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Weimar Germany- P,Q,R,S

By Sarah Zama

Sarah Zama, @jazzfeathers on twitter and a writer of historical fantasy stories set in the 1920s, did 26 blog posts in 2018 as an A-Z challenge on the cultural and political aspects of inter war Germany over on her blog The Old Shelter. We're reposting these here as they talk about an area of History ripe for AH. Today we have the entries for P, Q, R and S.

Over the 19th century, the Western World in its entirety had been moving in the same direction: away from the countryside into the cities. Away from a rural lifestyle into industrialization and generally into larger, if maybe less closely knit, communities. Germany was part of that general flow.

This great shift, which had started in the 19th century with the Industrial Revolution, quickened its pace after the war. Although German society, like all other European societies, remained mostly rural, the move from the countryside to the cities accelerated. And it was more than just a move from one place to another, it didn’t just change people’s lifestyle, but also their minds. The way people understood life and the ideas they were willing to accept changed dramatically as they moved from one environment to the other.

The divide between village and city was possibly at its highest at this time. Life still flew as it had for the past hundred years in the villages, but in the cities, huge social changes were happening. The shifting role of women was one of the most shocking. Women had to fend off for themselves during the war time. They had worked like men, looked after their own family without the help of a man. The republic was giving them new rights, new freedom and to some extent, new power. Women started to think about themselves in a different way and to have different expectations on life. The new contraception methods, which were becoming more common and more commonly accepted, enabled them to greater control over their maternal life, which caused a huge changed inside the family, its structure and its life. Couples could decide when they wanted children and how many they wanted. Family – at least in the cities – became smaller. Many women chose to have children later in life or to have none at all, which, in a time of demographical depression, considered unpatriotic. But more shockingly still, now women could decide to do with their sexual life whatever they wanted, just like men had been doing.

Cities also offered a lot more opportunities than the villages ever had. The old path that led the young on the same working and aspirational life of their fathers was breaking apart. Educational opportunities in the city meant a young person might become whoever they wanted. And often they did want new opportunities. As their expectation of the future shifted, young people sought new jobs and a new way of life, creating one more fracture with the older generation. There was a strong sense that youths were revolting against their elders about everything: ways of life, aspirations, expectations, values, social behaviour.

Besides, this world was slowly filtering into the countryside as well. Not all who worked in the cities left permanently. Many went back to their villages at the end of the day or the working week bringing with them ideas, attitudes and aspirations from the cities. Women working in domestic positions were instrumental in this shift since they were numerous, and their role in the education of the family was very relevant. Radio, theatre and itinerant cinemas were becoming commonplace, propagating the new ways of life even in faraway places.

But it would be wrong to think this was happening in a general consensus. Despite everything, the old ‘Wilhelmin’ ideals of property and rigidity were still prevalent and accepted in Germany. Women were particularly affected. The perceived decadence of the entertainment and the arts was also very strong. There was a general feeling that the world was becoming corrupt. Especially in the cities, this dichotomy between the very new and the very old became extremely sharp.

(Editors Note: The following entry is on LGBT culture in the 20s and 30s and as such uses some outdated, but period accurate, phrases that are now considered slurs)

Berlin has been a queer-friendly city for well over a hundred years – except for during the Nazi period, of course. The history of how the city became a safe haven for queer people started back in the 19th century.

For a start, German law wasn’t more liberal than any other law on the continent. At the unification of Germany under the Keiserreich in 1871, an oppressive statute was imposed all over the country, which included the infamous Paragraph 175 " "An unnatural sex act committed between persons of male sex or by humans with animals is punishable by imprisonment; the loss of civil rights might also be imposed." which criminalised certain sexual acts between men. This was never lifted and in fact remained law of the land until 1994.

By this law someone could be convicted for sodomy only if he confessed or if a witness testified against him. Which made the law admittedly quite hard to enforce, since this wasn’t something people voluntarily confessed. And as for witnesses, people had, of course, consensual relationships and intercourse in their private life. If someone was willing to denounce someone else, it was normally for shady reasons. The law seemed to encourage the practice of blackmailing, which finally prompted the creation of the Department of Blackmail and Homosexuality inside the police.

In the 1880s, police commissioner Leopold von Meerscheidt-Hullessem realised the law was unenforceable and so decided that rather than persecuting alleged homosexuals, it would be easier to just observe and monitor and keep tabs of suspected individuals. The police started to tolerate different public accommodations, such as bars and cafés and eventually even 'transvestite' balls. These places wouldn’t get raided or padlocked. They were allowed to exist and operate. People were not punished for frequenting them. They could meet, socialise and interact. Over the years, this created a true community which was almost in the open.

