This January marks the 80th anniversary of a landmark in our struggle: the first political speech ever given for homosexual rights. On 13 January 1898, the leader of the great German Social Democracy, August Bebel, took the floor of the Reichstag, during a discussion of penal code reform, to argue for a petition being circulated by the Scientific Humanitarian Committee calling for the repeal of Germany’s sodomy statute, Paragraph 175. The Scientific Humanitarian Committee (wissenschaftlich-humanitäre Komitée), the world’s first activist homosexual rights organization, was itself only nine months old at the time, having been founded on 15 May 1897 by Magnus Hirschfeld, Max Spohr, and Erich Oberg. The petition was the main tactic used by the Committee in its efforts to repeal Paragraph 175.
While he may not have been the first politician to support homosexual emancipation — before him we should at least have to give credit to Napoleon’s Chancellor, Cambacérès — Bebel so far as we know was the first to speak out in public debate.
No ordinary politician, August Bebel was co-founder of the German Social Democracy and was its foremost representative for more than forty years; he was the political heir of Marx and Engels, and one of the outstanding figures in the entire history of the working class movement. Under Bebel’s leadership, the German Social Democracy was looked upon as an exemplar and source of inspiration by socialists all over the world.
Bebel was one of the first four men to sign the Scientific Humanitarian Committee’s petition, which originally was in the form of a manifesto (the other three were Ernst von Wildenbruch, Richard von Krafft-Ebing, and Franz von Liszt). With the prestige of Bebel and the support of the Social Democracy behind it, the early homosexual rights activists were at least assured of a hearing, although their main goal, the repeal of Germany’s sodomy statute, was only to be realized seven decades later. The support of the Social Democracy for the homosexual emancipation movement continued for three and a half decades — until both movements were destroyed by the triumph of Nazism in 1933. and just as the socialists were the strongest (almost the only) supporters of homosexual rights, the most zealous opponents were to be found in the Center Party, the political arm of the Roman Church.
Bebel’s speech may seem rather tame, measured by the rhetoric and ideology of the present, but it was far in advance of the time, which was still under the pall of Victorianism. It is clear from the commotions and interruptions indicated on the record that Bebel’s remarks were thoroughly shocking to the ears of his colleagues.
A few days later, a Pastor Schall felt obliged to state his opposition to the Scientific Humanitarian Committee’s petition from the perspective of Christianity. He argued that the Apostle Paul, in his letter to the Romans, had treated the vice favored by the petition as one of the most heinous sins of the old paganism, and said he was totally unable to comprehend why so many famous people had signed the petition. The following comment by Pastor Schall is quite revealing: “I must admit having been profoundly shocked by these remarks of Herr Bebel — they has somehow upset me and thrown me into a deep depression.”
One thing Bebel’s colleagues found hard to believe, was his portrayal of the prevalence and extensiveness of homosexual activity. In 1907, Bebel, then elderly and ailing, recalled the incredulity some Reichstag members had expressed nine years before over his estimates as to the great numbers of homosexuals, and how he had been accused of exaggeration. In retrospect, Bebel maintained, he had not exaggerated — if anything he may have estimated too few! In light of the Kinsey findings, inter alia, Bebel was right: his 1898 estimates were far too conservative. However, for historical perspective, we should remember that the first great pioneer for homosexual rights, Karl Heinrich Ulrichs (1825-1895) had estimated that only 0.002% of the German population was homosexual, and many felt this estimate was too high. Also, at the time of the Oscar Wilde trial, there were otherwise informed men who believed that there could not possibly be more than a couple of dozen sodomites in the city of London.
The following is a translation from the stenographic record of the Reichstag proceedings:
Reichstag 16th Session Thursday, 13 January 1898
Vice-President Dr. Spahn: Representative Bebel has the floor.
Bebel: Representatives: Understandable is the position of those who, deeply offended by certain distasteful aspects of our public and private life, endeavor to make the fullest use of the criminal code to remedy these evils and wipe them off the face of the earth. My friends and I are also prepared to second a large number of the provisions which Dr. Spahn and his colleagues have proposed in the draft before us, but by no means all. On the one hand, this draft goes too far from our standpoint, and on the other, not far enough. In particular, once reform has been accomplished in this area, we should have to consider whether there may not be still other comparable provisions of our penal code that have at least as much right and as much need to be revised as the paragraphs here proposed.
Gentlemen, the penal code exists to be enforced — that is to say, so that the authorities who have the primary responsibility for maintaining compliance with and respect for the law should be dutifully watchful for violations and act accordingly. But there are provisions of our penal code, some of them contained in the motion before us, where the authorities, although fully aware that these provisions are systematically violated by a great number of people, men as well as women, only in the rarest cases bother to call for action on the part of the prosecutor. Here I have particularly in mind the section with the provisions of Paragraph 175 — it has to do with “unnatural fornication”. It will be necessary, if the Commission is elected — and I do urge that one be, because in my opinion this bill cannot become law without the Commission’s recommendation — that then the government of Prussia be specifically requested to remand to us certain material which the local Berlin vice squad has at its disposal, so that on the basis of an examination of the same, we may ask ourselves whether we can and should retain the section with the provisions of Paragraph 175, and, if we should, whether we should not have to expand them. I am informed by the best sources that the police of that city do not bring the names of men who commit offenses which Paragraph 175 makes punishable by imprisonment to the attention of the district attorney as seen as they have become aware of the fact, but rather add the names of the persons involved to the list of those who for the same reasons are already in their files. (Hear! Hear! [from the Left])
The number of these persons is so great and reaches so far into all levels of society, that if the police here scrupulously carried out their duty, the Prussian State would immediately be compelled to build two new penitentiaries just to take care of those offenses against Paragraph 175 that are committed in Berlin alone. (Commotion. Hear! Hear! )
That is not an exaggeration, Herr von Levetzow; it has to do with thousands of persons from all walks of life. But then it further raises the question of whether the provisions of Paragraph 175 should apply not only to men, but also to women who on their part commit the same offense. What is just in the case of one sex, is fair for the other. But gentlemen, I’ll tell you this: if in this area the Berlin police did their duty all the way — I want to say a word about this — then there would be a scandal such as the world have never known, a scandal compared with which the Panama scandal, the Dreyfus scandal, the Lützow-Ledert and the Tausch-Normann scandals are pure child’s play. Perhaps this is one of the reasons why the offense punishable under this Paragraph is treated with such extraordinary laxity on the part of the police. Gentlemen, Paragraph 175 is part of the penal code, and because it is there, it must be enforced. However, if for whatever reasons this part of the criminal law cannot be enforced, or can be enforced only selectively, then the question arises whether this provision of the penal code can equitably be retained. I wish to venture that in this very session — perhaps some of the gentlemen may not yet have taken note of it — we have before us a printed petition signed by me personally, among others, and by a number of colleagues from other parties, and further by people from literary and academic circles, by jurists of the most illustrious standing, by psychologists and pathologists, by experts of the highest rank in this field. The petition, for reasons that understandably I don’t wish to go into fully at this moment, advocated a revision of the penal code so as to repeal the relevant provisions of Paragraph 175.