Laurie Marhoefer and the editors of WSN have invited me to respond to Marhoefer’s guest blog, “Was There a Backlash against Weimar’s Sexual Politics?” (posted 15 November 2015), and I am delighted about this opportunity for scholarly exchange.
Marhoefer and I disagree in our assessments of the role Weimar-era sexual reforms like the decriminalization of female prostitution in 1927 and the projected decriminalization of non-commercial male homosexuality played in the demise of the republic. In my book Weimar through the Lens of Gender: Prostitution Reform, Woman’s Emancipation, and German Democracy, 1919-1933 (University of Michigan Press, 2010), I argue that legal rights of due process and free movement granted to female sex workers in 1927 represented a fragile political compromise, and that the right-wing backlash against this compromise constituted an important facet of the destruction of Weimar democracy. In contrast, Marhoefer contends that the general legalization of female prostitution and the projected decriminalization of male homosexuality were essentially uncontroversial among the moral and political Right, since they kept “immorality” out of the public eye and relied on the continued exclusion of lesbian and male prostitutes. In her guest blog for WSN, she puts it succinctly: “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.”
Marhoefer deserves credit for advancing ambitious arguments. The fact that the parties of the Left, Center, and Right were able to hammer out a (temporary) compromise on prostitution reform and initial steps toward repealing anti-sodomy laws may indeed suggest that Weimar-era parliamentary deliberation in some ways was more viable than often assumed. Ultimately, however, Marhoefer’s claims about the steadfast nature of a cross-party consensus on sexual reform and the smooth functioning of Weimar democracy seem overstated. The liberalization of prostitution law in 1927 had significant limitations (for instance, prostitution remained illegal in towns smaller than 15,000). Rather than interpreting the limitations of the 1927 anti-venereal law as the result of a stable moral consensus among Weimar’s major political players, the contradictions of the 1927 reform are indicative of the deeply contentious and fragile nature of this political compromise. Previous postwar attempts to repeal state-regulated prostitution had failed due to concerted obstruction by the police and Catholic and Protestant Churches. In 1927, socialists and liberal feminists grudgingly agreed to restrictions on the consistent legalization of female prostitution to avoid yet another legislative defeat. Soon after the 1927 reform took effect, its mobilizing impacts on prostitutes’ efforts at self-organization came under fire. Prominent representatives of the moral Right like Center Party politician Agnes Neuhaus demanded the reinstatement of the police’s traditional powers to arrest streetwalkers. Such demands gained vocal grassroots support from Catholic and Protestant morality associations. In June 1932, the National Women’s Caucus of the Center Party appealed to the Reich Minister of the Interior to recriminalize street soliciting. In July 1932, the Prussian State Council, the representation of the Prussian provinces, supported a Center Party motion to recriminalize public prostitution. In their efforts to rescind the more liberal aspects of the 1927 law, religious conservatives frequently aligned themselves with the police, among whom resistance to the abolition of state-regulated prostitution was extremely widespread.
The evidence of a conservative backlash against the decriminalization of female prostitution is rich and compelling. This backlash did not play out merely at the parliamentary level. Crucially, it received important support from within the state (e.g., the police), a factor Marhoefer’s analytical framework tends to neglect. Many conservatives of both religious camps were willing to tolerate the use of authoritarian state powers if this seemed to guarantee the restoration of “moral order.” This willingness to support authoritarian measures for the sake of “protecting morality” contributed significantly to the hollowing out of Weimar democracy. Religious conservatives’ response to Franz von Papen’s coup against Prussia’s democratically elected Social Democratic government of July 20, 1932 (Preußenschlag) is one example of the ways in which the “moral agenda” helped weaken support for democratic procedures. In the aftermath of the Preußenschlag, numerous commentators in Catholic and Protestant publications praised the appointment of a Federal Commissioner for Prussia, who had moved quickly to clamp down on street soliciting, nudity, and “indecent performances.”
One need not subscribe to a narrative of the Weimar Republic’s inefficacy to acknowledge the existence of profound conflicts over gender and sexuality in 1920s Germany. In fact, it is only in light of these battles that we can fully appreciate some of the positive achievements of Weimar-era gender reforms. The notion of a harmonious Weimar consensus on sexual reform fails to explain crucial aspects of the trajectory of Nazi prostitution policies. It took half a century to repeal police-controlled prostitution in Germany, and only six years to reinstall it. It is difficult to imagine how the Nazis could have accomplished this reversal so quickly without substantial support from within the state and from traditional conservatives disenchanted with the liberalizing implications of the 1927 reform.