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Although Germany did not formally become a nation until 1871, German culture and homosexuality have a long and significant history. Indeed the very word, "homosexual" was coined in what would later become Germany. While Germany, until recently, never officially accepted or welcomed members of the glbtq community, numerous homosexual men, often very highly-placed, managed to thrive in late nineteenth-century and early twentieth-century Germany.

Furthermore, between the two World Wars, Germany became home to one of the most vibrant--even flagrant--glbtq communities ever seen before Stonewall. While that brief flowering unfortunately fell prey to the rise of Hitler and his henchmen, beginning in the 1980s and 1990s there was a significant resurgence of glbtq culture in Germany and an improvement of conditions for gay men and lesbians.

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Germany's relationship with its glbtq citizens has been ambivalent. One might characterize it as an early manifestation of a "Don't ask, don't tell" policy wherein much latitude was afforded as long as no one talked too much about it or no one forced officials to take action against it. Other than during the overtly repressive Nazi regime, Germans have seemed content to turn a blind eye to consensual sexual behavior, while simultaneously maintaining rigorously anti-homosexual laws that were occasionally, and arbitrarily, enforced.

German Sodomy Laws

The term homosexuality (homosexualität) first appeared in 1869 in a pamphlet by Károly Mária Kertbeny that argued for the decriminalization of sexual activity between men. As in most of Western Europe, had been a crime since the Middle Ages. Courts interpreted sodomy as same-sex sexual activity, usually anal intercourse, between men. Although women had occasionally been subject to prosecution under sodomy charges, they were usually ignored by the law; an 1851 reform to the Prussian legal code formally exempted them from prosecution.

In general, German sodomy laws tended to be honored more in the breach than in the observance. After the French Revolution of 1789 and the subsequent wars between France and the various German states, much of what became Germany fell under the rule of France, which extended its revolutionary legalization of consensual same-sex sexual activity to the German states it occupied. However, Prussia, the largest and most powerful German state, was never entirely dominated by France. Notwithstanding the fact that its greatest eighteenth-century ruler, Frederick the Great (1712-1786), was widely known for his same-sex affairs, Prussia never repealed its sodomy law.

After the final defeat of Napoleon at Waterloo in 1815, a German Federation emerged to replace the old Holy Roman Empire. Nominally, Austria headed this Federation; however, Prussia, a militaristic, industrialized state with a dynamic and growing population, would not long play second fiddle to the tottering empire of the Austrian Hapsburgs. After Napoleon's fall the history of Germany is the story of the virtually uninterrupted growth of Prussian hegemony at the expense of Austrian influence.

From the nearly one hundred separate German states that existed before Napoleon, reorganization, consolidation, and conquest had left only thirty-odd states by the early 1800s. Besides Prussia, medium-sized states such as Bavaria, Württemberg, Saxony, Hesse, Baden, and Hanover were major players. Of these, Bavaria and Hanover had decriminalized consensual sexual activity between males. Unfortunately for gay men, Otto von Bismarck guided Prussia through several aggressive wars, culminating in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-1871, at the end of which King Wilhelm of Prussia became Emperor of the newly created German Empire.

Although, the lesser states retained some nominal sovereignty, for all practical purposes they were absorbed by Prussia. The freshly written German legal code virtually copied the Prussian model, thereby extending the prohibition of sexual relations between men throughout Germany. This section of the German legal code was the infamous Paragraph 175.

The Rise of Sexology

During this period of the expansion of Prussia and consolidation of the German Empire (das Deutsche Reich), sexuality emerged as an area of study. Research on sexuality became increasingly popular in Western Europe and the United States, but especially in Germany, which became a leader in the developing field, as sexologists began cataloguing and describing various "types" of men with sexual interests outside the normal. It is no exaggeration to say that homosexuality, as a named category and the subject of scientific scrutiny, was constructed in nineteenth-century Germany.

Karl Westphal used the phrase "contrary sexual feeling" (conträre Sexualempfindung) to describe a patient's same-sex sexual desires. Karl Heinrich Ulrichs (1825-1895) postulated a "third sex." Ulrichs believed that homosexuality did not constitute a mere inversion of the sexual interest, but also an inversion of gender traits as well. Ulrichs held that since homosexuality was an innate condition, homosexuals should neither be criminalized nor stigmatized as sinful.

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Top: Germany and neighboring countries in 2004.
Center: A uniform bearing a pink triangle that was worn by a prisoner at the Sachsenhausen concentration camp.
Above: Revelers celebrate Christopher Street Day in Berlin in 2004. Photo by Lienhard Schulz.

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