Lesbian Activists in the German Democratic Republic and their Politics of Memory[I]
Maria Bühner is a PhD candidate at the Department for Cultural Studies, Leipzig University. Her project focuses on the subjectification of lesbians in the GDR and looks at politics of the lesbian rights movement, the psychiatric treatment of female homosexuality, as well as life stories, relationship practices and self-understandings. At Deutsches Hygiene-Museum Dresden she did research on the material culture of sexualities. Her research interests cover gender history, the history of sexualities, affect studies and material culture studies. Contact: email@example.com.
Introduction: Queering Memory
The search for and, sometimes the imagination of, a shared queer history and practices of commemoration have been constitutive practises for lesbian and gay emancipation movements since the 1970s. To feel and look backward helped them to form a collective identity and pushed the politicisation of homosexuality. A well-known, and still very visible, example for this is the transnational use of the pink triangle as a symbol of recognition for queers worldwide. I argue that, besides the Stonewall Riots, the persecution of queers during the Nazi era has been an important point of reference for queer memory cultures.
As a starting point I turn to Heather Love’s reflections on loss and the politics of queer history. In Feeling Backward she states: “Homosexual identity is indelibly marked by the effects of reverse discourse: on the one hand it continues to be understood as a form of damaged or compromised subjectivity; on the other hand, the characteristic forms of gay freedom are produced in response to this history.” Love argues that backward feelings like depression, shame and regret are essential for homosexual identities, that they stay with us even after things changed and that they are an essential part of queer culture and should therefore be included in our analysis. She also points our attention to the deep desire to form connections, analogies and genealogies across time: “The longing for community across time is a crucial feature of queer historical experience, one produced by the historical isolation of individual queers as well as by the damaged quality of the historical archive.”
With regards to Love I want to explore the politics of memory by lesbian activists in East Germany. I focus on the efforts of the East Berlin-based group Lesben in der Kirche (Lesbians in the Church) at the memorial site of the former Ravensbrück concentration camp in the mid-1980s. Founded in 1982 Lesben in der Kirche was the first and very influential separatist lesbian group founded in the German Democratic Republic (GDR). They understood lesbian as a political identity, were very feminist, and critical of the state. They were the first ones to publicly commemorate the lesbian victims of the Nazi persecution. This practice was rooted in their general interest in lesbian herstory and at the same time an attempt to make lesbians, their existence, and experiences in the past and the present (and/or for the future) visible. I am especially interested in the function of these commemorations for forming a shared collective memory as part of their identity politics that went hand in hand with a politicization of homosexuality and womanhood. Nevertheless, I argue that feeling backward and the longing for community across time and space are ambivalent in their practise and outcome.
The Marginalization of Lesbians in the GDR and their Activism
After suffering persecution and the destruction of their subculture during National Socialism, queers and their desires continued to remain socially marginalized in the GDR until the 1980s. There was hardly any representation, either positive or negative, of (female) homosexuality in the public sphere. Marginalisation and discrimination created an affective state that was characterised by isolation, fear, shame, confusion, depression, and sometimes even self-hate. Some did not even have a word to name their own desires and experienced great difficulties to find other like-minded queers.The formation of political groups can be understood as a reaction to this complicated affective state. Given the challenges that unofficial political movements faced in the GDR (such as being unable to freely assemble, publish literature, and form associations), the protection offered by the Protestant Church starting at the beginn of the 1980s was crucial for their activism because it offered the only semipublic and nongovernmental space where political activists in the GDR could gather.
During the 1980s more than 20 homosexual activist groups were founded. In most of the groups people of different genders worked together, but some exclusively lesbian and gay groups also emerged. Their regular meetings provided a space for meeting other queers, discussing one’s experiences and feelings. Supported by exchanges with activists from other countries, these groups sought to make sense of the negative emotions that many experienced. Consciousness-raising meetings became an important political practise. Talking and writing about their experiences and feelings helped participants to see their lives in a broader perspective and to transform their emotions, not at least because groups offered support and ideas of a positive self-understanding. Another important practise of the groups were regular visits to the memorial sites of the former concentration camps Sachsenhausen, Buchenwald, and Ravensbrück.
