„Hannelore“ that was a woman. I can tell you: „someone entrusted me that she has a groom and a bride“. „Hannelore“ is one of the most famous songs of Berlin Cabaret star Claire Waldorff who was an open lesbian and one of the most successful cabaret singers in the early 1900s. Even though the song was not only played in lesbian bars, most people there understood a bit better what Claire Waldorff did say between the lines.
Born in Gelsenkirchen as Clara Wortmann, she moved to Berlin after finishing school in 1903 and got her first engagement at the famous Roland theatre in 1908, in her first appearance she wore an Etonboy-suit. Claire Waldorff’s – most of the songs she did not write herself – sang in a harsh Berlin dialect and with quite a sarcastic connotation. Titles like “Ach was sind die Männer dumm” (Oh how stupid are the men) and “Wegen Emil seine dämliche Lust” (Because of Emil and his silly lust), where she quite early criticised cosmetic surgery, were popular tunes, her theatre appearances during the 1920s a box office success. Not only did she wear trousers and short hair, she also smoked and cursed on stage.
Ach was sind die Männer dumm
Wegen Emil seine dämlich Lust,1929:
After 1933, when the Nationalsocialists came to power, many cabaret and theatre stars left Germany. Not so Claire Waldorff. What she did after 1933 is not very well documented, but it is told she was arrested at least once and for some time was not allowed to work any longer. In her own autobiography she does not tell a lot about it. What became a problem for her was not only that she had worked in the “Rote Hilfe”, a communist organisation, but also her open relationship with Olga von Roeder, daughter of US-American actors. In the 1920s these two had not only been famous in the lesbian nightlife of Berlin, they had also founded a cultural-political salon to discuss with other lesbians.
In 1935 an international press release lead to quite a turmoil, on June, 7th various newspapers wrote that after being arrested Claire Waldorff had killed herself. But Claire Waldorff was quite alive and in comparison to other lesbians fared quite well under the Nazi regime. Until 1944 she stood on the stage even though now and then she had a few problems with authorities.
Lesbian women under the Nazi reign is quite a difficult topic: Even more than 60 years after the end of WW II there are still chapters in history undiscovered, victims never mentioned or nearly forgotten. Among them are gays and lesbians who found themselves under oppression and in case of gay men systematic persecution. But while men are today accepted as NS victims, lesbian women never fully gained this status. The reasons for that are various but one of the main might be the persecution of lesbian women had never been systematic and there are only a very few historical documents scientists can today rely on.
So concerning Lesbian women under Nazi rule there are still many unanswered questions. Or as Claudia Schoppmann put it in her book “Zeit der Maskierung” (English: “Days of Masquerade”): The stories of these women are still uncovered, a “forgotten and suppressed page in the darkest chapter of German history” (page 9). Claudia Schoppmann is next to Ilse Kokula one of the few if not the only German historian who dedicates her research to this topic.
Homosexuality under the National Socialists was considered an unnatural behaviour disturbing the sexual morality. It was the agenda that women conceived healthy Aryan children for the German Volk, an idea that was in their opinion undermined by homosexuality. But stigmatizing homosexuals was not as easy as it was with other minorities: Contrary to some people’s belief lesbians were not some kind of men-women, they were not that easy to detect and to characterize with stereotypes and prejudices as for example the Jewish minority or members of the Communist party.
Instead of persecuting homosexual women the idea was to change women back to “normal”, because, so the belief, only two per cent of them had a homosexual predisposition, the rest were only confused and could be brought back on the right way. That was a treatment quite different from that of homosexual men, 50,000 of them were convicted after paragraph 175 StGB (penal code), approximately 10,000 to 15,000 were deported into concentration camps.
This different treatment of men and women resulted from a peculiar judgment of men’s and women’s sexuality and character: while men were seen as the dominant part in a relationship women were seen as subordinate and naturally dependent on the man – especially considering their sexuality. This argument was also used to justify the different treatment in the penal law.
When in the 1930s a commission discussed to expand the penal code to homosexual women as well that was the main argument against it. While homosexual men were lost to the propagation, for homosexual women that would not entirely be the case. And according to the humble role women played in society there would be no real danger for the public order, the commission voted. Claudia Schoppmann cites this verdict in her book “Days of Masquerade”. Another argument was that a homosexual woman was not completely lost to men und could still be used according to the population policy to create offspring. Unless homosexual men who wasted their semen on other men, women would always be prepared to have sex – no matter how often they have slept with a woman, so the idea of the commission. An argument that could easily have been interpreted as an appeal for systematic rape. The birthrate was essential for the German war machinery – new soldiers were needed and more women to birth them as well.
Still there were other who argued to criminalise homosexual women because they were “rassezersetzend” (disintegrating the race), “rasseentartend” (degenerating the race) and “volksbedrohend” (a threat to the nation).
For homosexual women, who could have lived their lives rather undisturbed in the Republic of Weimar, now a time of hardship began. Even though they were never directly prosecuted the pressure on unmarried women grew bigger every day. It was a pressure felt by every woman without a husband, whether she was a lesbian, did not find the right partner or was indeed quite happy with her single life. The propaganda against unmarried women lead many homosexual women to marry in a fake-marriage after 1933, some to homosexual men to give them protection as well and to be safe from an unwanted pregnancy. According to Claudia Schoppmann about 1.4 million lesbian women made that step.
