Monday 15 May 2017

Four Founding Fathers

You could say that 15th may is the birthday of the modern lgbt rights movement, because on this day in 1897 the Wissenschaftlich-humanitäres Komitee (Scientific-Humanitarian Committee) was formed, often abbreviated to WhK, which is what I’ll do because the full name is a bit of a mouthful. The WhK is regarded as the first public lgbt rights organisation in history (there had been several private or secret organisations before this). In this 120th anniversary year of its foundation let’s celebrates the work of its four founders.

Magnus Hirschfeld (1868-1935) is the most well-known of the WhK members. It was he who gathered a few friends in his apartment the day after his birthday to suggest the formation of this new organisation. But while Hirschfeld’s name became famous, that of the other three men in that apartment are less well known, so let’s bring them forward so we can celebrate all of them together.

Perhaps the man who ranks second in the foundation of the WhK is Max Spohr (1850-1905). He was a successful publisher in Leipzig, the centre of the publishing industry in imperial Germany. He bought out several smaller publishing companies and built up his own business to the extent to which he could move into a very specialised and controversial area – sex.

Spohr was one of the early advocates for sexual freedom of all types. He pioneers the publication of sex education books and on several occasions was prosecuted for publishing obscene material. The majority of his books dealt with the subject of contraception. Most of his authors wrote under pen-names to protect them from prosecution.

In 1893 Spohr began adding books on homosexuality to his catalogue. It was these books which attracted Magnus Hisrchfeld, who had tried unsuccessfully to find a publisher for his pamphlet “Sappho and Socrates”. Spohr published the pamphlet in 1896 under Hirschfeld’s pen-name Th Ramen. This was the start of a very strong friendship between the two. Max Spohr was not gay, but he supported Hirschfeld in his campaigns. He welcomed the opportunity to help co-found the WhK in 1897.

In 1903 he learnt he had cancer. He passed the publishing business over to his brother and died the following year. After his death the company declined. Gradually the emphasis on sex education was replaced by genealogy and history. The company finally went out of business in 1942. Max Spohr’s publishing legacy was recognised in 2001 when a street in Leipzig was named after him, and his legacy to equality was recognised the same year when the German lgbt group Völklinger Kries founded the Max Spohr Prize, which is awarded to a German company which has shown excellence in diversity employment.

It was Max Spohr who introduced Magnus Hirschfeld to the most shadowy of the four founding fathers of the WhK, Eduard Oberg (1858-1917). Eduard was one of the people Hirschfeld invited to his apartment on 15th May 1897 to discuss the formation of the organisation.

Oberg was a railway official. When the WhK was established in Berlin Oberg was working for the Royal Prussian State Railway in Hanover so had taken a less active role in the first pioneering days of the organisation. However, he did contribute financially. When he retired from the railways in 1910 he became chairman of the WhK in Berlin. He never married and died in 1917.

The fourth founding father is perhaps the most contradictory. Not because he was heterosexual or turned homophobic but because his personal views on racial supremacy was to typify the later Nazi regime which left a scar on the 20th century. This man’s name was Franz Vollrath Karl Wilhelm Josef von Bülow (1861-1915). With a name like that you won’t be surprised to learn that he had aristocratic ancestry.

Von Bulow’s father was chamberlain to the Grand Duchy of Mecklenburg and an ambassador to the Imperial German parliament in Frankfurt. He became an officer in the Prussian army and then entered the German colonial service.

Germany as a unified nation was quite young in the 1890s, less than 50 years old. The old patchwork of independent duchies, principalities and kingdoms had unified with the Prussian king as emperor. Germany felt they were lagging behind other European nations in world colonisation so spread its imperial wings into south-west Africa, amongst other places. Franz von Bülow travelled to the new German African colony and spent 3 years studying its people and neighbouring British colonies. He came back to write a book on what he regarded as the primitive, animalistic tribes he encountered, which he hinted were inferior and should be exterminated. This was a common view among German colonials.

After being blinded in one eye in a hunting accident von Bülow returned to Germany, wrote his book, and became acquainted with Magnus Hirschfeld. Thus he was invited to that meeting in the apartment in 1897. Like Oberg, von Bülow primarily supported the WhK financially and he doesn’t appear to have been an active campaigner. The following year he married, but that didn’t last more than 12 months. In 1900 he moved to Venice (homosexuality wasn’t illegal in Venice). On the outbreak of World War I he returned to Germany and he died in his mother’s house in Dresden in 1915.
These were the other three founding fathers who supported Magnus Hirschfeld’s pioneering Wissenschaflich-Humanitäres Komitee. Hirschfeld persuaded many influential Germans and others to add their support to his campaign, including such luminaries as Albert Einstein and Leo Tolstoy. While Hirschfeld’s reputation and legacy grew, that of his three fellow founders lingered in the shadows. I hope I’ve helped to bring them further into the light.

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