Comparing the Nazis’ rise to Donald Trump’s, writers over the past four years have often had reason to focus on the Weimar Republic, which lasted from the end of the First World War in 1918 until the Nazis’ seizure of power in 1933. Given the purpose of these comparisons, it is no accident that the republic is framed as a doomed political experiment, poisoned at birth by Germany’s calamitous defeat in the Great War and the vindictive terms of the Versailles peace treaty. Yet that picture clashes with another estimation of Weimar, long familiar to scholars of the period, as a vibrant outpouring of democracy, modernist culture and sexual freedom. Indeed, one of the bright spots in retellings of Weimar history has long been its homosexual rights movement. From Babylon Berlin, which offers up glitzy scenes of queer nightclubs in the German capital, to Robert Beachy’s widely feted Gay Berlin to the second season of Transparent, which featured cutaways to queer life in 1920s Germany, contemporary culture celebrates Weimar’s sexual libertinism.
The queer parties, publications and political efforts that shape our understanding of those years can be difficult to square with the Weimar Republic’s continued homophobia, the movement’s sudden collapse in the early 1930s and the profound persecution queer people faced in Germany until late in the twentieth century, long after the Nazis had been defeated. To better account for these paradoxes, historians have begun to interrogate not only the homophobic rhetoric that continued to permeate the 1920s, but also the ways in which queer people themselves couched their political ambitions.
Javier Samper Vendrell, an assistant professor of German studies at Grinnell College in Iowa, recently waded into this long-simmering debate over how to view sexuality in the Weimar Republic. The Seduction of Youth: Print Culture and Homosexual Rights in the Weimar Republic, published this year with University of Toronto Press, is a deep and timely examination of how homophobic campaigners used the stereotype of the gay pedophile to persecute gay men, as well as a critical look at the (often inadequate) strategies gay activists embraced in response. Samper Vendrell uses the Weimar-era debate over the so-called seduction of youth to interrogate not only our image of Weimar as a bastion of sexual freedom, but also to look closely at the political ramifications of wedding queer activism to both capitalism and the politics of respectability.
At the core of The Seduction of Youth sits the question of how and why anti-homosexual campaigners in early-twentieth-century Germany came to believe that gay men posed a threat to young men and boys. It is a stereotype intimately wrapped up in the nineteenth-century medical discourses that first gave birth to the very idea of homosexuality.
Starting in the mid-nineteenth century, German thinkers—mostly pioneers in the new field of sexology—began to argue that men who had sex with men were a distinctive type of human being, defined by their sexual identity. In the memorable words of Michel Foucault, “The sodomite had been a temporary aberration; the homosexual was now a species.”
The process by which these thinkers invented homosexuality was neither smooth nor uncontested. Some came to the question from a desire to reform the German law that banned penetrative sex between men. Karl Heinrich Ulrichs, a lawyer who invented the term “Urning” to describe men who desired men, was a lonely advocate for the law’s abolition. Karl-Maria Kertbeny, an Austro-Hungarian writer who opposed the law, coined the term Homosexualität in 1868.
The most famous in this line of campaigners was Magnus Hirschfeld. A medical doctor who grew up on the Baltic Coast in northeast Germany, Hirschfeld was a trailblazer in the field of sexology as well as one of the first gay rights activists in history. In 1897, he founded the Scientific-Humanitarian Committee, which advocated the repeal of Germany’s anti-homosexuality law, paragraph (§) 175 of the penal code. Hirschfeld and his associates wed scientific discovery to political activism. Arguing that homosexuality was an inborn and therefore natural human trait, they insisted that the government had no right to legislate against it.
Although Hirschfeld is the best remembered sexologist of his day—sometimes even lauded as the “Einstein of sex”—his ideas were hardly uncontroversial. With the growth of psychology in the early twentieth century, numerous researchers including Sigmund Freud began to argue that homosexuality was a mental aberration. Freud, who notably counseled tolerance of queer people, believed everyone was innately bisexual. In his view, homosexuality represented a failure of pubescent development.
At the same time, researchers were becoming ever more intrigued by the mental and physical processes individuals underwent during puberty. Some began to argue not only that homosexuality was a psychological abnormality, which developed in one’s teenage years, but also that homosexuals often took an active part in such developments. That is, these researchers suggested that older homosexual men “seduced” youth into homosexuality. These fears tended to center around young men and boys between the ages of fourteen and 21. The psychiatry professor Max Isserlin, who founded the first child psychiatry ward in Germany, contended, “One can infect youths and make them homosexual for life.” Thus, the fear of the gay youth seducer was not just a concern about older men preying on teenagers. It also embodied the fear that homosexuality was a social contagion.
