On the occasion of the 100th anniversary of the International Lyceum Club Hamburg, as well as the founding of the International Lyceum Club Berlin in 1905, I would like to present the following brief history of the origins of the Lyceum Clubs in Germany.
During the late 19th and early 20th century, the peace movement in Europe experienced a renaissance. It turned to increasingly progressive ideas such as socialism and feminism and organized international peace conventions in response to the growing hostilities in Europe. Women’s willingness to improve their self-understanding and increase their intellectual freedom began to take concrete form.
The history of the German Lyceum Clubs begins at the dawn of the 20th century in London, where Constance Smedley founded the International Lyceum Club in June 1904. Already the next year, in November of 1905, Smedley traveled to Germany to attend the founding convention of the Lyceum Club Berlin.
Despite the fact that many major European cities had clubs with exclusively female membership, there was the need for a special kind of club—one that, according to Smedley, would seek to “build centers of intellectual and artistic life in order to promote exchange between cultivated women of all nations.”
The event that led to the creation of the first Lyceum Club in Germany was a big international women’s convention held in 1904 in Berlin. With the support of the German empress, all relevant national and international women’s clubs were to be united and encouraged to participate in an active interchange.
On the occasion of the preparations for the founding of the Berlin Lyceum Club, the daily Berliner Tageblatt wrote: “If its founders succeed in keeping their organization out of all ideological currents and class struggles, this movement could turn into an international intellectual power.”
The “Women’s Club Hamburg” was founded in December 1906; today it proudly calls itself the International Lyceum Club Hamburg. The constitution stated that the club served the purpose of promoting the intellectual, social, and material interests of its members. Without directly looking to the London Lyceum Club, the Hamburg Club remained close to Constance Smedley’s ideals. It is worth noting that, according to article 7, “members’ guests (including men) may use the powder rooms free of charge.” In this point it seems that the Women’s Club Hamburg was a step ahead of its London counterpart.
In 1986, the Hamburg club experienced an important moment, hosting the International Congress of the Lyceum Clubs under the title “New Perspectives for Women at the End of the 20th Century.” Under the patronage of Marianne von Weizäcker, wife of the then-reigning German president, members of thirteen countries participated in various events. They were intrigued by the convention’s success and its sophisticated cultural program.
As in Hamburg, women’s clubs without initial affiliation to the Lyceum Clubs were soon founded in other German cities. The Cologne Women’s Club was created as early as 1902, and in 1904 the German Women’s Club was established in Stuttgart, organizing musical evenings, lectures, and bazaars for its members.
Between 1911 and 1949 women’s clubs originated in Aachen, Munich, Karlsruhe, and Konstanz. Like the other clubs, these were dedicated to the support of women in education, the arts, and the sciences. The most recent member of the Federation of German Lyceum Clubs is the “Rhein-Main” Club, founded in 1996.
After the end of the Nazi regime and during the deprivation of the immediate postwar years, a few dedicated women were able to rebuild the clubs in the face of the greatest difficulties. We would like to thank these active members in particular for undertaking to restore international trust in the German women’s clubs.
In 1956, at the World Congress in Bern, the Association of German Lyceum Clubs was officially re-admitted into the International Association of Lyceum Clubs. The president of the Hamburg Club, Gertrud Behrens, was voted to be the German Association’s first president.
Even though the shadows of two world wars lie over the origins of the German Lyceum Clubs, today they are once again a respected part of the international community of Lyceum Clubs.
Returning to the Berliner Tageblatt 1904 observation, I would like to remark that even though the International Association of Lyceum Clubs may not have become an international power, it has developed into an esteemed international intellectual movement.
To be part of it fills us with gratitude and pride.