In the 1920s and 1930s, 25 to 30 separate homosexual German-language periodicals were published in Berlin, either weekly or monthly. Readers could buy them at the newsagent, and in addition to giving news about the community, they would advertise clubs and events and even offer a dating service. The first was published in 1870 and there were no other such newspapers published anywhere else in the world until the 1930s when imitators arose in Switzerland and the Netherlands.

As early as the turn of the century, Berlin’s gay scene was attracting such interest that it was frequently mentioned in tourist guides.

The Institute of Sexual Science

The Institute of Sexual Science was founded in 1919 by Dr Magnus Hirschfeld, and it was the first facility in the world to offer medical and psychological counselling on sexual issues to heterosexual men and women, homosexuals, cross-dressers, trans people and intersex individuals. It was the first attempt to establish sexual science as a topic of legitimate academic study and research, but it also created many occasions of awareness in everyday life.

Dr Hirschfeld, for example, was a strong supporter of birth control and public education. He created a museum about sexual practices in the world and performed one of the first (if primitive) male-to-female sex-reassignment surgery on a 23-year-old officer who had fought in WWI.

He was instrumental in the creation of the ‘transvestite passes’ issued by Berlin police. In a book that he published in 1910, he argued that some individuals felt a strong drive to cross-dress in public. Hirschfeld considered this a medical condition (he was the one who coined the term ‘transvestite’), but since he viewed it as harmless, he thought these people should be allowed to do so. Up to the 1910s, cross-dressers could be stopped by the police and questioned or arrested, but after the introduction of the transvestite passes, if they carried such permission, they would be left alone. The transvestite passes had the side effect of allowing actors and performers to freely move from one club to the other where they worked without ever taking off their custom.

The surge of Nazi power brought all of this to an end. Nazis were strongly opposed to homosexuality and homosexuals. However, at the beginning, they only persecuted them if they were either Jews or leftists – or, as it was often the case, both. It wasn’t hard either, since many homosexual rights movement activists (including Dr Hirschfeld himself), progressive physicians, psychologists, medical doctors as well as lawyers and jurists were Jews.

Not long after the rise of the Third Reich, a Nazi youth group destroyed the Institute of Sexual Science and for many long years the bond between Berlin and its queer community for broken. Homosexuality was itself criminalised in 1935 when, Paragraph 175 was changed from "An unnatural sex act committed between persons of male sex" to "A male who commits a sex offense with another male.". The result was thousands of homosexuals were sent to concentration camps, where 60% of them died. Upon liberation of those camps the survivors were often still jailed by the Allied forces as they were legally criminals due to the anti homosexual laws not being revoked.

The Reichswehr, the German republican army, was always a state within a state and never a supporter of the democratic regime of the Weimar Republic.

When Germany signed the Armistice, her military force was virtually dismantled. As soldiers went home to a civilian life they hardly knew how to live, many kept together and in time formed military-like entities that were later known as Freikorps.

It is estimated that in the first years of the Weimar Republic a number between 200 and 300 different Freikorps units spontaneously formed, ranging from small units to fully formed military divisions who acted as a real German army – for example in the Baltic and against the Poles. But most had free action in the Republic itself and went violently about trying to stop the perceived communist invasion of Germany.

After the Treaty of Versailles, Germany was allowed to have an army of just 100.000 men. Because the Freikorps were virtually uncontrollable and quite prone to street violence, the Weimar government created an official army on June 28, 1919, the Vorläufige Reichswehr (Provincial German Defense Force). It was this army that suppressed the communist revolutionary attempt of 1919. Its creation, together with the birth of many different paramilitary forces (of which the veterans’ Stahlhelms and Hitler’s Sturmtruppen were the most numerous) finally caused the disappearance of the Freikorps.

The new Reichswehr was basically the old Keiserreich army. Especially officers came from the old imperial army and were of strong Prussian education and persuasion. They belonged to the older generation which strongly supported nationalism and the return to the good old days of the Empire. They favoured authoritarianism and military organization and ill-tolerated the new liberal republic. It can’t be said that the Reichwehr was against the republic, but certainly, it never did anything to support it. At most, they tolerated the republic as long as the republic stayed out of the army’s business.

Besides, the belief in the ‘stab in the back’ theory was strong among these generals, although many of them had been in critical positions during the war and perfectly knew – better than others – what the situation had actually been. These were the same generals who had refused to take part in the Armistice agreement, preferring to leave that risky business to the new government.

All thought the first half of the 1920s there were indeed rumours that the Reichswehr might support, or even initiate, a counter-revolution. This idea – if it was ever true – died out when in 1925 General Paul von Hindenburg was elected to the presidency.

