Laurie Marhoefer, author of Sex and the Weimar Republic. German Homosexual Emancipation and the Rise of the Nazis, has written a guest post on Weimar’s sexual politics, addressing the interesting question if Weimar’s progressive culture actually undermined its democratic system:
Was There a Backlash against Weimar’s Sexual Politics?
Scholars of Weimar are nearly in agreement that the politics of sexuality helped to bring down the Republic. I term this “the backlash thesis.” It holds that Weimar-era progressivism on issues like homosexuality, reproductive control, and female prostitution incited a backlash among conservatives, and that the Nazis capitalized on that backlash by portraying themselves as the party best suited to clean up the “swamp of immorality” in which Germany supposedly wallowed.
In my recent book Sex and the Weimar Republic: German Homosexual Emancipation and the Rise of the Nazis (Toronto, 2015) I take what I anticipate will be a controversial stand on this question. I argued that the backlash thesis is mistaken. The politics of sex played no major role in the Republic’s fall. In fact, when one looks closely at sexual politics, one sees not the doomed Weimar Republic of popular memory, lurching from crisis to crisis, but rather a functioning democratic system generating consensus, stability, and successful compromise. This contention dovetails with the work of a camp of revisionist scholars who have called for German democracy’s health between 1918 and the Depression to be re-evaluated (see, for example, here and here).
It is difficult to prove that something did not happen. My argument depends on searching for evidence of backlash in likely places and demonstrating that although sexual politics were important and were up for debate, they did not undermined democracy.
For example: In March 1930, the League of Catholic Women, working with the Catholic Center Party (Deutsche Zentrumspartei), organized a mass rally in the Berlin philharmonic hall to “rescue the Christian family.” The rally came at a momentous time for political Catholicism. Heinrich Brüning, head of the Center’s Reichstag delegation, was then negotiating to assume the Chancellorship under semi-democratic conditions.
The Center Party has been repeatedly identified by scholars as having abandoned democracy in part because of the Weimar Republic’s sexual progressivism. Brüning’s assumption of the Chancellorship with his party’s full support was among the Center Party’s most significant anti-democratic acts.
One would thus expect that at the rally to rescue the Christian family, Center Party leaders would note the happy coincidence of their efforts and Brüning’s move into the Chancellorship. Now in a position of power, the Center Party could roll back the progressive reforms championed by the Left, such as the legalization of female prostitution, the liberalization of restrictions on media about sexuality, the reform of the abortion law, and the move to repeal the law against sodomy. It could squelch the growing consensus in favor of easier divorce.
But when one examines the speeches made at the rally, reprinted in the Center’s organ Germania, it does not seem that Center politicians saw things this way. Speakers did not hail Brüning’s Chancellorship as a boon to their efforts to rescue the Christian family. In fact, none of them mentioned Brüning. The speeches did address the political issue of sexual politics. But there was no talk of abandoning democracy in order to save the family. In his speech, Joseph Joos mourned the Weimar state’s failure to support marriage and family, referring to the ongoing debate on divorce. But he did not disparage democracy itself. Rather, he enjoined his audience to take the long view and to lead by example: if Catholics fought for the ideal of family, the rest of the population would come around within a decade, and “then once again the star of joyful family life will shine above the generations.” This statement was met with loud applause.
A critique of the backlash thesis was not the project I thought I was embarking on when I began research for my dissertation ten years ago. Towards the end of a fellowship year in Berlin, I biked to the Zeitungsabteilung of the Staatsbibliothek on a rainy morning. I thought I was at the start of an easy two weeks of work on the Nazi Party press in the 1930s. I expected to find article after article indicting the Republic and the Left for sexual-political reforms, for example the 1929 move to repeal the sodomy law. But I found nothing to suggest that the Nazis were making the claim that they were singularly suited to deliver moral renewal a major pillar of their campaigns. Articles in the NSDAP press never mentioned specific legal reforms, and did not make the politics of sex central to an indictment of the Republic or to claims for the superiority of fascism. (Eventually, I figured out what I think is one reason for this: in the summer of 1932, the Nazi Party had its own homosexual sex scandal and therefore had little incentive to draw attention to sexual politics.)
The surprising character of Nazi propaganda sent me on an exhaustive search for backlash. I examined the debate on divorce, the Center Party’s vote for the Enabling Law, the rise of Brüning, the Papen Chancellorship, SPD-Center battles over “filthy” media, and a 1932 brawl in the Reichstag café that brought homosexuality in the Nazi Party to national attention. After several years, I concluded that by the 1930s, there was broad consensus on many sexual-political questions, and that the disagreements that remained did not play a primary, or even secondary, role in ‘30-‘33, when democracy faltered.
I am curious as to what the community of scholars of the Weimar Republic will make of my assertions on this question.