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literature

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German and Austrian Literature: Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries  
 
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Lesbians are not evident in the literary discourse of this era in texts, as objects or subjects, but most probably did participate via literary salons, which often formed around a woman who drew together like-minded friends of both genders.

Letters, diaries, and poetry often provide evidence of lesbian life at the time since in them women writers could voice the heartfelt sentiments and yearnings they felt for other women.

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Romanticism's focus on feeling and the inner life allowed same-sex desire a certain, although limited, expression. Realism and the literature of the Gründerzeit (1870-1885) closed off that safe space in which women could write about loving women, at least as far as literary historians have so far uncovered.

The Rise of Sexology and Psychiatry

The Wilhelmine period, the era from about 1870 to 1918, saw sexologists and psychiatrists displace theologians and priests as arbiters of normality. The medical profession at this time concluded that in most cases homosexuality represented an inborn condition. Sexologists and psychiatrists, however, differed on whether that condition was to be interpreted as an illness or as a natural healthy occurrence.

Perhaps the most important figure in the early years of this medical discourse is Karl Heinrich Ulrichs (1825-1895), who was a philosopher (and tax assessor), but not a physician. He proposed that some people are born with the "soul" (character) of the opposite gender; therefore, their desire for someone of the same sex is natural. For them heterosexuality would be an unnatural state.

The creation of a homosexual identity and the extensive public discussion of the topic in journals and newspapers led to the development of a homosexual liberation movement aimed at abolishing the legal prohibition of sexual acts between males in Germany (Paragraph 175 of the Penal Code, the German sodomy law). All these factors influenced the portrayal of homosexual characters in German-language fiction during this period.

Adolf von Wilbrandt (1837-1911) wrote the first novel in German to present male-male desire as a phenomenon deserving of acceptance because it is natural for the person involved, Fridolins heimliche Ehe (Fridolin's Secret Marriage [1875]). A forty-year-old art history professor, Fridolin, explains himself to a young scientist friend as a man born with two natures, one feminine and one masculine.

This dual nature Fridolin calls his "secret marriage," believing he can never love just one person because the two natures alternate in dominance. He is for a time attracted to women and then, when his feminine nature asserts itself, to men. However, he does indeed find fulfillment (love, not sex) with Ferdinand, the brother of Ottilie, to whom Fridolin had briefly been attracted, and the novel ends happily.

This work contains motifs that those that follow will employ again and again: the masculine-feminine duality of the homosexual, the role of medical opinion, the use of ancient Greek society as a kind of "Golden Age," a trip to Italy in search of love. Unlike the works to follow, however, here the man who loves a man does not have to die, nor is the relationship condemned.

Magnus Hirschfeld

As the medical model for homosexuality grew in strength, homosexual characters appeared in increasing numbers within German literature. Magnus Hirschfeld (1868-1935), whose theory of homosexuals as a "Third Sex" between the heterosexual male and heterosexual female was based on Ulrichs's ideas, became the most articulate voice in the debate about homosexuality.

This Berlin physician founded the "Scientific-Humanitarian Committee," the most influential of the homosexual emancipation groups between 1896 and 1933, and he led the fight for social tolerance and the abolition of sodomy laws on the basis of the "naturalness" of homosexuality.

The Turn of the Twentieth Century

Employing Hirschfeld's concepts, some works argue vehemently for legal and social change so that homosexual love may be accepted within mainstream society. A typical example of this literature is Aimée Duc's (b. 1867) short novel Sind es Frauen? (Are These Women? [1901]).

Subtitled "Roman über das dritte Geschlecht" ("Novel about the Third Sex"), the work makes no apologies for women taking up careers and loving one another. Instead, it proselytizes for the naturalness of such sexual preference and for the need of social change in order to accommodate the new roles women are creating for themselves. The novel follows the lives of a group of women college students in Geneva and traces in particular the sentimentalized love between two of them.

Perhaps the best known lesbian character in German literature of the time is the Gräfin Geschwitz in Frank Wedekind's (1864-1918) "Lulu" plays, Erdgeist (Earth Spirit [1895]) and Die Büchse der Pandora (Pandora's Box [1904]). The countess gives herself over so completely to her obsessive love for Lulu that Geschwitz, like all the men involved with the prostitute-temptress, loses her life. She sacrifices herself while trying to save her beloved from Jack the Ripper.

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