Hindenburg had been an army leader during the war and was well-loved and respected by all Reichswehr officers, who appreciated his Prussian upbringing and thought he would defend Germany from democracy.

Given these bases, one would think that the Reichswehr would agree wholeheartedly with Hitler and his movement. This was not quite the case. Although Hitler indeed found many supporters in the Reichswehr, many disliked him as a foreigner and soldier who was a threat to their own power as a 'state within a state'. Reichswehr generals were particularly concerned with the rapid growth of the SA. In 1932 Hitler’s Sturmtruppen counted more than 150,000 men where the Reichswehr was still limited to 100,000. Some Reichswehr officers feared for their own positions and were alarmed by the radical rhetoric among SA ranks, who spoke of themselves as a fledging revolutionary young force who would eventually supplant the old official army. This fear however led the Reichswehr to feel the need to prove their loyalty to the new regime, swearing a personal oath of loyalty to Hitler and purging those of Jewish ancestry from the army.

The Reichswehr had a short life before being replaced by the much bigger Wehrmacht which flouted the limits of the Treaty of Versailles but they would form the core of that army, with almost all the senior officers having served in the inter war army.

The Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschland (Social Democratic Party of Germany) was founded in 1875 by August Bebel on largely Marxist ideals and for most of the Weimar Republic's time was the largest political party in the nation.

Although it was born as a workers’ party, the SPD often embraced a number of causes beyond the conditions of workers, calling for equal rights for women (finally realised by the republic) and a stop to the German policy of colonial empire. The SPD publicly and repeatedly chastised the Government for the Herero genocide in the Reichstag, something that led to the 1907 election being known as the 'Hottentot Election'.

Somewhat prophetically, in 1905, Georg Ledebour warned that the genocide was an inevitable result of the colonial system and that "colonialism will drive this process of brutalization into European society, ... [so that they] completely abandon even the little bit of civilization, cultural sensitivity, and humanity that they had so far preserved in our capitalist era." However in the 1907 elections the SPD lost half their seats and their policy towards colonialization and the government in general became more conciliatory as a result.

By 1912 the party had more than a million members and had achieved improvements in education and healthcare as well as in the condition of industrial workers. Around that time, the party started working together with Keiser Wilhelm II rather than against him to achieve further liberal laws for the nation. They were still radical in principle, but more moderate in reality.

This policy of agreement and reform was going to be the new main direction of the party. Bebel, just like his successor Friederich Ebert, believed that socialist improvement could be achieved by parliamentary discussion rather than by violence and revolution.

In 1914, the SPD voted against the resolution of war against France, which they considered an unnecessary, aggressive and imperialistic action but agreed a principle of 'castle peace politics' in which the SPD voted for war credits in the Reichstag, and the party agreed not to criticize the government and its war or encourage strikes.

This caused the first fraction inside the party that, with over one million members, held, as might be expected, a vast range of opinions and positions. Many SPD members were imprisoned for their anti-war ideas. By 1917 many, such as Georg Ledebour, had also been expelled from the party for their radical positions. A number of these – including Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht – would then found the Communist Party of Germany (KPD).

The SPD were the natural candidate to lead the Republic, and they did so for most of its history, though never from a majority position.

Over the decades, the SPD has been often criticized for having agreed too often on compromises even with forces (like the Freikorps and the reactionary Reichswehr during the Spartacist uprising and the nationalistic parties later) that were clearly in opposition with their ideals and goals. This had long been seen as a weakness, possibly even the capital sin that would eventually bring down the republic.

Germans saw the willingness to compromise and the practice of parliamentary discussion as the incapability of the party to find solutions for the many problems of the nation. In a country unaccustomed to democracy, the SPD's attempt of threading a completely new path, one of inclusion and cooperation, based on discussion rather than imposition was often taken (rightly) as a sign of their weak position given the hostility of many institutions to their existence. In fact, historians have lately started to argue that if the republic hadn’t look for agreement and hadn’t accepted the compromises it did, its life would have been even shorter.

Despite their overall failure (because after all the republic ended with the rise of the Nazi Party and the SPD being banned as a party and many of their politicians locked in concentration camps), the SPD achieved many liberal laws and provisions that meant inclusion for a lot of society sections previously cut off from the nation’s political life. This in turn led to the pre-eminence of women and Jews among SPD members, something that only added reasons for the Nazis to hate them.

The republic gave freedom of speech to everyone – including its enemies – and allowed avant-garde and alternative ways of life and thinking not just to exist, but to thrive. For very good reasons, both the good and the bad sides of the Weimar Republic are identified mostly with the SPD government.


Sarah Zama writes historical fantasy stories set in the 1920s and blogs about the culture of that time period at The Old Shelter.


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