Even certain habits in clothing or a certain haircut could lead to discrimination. Therefore some who until 1933 had dressed in a rather free style wearing trousers, shirts and boots and cut their hair in the famous “Bubikopf” style came back to a fashion that was considered more appropriate for women – only to avoid open discrimination and hatred.
One of the first acts of the Nazis was to close down homosexual associations. Such so-called “Damenclubs” (ladies clubs) were famous during the 1920s. The Berlin Damenclub Violetta for example had about 400 members, her chair member Lotte Hahm was later imprisoned and tortured by the Nazis, charged for being in possession of communist propaganda material. The “Bund für Menschenrechte”, the biggest association for homosexuals in the Republic of Weimar, had 48,000 members and brought out the lesbian magazine “Die Freundin” (The female-friend), one of the first newspapers the Nazis forbade. Next to articles about homosexuality and politics the newspaper had also published small ads and a preview of recent events.
But even though ladies clubs were closed down some of them reopened in secret. One of the women Claudia Schoppmann has interviewed for her book explained that a friend of hers, who had such a club, always put a sign outside declaring it to be a closed society. But especially after 1938 the clubs were searched more often. Perhaps it was due to the Nazis systematic persecution and later deportation of Jews after the Nuremberg laws that made them also look deeper into lesbian social circles.
Being a lesbian for many women was perhaps not the main problem, but many of them had been political active in the Republic of Weimar. And being a Jew and lesbian at the same time could increase the problems, as the following example shows:
Even though the time between 1933 and 1945 is often featured in German movies and television, the Nazi’s hunt on lesbian women never became part of popular culture. But there is one popular movie that is well known beyond the feuilletons, telling the story of two women in love during the Nazi reign: “Aimee & Jaguar”. The movie does not mainly focus on the relationship between two women but on that between a dedicated housewife married to a Nazi and a Jewish lesbian bon vivant. “Aimee & Jaguar” is based on a true story and – so much I dare to tell – does not have a happy ending.
One oft the women in Schoppmanns book who was always called Johnny by her friends described how her Jewish friend Margot was arrested. Margot was later set free again, possibly due to bribery. Johnny described Margot’s experience like that: „Was sie erzählt hat – die Nazis haben die Juden in den Bauch getreten, hinterher haben sie sie vergewaltigt, alles solche Sachen. Es war grauenvoll.“ („What she had told – the Nazis have kicked the Jews in the stomach, later they have raped her, all these things. It was terrible.“) Johnny hit Margot half a year from the Gestapo – the political police.
Those lesbian women deported to a concentration camp mostly because of their political or Jewish background but also for asocial behaviour or in some cases “Wehrkraftzersetzung” (undermining military strength) were often forced into prostitution, because the Nazis thought making them have sex with enough men would also switch and correct their sexual orientation. There are no documents left proving that practise but contemporary witnesses told about these camp brothels later.
Far more lucky was Claire Waldorff, the cabaret heroine from the beginning of this article, even though again she came into conflict with the system when people began to create an addition to her song „Hermann“, that was from the beginning often referred to Reichsmarschall Hermann Göring – a leading member of the Nazi Party:
„Rechts Lametta, links Lametta,
und der Bauch wird immer fetta
und in Preußen ist er Meester –
Herrmann heeßt er!
Translated into English that means something like this: „Tinsel to the right, tinsel to the left, and the stomach’s growing fat, and in Prussia he is master, Hermann he was called there.” Hermann Göring forbid Claire Waldorff to sing the song even though she had not even texted the additional verse. In Berlin it became hard for her to get an engagement after 1936, but until 1943 her appearances can be proved, in January 1942 even in the occupied Paris. After the war Claire Waldorff lived together with her girlfriend Olga von Roeder quite secluded, she died in 1957 aged 72.
Even though there have been famous women like Claire Waldorf, lesbian women are until today often forgotten victims because their discrimination continued after 1945 in the young Bundesrepublik. Some who tried to get compensation for the pain they endured never got the status as victim of the Nazi-era – because officially they never had been prosecuted and because prejudices against homosexual women still did exist marking their behaviour as a shame for the real victims of fascism, as a judge declared in a case of two Jewish women who had survived Auschwitz but lived together in a homosexual relationship after the war. And that is why there are only a very few personal testimonials of lesbians who told their story of oppression.
Others perhaps saw themselves more like Hilde Radusch (1903 -1994), who was in prison 1933 for being a member oft the communist party. In „Zeit der Maskierung“ she is cited: „Ich habe mich nie als ‚Opfer‘ betrachtet, sondern immer als ‚Kämpferin‘.“ (page 42) – „I have never seen myself as a victim, but always as a fighter.“
Claudia Schoppmann’s book “Zeit der Maskierung” came out in an English translation in 1996: “Days of Masquerade: Life Stories of Lesbian Women During the Third Reich (Between Men-Between Women: Lesbian & Gay Studies), Columbia University Press”. The above cited pages refer to the German edition.
Hello. I enjoyed your write-up and am wondering if you’re familiar with the 1985 film November Moon? Although set in, I believe, Lyon, it’s very gripping tale of lesbian love and, um, retraining of the persecuted protagonist. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OZNEpq1R7aI
I have never seen the movie, but the trailer looks really interesting. Thank you for the recommendation.