Although homosexual acts among men had traditionally been a criminal offense throughout much of Germany, lesbianism (homosexual acts among women) was not criminalized. This was true in large part because of the subordinate role of women in German state and society. Unlike male homosexuals, lesbians were not generally regarded as a social or political threat. Even after the Nazi rise to power in 1933, most lesbians in Germany were able to live relatively quiet lives, generally undisturbed by the police.
New Social and Political Freedoms in Weimar Germany
Although they were hampered by the inferior roles ascribed to women in Imperial Germany, lesbians had been part of the homosexual emancipation movement in Germany since the 1890s. German law prohibited women from joining political organizations until 1908. Even after the easing of this restriction women were discouraged from political activity, so lesbians turned to more informal gatherings in bars and clubs. This trend coincided with a general easing of sexual morality in Germany after World War I. The Weimar Republic brought with it new social and political freedoms. For most homosexual men and lesbian women in Germany, the Weimar era was a time of relative openness.
Berlin and other major cities became centers of homosexual life in Germany. In Berlin, clubs like the "Dorian Gray" and "The Magic Flute Dance Palace" helped create a lesbian social network, making it easier for urban lesbians to live openly than for those in more rural areas of Germany. The easing of censorship restrictions led to a variety of lesbian literature including the journals Frauenliebe (Female Love) and Die Freundin (Girlfriend).
Traditional political and social conservatives harshly criticized this new openness for homosexuals in Germany. The resurgence of political conservatism in the later years of the Weimar Republic led to a new series of repressive measures against homosexuals. In 1928, for example, the police banned Die Freundin and other lesbian literature based on the Protection of Youth from Obscene Publications Act. Many conservatives demanded the enactment of criminal statutes against lesbian sexual acts. Pamphleteers such as Erhard Eberhard wrote tracts against homosexuals, feminists, Republicans, and Jews, groups that were often linked by conservatives to a conspiracy to destroy Germany. In particular they denounced the movement for women's rights, claiming it was really a front for seducing German women into lesbianism.
With the rise of the Nazis to power in 1933, this conservative backlash was replaced with state repression. The Nazis believed women were not only inferior to men but also by nature dependent on them; therefore, they considered lesbians to be less threatening than male homosexuals. The Nazis regarded women as passive, especially in sexual matters, and in need of men to fulfill their lives and participate in sex. Many Nazis also worried that the more explicit social affection between individual women blurred the lines between friendship and lesbianism, making more difficult the task of ferreting out "true" lesbians. Finally, the Nazis dismissed lesbianism as a state and social problem because they believed lesbians could still carry out a German woman's primary role: to be a mother of as many "Aryan" babies as possible. Every woman, regardless of her sexuality, could serve the Nazi state as wife and mother.
The Nazis nonetheless persecuted lesbians, albeit less severely than they persecuted male homosexuals. Soon after Hitler's appointment as chancellor, the police systematically raided and closed down homosexual meeting bars and clubs, forcing lesbians to meet in secret. The Nazis created a climate of fear by encouraging police raids and denunciations against lesbians. Many lesbians broke off contacts with their circles of friends, some moving to new cities where they would be unknown. Others even sought the protection of marriage, entering into marriages of convenience with male homosexual friends.
While the police regarded lesbians as "asocials"—people who did not conform to Nazi norms and therefore could be arrested or sent to concentration camps—few were imprisoned because of their sexuality alone. The Nazis did not classify lesbians as homosexual prisoners, and only male homosexual prisoners had to wear the pink triangle. Though police arrests of lesbians were comparatively rare, the threat of persecution made living openly as a lesbian dangerous.
Lesbians also suffered discrimination because of the Nazis' policy toward German women in general. Since the Nazis believed women should serve primarily as wives and mothers, they forced women out of prestigious careers. Paradoxically, labor demands brought on by rearmament and the war actually increased the number of working women, though they were relegated to work in low-paying jobs. The low wages set for women particularly affected lesbians, since lesbians were generally unmarried and could not rely on a husband's job for support. Economic hardships combined with ever-increasing social pressures and fear of arrest to make the lives of lesbians difficult even though sexual acts between females were not illegal in Nazi Germany.
Though many lesbians experienced hardships during the Third Reich, the Nazis did not systematically persecute them. Those who were willing to be discreet and inconspicuous, marry male friends, or otherwise seem to conform to the expectations of society were often left alone and survived.
Series: Women during the Holocaust
Critical Thinking Questions
- How did the differing treatment of male homosexuals and lesbian women reflect society’s attitudes and mores?
- Investigate the level of acceptance of lesbians in society since 1945, in Germany or in your country.