Sisterly Advice and Eugenic Education: The Katholische Deutsche Frauenbund and German Catholic Marriage Counseling in the 1920s and 1930s

By Lippold, Anette | The Catholic Historical Review, Winter 2014 | Go to article overview

Sisterly Advice and Eugenic Education: The Katholische Deutsche Frauenbund and German Catholic Marriage Counseling in the 1920s and 1930s


Lippold, Anette, The Catholic Historical Review


IN THE LATE 1920S the German Catholic Church decided to join the existing array of professional and pseudo-professional marriage assistance clinics to combat their perceived negative impact. For the most part, marriage counseling of the 1920s did not necessarily mean the type of psychotherapeutic assistance now associated with the term. Instead, marital assistance services more frequently focused on medical questions about human sexuality, with information about and access to birth control, a common desire of clients. German eugenicists, who hailed from a variety of political and religious backgrounds, worried about the genetic impact of freely available contraceptives. After the idea of requiring the submission of health certificates before marriage registration did not gain acceptance on the national level, the Prussian government supported the creation of marital health-counseling services at the municipal level. Use of these new clinics was voluntary, and Weimar Germans apparently had little interest in them while their advice remained purely eugenic. Over a relatively short period, several municipal clinics broadened the available services, moving steadily closer to the work of birth control and sex-education counseling clinics.1

Observers in both the Protestant and the Catholic chinches in Germany were concerned about birth control and sex-education counseling clinics as well as the newly broadened municipal health counseling clinics and considered the moral implications of their work symptomatic of the general changes in social norms and mores. Popular movies and novels showed that the "New Woman" demanded more from life and marriage than keeping the home and raising children. High divorce rates and low birth rates indicated especially to devout Catholics that the teachings of their religion on marriage as a sacrament and procreation as the primary purpose of sex no longer held sway with many Weimar Germans. Even traditionalist authors like the popular romance novelist Hedwig Courths-Mahler portrayed divorce as an acceptable solution when innocent marital partners found that they had been mistaken in their choice of bride or groom.2

Given the Catholic conception of marriage as a sacrament and its doctrine against the use of artificial means of birth control, it is clear that Catholic conceptions of marriage counseling had little in common with birth control and sex-education clinics. If the relationship between the Catholic Church and services related to birth control and sex education can only be described as antagonistic, historians such as Ingrid Richter and Annette Timm have argued that there was a clear affinity between Catholic marriagecounseling services and eugenics. In essence, eugenics "viewed humanity and society in biological terms," making the human gene pool the focus of intervention.3 Influencing human procreation, then, became the main tool in the implementation of eugenic ideas. In such general terms, eugenic ideas had reached a broad cross section of the German population and had prominent supporters in both the German Protestant and Catholic chinches.4

The role of eugenics in German Catholicism has garnered steady academic attention in the last decades, drawing the conclusion that support for eugenic ideas was common and particularly strong in the Caritas, the umbrella organization of Catholic welfare. Much of the scholarly work has focused on Hermann Muckermann, the best-known Catholic advocate of eugenics, frequendy discussing his role in the context of more general studies on race, sexuality, and German antisemitism.5 In regard to Catholic marriage counseling, the conclusion that eugenic ideas were prevalent has led Richter to argue that eugenics had come to replace an earlier focus on spiritual and emotional assistance in Catholic marriage-counseling services.6 Timm has echoed that argument in her assessment that "the general thrust of Catholic marriage counseling was to combine eugenics with religious ethics. …

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