Dornemann, Luise (1901–1992)

Dornemann almost does not fit in here. Although she spent about ten years in the UK after fleeing Germany, almost nothing is known about her time here. But I am including her because she represents a political current otherwise not touched upon here: the issue of sexual politics under Weimar.

Dornemann joined the KPD in 1928 and became chair of the ‘Unified League for Proletarian Sexual Reform and Protection of Mothers’,(EpS) a group attached to the KPD.

Although I shall not go into detail on this, the issue of sexual reform was much fought over after 1918. Partly this was a consequence of two separate and to a large extent opposing phenomena: a desire, driven by the right and the anti-contraceptive movement, to protect the German ‘homeland’ after the dreadful number of deaths of the First World War. A strong anti-abortion movement was also spearheaded by the Catholic Church which denounced sex without the intention to procreate. Coinciding though not consistent, the ever stronger eugenics movement also argued that medical intervention and state interference was keeping alive the misfits and preventing ‘natural selection’, leading to a ‘degeneration’ of the German people. Sterilisation (and more) came increasingly to be seen as a way of dealing with the unfit and (racial) inferiors.1

On the other hand, the left campaigned to prevent the high level of illicit abortions and for freely available contraception amongst working class women. According to a survey conducted by the left-wing sexologist Max Marcuse in Germany in 1913, 41 percent of working women and workers’ wives admitted having had an abortion, often ‘criminal’, due to economic hardship. (Among the proletarianised rural population of East Prussia this proportion was 60 percent.)2 Rich women on the other hand had ready access to contraceptives. The demand for free and easily available contraception and abortion was a class issue.

Thus Weimar is marked by two strongly contesting forces firstly around the rights of women to control their own bodies but secondly and increasingly over ‘racial hygiene’. Dornemann and indeed the KPD (who took these issues more seriously than the SPD) were operating in an ever more contested field ideologically and practically. Nazi eugenics in other words were not some sort of inevitable outcome from Weimar, as sometimes depicted.

The campaign against Paragraph 218, which essentially banned abortion, requiring a penal term for both the woman and the doctor involved, drew in much support from the sexual reform movement, but also from Magnus Hirschfeld3 and his campaign against the criminalisation of homosexuality, the small bourgeois radical wing of the women’s movement (and again Albert Einstein), and was backed by both the SPD and, crucially, the KPD. One major slogan was “Your Belly Belongs to You!”

Issues of abortion and contraception were crucial issues for many working class women. The Bund für Mutterschutz or EpS sponsored a number of sexual health clinics across Germany, which employed both lay and medical personnel, where women and men could go for contraception, marriage advice, and sometimes abortions and sterilisation. Dornemann ran the EpS centre in Dusseldorf. The EpS claimed to represent ten thousand members just in the lower Rhine and Ruhr regions and, it has been claimed, had somewhere between 150,000 to 300,000 members across Germany. It seems that the appeal of the local Leagues was less to do with the ideological emphasis on women’s liberation than on women being able to access free contraceptive advice.

There were however substantial divisions in these campaigns between the SPD and the KPD. The EpS asserted that only Communist leadership could guarantee a class-struggle perspective, firmly rejecting any connections with capitalist or bourgeois interests. The demands of the League included: 1. decriminalization of abortion. 2. Free prescription of contraceptives and advise on birth control (though apparently this often amounted to no more than advice on how to use a diaphragm) 3. Availability of sex counselling clinics 4. state control and production of contraceptives in the interests of working people’s health and the elimination of commercial competition. 5. abolishing all punishment for sexual deviations (including the ‘normalisation’ of masturbation). Crucially, these demands were seen, not so much in terms of economic position or health, but in terms of personal and sexual fulfillment: sexuality was one of the few pleasures the working class could claim for itself.

The KPD, along with Reich, who was highly influential at the time, emphasised how far this was a class issue: the proletariat’s living conditions led to sexual deprivation in a way that the bourgeoisie with its access to medical contraception and safe abortions did not suffer. (Reich ran the Berlin EpS clinic, which was oriented towards working-class youth, the one point where Reich’s ‘Sex-Pol’ perspective appears to have had a real impact.) 4

One of the other organisations, associated with the KPD, campaigning for greater sexual freedoms was run by Richard Linsert, a member of the KPD, who organised the Coalition to Reform the Sex Laws, which campaigned alongside the Committee on birth control, easier divorce, abortion rights and homosexual emancipation (which surprisingly the KPD was apparently sympathetic to). Linsert is himself an interesting figure: he was partly responsible for the little known ‘M apparatus’, the secret military and intelligence organization to shield KPD leaders, was high up in the Red Front and a comrade of Willi Munzenbergs. KPD members active on the front of sexual liberation were not, it appears, placed in a separate political ‘compartment’.

