29 July 2014. Hirschfeld’s Queer Soldiers, Colonialism and World War I

The commemorations of the 100th anniversary of the start of World War I have turned fresh attention to this devastating event, which is commonly understood as one of the defining moments of the twentieth-century.

Scholarship on WW1 is changing. Kate McLoughlin’s recent Authoring War, for instance, which examines a long history of war writing, looks across national boundaries to identify shared themes and concerns which characterise how writers recorded war. Other scholarshiScreen Shot 2014-07-29 at 13.05.27p follows in the footsteps of feminist critics such as Sharon Ouditt (whose Fighting Forces explores women’s experiences during WWI) or Joanna Bourke (whose An Intimate History of Killing shows that war produces a pleasure in killing which helps to sustain the violent effort) specifically to turn attention to those people, events and contexts which for a long time remained sidelined in analyses of “The Great War”.

The AHRC-funded project “Whose Remembrance?” , for example, examines the contributions of people from the former colonies to WWI and WWII. It is prompted by the realisation that despite the vast numbers –  “in the region of one and a half million Indians served in the First World War of whom 80,000 lost their lives.  Over 15,000 men from the Caribbean served with the allied forces” – the experiences of these soldiers are neither fully understood nor remembered.

The recent scholarship provides a context for my own analysis of Magnus Hirschfeld‘s Screen Shot 2014-07-28 at 13.51.24contribution to WWI criticism. In 1915 he published a pamphlet, Warum Hassen uns die Völker? [why do peoples/nations hate us], which analyses the causes of war. Its uncharacteristically jingoistic tone has puzzled Hirschfeld scholars, who have tended to read the text’s nationalism as indicative of the extreme patriotism that underpinned the German war effort in the early years.

However, Hirschfeld’s nationalistic attitudes here were also more specifically connected to his attempts to support those people who were deemed unfit soldiers because of their gender or sexuality. Elena Mancini, in her study of Hirschfeld and The Quest for Sexual Freedom, has pointed out that he came to the aid of thousands of homosexual men and women, heterosexual women, and cross-dressers and other people whose gender identity challenged heteronormative ideals but who wanted to join the army. He helped them to “pass” as soldiers; and he also defended soldiers accused of homosexuality.

Hirschfeld’s “most difficult text” thus provides important insights into the contributions of homosexuals, trans* people and women to WWI, even as it testifies to the existence of a difficult history of queer allegiances with extreme nationalism and war.

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Yet it it equally important to understand that this “national queer history” is part of the colonial upheavals that so violently transformed the modern world. My own research has revealed that Hirschfeld’s initial response to WWI was shaped directly by his support of German colonialism. Warum Hassen uns die Völker?, which is couched in the languages of capitalism and psychoanalysis, argues that the war was started because England and other imperial powers were “jealous” of the economic success of the German colonial venture. In a key passage, Hirschfeld positively equates German colonialism with a new “importance in the world”, arguing that WWI was started to deny Germany its new wealth.

Warum Hassen uns die Völker? illustrates that colonialism, which is often neglected in the German historiography of sexuality, significantly shaped how Hirschfeld apprehended the war. The text allows glimpses at the impact on Hirschfeld of both the German war propaganda and the role of colonialism in public culture at the time.  While Hirschfeld would soon revise his views on war and in due course became a staunch critic of racism, it is noteworthy that he never fully addressed colonial suffering and its legacies of injustice.

In my project I explore this often “overlooked” history: the intersections between colonialism and the emerging homosexual rights movement as well as the contributions of queer soldiers to WWI. These neglected archives poignantly illustrate that scholarly recovery work is often fraught, subject to uncovering new injustices even as it seeks to address existing ones.

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