12 German women who changed the world

12 German women who changed the world

Diejenigen, die sich nicht bewegen, werden ihre Fesseln nicht bemerken” (“Those who do not move, do not notice their chains,”), wrote Rosa Luxemburg in a letter to an unknown recipient.

The quotation is just one of many of the philosopher and revolutionary’s poetic musings on oppression, but one that schoolchildren today know across history classrooms and schools in Germany.

Luxemburg is one of the most influential German women in the country’s modern history, one who set a tone at the turn of the 20th century, a century during which women’s rights and freedoms would be revolutionised thanks to those who “noticed their chains”. From philosophers and activists to artists, singers and authors, these are the famous German women who, along with Luxemburg, have shaped modern German history.

Famous Germans in history: Women from Germany

These are the historical German women who laid the foundations for modern Germany.

Rosa Luxemburg (1871-1919)

Born in Poland and naturalised in Germany, Rosa Luxemburg, or “Red Rosa”, was a Jewish revolutionary socialist, Marxist philosopher and anti-war activist. Luxemburg’s legacy on modern German history and politics is so great it is difficult to abridge.

Luxemburg was a member of the SPD, the Communist Party of Germany, and perhaps most famously, the Spartacus League, which she founded with three other behemoths of German history, Karl Liebknecht, Clara Zetkin and Franz Mehring. Established in 1914, the raison d’etre of Luxemburg and Liebknecht’s Spartacus League was to oppose World War I, publishing anti-war pamphlets under the collective pseudonym of Spartacus and encouraging an anti-war general strike.

In her philosophical and economic pursuits, Luxemburg is perhaps most well-known for her only officially published book, The Accumulation of Capital. In the 1913 tome, Luxemburg picked holes in Karl Marx’s Capital, challenging his arguments about the dynamic which motivates the pursuit of profit.

As the war ended in 1918, the November Revolution swept across the German Empire, beginning its demise. Destitution imposed on the German population after four years of a now unsuccessful war led to social discontent. Now leaders of the Communist Party of Germany, Luxemburg and Liebknecht were imprisoned by the German Freikorps paramilitaries in an attempt to quash the revolution. Shortly after, on January 11, 1919, the pair were murdered by the Freikorps and their bodies were thrown into Berlin’s Landwehr Canal.

Video: YouTube / Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung

Gabriele Münter (1877-1962)

The story of Gabriele Münter's life follows a familiar pattern, that of a woman overshadowed by the greatness of her male counterpart. Born in Berlin in 1877, Münter was a German expressionist painter who, together with Wassily Kandinsky, founded the world-famous Blaue Reiter group. 

Münter’s style made an impression on Kandinsky’s own style, with Münter’s selection of sometimes almost neon colours slowly seeping their way into the early paintings of Kandinsky’s Metamorphosis period. 

On her 80th birthday, Münter donated her entire collection of Blaue Reiter works to the Städtische Galerie in Munich, some of which are still on display today.

Video: YouTube / Rollo Paterson - The Last Impressionist

Dora Richter  (1891-1933)

Of all historical women in Germany, Dora Richter is not so well-known, but you have likely already seen a picture which poignantly captured a dark turning point in her story. Born in Karlsbad, a city now part of modern Czechia, Richter is the first known person in the world to have undergone complete gender reassignment surgery. 

After working as a baker in Leipzig, in 1923 Richter moved to Berlin and became a domestic servant at Magnus Hirschfield’s Institue of Sexual Research, the first of its kind in the world and - at the time - one of the only places where openly transgender people could find a job. During the 1920s and 1930s, Hirschfield researched LGBT topics and is considered one of the first outspoken campaigners for homosexual and transgender rights.

That was until 1933 when Nazi youth brigades raided Hirschfield’s institute and destroyed its research as part of the now infamous book burning at Berlin’s Bebelplatz. It is not known what happened to Richter after the event, but historians suspect she was either murdered during the raid or died in Nazi custody shortly afterwards.

Hannah Arendt (1906-1975)

Hannah Arendt joins Red Rosa as another mammoth figure in German history. The Jewish political philosopher was born in what is modern-day Lower Saxony. After finishing university at the beginning of the 1930s, a graduate Arendt was briefly imprisoned by the Gestapo for undertaking research on antisemitism. Fleeing Germany, Arendt settled in Czechia, Switzerland, France and finally New York. 

In her lifetime Arendt produced multiple seminal works of postwar philosophy, including The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951) and The Human Condition (1951). As a journalist, she is perhaps most famous for covering the 1963 trial of Nazi official Adolf Eichmann, which Arendt reported on for The New Yorker magazine and was later published as Eichmann in Jerusalem. The book’s subtitle famously coined the phrase “banality of evil”, encapsulating Eichmann’s in-court defence that he was “just following orders”.