While this paranoia got its start in the imperial era, the First World War magnified it. Between 1914 and 1918, over thirteen million soldiers fought in the German army. Many were young men or boys, and sexologists worried that the military offered them an easy avenue into homosexuality. After all, soldiers were deprived of female contact for long periods at the same time as they were likely to be exposed to homosexuality in the barracks. Following Germany’s sudden surrender, these voices blamed the war for what they perceived as a surge in homosexuality. Combined with the ensuing revolutions and civil wars, Samper Vendrell writes, “the perceived spread of male homosexuality was part of a larger narrative of national decline. Death, disability, and social disruption led to increased interest in the proper upbringing of adolescent boys. Contemporary commentators … contended that children and youths were in a state of moral and sexual waywardness.”
Yet Germany’s defeat also set the stage for its first experiment in democracy. In January 1919, as civil war and revolution tore through the country, delegates met in the provincial town of Weimar to craft a new, democratic constitution for what would come to be known as the Weimar Republic. While the document had its flaws, including a too-powerful presidency that could declare far-reaching states of emergency, it advanced a distinctively progressive vision of Germany’s future. In a particularly consequential decision for queer Germans, the delegates at Weimar formally abolished censorship in the constitution.
That decision opened the floodgates to new forms of queer media and made mass participation in the queer subculture thinkable for the first time in German history. While Hirschfeld’s efforts had centered on elite persuasion, a number of campaigners in the Weimar era began to argue that, in order to win rights, homosexuals would have to organize and, ultimately, vote in larger numbers.
One such person was Friedrich Radszuweit, an activist and entrepreneur. After hearing Hirschfeld deliver a lecture in 1922, Radszuweit joined the German Association for Friendship, a homosexual advocacy organization. Soon thereafter, he became an executive and assumed operational control of the group. He changed its name to the League for Human Rights and began publishing a newsletter called the Journal for Human Rights. At its height in 1927, the League claimed a membership of 65,000.
As Samper Vendrell recounts, Radszuweit gradually turned the League into a publishing behemoth with numerous magazines for gay men and lesbians, including The Island, the Journal of Friendship and Girlfriend. By 1926, Radszuweit’s publications boasted a combined circulation of over five million. They were sold openly at newsstands and reached such vast audiences precisely because the new German democracy had outlawed censorship.
In order to attract readers, Radszuweit’s magazines appealed to more basic interests than Hirschfeld’s high-minded scientific publications. Printed on cheap paper, the periodicals “often portrayed seducing photographs; articles and stories were written in plain language; and advertisements connected readers to businesses that explicitly catered to gay and lesbian patrons.”
Of particular interest to Samper Vendrell is the question of how the League’s publications dealt with youth. In fact, Radszuweit and the League for Human Rights titillated their readers with descriptions and images of young men and boys. Pictures of half-naked youths leapt from magazine covers and short stories romanticized relationships between younger and older men. Radszuweit assumed (correctly, it would seem) that his readers found youth sexually stimulating and would buy his magazines because of their arousing photographs and stories.
Thus, Samper Vendrell claims that the League for Human Rights “advocated a form of consumer culture based on sexual orientation that anticipates what we have come to call ‘pink money.’” Radszuweit saw queer people not only as sexual beings, but also as consumers. He predicated his business (and his politics) on appealing to and sating those consumers’ desires.
Radszuweit also had political ambitions, advocating loudly for the repeal of §175. Addressing German hysteria around the supposed seduction of youth, Radszuweit insisted that most gay men had no interest in younger men and urged his readers to live lives worthy of their fellow citizens’ respect. This argument for respectability combined awkwardly, of course, with his magazines’ other content.
“The covers of Radszuweit’s magazines displayed seductive boys while condemning those who found them appealing,” Samper Vendrell notes. In this way, Radszuweit and the League for Human Rights embodied a contradiction in Weimar’s gay rights campaigns. In order to be commercially successful and reach large numbers of readers, Radszuweit needed to print alluring images. But in order to convince German politicians and the public that male homosexuality should not be criminalized, he believed his magazines also needed to denounce any connection with smut—especially anything to do with youth.
Samper Vendrell acknowledges that, in a deeply homophobic society, Radszuweit might have believed he had no choice but to engage in this contradictory strategy. Nonetheless, he argues that Radszuweit and his allies harmed the Weimar-era push for gay rights in two interrelated ways. On the one hand, printing suggestive pictures of young men and boys added fuel to the fire of Weimar’s moral campaigners. On the other hand, their rhetorical reliance on respectability harmed the movement by giving too much away to its homophobic opponents.
