The Fraternal Kiss - Brezhnev and Honecker, 1979.
The Fraternal Kiss – Brezhnev and Honecker, 1979.

In common with many Britons, I’ve been hooked by Deutschland 83, the latest in a remarkable string of television series broadcast in Britain in languages other than English. If the main plot compels us to think more sympathetically to the approach of the East German authorities and consider life-as-lived rather than life-as-perceived, it is one of the subplots that offers perhaps an even great challenge to the image we are typically presented with of communist ‘totalitarianism’. I mean, of course, the experiences of Alex Edel, the young, idealistic West German pulled into a world he had previously only read about in such a way as to completely alter the trajectory of his life. Edel offers two different readings of Germany (East and West) in the early 1980s. On the one hand there is his obvious radicalism – both political and environmental – which places him at odds with his authoritarian, militaristic father. And on the other there is the question of Edel’s sexuality. It’s a marker of the efficacy of the series that it prompts a more critical understanding of the two Germanies without being crude.

In keeping with most countries in Europe after the Second World War, the two Germanies underwent a process of liberalisation of social attitudes, particularly with regard to sexuality. The German law code – Strafgesetzbuch – first outlawed homosexual acts in 1871, when paragraph 175 was adopted after unification. It stated that ‘unnatural fornication, whether between persons of the male sex or of humans with beasts, is to be punished by imprisonment’. In 1929, the paragraph actually was repealed by the Reichstag but implementation was not immediate and the political turbulence of the early 1930s meant that Weimar Germany never did reach the point where homosexuality was decriminalised. Nevertheless, 1920s Germany did gain a reputation for liberal attitudes to sex and sexuality, certainly in terms of sexual expression, albeit framed by a compromise which (in the words of Laurie Marhoefer) saw Weimar Germany tolerate ‘some forms of non-normative sexuality so long as they remained largely out of the public eye’.

The arrival of the Nazis altered this. In June 1935, a new amendment to paragraph 175 was put into force which extended the provisions of 1871 and made punishment more severe. From 1935, the issue was not merely ‘sex’ but ‘lewdness’ which meant, in essence, that acts as mild as kissing and masturbation could lead to arrest and imprisonment. Here is not the place to rehearse the acceleration of Nazi anti-homosexual persecution and the pink triangle, suffice to say that that is precisely what occurred. Imprisonment meant incarceration in work camps. By measure of prosecutions and convictions, the Nazi period was the worst time in twentieth century Germany to be gay (as it was to live otherwise from the state’s expected norms).

The division of Germany in two after the Second World War saw the opening up of two distinct approaches to the question of homosexuality, same-sex desire, and tolerance. In the East, the law outlawing homosexuality was barely used after legal reforms in 1957 and removed entirely after 1968. What remained was a prohibition on homosexual relations with minors, which remained in place until 1988. Legal provision, as has been illustrated in countless contexts, does not necessarily mean tolerance or lack of tolerance in wider society. Mary Fulbrook, in her work The People’s State summarises what was going on in the DDR by dividing the state’s forty year existence in two. ‘in the 1950s and 60s’, she writes, ‘gays and lesbians were generally perceived as “abnormal” or “ill”, there was a more liberal climate in the 1970s and 80s’.

A useful indicator of discussion around subjects is what made it into the press and when. Taking broad search terms such as ‘homosexuell’ and ‘schwul’ (a more contemporary term, admittedly) and ‘lesben’, online newspaper archives of the DDR press yield interesting information. By far the most active period for discussion of homosexuality in the press came in the late-1980s and early 1990s – paragraph 175 of the law code was expunged by unified Germany in 1994. It is perhaps not entirely a coincidence that the first major study of homosexuality in East Germany, Kurt Starke’s Schwuler Osten: Homosexuelle Männer in der DDR was published in 1994. Other peaks of discussion came in the late-1950s and early 1960s (in the context of legal reform). Following Dagmar Herzog, a leading historian of sexuality in Germany, it is possible to make a convincing case for viewing a ‘sexual evolution’ in the DDR from its establishment in 1949. For most of the period, party officials tied themselves in knots trying to avoid discussing homosexuality, and where they were confronted with it sought to alienate gays and lesbians from their neighbours and used ‘coercive psychotherapy’ to ‘treat’ young people found guilty of same-sex sexual activity. Not, of course, that this was much different to contemporary Britain.

But let us switch focus a little bit and turn to the primary source material (in this instance, the newspaper press). As was becoming common in Britain in the 1980s, advertising columns in the DDR press offer some indication as to the organisation of public gay and lesbian life at that time. For instance: an advert in Neue Zeit in early 1985 which drew attention to a public lecture by a priest on ‘stable partnerships’ which preceded a meeting of the church’s LGBT mission. This is perhaps quite striking, all the more so if we follow the traditional hostility of organised religion to homosexuality over the course of the twentieth century, but in the DDR – a secular, atheistic state, after all – the church provided a mechanism for living otherwise and resisting the insistences of the state. It went further than that, though, since formal organisation of a gay liberation movement was impossible within the political apparatus of the DDR, the Church provided (in the words of Mary Fulbrook) a ‘protective umbrella’. Certainly by the mid-1980s, LGBT missions were a regular feature of church activities in the DDR.