For the lesbian activists Ravensbrück was especially interesting since mainly women had been imprisoned in the concentration camp: about 123.000 of which around 25.000 were murdered there. After the foundation of the GDR in 1949 Ravensbrück quickly became an important national memorial site. In the official political understanding the GDR was an anti-fascist state founded by the communists that had been persecuted by the Nazis. Therefore, the sites of the former concentration camps were transformed into national memorial sites to remember the communist resistance fighters as the victims of fascism and to stage the power of the ruling Socialist Unity Party of Germany on a regular basis. Ravensbrück was the place to commemorate especially the female communists that had fought against fascism. Other groups like the jewish inmates, the so called asocial and criminal prisoners, romani people, homosexual men and lesbian women were not included in the official memory culture that became permanently manifested in the architecture of the memorial site and the huge memorials that took place every year.
Since Ravensbrück was a place of such great political significance to visit and commemorate the lesbian victims of the Nazi persecution meant nothing less than to make the existence of lesbians in the past and the present highly visible and to seek for public attention. This was one reason for the Lesben in der Kirche to visit Ravensbrück several times in the mid-1980s. Before they visited Ravensbrück in 1984 for the first time, they wrote to the archive and asked to see files of prisoners. In their letter they wrote: “You will wonder, why do we collect all this information? We are women, and we have a past, a history that should be reviewed, and especially processed to develop our emancipation and our self-understanding further.”
At their regular meetings lesbian herstory was a recurring topic throughout the decade. Their main sources of information were two books: The exhibition catalogue “Eldorado. Homosexuelle Frauen und Männer in Berlin 1850-1950. Geschichte, Alltag und Kultur” on gays and lesbians in Germany covering the period 1850-1950 and “Berlins lesbische Frauen” by Ruth Margarete Roellig — a description of lesbian bars in Berlin from the 1920s. Their collective memory was focused on the 1920s as a golden era and the destruction of this subculture by the Nazis. The Stonewall Riots were not part of their shared narrative. Their knowledge on the actual situation of lesbians during the Nazi era remained very limited since back then there was hardly any state of research to back up their assumptions. A situation that changed in the meantime.
10th of March 1984, Lesben in der Kirche visited the memorial site Ravensbrück and followed the traditional protocol of a group visit: They had a guided tour, laid down their wreath, and wrote in the visitor’s book: “Our remembrance is for all those women who lost their lives in the concentration camp Ravensbrück and suffered, especially our lesbian sisters. We also commemorate all those women who are still suffering from fascism and oppression today. Working Group Homosexual Self-Help — Lesbians in the Church.”
The ribbon of the wreath and their entry were both signed with their group name — despite the fact that given the restrictive laws their group was illegal. During the tour they noticed a sign that listed the different categories of prisoners but missed the pink triangle.
Also in the years to come the group used the phrase “lesbian sisters” to refer to the persecuted lesbians. This sisterhood was and remained an imagined one since at this time not a single lesbian prisoner was known by name. Their idea of a lesbian sisterhood expressed their deep wish to form a connection across time and embraces a different, in this case lesbian, idea of kinship that was not bound to blood. The people who were active in the lesbian movement were mainly younger women. There are no contacts documented between them and older women who might have been persecuted by the Nazis.
Their actions in Ravensbrück did cause a reaction by the state authorities. The director of the memorial site informed the Secret State Security Police beforehand which lead to an observation of the visit. Later the wreath and the entry in the visitor’s book were taken away. Two members of group returned a few days later and noticed that. They took a picture of the empty spot were they had laid down their wreath. This photography is very interesting because it documents absence, loss, and invisibility. By doing so it captures a common experience of queer historical experience. The group decided to write a petition to the Ministry of Cultural Affairs and informed the general superintendent of the Protestant Church. Both actions had no satisfying outcome for the group.