The KPD seems to have been open to its members campaigning around issues such as birth control. This is a period when many of their membership were unemployed so lacking a work based organisation. Issues around contraception and abortion drew proletarian –and often impoverished- women into the political struggle. But the KPD, like so many other revolutionary organisations, kept stumbling over whether or how far to allow women’s only campaigning or how far these issues had to be understood and organised as part of class struggle. As now, one key argument was about the need to unify proletarian sex-reform organisations under a class-conscious, rather than reformist or gender-led, leadership.

The League and demands for birth control and rights to abortion were anathema to most Nazis who wished to reverse the declining birth rate. At the same time, a eugenicist movement grew ever stronger from 1918. A number of well respected scientific institutions, such as the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute, who were influential in social policy and on right-wing political parties, promoted the view that biology could be used for national reconstruction. ‘Racial biology’ was intrinsic and frequently combined with a view of the working class as an unhealthy cess pit which had to be cleansed.

So the Nazis were operating along twin- and not always consistent- tracks. In May 1933, abortion or performing an abortion became illegal. The sexual counselling centres were closed and their members persecuted. The goal of the new ‘centres’ was ‘racial improvement’. “National Socialist” women lived to have children. 5

In 1933, Luise’s husband, Johannes Dornemann, was murdered by the Nazis. In 1936, Dornemann left for the UK. Here, she was a member of the Communist-led ‘Allies Inside Germany’ Council (referred to elsewhere), and also an active member of the Executive Committee of the ‘Free German Cultural League’. Although I cannot find a copy or details of what it said, Dornemann compiled and the League published ‘German women under Hitler fascism: a brief survey of the position of German women up to the present day’ during the war. From 1942 to 1947 she worked as a political secretary at the ‘British Council for German Democracy’ in London, a Communist front organisation, which campaigned for a united post-Nazi Germany.6

In 1947 she moved to E Germany and wrote two well-received books on Eleanor Marx and Klara Zetkin, suggesting a continued and still unusual interest in the role of women on the revolutionary left.

1 The eugenics movement was however not unidimensional. While one strand was ‘racially’ oriented, another (though less influential) was welfare oriented and concerned with the negative effects of rapid urbanization and industrialisation on the ‘working class’ family. In addition, although this is not relevant to this biography, the eugenics movement had ‘primitive’ peoples outside Germany also in mind; Germany after all had only recently ‘lost’ its colonies and eugenic theories had flourished well before the First World War.

2 This biography has drawn from a wide number of web-sites. The source here is Rosemarie Nünning, Between “birth strike” and “race treason”: The history of Paragraph 219a of the German Criminal Code, ISJ,160

3 Magnus Hirschfeld (1868 – 1935) was an influential German sexologist who campaigned for gay and transgender rights. Hirschfeld was repeatedly targeted by Nazis for being Jewish. In 1933, his Institute was ransacked but by then he had, fortuitously, already fled, first for Switzerland and then France.

4 Reich moved to Berlin at least in part because of the existence of the Committee’s organisation there and, it is said, to get away from Freud’s influence in Vienna. Reich spoke at numerous KPD organised meetings, such as on ‘The Sexual Question in bourgeois society’. But Reich’s emphasis was different from the KPD’s with whom he fell out. Reich believed that a revolution in sexual attitudes and behaviour was a prerequisite for a political revolution; Reich was a little too successful in recruiting people to his sexual politics platform which the KPD did not like. Party functionaries put out orders that all of Reich’s books and pamphlets were to be removed from Party bookstores.

5 Whilst compulsory sterilisation and the killing of mental patients came to a head under Nazism, many doctors and scientists had accepted the concept of mental or physical ‘degenerates’ and the power of inherited bad genes under Weimar. These ‘social problems’ had to be resolved – and by them using ‘scientific’ methods. (Such ideas also crop up in the USA and the UK but with less disastrous consequences.) In a detail which shows up how important the League’s clinics were, especially for working-class women, from 1925, hundreds of marriage heredity counselling clinics were established, particularly for premarital examinations to establish hereditary (and ‘racial’) health. Nevertheless, while many doctors did become Nazis’ henchmen, one must beware assuming all geneticists did. (Paul Weindling, The Survival of Eugenics in 20th-Century Germany, Am. J. Hum. Genet. 52:643-649, 1993)

6 The Council drew in as Vice-Presidents Tom Driberg, Eleanor Rathbone and Harold Laski as well as, later, getting support from D.N. Pritt, Michael Foot and Eric Hobsbaum who briefly edited ‘Searchlight’ on their behalf. (Stefan Berger, Norman LaPorte, Friendly Enemies: Britain and the GDR, 1949-1990) Unfortunately, I have not been able to find anything on Dornemann’s role.