In Britain, the liberation movement that emerged after partial legalisation in England and Wales in 1967 led to greater visibility of gays and lesbians and wider understanding of their history. A similar trend is evident in East Germany in the 1980s. For example: if in the 1940s and 1950s, the DDR authorities had refused to officially recognise homosexual victims of Nazi oppression – the wearers of the pink triangle – by the 1980s, the liberation movement (under the auspices of the church) were openly discussing it and marking that phase in their history. Take this notice from 1986:

DIE VERFOLGUNG der Homosexuellen in der Nazizeit ist das Thema einer Veranstaltung am Sonntag in Gemindehaus der Bekenntnisgemeinde, Treptow…

The persecution of homosexuals under the Nazis is the subject of a meeting in the parish hall of the Confessional Church, Treptow (Berlin) […] on Sunday. (my, slightly loose, translation)

It’s easy to miss today, at a time of considerable visibility and legal equalities that the histories and memories of gay and lesbian people were long buried, and that the struggle for liberation involved acts of remembering as well as acts of declaration in the present day – such as rights marches. Meetings such as the one above were precisely about recall and recovery of the past.

Another mechanism for recovery was literature. The DDR prided itself on having no system of censorship and that there were no taboos (keine tabus) in novels and short stories and poetry published there. This was, of course, not at all true, there was a strong system of control over literature and other writing but it operated along the lines of self-censorship and careful playing of the structures by authors, publishers, and censors alike. The penetration of western literature into the DDR makes for endlessly fascinating analysis and there isn’t room in a blog like this to go into it in great detail. One way in, given the discussion at hand, is to look for an author whose writing contains obviously gay or lesbian material – in this instance, James Baldwin. By the time Baldwin’s famous novella Giovanni’s Room was published in the DDR in 1981, it had been available in West Germany in English and German for decades. The novel places same-sex desire at the forefront of its narrative and it therefore posed difficulties for the East German authorities. In common with the publication of western literature across the communist world, the book was accompanied by an afterword that guided readers in their appreciation of Baldwin’s ideas.

The censor’s report, held in the archives in Berlin, adds a further layer of complexity to the DDR edition of the novel. As it notes, Baldwin was hardly an unknown writer in East Germany by 1981 – a lot of his work had already been released there, including Another Country, but never his most sexually complex writing (Giovanni’s Room and Tell Me How Long the Train’s Been Gone). Indicative of shifting attitudes, the censor (Frau Pradel) remarks that Baldwin writes about ‘the problem of homosexuality’ with ‘sensitivity’ describing the difficulties posed both for the individual and for wider society. The afterword, written by the academic Bernhard Scheller, ranges widely across the themes of Baldwin’s writing, focuses in on the dominant ideas underpinning Giovanni’s Room, namely love and acceptance. Or, in the words of the East German, ‘love also means – solidarity’. The openness with which the submitted draft of the afterword discussed sexuality in Baldwin’s writing drew the attention of the censor and some of it is scored through. Fortunately, it is not scored through heavily and so can still be read. The preceding discussion focuses on sexual mores, the emergence of taboos, and ‘Victorian prudery’. The scored out section emphasises the link between this earlier moralism, the attitude of the Catholic Church that sex has only the purpose of procreation, and the needs of Nazi eugenic theory. This tied in with the wider views (shared by the New Left ‘make love not war’ generation in West Germany) that the Nazis were (in the words of Dagmar Herzog) ‘terribly sexually repressive’.

But what of ordinary lives and experiences? Clearly the availability of literature that spoke directly to being gay and lesbian made some difference, but that is only one aspect of living as a gay man or a lesbian woman. As elsewhere, this is a more difficult aspect of the past to uncover. The liberation meetings held in churches were one part of it, but meeting partners, understanding the coming out process, and more besides, that lies outside the realm of the press and ministries of culture. Certainly oral testimony points to the same kinds of meeting points – toilets, train stations, and so on – as evident in the west, and also the same degree of absent information. There was also an emerging network of gay bars and clubs. The early 1970s did see some progress, particularly in Berlin, where the HIB – Homosexuelle Interessengemeinschaft Berlin / Homosexual Interest Group – was established in 1973, the first gay liberation organisation in Eastern Europe. As Josie McLellan describes, ‘the HIB organized regular meetings, discussions, parties, social events, made films and lobbied the authorities for the recognition of gay and lesbian rights’. It was both a forerunner of the activities of the 1980s and much more than that. HIB took it upon themselves to balance the state’s refusal to discuss homosexuality and provide educational material (in the manner of the Campaign for Homosexual Equality in Britain) that helped LGBT people in East Germany to understand who they were. As is so often the case, there remains much more to be discovered!

I suppose, by way of finishing today’s blog with some pithy remarks, it remains the case that we still have something of a memory problem. Quite a lot can be revealed about the history of LGBT rights and LGBT liberation since the Second World War when we step back from national boundaries and look transnationally. East Germany, for all that it was ‘behind the iron curtain’ offers instructive parallels to what was going on in Britain, the United States, and other countries of west (such as Sweden) and east (such as the Soviet Union, Czechoslovakia, and Poland).  And yet, head into a bookshop on a British high street and very little of this will be apparent in what little there is available on the DDR for popular audiences. The popular revels in the gory details of oppression, which is supposed to make audiences in the west feel better about their own countries – aren’t we lucky to have avoided totalitarianism and communism. Perhaps it does, perhaps it doesn’t. But in the end history is about providing understanding and re-connecting with memories that have faded a bit. Perhaps by including a character such as Alex Edel in a mainstream television drama, a few more will wonder, just a little, about what else was going on in Deutschland 83.


I don’t normally add bibliography to blogposts, but since this is a field that I’m not expert in and is quite an interesting one all-round, I thought I’d draw attention to the following historians whose work has guided some of my thinking here.

Josie McLellan

Dagmar Herzog

Mary Fulbrook

Paul Betts

It goes without saying that none of them are responsible for anything but the snippets from their writing quoted above!