The fall of censorship in 1919 had unleashed not only queer media, but also a wave of other sex-focused publications. Conservatives regularly denounced this “trash and smut” and in 1926 succeeded in passing a new censorship law. That measure prohibited the public sale of texts that were deemed dangerous to Germany’s youth. Newly established vetting offices began to argue that homosexual publications also posed a danger to youth, because “the publications not only wanted to make homosexuality ‘understandable’ for youths but also to ‘propagate’ it among them.” The law led to what Samper Vendrell calls “self-censorship.” In the late 1920s, many of Radszuweit’s publications stopped printing salacious material in an effort to evade the censors.
Part of the reason these efforts were so successful at stifling Weimar’s queer publications, Samper Vendrell suggests, is that many gay campaigners, Radszuweit among them, accepted their logic. They did not disagree that some gay men posed a threat to youth or that homosexuality, in the words of one League author, “causes so much pain and bitterness.”
But the harm came not merely from the 1926 Trash and Smut Law. In 1929 parliamentarians began the process of removing §175 from the penal code. Their suggested revision would have made consensual, adult homosexuality legal for the first time in German history. But the lawmakers remained concerned about the alleged spread of homosexuality. They therefore proposed a new measure that would have instituted severe penalties for a man found to have engaged in sexual acts of any nature, including kissing, with a man younger than 21.
That proposed compromise split the homosexual rights movement. Members of Hirschfeld’s Scientific-Humanitarian Committee, in particular, violently disagreed over whether or not to accept it. Radszuweit, unsurprisingly, supported the measure as a necessary, if incomplete, step toward equality. While the law never passed, thanks to the Great Depression and the political crises that trailed in its wake, it provided the basis for a new law, §175(a), which Hitler’s government promulgated in 1935. The measure mandated terms of hard labor for, among other things, the “seduction” of men younger than 21, and it remained on the books in East and West Germany until 1968 and 1969, respectively. This is how, in Samper Vendrell’s estimation, “the protection of youth became an issue that stalled the progress of the homosexual emancipation movement.”
In making such arguments, Samper Vendrell wades into ongoing debates over the role of respectability politics and the place of capitalism in queer activism. Some scholars, such as historian David Johnson, contend that gay liberation efforts of the late twentieth century grew out of gay markets. A line can be drawn between this theory and the LGBT groups that see great potential in C-suite activism. Others, such as historian Martin Duberman or queer theorist Lisa Duggan, lament the ways in which gay political efforts sometimes become tied to the extractive logic of capitalism—an argument that has strong resonance for younger queer activists who have become suspicious of corporate-sponsored pride parades, the rainbow-festooned corporate logos that appear every June and other gestures they consider hollow.
These debates are often connected to wider arguments between activists who believe society needs reform and those who recommend revolution. The former see greater potential in pink money approaches, while the latter think capitalism is part of the problem. While Radszuweit’s activism was undoubtedly incrementalist, examining the place of youth in Weimar’s queer subculture highlights a structural paradox in any approach to gay rights that privileges market-based advocacy.
As Samper Vendrell notes, the problem of the seduction of youth remains with us—homophobes still peddle such stereotypes, while the market still implicitly endorses gay men’s fascination with youth. The recent scandal surrounding Massachusetts House candidate Alex Morse illustrates just how current these questions over the seduction of youth and the politics of respectability remain. On August 7th, the College Democrats of Massachusetts sent a letter to the University of Massachusetts Amherst’s Daily Collegian, alleging that Morse, who has taught courses at the university as adjunct faculty, had had “inappropriate sexual relations with college students.” Morse quickly admitted to having “consensual adult relationships, including some with college students” and “apologized to anyone I have made feel uncomfortable.”
In the days after the scandal broke, progressives diverged sharply on the question of whether to excoriate Morse or his accusers. Many followed in Radszuweit’s footsteps, denouncing Morse for sexual or romantic contact with undergraduates, regardless of whether the relationship had been consensual. Others, especially queer voices, responded by noting that Morse did nothing that contravened Massachusetts law or UMass policy, and that finding a relationship between a college student and a thirty-year-old uncomfortable or distasteful is not grounds for public humiliation. Indeed, this argument, in which both sides claim a progressive, moral high ground, closely resembles the arguments Radszuweit and his contemporaries engaged in over the limits of respectability politics and the place of youth in queer subcultures.
On August 12th, The Intercept published an investigative report about the affair, revealing that the Young Democrats’ attack on Morse had been premeditated and artificially engineered. The students had deliberately reached out to Morse on social media, hoping that he might say something untoward or incriminating. They did so, it seems, because the leader of the club hoped to win an internship with incumbent Congressman Richard Neal.
The report makes clear that Morse was the victim of a homophobic attack. But for our purposes, the episode remains revealing. In a world that both celebrates queer sexual freedom—in TV shows, advertising, dating apps and so forth—and ruthlessly punishes the slightest perceived infraction (what queer luminary David Halperin has termed America’s “war on sex”), we still have much to learn from the heady days of 1920s Berlin.