Whisnant, Clayton J. Male Homosexuality in West Germany: Between Persecution and Freedom, 1945-69. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012.
Subject: A re-evaluation of male homosexual life in Germany between the end of World War II and the start of the gay liberation movement in the 1970s.
Main Points: Whisnant argues that historians of German sexuality have too often overlooked the twenty five years after the end of the Second World War in their study of significant moments in homosexual life in Germany. There is a bourgeoning historiography on homosexuality under the Nazi regime and scholars have given ample attention to the start of Germany’s “second gay rights movement” that began in the arly 1970s. Indeed, modern gay rights activists have mostly overlooked the 1950s and 1960s and placed their roots with the “first” gay rights movement led by the likes of Magnus Hirschfeld at the turn of the twentieth century. But in this book, Whisnant shows that homosexuals, homophiles, and gay men (he uses the popular contemporary term for each decade) in the late 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s actually set the stage for the flashpoint of the “second gay rights movement” that began in the 1970s, even if their movements were less radical than those of the gay rights/liberation movements.
In particular, Whisnant identifies three major contributions that the period between the 1940s-1960s made, which the homosexual movements and gay scenes of the 1970s era (and later) would build: 1) First, the time between the 1940s and 1960s was an era in which gay scenes were re-established after being virtually destroyed by the Nazis during the 1930s and early 1940s (Whisnant talks about “scenes” rather than “sub-cultures” because “scenes” better illustrates how fluid and diverse these spaces were.) He shows how gay scenes arose in many of West Germany’s larger cities: West Berlin, Munich, Hamburg, Frankfurt and Cologne. In the 1950s, Hamburg was able to surpass Berlin as the major gay hot spot in Germany until a renewed police campaign repressed these scenes. 2) Second, this period witnessed a transformation of the concept of homosexuality, allowing for a masculinized vision of same-sex desire to become widespread. While the effeminate Tunte (fairy) did not disappear, a new “normal” homosexual man (usually referred to himself as a “homophile”) became the dominant stereotype of homosexuality. This allowed new opportunities for self-identification among same-sex desiring men, but society and the state latched on to this image with negative consequences for gay men: now the state was able to portray the homosexual who preys on the youth as being able to blend in as a “normal” man. 3) Third, this period ended with the reform of Paragraph 175, which signaled the start of Germany’s gay liberation movement. Whisnant argues that this reform (which decriminalized homosexual acts between men as long as both were 21 or over) should not be seen as the inevitable culmination of a general process of sexual liberation happening over the twentieth century. Instead, he convincingly shows how a transformation of legal thought (not only about homosexuality in particular) allowed for the reform of Paragraph 175 and the formation of the modern gay rights movement.
My Comments: Whisnant’s book is incredibly helpful for my research, because it is essentially the “prequel” to my period of study. It helps contextualize how the West German gay liberation movement was able to emerge so suddenly in 1969-71. He shows that while knowledge of the Stonewall riots played a role, it was the reform of Paragraph 175 that allowed for the movement in Germany to flourish without fear of legal reprisal. While his description of the 1940s and 1950s is incredibly interesting (especially the particular importance that homosexual publications held in West Germany), I think Whisnant’s greatest contribution is his chapter on the reform of 175. He shows that, beginning in the 1950s, a reevaluation of “the homosexual” took place that led to both more repression by moral conservatives, but also the chance for more freedom. This push for more freedom came from “progressive attorneys, doctors, scientists, Christian theologians, politicians, and other public figures who saw the decriminalization of homosexuality as a key aspect of a much more comprehensive transformation in West Germany’s system of criminal law” (168). Moreover, this was somewhat of a moderate “project” to redefine Western liberalism in the face of the new radical Left and the Right. Therefore, this reform was the fruit of policy makers, not from “grass roots” activists.
At least in my mind, this changes the way I contextualize the gay rights movement that erupted in West Germany in the following two years. According to Whisnant’s view (if I understand it correctly), these activists were more the heir of political reform rather than the instigators of it. This is a very good book, one which I recommend highly.
For more books on the history of sexuality or modern German history, see my full list of book reviews.