That is why they decided to participate in the official ceremony that took place at the fortieth anniversary of the liberation of the concentration camp in 1985. That was a memorial of great political significance. But when the group arrived at the train station in Fürstenberg they were extracted from the crowd by the police, confined in a lorry, verbally and physically abused by the policemen, then held in custody, and questioned. They were eventually released when the memorial was over. Afterwards the group protested against this treatment: Again they wrote petitions, this time to the Ministry of the Interior, and they also met up with Emmy Handke, the head of the GDR Ravensbrück Committee, and Anni Sindermann, the head of the international Ravensbrück Committee. Both women had been imprisoned in Ravensbrück and reacted rather defensive concerning a lesbian commemoration at Ravensbrück.
Nevertheless, the protest of the group turned out to be successful in the end: They received a verbal apology from the Ministry of the Interior, and in September 1985 around 80 people from peace, environmental, feminist, and other homosexual activist groups joined Lesben in der Kirche for a commemoration in Sachsenhausen. The Secret State Police continued to observe the groups and the commemorations, but there were no more violent interventions. In 1986 Lesben in der Kirche returned again to Ravensbrück, and this time they had a guided tour by the new director and could see that the meaning of the pink triangle was now explained. Once again the signed the guest book.
The precarious status of lesbian subjects within memory cultures
The precarious status of lesbian subjects within memory cultures turned out to be rather productive in the case of Lesben in der Kirche when it came to identity politics and networking. The commemorations were less acts of grieving but rather rooted in identity politics. Commemorating was a political practise that marked Ravensbrück a place of lesbian herstory. Their politics of memory helped them to create a shared lesbian memory that stabilised their collective lesbian identity because as Stuart Hall puts it: “Identities are formed at the unstable point where the ‚unspeakable‘ stories of subjectivity meet the narrative of history, of a culture.” Looking backward helped them to get a better understanding of the reasons for their discrimination. Their underlying conception of lesbian herstory focused on lesbians as victims. The activists stressed parallels between past and present forms of discrimination, hence ignoring to a certain extend the differences between those who they were remembering and themselves. This is what I call the ambivalence of feeling backward — to forget the differences while drawing analogies in the desire to form connections across time and space.
Without question lesbians in the GDR faced discrimination, sometimes surveillance, and persecution, but not in the same way as queers did during the Nazi era. Besides. They did not think about the possible existence of lesbian perpetrators during the Nazi era. The historian Claudia Schoppmann asks whether this perceived collective status as victims is supposed to strengthen one’s own identity. She critically questions the illusion that lesbians (and the same can be said for other queers) have always been on the right side of history.
Nevertheless, it is important to point out that Lesben in der Kirche were important forerunners in terms of highlighting the persecution of lesbians during the NS — which up until then had been invisible and mostly untold. Until today the questions of whether and how to remember this in Ravensbrück remain contested. The debates in the last years were centred around a memorial sign for the lesbian victims which is still not erected.
[I] This article was first presented at the conference “Stonewall 50 Years On!”, Manchester Metropolitan University, 6th of November 2019. An in-depth discussion of the commemorations in Ravensbrück can be found in my article “Die Kontinuität des Schweigens. Das Gedenken der Ost-Berliner Gruppe Lesben in der Kirche in Ravensbrück”. I would like to thank Bettina Dziggel for the permission to use her photographies and for the conversations we shared.
Cite this article: Maria Bühner, “The Ambivalence of Feeling Backward: Lesbian Activists in the German Democratic Republic and their Politics of Memory”, in: History | Sexuality | Law, 31/03/2021, https://hsl.hypotheses.org/1632, (abgerufen am: Datum).
- FFBIZ. Das feministische Archiv & Spinnboden Lesbenarchiv
- “Die Verständigung war einfach schwierig.” Kontakte zu Frauen im Westen, 1980er Jahre, interview with Marinka Körzendörfer as part of the project Berlin in Bewegung, URL: https://www.meta-katalog.eu/Record/35750ffbiz.
- “Wir sollen die Opfer des Faschismus nicht beleidigen.” Aktionen in der KZ-Gedenkstätte Ravensbrück, 1984-1985, interview with Marinka Körzendörfer as part of the project Berlin in Bewegung, URL: https://www.meta-katalog.eu/Record/35750ffbiz.
- Robert-Havemann-Gesellschaft Sammlung GrauZone
- Kenawi, Samirah (2003) Zeigen wir uns, damit man uns nicht verleugnen kann. Die Lesben in der Kirche Berlin, unpublished manuscript.
