It’s not every day that a major European political party has to apologize for having supported pedophilia, but two weeks ago, the German Green Party had to do just that. For the past year and a half, investigators commissioned by the party have been probing its past associations with pro-pedophilia groups, and their report has been shocking to many Germans. It found that the German “pedosexual movement,” which advocated the legalization of “consensual” sex between adults and children, found a surprisingly warm reception in the party in the 1980s.  

At a news conference on November 12, one of the current heads of the Green party, Simone Peter, told reporters that she is “deeply sorry” for her party’s past stance, and “apologized once again to all victims of sexual abuse that might feel trivialized.” The scandal has prompted widespread debate in the German media, both about the culpability of the Greens and the country’s treatment of pedophiles. Over the past several decades, Germany has acquired a well-deserved reputation for open-mindedness when it comes to sex. Now the Greens’ revelations have spurred a crisis on the German left and shown that the country’s sexual tolerance comes with a historical baggage all its own. 

The current scandal dates back to last year’s federal election, when a German researcher revealed that one of the party’s leaders, Juergen Trittin, had signed off on a 1981 local party platform arguing that sex between adults and children, in some cases, be legal. Trittin quickly acknowledged that he had made a mistake, blaming it on an oversight—but conservative political opponents were quick to describe the Greens’ actions as “repulsive.” This came on the heels of other revelations—which had prompted the report in the first place—that another senior Green Party figure had once written about his “flirtations” with children while working in a kindergarten. Largely as a result, the party only received a disappointing 8.4 percent of the popular vote. 

Although it is little remembered these days, the move to legalize pedophilia in the 1980s went far beyond Germany. In the United States, the Childhood Sensuality Circle and, more notoriously, North American Man/Boy Love Association (NAMBLA) advocated (with little success) for legalized pedophilia, and other countries, including the Netherlands, Canada and the UK, had similar movements. But the movement fared exceedingly well in the unique political climate of West Germany, where the Nazi past made the left especially sensitive (and, in some cases, susceptible) to arguments about individual freedom. “It was a widely-held belief in West Germany that sexual freedom was a way to prevent authoritarianism,” says Stephan Klecha, one of the researchers who worked on the report. “That debate about fascism was very German.” 

One popular reference point, both in West Germany and elsewhere, was the writings of Wilhelm Reich, a leftist Austrian psychiatrist who died in 1957. An influential pupil of Freud, Reich’s The Mass Psychology of Fascism argued that the rise of authoritarianism could be tied to the “suppression of the natural sexuality of the child.” And West Germany had another prominent symbol for the movement: an anarchist journalist named Peter Schult, who remained a figure of reverence on the left despite the fact that he openly described himself as a “pederast.” In 1976, he was convicted of bringing a young girl home with him with the intention of sexually abusing her. 

The period’s experimental sexual climate led to shocking projects, some of which were only publicized decades later. In the late 1960s, for example, a prominent sexual researcher named Helmut Kentler created a pilot program in which he arranged for illiterate young teenagers to move in with three known West Berlin pedophiles in the hopes that they could then learn to live “proper, unremarkable lives.” In a later report he explained that he believed the “three men would do so much to help ‘their’ boys because they had a sexual relationship with them.”  

During the late 1970s and early 1980s, groups like the Indianerkommune (which fought in favor of “autonomy” for children) and the German Study and Work Group on Pedophilia made surprising inroads into German political parties. A youth group affiliated with the FDP, the country’s liberal party, adopted pro-pedophilia resolutions in 1980. During last year’s election, an FDP politician—who is now a mother of three—had to withdraw her candidacy after one of the Greens’ researchers discovered an early essay of hers describing how her “wishes and needs can only be satisfied by a child, especially a girl.” The pro-pedophilia movement had even more success within the German Green Party, which was formed in 1980 as a vehicle for various left-wing causes, and actually managed, as the Trittin scandal showed, to have its goals taken up by segments of the party itself.

