Recently, the Weimar Studies Network has hosted a discussion about Weimar’s sexual reforms and the idea of a backlash against them that undermined the Republic itself. Edward Dickinson, author of Sex, Freedom, and Power in Imperial Germany, 1880-1914, has kindly agreed to add his view to the debate, arguing for a more detailed look at the different groups that engaged in Weimar-era sexual politics.
“Was there a backlash against Weimar’s sexual politics?”
Some further reflections
The editors of the Weimar Studies Network have asked me to comment on the exchange last November between Laurie Marhoefer and Julia Roos regarding what Marhoefer called the “backlash thesis” regarding the politics of sexuality in Weimar — the idea that the Weimar Republic was sabotaged by (among other things) controversies over the politics of sexuality. I am a great admirer of both Marhoefer’s recent Sex and the Weimar Republic (2015) and Roos’s Weimar through the Lens of Gender (2010). As an historian with a long-standing interest in the history of sexuality and gender relations, I find it particularly gratifying that both books move the history of sexuality toward the center of recently-revived debates about the Weimar Republic. Marhoefer’s book denies the importance of a sexual-political “backlash” to the collapse of the Republic, which is an important element in Roos’s work; but it also discusses the contribution to the considerable political success of the Weimar Republic made by what she calls the “Weimar settlement” or compromise regarding sexuality — which liberalized laws relating to private sexual behavior while stigmatizing and persecuting those whose public behavior was judged deviant or disturbing.
My own interpretive sympathies are more with Roos’s careful delineation of the political implications of debates over sexuality (in the case of her book, prostitution). In fact one of the strengths of Roos’s book in my view is that it does not advance only the “backlash thesis” regarding the last years of the Republic, but examines the place of sexual politics in Weimar politics more broadly. In its early chapters, it also points out the way in which legislative initiatives in this field helped to build cooperation between diverse political groupings, and hence the greater stability of the mid-Weimar years — a point similar to Marhoefer’s regarding the “Weimar settlement.” Further, I have spent a good deal of time reading through published and archival sources produced by both moral conservatives and racist/racialist radicals in Weimar, and one simply cannot get around the fact that many of them were absolutely hysterical both about the development of popular culture and popular attitudes and about the legislative initiatives of the Left regarding a wide range of sexual and moral issues. There absolutely was a “backlash.”
But how important was it? I find Marhoefer’s careful, concrete, and detailed delineation of the relatively unimportant role of sexual politics in the decisive political turning points of the early 1930s quite convincing. In fact I have written elsewhere myself that in the crisis of the early 1930s the politics of sexuality probably was not decisive. Other matters — the economic crisis, national chauvinism and resentment, social policy — played a bigger role; and in fact one of the things that conservative religious leaders were concerned about was their own declining cultural and political influence (including particularly in matters of sexual morality). What is more, in its simplest form — people were sympathetic to the Nazis because they were terrified about the direction sexual politics was taking — the backlash thesis is clearly at least partially false, because many in the Christian conservative leadership in particular detested and feared the Nazis’ own brand of (racist) materialism only a little less than they did that of the (socialist) Left. And finally, Marhoefer is absolutely right to point out that the idea that the Weimar Republic was paralyzed by internal conflict is outlandish. The Weimar period was one of extraordinary legislative and governmental creativity — in the field of sexuality and reproduction as in many other areas. In that sense, the Weimar Republic was politically very successful. Again, Roos’s book actually does point this out. But it is something that bears repeating.
How do we reconcile these two very plausible but apparently contradictory perspectives? For now, I do not have a definite answer. But I can offer some ways of thinking about the problem.
First, to a limited degree these two perspectives are not completely contradictory. After all, one of the first premises of the backlash model is that the parties of the Weimar coalition were quite successful in pursuing significant legislative reforms in the 1920s. What was driving the (various factions of the) Right to hysteria regarding sexual politics by the late 1920s and early 1930s was not just the ongoing broad change in sexual mores but also precisely the success of the Left in passing large parts of an extremely ambitious legislative agenda in this area. The Left was not able to impose all of its agenda, and even where it did pass legislation it had to accept some compromises. But moral conservatives accepted those compromises only very reluctantly; and particularly in the Depression many of them found that they were turning out to be even less favorable to their interests and concerns than they had thought. The key disagreement here seems to be about the 1930s, not the 1920s.
Second, I suspect that it might be more fruitful to consider the role of contention over sexuality and sexual morality in Weimar politics in broader terms than either Roos or Marhoefer can do in their very brief exchange. The simple yes/no, either/or logic of the question may militate against developing a model of causation that better does justice to the complexity of Weimar politics, culture, and society. My remarks about the distinction between the Christian conservative backlash and the radical Right backlash are an example; but we could add also the Communist backlash against the compromises the more moderate Left made in the course of the 1920s (some of which were actually accommodations to legislative initiatives from the Right). That makes three backlashes. What’s more, the term “backlash” may predispose us to limit our chronological horizon only to the early 1930s. There was a sexual-political backlash on the Right during the revolutionary and inflationary period in the early 1920s that was no less virulent or hysterical than that of the Depression years; and that earlier backlash had long-term consequences (including for sexual politics).
How can we think productively about this complex picture? First, sexuality was explicitly central to the anthropology of all the contending Weimar groups—to their understanding of what people are like, and how people should live together. That meant that sexual politics was an integral part of the complex conflicts between multiple different and divergent ideological, cultural, and political communities in the 1920s. We need therefore to define the politics of sexuality more broadly than this question allows. Second, it was precisely the complexity of the conflicts and contestations in this area that made the stakes seem so high, and that drove them higher and higher. Those familiar with my recent book on sexual politics in the Empire (Sex Freedom and Power in Imperial Germany ) will recognize this argument, and perhaps I am too eager to extend that same model to the Weimar period. But I think there are similar arguments in some of the recent literature on Weimar—for example in Moritz Föllmer’s discussion of the experience of diversity and contingency as “crisis” and the yearning for its resolution (“Which Crisis? Which Modernity?” in Beyond Glitter and Doom: The Contingency of the Weimar Republic, eds. Jochen Hung, Godela Weiss-Sussex, and Geoff Wilkes ).
Going beyond the parameters of the exchange between Marhoefer and Roos, finally, in longer term perspective the connection between sexual politics and the Nazis’ obsession with race is also important. Of course we cannot reduce race-thinking to thinking about sex; but racism and racialism are about sex and reproduction as much as they are about death, even in an ideology as death-centric as National Socialism. Issues relating to sex and reproduction — including prostitution, sterilization, “eugenic” abortion, racial “miscegenation,” illegitimacy law, homosexuality, and (a little later) even divorce — were among the first the Nazis tackled, between mid-1933 and mid-1935. The Nazi obsession with sex/race was an instance and product of the broader concern with the politics of sexuality — of the steadily rising salience of sex in Germans’ thinking about the future of the nation. It is important to recognize, here, that the Nazis represented not so much a sexual-political backlash as a sexual-political revolution. Again, it does not seem to me that we can measure the significance of sexual politics for the fate of the Weimar Republic solely by the importance or impotence of moral conservatives. They played an enabling role; but it was the electoral success and the ruthless machinations of the Nazis — radicals on the Right — that actually killed democracy. And their obsession with sex was neither unique nor coincidental.