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Public Enlightenment through Publishing Policy – Max Spohr (1850-1905): Publisher in Leipzig

7. April 2001 – 2. July 2001


The Völklinger Kreis e.V. Bundesverband Gay Manager is an association of managers, the self-employed, and the independently wealthy from the areas of economics, science, culture, and public service. On April 5, 2001, in Frankfurt, the Völklinger Kreis awarded for the first time the Max Spohr Management Prize, which recognizes businesses that value and support the diversity of society, that welcome the integration of minorities, that include gays and lesbians explicitly in employee programs – put shortly, businesses that are gay-friendly.

On this occasion the Center for Gay History (Cologne), in collaboration with the Magnus Hirschfeld Society (Berlin) has organized an exhibition on Max Spohr (1850-1905). This exhibition commemorates a man who, both as a private citizen and as a publisher, made essential contributions to gay liberation at the beginning of the gay movement 100 years ago. Max Spohr’s 150th birthday is also a suitable occasion to remember this publisher. Spohr was himself not homosexual, as far as either we or his contemporaries could judge, yet he devoted himself considerably to the gay emancipation movement.

Hirschfeld noted in his memoirs that Spohr was “untroubled by other feelings,” lived a happy family life, and was motivated less by business interests than the conviction “to work in the service of a great idea” – the reason why the Völklinger Kreis named its honor for businesses after Spohr.

The organizers of the exhibition would like to make the publisher and his work known. The exhibition leads back to the beginnings of the gay movement. Gay literature was in fact known and available to an extent to the educated bourgeoisie; at the end of the 19th century there was a sharp increase in the number of publications on homosexuality. However, Max Spohr remained for many years the only publisher to attend to this area systematically. His press, founded in 1881 in Leipzig, the center of the German publishing world, published gay liberation literature from 1893 onward. Among the first publications were Der Urning vor Gericht (The Urning on Trial) and Die Enterbten des Liebesglücks (Disinherited from the Happiness of Love) by Otto de Joux.

Magnus Hirschfeld became aware of the press, and after numerous rejections from other publishers, his first book, Sappho and Socrates, was published pseudonymously by Spohr in 1896. Out of this grew an intense collaboration, and a number of books on homosexuality followed.

More than 120 publications in total were published on the topic of homosexuality in the following years, not counting the Jahrbuch für sexuelle Zwischenstufen unter besonderer Berücksichtigung der Homosexualität (Annual Journal for Sexual Intermediates with Special Attention to Homosexuality), published from 1899 onward. Topics ranged from free love to § 175 (which outlawed consensual gay sex) to the sentencing of Oscar Wilde. Lesbian love was also a topic again and again.

In the area of belles lettres, which tended to suffer more under censorship than scientific work, there were a number of novels about ostensibly authentic individual cases of “urnings.” Impressive here is not only the range and number of the literature published by Spohr; while other presses only hinted at the topic of homosexuality, Spohr’s books were often quite direct. While many books from other presses appeared only under pseudonyms, and others had to be self-published, Spohr always stood behind his authors and their books.

The topic of homosexuality was, however, only one portion of the Spohr’s production. Spohr also devoted himself to other sexual sciences and the areas of the occult, the life reform movement, and to a lesser extent to philosophy and cultural history.

Three areas of Spohr’s literary output are especially significant: the works that campaigned in literary form for gay liberation, works of Symbolism, and translations of Oscar Wilde. Spohr switched one portion of the belles lettres, in collaboration with the poet Franz Evers, to the subsidiary firm Kreisende Ringe, which existed from 1893 to 1903.

Spohr’s engagement was not without its consequences. Above all, § 184 of the imperial legal code stood in the way of the press’s emancipatory politics; this banned the distribution of immoral publications, and Spohr was denounced, tried, and sentenced several times on the basis of this law. Among the publications seized by the police was Die Enterbten des Liebesglücks by Otto de Joux. The debate over this book was carried out publicly in the pages of the trade paper of the German book trade. While the argument in this case did not carry with it any legal consequences, Spohr was found guilty in several other cases.

Alongside his activities in the world of publishing, the exhibition also appreciates Spohr’s other political engagement. In 1897, together with Magnus Hirschfeld, Eduard Oberg, and Franz Joseph von Bülow, he founded the Wissenschaftlich-humanitäre Komitee (Scientific-Humanitarian Committee), the first international organization for gay emancipation. Spohr led the Leipzig subcommittee of this organization and advised Hirschfeld during the drafting of the petition for the repeal of § 175.

On November 15, 1905, Max Spohr died of intestinal cancer and was eulogized by both Magnus Hirschfeld and his antipode Adolf Brand. After his death, the business was led first by his brother Ferdinand and then by his son, until it was finally closed in 1942. Thus a piece of gay literary history came to a close, and is now documented in detail.

Through pictures, files, and books, this exhibition presents the biography of Spohr and the work of his press. The events of his era are also taken into consideration: the beginnings of the gay liberation movement, the first gay organizations, and the treatment of homosexuality in the public are also documented in the context of reviews of books from the Spohr press and of the two contemporary gay scandals, the Krupp affair and the Eulenberg affair. The Spohr exhibition should prove worthwhile for anyone interested in literary and publishing history, the early history of the gay emancipation movement, or the early scientific and literary treatment of the topic of homosexuality.

Curators: MHG, Andreas Sternweiler