The feminist movement in Germany: A strange death of liberalism?

by Richard J. Evans


It is now more than forty years since I began work on my doctoral dissertation at Oxford, and I welcome the invitation to look back on the project from what seems an enormous distance of time. When I began it, in 1969, I was under the strong influence of the student movement of that time, with its discussion, in England, of whether the country was going through some kind of pre-fascist phase as the neo-Nazi National Front was gaining supporters and the prominent Conservative politician Enoch Powell had only recently delivered his racist ‘rivers of blood’ speech against Afro-Caribbean immigrants. There was an obvious parallel with the emergence of the NPD in Germany around the same time, studied by a number of political scientists and historians, including Lutz Niethammer. More generally, the whole field of continuity in modern German history had been opened up by the work of Fritz Fischer, whom I got to know during his time in 1968 as a visiting professor in St Antony’s College Oxford and whom I encountered again, along with his assistants, in Hamburg (Niethammer was also a visiting fellow at St Antony’s at this time). Social history had come onto the scene in the UK, though not yet in West Germany, with the emergence of the New Left historians in the early 1960s. A particular focus was on the history of social movements, including the feminist movement, which attained real political prominence in Britain before the First World War with the campaigns of the suffragettes.

It seemed to me that one could examine the state of liberal values and beliefs in pre-1914 Germany through a study of the feminist movement, in a comparative study paralleling the older work of George Dangerfield, The Strange Death of Liberal England, in which the suffragette movement occupied a very prominent place. Was there a strange death of liberal Germany before 1914? Were the foundations of the surrender of civil society to Nazism laid then? Fischer had looked at foreign policy and in his later book Krieg der Illusionen at domestic politics, but there was room for a close examination of values. Given the anchoring of the idea of female equality in liberal theory, most notably John Stuart Mill’s The Subjection of Women, looking at the example of the feminist movement seemed a good idea. I was encouraged to do this by Jill Stephenson, whose book on women in the Third Reich had just appeared. So I learned German (not too difficult, since I already had French and Latin) and got a scholarship to research in Germany.

I worked for over a year in three major collections: the files of the Politische Polizei in Hamburg, the papers of the Bund Deutscher Frauenvereine in Berlin, and the Nachlass of Adele Schreiber in Koblenz. These all revealed a picture of German feminism dramatically different from anything one could read in the published literature. The semi-official histories written in the 1950s, most notably by Agnes von Zahn-Harnack, made no mention at all of the very active, self-styled radical feminists who featured so strongly in the material I found in Hamburg and Koblenz: campaigners for the vote, for the ending of state-regulated prostitution, for equal rights for unmarried mothers and illegitimate children, and for the legalization of abortion. Not surprisingly, modern studies of the German feminist movement, which were written exclusively from a Marxist-Leninist point of view, all followed the published work of an earlier era and wrote it off as ‘bourgeois’, ineffective, conservative and self-interested. Discovering the radicals was an exciting moment indeed.

As my research progressed, I began to realize that the radical feminists were an active, vibrant, and exciting group of women whose presence in the public sphere made Wilhelmine Germany look far less reactionary than it was portrayed as by the new generation of liberal historians in Germany such as Hans-Ulrich Wehler. On the other hand, it became clear that the progress of the radicals’ causes was halted just before the outbreak of World War I. They were rebuffed by the Bund Deutscher Frauenvereine (I found clear evidence of a plot to defeat them, involving the antifeminist Bund Evangelischer Frauenvereine in the latter’s uncatalogued archive in the attic of a girls’ home in Hannover, another exciting moment). In addition the suffrage movement fell apart over the issue of whether to demand equal voting rights, which would have meant accepting the Prussian three-class suffrage, or universal adult suffrage, which would have put the liberal feminists on the same footing as the Social Democrats. The sexual liberation movement in which Adele Schreiber was active, led by Helene Stöcker, also fell apart over the issue of whether it should focus on campaign or welfare. More broadly, the whole movement came under intense pressure from German nationalists, who accused feminists of undermining the family and the nation. It seemed, then, that liberal values among feminists went into reverse just before 1914. Following their story through the Weimar Republic, it became clear that they had become nationalists, supported the family more than individual women’s emancipation, took an equivocal position in regard to women’s work, and offered only very feeble resistance to the Nazi seizure of power, perhaps because there was enough of an overlap with Nazi ideology for many if not most of the feminist movement’s members to vote NSDAP in the elections of the early 1930s.

To complete the picture rather neatly, the leading radical feminists, Anita Augspurg, Lida Gustava Heymann and Helene Stöcker, had all become pacifists in the First World War and were all forced into exile in 1933. They at least had kept faith with their radical liberal values. But three prominent radicals gravitated towards the radical right: Martha Zietz, Maria Lichnewska and Käthe Schirmacher. It was not easy to find out much about their political tergiversation. Schirmacher’s papers were held in Rostock, and researching in the GDR was not easy for an outsider from a ‘capitalist country’; I was not able to consult them. Nevertheless, it seemed to me that what turned her from a feminist pacifist into a right-wing nationalist was the issue of Germanizing Prussian Poland, a cause to which she came to devote much of her energies already nearly a decade before 1914.

It seemed obvious to me that these developments cast significant light on the capitulation of the German bourgeoisie to the Nazis in the elections of 1930-33: after all, women made up more than half the electorate after their enfranchisement in the Weimar Republic. Yet historians had not bothered to look at their history. The massive pressures of populist nationalism had caused the feminist movement to begin shifting political ground already before 1914. The Weimar years only strengthened this trend.

My dissertation was published in 1976 and reprinted a couple of times but it was never translated into German, unlike almost every history book I have written since then. It has quite a few flaws, most obviously its crude attempt to squeeze the radical feminists’ ideology into an over-simple mould of liberal-individualist egalitarianism, whereas a more nuanced approach would have given more weight to the radicals’ belief in the different qualities of women to those of men (more pacifist, more moral, and so on). Yet this does at least come out in the documents I quoted. And the central thesis, I still think, was correct.


Richard J. Evans, The feminist movement in Germany: A strange death of liberalism?, in: Die vielen Biographien der Käthe Schirmacher – eine virtuelle Konferenz, URL:

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Biographische Notiz

Sir Richard Evans FBA, Regius Professor Emeritus of History and President of Wolfson College, University of Cambridge. Publications include: The Feminist Movement in Germany 1894-1933 (SAGE, London, 1976); The Feminists (Croom Helm/Routledge, London 1977, reprinted 2014); Sozialdemokratie und Frauenemanzipation im deutschen Kaiserreich (Verlag J.H.W. Dietz Nachf., Bonn, 1979).