Hirschfeld promoted a model of homosexuality where gay men were not sinners, but people with souls of a third gender who were put into men’s bodies. Hirschfeld believed that this subset of men was distinct from the rest of the population, and that their condition was harmless. As a result, Hirschfeld believed that paragraph 175, the German law criminalizing homosexuality, should be repealed. This represented yet another way in which Hirschfeld tended to remove discussions of sex from the moral realm.

Not all advocates for the decriminalization of homosexuality used Hirschfeld’s strategy of medicalization and secularization. Gay activist Adolf Brand was deeply opposed to Hirschfeld’s outlook, believing that medicalizing homosexuality also pathologized it and removed the beauty of eroticism. Brand was the publisher of Der Eigene (The Self-Owner), a magazine which discussed homosexuality, as well as a broad variety of other society and lifestyle topics, such as social Darwinism and nudism. Brand centered his philosophy on his belief in the individual’s right to make all choices regarding their own body, which, in addition to his belief in the natural bisexuality of all men, justified homosexuality on moral grounds. On the back of his publication, he founded the Gemeinschaft der Eigenen (Community of Self-Owners), one of the first gay organizations in Germany.

Brand’s manifesto, entitled What We Want and published in Der Eigene, reveals a fascinating approach to homosexuality. Whereas Hirschfeld wanted to medicalize the conversation around homosexuality so that gay people could be accepted into society, Brand wanted to identify homosexuality with moral purity and German masculinity.     

The astute reader will note the frequency with which eugenics appears in the sexual politics of the Weimar period. In the late stages of the Republic, this pseudoscientific attitude to sexual morality would be utilized by the Nazis once they rose to power. Nazi propaganda played upon a combination of old anti-semitic stereotypes associating Jews with predatory sexuality and the previously mentioned conservative anxieties about “sexual Bolshevism”. After their rise to power, the Nazis would portray the Weimar republic as an era riddled with Jewish pimps and criminals, painting the various movements for liberalization of sexual norms as attempts by Jews like Hirschfeld to diminish the power of the Aryan race by lowering birth rates.

Throughout the Weimar period, the morality of various sexual standards were forcefully debated, in and out of the political sphere. Through their interplay, we can see a broad variety of the tensions of the Republic played out. The commonality of eugenic arguments in the discourse on sex across the political spectrum also shows us an era dominated by scientific thinking and justifications, as well as serving as a demonstration of the potentially disastrous consequences of the elision of moral and scientific thinking. Ultimately, these questions of sexual morality played an enormous role in shaping the society of the Weimar Republic.

--Matthew Burn, (Fiona) Xue Ju, and Gabe Strasburger

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