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10 German women who changed the world

To mark International Women’s Day, we take a look at ten influential German women who changed the course of history.

Various portraits of publicist Hannah Arendt taken by photographer Fred Stein hang in the Sprengel Museum in Hannover.
Various portraits of publicist Hannah Arendt taken by photographer Fred Stein hang in the Sprengel Museum in Hannover. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Hauke-Christian Dittrich

Rosa Luxemburg (1871-1919)

At a time when women didn’t even have the right to vote, Rosa Luxemburg was at the forefront of the revolutionary social democratic movement in Germany. The founder of the Spartacus League and the Communist Party, she tried to bring about the end of World War I with mass strikes. After the suppression of the Spartacus uprising in 1919, she was murdered by German soldiers.

Luxemburg was an influential figure in the European labor movement, Marxism, antimilitarism, and proletarian internationalism.

Hannah Höch (1889-1978)

The only female member of the influential Dadaist movement of the early 20th century, Berlin-born artist Hannah Höch was an artistic pioneer and one of the first artists to use the photomontage technique.

A visitor at the Berlinische Galerie in Berlin views “The Journalists” – an artwork from 1925 by Hannah Höch. Photo: picture-alliance/ dpa | Stephanie Pilick

With themes such as women’s self-determination over their bodies, their professions and the development of their personalities, her works provide an insight into the turbulent 20th century – from the women’s rights movement and the two world wars. Her artworks mix satire with seriousness and still feel very current even today.

Alice Salomon (1872-1948)

Alice Salomon was one of the most internationally renowned social reformers and feminists of the 20th century.

After getting involved in social work at the age of 21 in 1899 she became chairwoman of the Association of Girls’ and Women’s Groups for Social Relief Work.

In 1908 she founded the Social Women’s School in Berlin, and in 1925, Salomon was the main initiator of the “German Academy for Social and Educational Work with Women” – a unique attempt to develop a concept of specifically female science and research in the social field.

Her core concept of using sound and practical teaching with reference to international practices fundamentally influenced pedagogy and social work all over the world.

Angela Merkel (1954)

Like her or loathe her, there’s no denying that Angela Merkel’s premiership was historic.

Angela Merkel, former German chancellor, speaking as she accepts the UNHCR Nansen Refugee Award during a ceremony in October 2022. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/KEYSTONE REUTERS POOL | Stefan Wermuth

The first-ever female Chancellor of Germany served for 16 years and, for a longtime, was seen as a reliable figurehead at the centre of EU politics.

Now, her legacy has been overshadowed by her reluctance to cut ties with Russia and move away from Russian energy, but she’ll perhaps be best remembered for her open-arms policy to refugees fleeing the war in Syria in 2015, when she told the public “wir schaffen das” (We’ll manage).

Anne Frank (1929-1945)

Although Anne Frank lived in Amsterdam for most of her life, she was born in Frankfurt. Her family fled Germany in 1934.

The Diary of Anne Frank is one of the most famous historical documents of the 20th century. It was written by the teenager between 1942 and 1944 and gives a unique and highly personal insight into the life of a young person living in hiding from the Nazi regime.  

The book has been translated into more than 70 languages so far and Anne Frank remains a powerful symbol of hopeful, innocent youth in the face of terror around the world to this day. 

Hannah Arendt (1906-1975)

After fleeing Nazi Germany in 1933, Hannah Arendt went on to become one of the great political thinkers of the 20th century.

She became publicly known through her main political work Elements and Origins of Total Rule in the early 1950s.

Hannah Arendt, political scientist and sociologist. Photo: picture-alliance/ dpa | UPI

In 1961, she acted as a reporter in the trial of holocaust mastermind Adolf Eichmann in Jerusalem and in 1963 published the controversial book Eichmann in Jerusalem. A Report on the Banality of Evil.

Arendt remained stateless until 1951, eventually acquiring U.S. citizenship. Hannah Arendt died in the USA on December 4, 1975.

Alice Schwarzer (1942)

Alice Schwarzer is probably the best-known feminist in the German-speaking world.

She initiated, among other things, the campaign “We have had an abortion,” in 1971 in which 374 women – prominent and non-celebrity – publicly admitted in a cover story in Stern magazine that they had terminated their pregnancies illegally. 

Alice Schwarzer, women’s rights activist, speaks on stage during the demonstration in favour of negotiations with Russia in the Ukraine war in Berlin, February 2023. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Monika Skolimowska

As a public feminist, Alice Schwarzer became a figurehead and mouthpiece of the entire women’s rights movement in Germany and her fiery television appearances are legendary. She founded the feminist magazine “Emma” in 1977, which she still heads as editor-in-chief. She has recently become a controversial figure in German politics, for pushing for negotiations with Russia to end its war in Ukraine – against Ukrainian wishes.

