Before the storm

In 1898, Magnus Hirschfeld circulated a petition to abolish [Paragraph 175]. He obtained the signatures of prominent writers, lawyers, politicians, and church dignitaries. The petition was discussed in the Reichstag and rejected. Only the Social Democratic Party, under the guidance of August Bebel, pleaded the reform. Most deputies were outraged and did not hide their abhorrence.

All the old arguments of the past were marshaled: homosexuality corrupts a nation; it breaks the moral fiber of the citizens; it is un-Germanic; it is connected with dangerously corrosive left-wing and Jewish elements (this from the right), or it is typical of the dissolute aristocracy and high bourgeoisie (this from the left). Above all, the spread of homosexual behavior would lead to Germany's decline, just as it has always spearheaded the ruin of great empires. Such arguments, recycled and sometimes imbued with Himmler's special brand of crackpot fanaticism, would later reappear in numerous Nazi directives.

Despite the setback in 1898, Hirschfeld refused to give up. Soon afterwards, he issued one of his many pleas for understanding, an appeal entitled What People Should Know about the Third Sex. By the outbreak of WWI, more than 50,000 copies had been distributed. Hirschfeld's tireless efforts, while in many respects enlightened, nevertheless did much to establish the notion of homosexuals as a medicaly defined, vulnerable, and official minority.

Like many turn-of-the-century psychiatrists, he wanted legal punishment to be replaced by treatment of patients who deserved to be pitied and helped rather than censured and ignored. He followed the conventions of his time when he sought the key to homosexuality by measuring the circumferences of male pelvises and chests in an attempt to define a physiologically recognizable "third sex."

Only after the Nazis had turned his lifework into ashes did he concede that, on the one hand, he had failed to prove that homosexuals were characterized by distinct and measurable biological and physiological qualities and that, on the other hand, he had unwittingly deepened popular prejudices by endowing male homosexuals with "feminine" characteristics. This had only served to confirm the prevailing assumption that because homosexuals were "not really men," they were therefore inferior.

The notion of homosexuals as "basically different" permitted the left as well as the right to revile them whenever it was politically expedient to do so. The very word homosexual could be used as an epithet and a term of opprobrium.

Source: The Pink Triangle, Richard Plant, Henry Holt and Company, Inc., 1986.

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