- RHG/GZ/A1/39, Lesben in der Kirche, petition to the Ministry of the Interior, 3rd of March 1985.
- RHG/GZ/A1/1444, Lesben in der Kirche (1985), description of the experiences at the attempted commemoration.
- RHG/GZ/A1/1444, Lesben in der Kirche, memory minutes and partly transcript from 31st of May 1985, 1 until 2.30 pm of a discussions concerning our petition from 3rd of May 1985. RHG/GZ/A1/1444, Lesben in der Kirche (1984) letter to the head of the archive in Ravensbrück.
- Sammlungen Mahn- und Gedenkstätte Ravensbrück der Stiftung Brandenburgische Gedenkstätten
- MGR/StGB, RAV-VA_7, letter from Bienert to the department of museums and cultural heritage preservation, 12th of March 1984.
- MGR/StGB, 7-86 A 2012/95, guest book November 1985-April 1986.
 See Jensen, The Pink Triangle and Political Consciousness, pp. 319-349.
 Love, Feeling Backward, p. 2.
 See ibid., pp. 7–9
 Ibid, p. 37.
 See Bühner, „[W]ir haben einen Zustand zu analysieren, der uns zu Außenseitern macht“, pp. 111-131.
 See Bühner, How to remember Invisibility. Documentary Projects on Lesbians in the German Democratic Republic as Archives of Feelings, pp. 241-265.
 See Bühner, The Rise of a New Consciousness, pp. 151-173.
 See Eschebach, Die Frauen von Ravensbrück, pp. 149, 152; Beßmann/Eschebach, Das Frauen-Konzentrationslager Ravensbrück, pp. 11. 239.
 See Eschebach, Öffentliches Gedenken, pp. 135-162; Eschebach, Queere Gedächtnisräume, p. 52.
 Robert-Havemann-Gesellschaft (RHG)/GrauZone (GZ)/A1/1444, Lesben in der Kirche (1984) letter to the head of the archive in Ravensbrück. The translation is mine.
 See „Die Verständigung war einfach schwierig.“ Kontakte zu Frauen im Westen, 1980er Jahre, interview with Marinka Körzendörfer as part of the project Berlin in Bewegung, https://www.meta-katalog.eu/Record/35750ffbiz.
 See the Bibliography on lesbian and trans women in Nazi Germany by Anna Hájková for the state of the art.
 See Schmidt, Lesben und Schwule in der Kirche, p. 216.
 RHG/GZ/A1/1444, Lesben in der Kirche, petition to the culture secretary Hans-Joachim Hoffmann, 20th of March 1984, cited by Kristine Schmidt, Lesben und Schwule in der Kirche, p. 216.
 See Karstädt/Zitzewitz, …viel zuviel verschwiegen, p. 168, emphasis in the original.
 See Mahn- und Gedenkstätte Ravensbrück/Stiftung Brandenburgische Gedenkstätten, RAV-VA_7, letter from Bienert to the department of museums and cultural heritage preservation from 12th of March 1984.
 See Schmidt, Lesben und Schwule in der Kirche, p. 218.
 See RHG/GZ/A1/39, Lesben in der Kirche, petition to the Ministry of the Interior, 3rd of March 1985.
 See Karstädt/Zitzewitz, …viel zuviel verschwiegen, p. 170.
 See RHG/GZ/A1/1444, Lesben in der Kirche, memory minutes and partly transcript from 31st of May 1985, 1 until 2.30 pm of a discussions concerning our petition from 3rd of May 1985.
 See Kenawi, Zeigen wir uns, damit man uns nicht verleugnen kann, p. 87.
 See RHG/GZ/A1/1444, Lesben in der Kirche (1985), description of the experiences at the attempted commemoration.
 See Hark, Vom prekären Status lesbischer* Identitäten im Feld der Erinnerungspolitiken.
 Hall, The Minimal Selves, p. 44.
 See Schoppmann, Spärliche Spuren, p. 106.
 See Warnecke, Gedenkkugel für KZ Ravensbrück.