ResearchAftereffects of National Socialism: Women who Loved Women in the German Southwest

Press Release No. 47/2023
28 April 2023

Interdisciplinary research project rediscovers lesbian life worlds in the period from 1945 to the 1980s

What aftereffects did National Socialism have on women attracted to women after 1945? This is the focus of an interdisciplinary research project being carried out by academics from the universities of Heidelberg and Freiburg. With the aid of lesbian biographies, they want to explore whether and to what extent the aftermath of Nazi dictatorship is to be seen as a radical change for lesbian life worlds. This involves devoting themselves to the urgent task of securing contemporary testimonies from lesbian women in southwest Germany. They are intended to span the immediate post-war period to the early 1980s. The Baden-Württemberg science ministry is funding the project, under the leadership of Prof. Dr Katja Patzel-Mattern and Prof. Dr Karen Nolte (Heidelberg) and Prof. Dr Sylvia Paletschek (Freiburg), at a cost of approximately 660,000 euros for two years.

Through the research project “Between Invisibility, Repression and Lesbian Emancipation – Women loving Women in the German Southwest from 1945 to the 1980s” the researchers aim to reveal not only the aftereffects of National Socialism but also the hitherto unresearched everyday life of homosexual women, the conditions in which they lived and the political beginnings of the lesbian movement. The project continues a preceding project that was also funded by the science ministry and concerned itself with lesbian life worlds between 1920 and 1945. It is divided into three sub-projects that link up with the content of the research results. “Our studies have shown that women who did not match the contemporary norms of femininity were also sanctioned in the German Southwest – through social contempt, supervision by the authorities and forced medical intervention. And yet women defied the repression in all political systems and led their lives beyond the hetero norm,” emphasises Prof. Patzel-Mattern. “We now intend to deepen these aspects by giving those concerned a voice through interviews with contemporary witnesses and, in that way, saving their experiences as an important part of the history of the Federal Republic of Germany.”

Using biographies of lesbian women in politics, society and culture, Prof. Paletschek and Muriel Lorenz from the Department of History at the University of Freiburg want to highlight the performance and achievements of women in these fields who were attracted to women and did not live by hetero norms. Prof. Patzel-Mattern and Elena Mayeres, who follows Mirijam Schmid as project co-worker, are investigating perceptions of the hetero norm, which defines heterosexuality as the social norm, and its legal enforcement. In particular, they are examining the criticisms to which women, mothers, girls and daughters were exposed if they did not live by this norm. The researchers work at the Department of History at Heidelberg University. Prof. Nolte und Steff Kunz will reconstruct the way female homosexuality was documented in psychiatric hospitals and the extent to which, after 1945, there was a break in dealing with non-heteronormative women in psychiatric institutions. They belong to the Institute for Medical History and Ethics at Ruperto Carola.

For the National Socialist period in the preceding project, the oral history method of interviewing contemporary witnesses – that is, conducting open interviews focusing on memories and biographical history – was no longer possible. However, this can still work for the post-war period up until the early 1980s, and it is urgent since this generation has meanwhile reached a considerable age, too. The researchers are therefore looking for contemporary witnesses to serve as interview partners for the research project.

The project is supported by the Office for Equal Opportunity of the City of Heidelberg, which is, amongst other things, financing an accompanying series of events. The series is being put together in cooperation between the research institutions concerned, the Queer Festival, the round table on sexual and gender diversity, and the LGBTIQ+ coordination centre.