Bertha Benz (1849-1944)

Without Bertha Benz, the history of mobility would have been very different. On August 5th, 1888, she took the first ever long trip in a motor vehicle and in doing so, she proved to her husband and the rest of the world that his invention worked for everyday use and had the potential to change everything.

Two years earlier, Carl Benz had received a patent for his “vehicle with gas engine operation” and though the local press had reported on the invention, there was not much enthusiasm for it, as it was considered impractical.

It took the courage of Benz’s wife to take the car on a long-distance drive to prove to the world that the “Benz Patent-Motorwagen No. 3” could change the future. 

Sophie Scholl (1921-1943)

Sophie Scholl is probably one of the most courageous women in German history. Together with her brother, she founded the “White Rose” group, which rebelled against National Socialism.

The undated photo shows Sophie Scholl, member of the “White Rose”. In leaflets, the resistance group denounced the crimes of the National Socialists. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | –

She had leaflets printed against National Socialism, which were distributed throughout Germany and caused a great stir. Because of her struggle, she was sentenced to death by the Nazis at the age of only 21 and executed by guillotine.

The Scholl siblings are commemorated with dozens of streets, paths, squares and schools in Germany named after them.

Emmy Noether (1882-1945)

Transcending the boundaries of traditional thinking in mathematics, the mathematician Emmy Noether is widely considered to be one of the most important female scientists of the 20th century.

When Albert Einstein wrote an obituary for Emmy Noether in 1935, he described her as a “creative mathematical genius” who – despite “unselfish, significant work over a period of many years” – did not get the recognition she deserved.

Noether is one of the founders of modern algebra and she also did pioneering work in theoretical physics. Noether’s theorem, which she presented in 1918, was developed decades later into one of the most important foundations of physics.

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Topless swimming fails to take off at Hamburg’s public pools

A district in Hamburg allows women to swim topless at its public pools, but no one has really taken advantage of the offer. We look at what might be putting people off and where in Germany topless swimming is allowed for everyone.

Topless swimming fails to take off at Hamburg's public pools

In Hamburg, women have had the freedom to swim without a bikini top at select public pools for a year now, but nobody seems to do so.

Following calls for equal treatment between the sexes regarding dress codes in Hamburg’s Eimsbüttel district, a decision was made to allow women to be topless in the district’s swimming pools.

Two of the district’s pools have since adopted pilot projects for mixed gender topless swim days: on Tuesdays in the Kaifubad in Eimsbüttel, and on Thursdays at the indoor pool in Wandsbek.

But in both cases the pools’ regular visitors seem uninterested in ditching the upper halves of their swimwear.

According to the Hamburger Abendblatt, a spokesperson for Bäderland, which operates the swimming facilities, says there has been “a sighting” at Kaifubad where one woman is said to have swum topless over the course of the year.

Hesitating to drop the top

Prior to changing the dress code rule, an online survey conducted by Bäderland found that 47 percent of its female guests were at least positive about the question of topless swimming.

Additionally, a survey conducted by Hamburger Abendblatt found that most people would prefer to swim topless, but not if they were the only ones.

Considering these results, the humorous comment made by the Bäderland spokesperson actually provides a hint as to why topless swimming at public facilities hasn’t taken off. If the act of going topless has turned one woman into “a sighting”, then there is an obvious reason why others might feel less than comfortable doing the same.

In this sense, it seems the pilot project has failed in its effort to truly bring freedom of choice and gender equality into its dress code.

Still, the project will continue this summer.

Where in Germany is topless swimming allowed?

While Germans, with their Freikörperkultur (known as FKK) or ‘free body culture’, are known to not shy away from public nudity, the debate around topless sunbathing or swimming in public spaces has created controversy.

VIDEO: Why do Germans love getting naked?

When an attempt was made to make a number of topless sunbathers cover up, on the banks of the Isar River in Munich, it sparked a debate that reached the city council

Ultimately an urgent motion was introduced which clarified that bikini tops were not strictly necessary.

The issue came up again in Göttingen in the summer of 2022 after an ostensibly female swimmer was asked to cover up at a local pool, only to protest that they identified as male. 

After some kerfuffle, the city decided that the fairest solution was simply to allow all swimmers the freedom to swim oben-ohne (without a top), if they wished.

Similar arguments have since been made in other cities across Germany, and several cities have amended their public swimming rules accordingly, including; Siegen in North Rhine-Westphalia, the Lower Saxony state capital of Hanover, and Berlin.

READ ALSO: EXPLAINED – The laws around going topless in Germany