New research project studying the lives of lesbians in the south-west of Germany

A team from the Universities of Freiburg and Heidelberg is studying the everyday lives of women who love women from 1945 to the 1980s

What was everyday life like for women who love women after 1945 if they lived outside the major metropolitan areas such as Berlin or Hamburg? What were the after-effects of Nazism; how did living conditions change? What has the political upheaval of the lesbian movement revealed since the late 1970s? Questions like these, most not previously researched, will be addressed by academics in the research project ,,Zwischen Unsichtbarkeit, Repression und lesbischer Emanzipation - Frauenliebende* Frauen im deutschen Südwesten 1945 bis 1980er Jahre" ("Between Invisibility, Repression and Lesbian Emancipation - Women loving Women in the German Southwest 1945 to 1980s") of the Universities of Freiburg and Heidelberg which is going to be launched in May 2023.

Continuities and discontinuities

"The history of female homosexuality still remains confined to the shadows of academic research," says one of the project leaders Sylvia Paletschek , Professor of Modern and Contemporary History at the University of Freiburg. "We want to change this. We also want to interview contemporary witnesses and secure sources before it’s too late." The researchers assume that while drastic changes such as the end of World War II, the founding of the Federal Republic of Germany and its subsequent "economic miracle", and the appearance of new social movements since the 1960s all affected the fundamental conditions of lesbian lives, social norms present in the late 19 and early 20 centuries continued to have an effect in many ways.

"Our theory is that initially continuities influenced everyday life more than political, social and economic discontinuities that might have opened up new windows of opportunity. Norms, concepts and in some cases also gender and family policy only changed gradually and therefore much later. Heteronormativity shaped daily life without being challenged," says Paletschek. A central analytical category of the project is the socio-political concept of heteronormativity, which exclusively sees relationships between men and women as the norm and therefore as ’normal’. Heteronormative concepts shape private and social life and penetrate their structure without being questioned or reflected on, and often without any awareness.

Previous research into the Weimar Republic and Nazism

The research project comprises three subprojects. Sylvia Paletschek and her assistant Muriel Lorenz are researching "Akteurinnen* - Vernetzungen - Kommunikationsräume" ("Protagonists - Networks - Communicative spaces") at the University of Freiburg. Their goal is to raise the profile of the political, social and cultural achievements of lesbians who led non-heteronormative lives in the 1950s to 1970s: What changed in everyday life after the end of the war up to the 1970s? What were the political, social, public or semi-public arenas in which women who love women could meet and communicate - for instance in women’s movement organisations, in party-political women’s groups, in educational contexts, cultural spaces or even on political bodies? There are two other subprojects at the University of Heidelberg, one studying "Grenzerfahrungen des Privaten. Die Wahrnehmung der Heteronorm und ihre rechtliche Durchsetzung" ("Experiences at the borders of private life. Perception of the heteronormative and its legal enforcement"). The other looks at the question of how medical services and in particular psychiatry dealt with female homosexuality in the south-west of Germany.

On a preceding project, the academics tackled the period of Nazism and the Weimar Republic in all three subprojects. The new project expands this timeframe, "so changes as well as continuities over and above political systems can now become visible," says Paletschek. There will be a dissertation on each of the three subprojects.

Oral history and grey literature as sources

"Focusing the project on the years after 1945 is also motivated by remembrance culture," says Paletschek. The researchers secure important sources in order to conserve them for future research into lesbian lives. For the post-war period through to the early 1980s, it is now still possible to interview eye-witnesses about their stories using oral history methods. In addition, ’grey literature’, e.g. leaflets, personal testimonials and memories of the post-war generation of women who love women and lesbian activists, form an important source for this subject.

The researchers report regularly on their work and interim findings in a blog. Students from related courses and academics from other research projects investigating related subjects also make contributions here. "We want the blog to present queer history and make it visible," says Muriel Lorenz.

You can find the project blog (available in German) at: https://lesbenwelt.hypothese­

  • ,,Zwischen Unsichtbarkeit, Repression und lesbischer Emanzipation - Frauenliebende* Frauen im deutschen Südwesten 1945 bis 1980er Jahre" ("Between Invisibility, Repression and Lesbian Emancipation - Lovers in the German Southwest 1945 to 1980s") is a joint research project of the Universities of Freiburg and Heidelberg. It runs from 1 May 2023 to 30 April 2025 and is receiving just over ¤660,000 in funding from the Baden-Württemberg Ministry of Science, Research and the Arts.
  • Sylvia Paletschek is Professor of Modern and Contemporary History and Vice-President for University Culture at the University of Freiburg. Her research focuses on women and gender history, university and academic history, as well as historical culture and popular presentations of history.
  • Muriel Lorenz holds a MA in Comparative History of the Modern Period (University of Freiburg) and has already worked on the research project since March 2021 as a research assistant and PhD candidate.