Not surprisingly, left-wing pro-pedophilia circles sometimes facilitated real-life child abuse. In a lengthy Die Welt newspaper article published last year, an anonymous male victim described life on a 1980s commune with then-prominent Green Party member Hermann Meer. On the commune, the victim explained, Meer’s pedophilia was open: “It wasn’t a secret, it was advertised.” He told Die Welt that he was sexually abused by “about 10 men”—most of them visitors attending meetings on commune grounds.

By the mid-1980s, the pedosexual movement, as its proponents called it, had waned because of pushback from feminists and an increased focus on victims’ rights. Pro-pedophilia groups were either pushed out of parties or dissolved, and some activists were arrested or passed away. “Peter Schult died in 1984,” says Florian Mildenberger, a professor at Viadrina European University and the author of a book on Schult, “and after that pedophilia also died as a political subject.” 

In the years since, Germany has developed some of the most forward-thinking treatment programs for pedophilia—a result, ironically, of the same Nazi baggage that allowed the pro-pedophilia movement to gain a foothold in mainstream German politics in the first place. Germany has never adopted the kinds of aggressive rules—like mandatory reporting laws—that can punish pedophiles seeking help in the United States. “German law is much more about resocialization than American law,” Klecha says, adding that Germany seems more willing to draw a distinction between pedophiles who do and do not commit abuses. “I think one of the lessons of the Nazi era was that you always consider a question like this more broadly,” he says. “There is a connection between pedophilia and sexual abuse, but it’s not always a necessary connection.” 

Germany has become a pioneer in an effort to treat pedophiles before they offend. In 2005, the Charite Hospital in Berlin created the world’s first program to treat potential and abusing pedophiles that have yet to get involved in the criminal justice system. The program offers a mixture of therapy and drug treatment, and has thus far offered encouraging results. “We know that we can lower the risk factors for sexual child abuse and consumption of child abusive images,” says Jens Wagner, the program’s spokesperson, “and strengthen our participants’ degree of empathy for victims. There are countless other findings.”

In a move that may surprise tourists checking out a movie in Berlin, the program even advertises in German movie theaters. One ad, which is sometimes broadcast before the coming attractions, shows a man sitting in a subway car across from a child, his heart racing, until the tag line “Do you love children more than you’d like to?”  appears, along with the suggestion that potential pedophiles get help. Similar programs have since been started elsewhere in Germany and in Austria and Switzerland. “It has gotten lots of attention,” says Wagner, “and there are efforts in the United States and other countries to do similar things.”

Mildenberger points out that Germany’s recent scandals have shown that the country’s political climate is at least more open and willing to discuss painful episodes than in the U.S. “For 20 years, West Germany tried to pretend that the Nazi era didn’t happen,” he says. “In Germany we’ve learned that everyone has to confront the past.” But now he worries that the recent scandals will help push Germany towards more American-style moralism. “The Greens were always seen as this clean alternative party,” he says, “but now they are hitting against another group that has always been seen as good and in need of protection: children.” He believes that, as a result, parties on the left will have to take more conservative stances in order to redeem themselves. 

In January, as part of a Canadian child-pornography bust, Sebastian Edathy, a politician in the center-left Social Democratic Party, was discovered to have downloaded legal (i.e. non-sexual) nude photos of children onto his computer. In a move that would seem outrageous in the U.S., party officials didn’t make Edathy resign until several weeks later and some spoke highly of him even as he left. But as the Greens’ scandal has made bigger and bigger waves, the public stance against Edathy has become less forgiving.

Last week, the government passed stringent new laws making the kinds of images found on Edathy’s computer illegal. “It requires people in the legal field to determine whether or not an image is ‘arousing’,” Mildenberger says, “and these are not exactly the most expert people at this.” But others, including members of the Green Party, have argued that the law clears up a legal gray area. Regardless, authorities in the German region of Verden announced on Tuesday that they were officially taking on the case against Edathy. One spokesperson told Der Spiegel they were invested in doing so because of it was “especially significant.”