Historical research that will change our future

Interview with Karl-Heinz Steinle, Research Associate for the research project “LSBTTIQ in Baden and Württemberg: living environments, repression and persecution during the National Socialism era and in the Federal Republic of Germany” at the University of Stuttgart. The interview was conducted by Katharina Wilhelm and Nicole Bitter from the Vice Rectorate for Early Career Researchers and Diversity.

What is special about your research project?

The project was developed by the Institute for Contemporary History Munich/Berlin and the Federal Foundation Magnus Hirschfeld in 2014/2015, i.e. from two institutions that operate both in academic and non-academic spheres. This research project has a broad scope and will explore all living environments of LGBTTIQ people in Baden and Württemberg from 1919 to the 1970s. It covers geographical changes in Baden-Württemberg, the political upheavals and changes, and a section of the population that, until now, has never been the subject of such broad historiographical or academic research. What is unusual about the project title is the use of the terms "living environments", "repression", and "persecution" in connection with a democratic state, the Federal Republic of Germany. The project comprises three modules, each of which results in a study. One example is a recently published study by Dr. Julia Noah Munier "Lebenswelten und Verfolgungsschicksale homosexueller Männer in Baden und Württemberg im 20. Jahrhundert"

Karl-Heinz Steinle

When the research project began, no state in Germany had yet examined the entire region according to specific criteria, which not only makes our research project a pilot project, it also makes the University of Stuttgart a pioneer in this field. It is also unusual that, in addition to funding from the then Ministry of Science, the Ministry of Social Affairs and Integration also contributed initial funding for a website. This project website serves as a platform for exchanging non-university and university research: an important component of this is interviews with witnesses. These people were not the victims, but rather important protagonists and part of the country's history.

In the past, people in homosexual relationships did not refer to themselves as gay, lesbian, or bi. Why was that?

A person's individual story is an important component here. Generally, one can say that the terms were simply not known everywhere: the term "homosexual" only became widespread at the turn of the century and the terms "inter", "transgender" or "queer" didn't appear until much later. Many people simply didn't have a name for what they felt. Sources, for example from the National Socialism era, framed these people exclusively in a negative context and as a threat to the state, which is why many people did not refer to themselves with these terms, in order to protect themselves. Another factor is that they didn't perceive themselves as "dangerous to the state", they didn't equate themselves with the constructions that were being portrayed. And apart from that, at the time many people did not live out their sexual orientation at all.  If there is no unbiased or positive way of applying such a term to oneself in public discourse, many people live with a desire for which they have no name.

You distinguish between the history of gay men and lesbian women. What are the differences?

There are three levels here that intertwine. The first level is the general experiences of women and men in a patriarchal society. The second level is that, except for very brief periods in modern times, there was no legal punishment of lesbian love and same-sex sexual acts between women or people who define themselves as women, partly because it was not considered so dangerous to the state at the time. And the third level is that due in part to the fact that women were not punished for having sex with women, there are generally fewer sources that reference women. In our research project, the third module will focus on women, looking at, for example, which repressive laws we need to search for that disadvantaged women in this respect.

Which disciplines do you and your colleagues work with to adequately interpret sources?

That depends on the period we are focusing on. For example, if one knows that female and male homosexuality was considered a disease at certain times in Germany, and that simultaneously during these periods, aversion therapies were developed to "treat" these people, then this information can be used as preliminary research results or preliminary study results and the next step involves approaching the university clinics. In this case we would work together with various parties and a handful of new disciplines with whom a cooperation is worthwhile. When it comes to looking at all the forms of transsexuality, then plastic surgery facilities would also be a point of contact. Furthermore, it is always a good idea to get lawyers on board. For example, they might deal with the question of a different civil status gender entry, which exists in Germany since 2018. In principle, if you ask with which disciplines our work is intertwined, the answer is quite clear: with all of them.

Is there still a divide between gays and lesbians in society today?

The effects of this situation can still be felt in all archives and all institutions that are concerned with history in one form or another. I do believe that this is in a state of flux, but as a historian you tend to look at the past. That's why I'm interested in the links that connect the past with the present, and how historical research can lead to changes in the future. From my point of view, the self-perceptions and self-designations of lesbian women and gay men are, in many cases, so different that it is often difficult to compare them. In the last 10-15 years, however, we have also seen a fragmentation of the community, where individual groups have separated and sought their own spaces. In our presentation on October 21, 2021, at the University of Stuttgart, Dr. Julia Noah Munier and I will be speaking, amongst other things, about spaces for LBSTTIQ, about how rare and endangered they were for a long time, but also about the fact that today there are fewer common spaces for everyone, which of course would also allow people to get to know different people. Instead, there are now more spaces that are specifically dedicated to these groups. This is not just the case for gays, lesbians and trans people, but for society as a whole.

About Karl-Heinz Steinle

The slavist and historian Karl-Heinz Steinle is concerned with the question of the "New Man" in Social Realism in the former Soviet Union, or, more generally, public history and how research influences our lived reality. Steinle was Managing Director of the Schwules Museum in Berlin (a museum focusing on LGBTQ+ history and culture), and he was also involved in the development of the “Archivs der anderen Erinnerungen”, a project from the Federal Foundation Magnus Hirschfeld. Since 2015, initial interviews with contemporary witnesses have accompanied the preparations for the political discussion on the rehabilitation of men punished under §175 of the Criminal Code (StGB). The foundation works very closely with the Ministry of Justice, and with witnesses. At the University of Stuttgart, Karl-Heinz Steinle works as a research associate on the research project "LGBTTIQ in Baden and Württemberg: living environments, repression and persecution during the National Socialist era and in the Federal Republic of Germany". The letters stand for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transsexual, transgender, intersexual and queer.

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