Background on the Weimar Republic

In many ways Germany was quite conservative leading up to World War II. It briefly flirted with democracy in 1848, but it remained an authoritarian, militaristic empire under the power of the Kaisers combined with the strong influence of the conservative Christian churches. Scientific inquiry and industrial modernization was strong in Germany, however, which led to the first thinkers in the area of sexology. Throughout the 1800s, scientists started to look at sexuality and gender through a scientific lens in addition to the emerging conservative viewpoints that queerness was a mental disorder that could be spread.

Leading up to World War I, there were two laws in the German penal code used to criminalize queer behavior. The infamous Paragraph 175 was a sodomy law that outlawed homosexual acts between men. The second was Paragraph 183, a public indecency law that was used to criminalize perceived cross-dressing. The enforcement of these laws, however, varied from locality to locality. Berlin was prominent among the most liberal cities. In these cities, queerness was tolerated to a slight degree, so long as it remained hidden from the mainstream. The thinking then was that “vices” like homosexuality could never be completely eliminated, but could be heavily regulated in order to protect children from turning queer. Transgender identity and queer sexualities were strongly associated with sex work, espionage, and extortion. Despite all this, at the time, Germany had an international reputation as being a queer Mecca (for those who could afford to travel there).

Due to the defeat in World War I, in 1918 Germany formed what is now known as the Weimar Republic, its first democratically elected government. This seismic shift was seen as the beginning of a new modern age by many (though resented by those with authoritarian, militaristic views). Censorship laws were loosened and queer publications began to circulate as queer social clubs formed around the country. Magnus Hirschfled, a gay physician and sexologist, formed the very first institute dedicated to sexology. The institute broke ground in researching gender and sexuality, and postulated queerness as a natural condition rather than a moral vice. Doctors connected with this institute performed the first transgender surgeries (one patient was the now-famous Lili Elbe, popularly represented as The Danish Girl). The institute even housed a group of transgender women, giving them jobs as housekeepers.

This era was a relative golden age for queer people. While publications fought with censors and queer spaces had tenuous relationships with the police, general social attitudes began liberalizing. In some cities trans individuals could obtain “transvestite passes” that allowed them to avoid arrest when out in public. The Berlin police department even published a newspaper column telling the public about trans people and that they should not be harrassed. Queer people were still routinely arrested, often because of public indecency or unlicensed sex work. But dozens of night clubs and publications catering to trans and queer clientelle were flourishing.

Additionally, groups such as Friedrich Radzuweit’s Bund für Menschenrecht (League for Human Rights) organized activism and established local chapters in many German cities. At its height, the Leage for Human Rights was estimated to have 48,000 members. These organizations served as inspiration for US-American Henry Gerber’s work launching the homophile movement and involvement in the Mattachine Society.

Several currents of thought prevailed at the time that affected how people viewed queerness. One was that the nation should be militarily strong, which means they rely on strong, heteronormative families. In this sense homosexuality was seen as a national weakness. Another was the idea of eugenics, that society as a whole should be improved by access to abortion and controlling breeding in order to weed out congenital disease. In this sense homosexuality could either be seen as a “natural evolutionary dead end (i.e. ‘degenerate’)” and people be allowed the dignity to live out the rest of their lives that way, or it could be seen as a “sickness” to be rooted out. Another idea was that homosexuality was purely a social contagion that spread when children were exposed to trashy media or seduced by older queers. Or another idea was that homosexuality was not biological, but the result of self-actualization (i.e., personal choice). Specifically, that cis gay men were an elite group embodying the Greek ideal. This line of thinking often flirted with fascist ideology.

The furthest that queer acceptance got politically was when the government began to re-review the criminal code. Hirschfeld’s Scientific Humanitarian Committee lobbied heavily and reached many people with the idea that sodomy laws were causing more harm than the “good” of containing homosexuality. The frequent extortion and suicides associated with homosexuality were a constant issue and the law coudln’t adequately determmine what actually constituted a “homosexual act.” While there was consideration of repealing the sodomy law completely, a compromise was reached which basically said that homosexual acts were legal, unless done with minors under 21 or for sex work. This compromise created a rift between Hirschfeld’s camp who championed an approach of respectability politics and “born this way” explanations for queerness versus the masculinist, self-actualized gay groups. Unfortunately, due to conservative backpedaling and the rise of the Nazis, the sodomy law was never repealed or improved. In fact, the law was made more strict when the Nazis came to power.

Despite the rush to modernism and relative acceptance of queerness, the interwar years were very tumultuous. Germany went through hyperinflation, an invasion by France into the Ruhr valley, various coup attempts by anti-democratic, right-wing groups (including the Nazis), and constant direct action by communists. Armed right-wing paramilitary groups formed from disbanded army units roamed the country in an attempt to suppress communism. Finally, the global financial crash of 1929 brought crippling poverty. The Nazis fed on this unrest and managed to capture 37% of the vote by 1932. The old monarchists and business interests backed Hitler in the hope of stopping the feared communists and bringing order back to the country. However, Hitler took advantage of the situation to become perpetual dictator and mass murderer.

Unfortunately, one of the first targets of the Nazis’ reign of terror was Hirschfeld’s Institute for Sexology. A Nazi student group marched into the institute and hauled all of their books and journals away to be burned in a public square. Anything transgender or homosexual-related was considered “un-German.” LGBT people were some of the first groups of people tried and sent to concentration camps.

This loss set the Western LGBTQ movement back decades until the rise of the Mattachine Society in the US.


  • Marhoefer, Laurie. (2015). Sex and the Weimar Republic: German Homosexual Emancipation and the Rise of the Nazis. University of Toronto Press, Scholarly Publishing Division.
  • Whisnant, Clayton. (2016). Queer Identities and Politics in Germany: A History. Harrington Park Press, LLC.
  • Bauer, Heike. (2017). The Hirschfeld Archives: Violence, Death, and Modern Queer Culture. Temple University Press.
  • Stryker, Susan. (2017). Transgender History, second edition: The Roots of Today’s Revolution. Seal Press.
  • Marhoefer, Laurie. (2019). Transgender Identities and the Police in Nazi Germany. YouTube.