Sophie Scholl (1921-1943)

In February 1943, Sophie Scholl and her brother Hans entered the atrium of Ludwig Maximilian University in Munich while seminars were running. The pair hastily left piles of anti-Nazi leaflets, produced by their non-violent Nazi resistance group the White Rose (Weiße Rose), for students to find once they came out of their lecture halls. Scholl’s downfall was her decision to then spontaneously drop a pile of the pamphlets from the top floor down into the atrium, which caught the attention of janitor and Nazi Party member Jakob Schmid.

Within five days, the Scholl siblings and their accomplice, Christoph Probst, were taken into custody, trialled, found guilty of treason and sentenced to death. Both Scholl and her brother had been members of Nazi youth organisations as children, only questioning the party’s politics in their teenage years. And though Scholl's resistance actions were just the blink of an eye in the history of the Third Reich, the courage of the then-21-year-old has made her one of the best-remembered resistance activists in modern Germany.

A memorial to the White Rose resistance group at LMU university (anahtiris / shutterstock_280554692.jpg

Ika Hügel-Marshall (1947-2022) and Dagmar Schultz (b.1941)

Ika-Hügel Marshall was one of the frontrunners of the Afro-German women’s movement. Hügel-Marshall was born in Bavaria shortly after World War II to a white Bavarian mother and a Black American father. The story of Hügel-Marshall's childhood, growing up as one of the very few biracial children in postwar Germany, was documented in her 1998 autobiography, Daheim unterwegs.

Throughout the 1980s Hügel-Marshall and her partner, academic and film director Dagmar Schultz, developed a strong friendship with the American author and poet Audre Lorde, which would lead to the couple spending much of their lives preserving the cultural legacy of Audre Lorde in Berlin. Schultz’s 2012 film Audre Lorde: The Berlin Years, 1984 to 1992 captures this period.


May Ayim (1960-1996)

May Ayim could be considered Audre Lorde’s Berlin poetry protégé. Born in Hamburg in 1960 to a German mother and Ghanaian father, Ayim was adopted when she was a child. After penning one of the first scholarly studies on Afro-German history at university, Ayim was encouraged by Audre Lorde to join Dagmar Schultz and fellow student Katharina Oguntoye to edit the first book about Afro-German women. Farbe bekennen or Showing Our Colours was published in 1986 and remains one of the most seminal books about the Afro-German experience. 

German women you should know about 

From past to present, these are the German women shaping contemporary German politics and society.

Alice Schwarzer (b.1942)

Alice Schwarzer is a household name and a controversial figure in German feminism due to her stances on sex work, pornography, transgender rights and women in Islam. Best known for founding the magazine EMMA, which is still published today, Bavarian-born Schwarzer began her career in the French feminist movement, before returning to Germany to begin a career in journalism.

Alice Schwarzer (Image credit: Markus Wissmann / shutterstock_700735669.jpg

Angela Merkel (b.1954)

Are there any women from Germany more famous than Angela Merkel? Now retired, Merkel’s political career was often defined by her gender, with the media dubbing her “Mutti” (mummy). The sobriquet was supposedly coined by Economic Affairs Minister Michael Glos, not as a term of endearment, but as a sexist jibe that undermined the chancellor’s authority and decision-making abilities. Before she was Mutti, Merkel was also named Helmut Kohl’s protégé or “Mädchen” (girl). 

Contrary to Glos’ intentions, Merkel came to symbolise security and sensible decision-making in Germany and across the world. Even towards her final days in office, the country’s longest-running chancellor was still being ranked with the “highest approval rating of any world leader”. Since Merkel was sworn in in 2005 she did much to improve Germany's policies on childcare and maternity, though her critics say that being a leader of a conservative, Christian party, Merkel’s politics was often disparate from everyday women’s best interests.

Nina Hagen (b.1955)

Nina Hagen’s place on this list was a given, but it was only re-endorsed when Germany’s personification, Merkel, chose Hagen's 1974 hit Du hast den Farbfilm vergessen to be performed by the Bundeswehr marching band at her farewell ceremony in 2021.

Part of the Neue Deutsche Welle (New German Wave) and punk scene, Hagen’s quivering, wacky vocals have earned her the title “Godmother of German punk”. Born in East Berlin, the punk opera singer was also strange bedfellows with the East Berlin football team Union Berlin, penning the club's anthem Eisern Union in 1998. 

Video: YouTube / Ihr Programm

Luisa Neubauer (b.1996)

For the unwitting, Luisa Neubauer could be described as Germany’s answer to Greta Thunberg. Neubauer is the face of and one of the main founders of Friday’s for Future, Germany’s youth climate movement.

With Fridays for Future, Neubauer and her associates organise regular climate strikes across over 200 towns and cities in Germany, demanding more urgent climate action policy from the German government and pushing companies to divest in coal, oil and gas

Women of Germany: Changing the world one step at a time

The freedoms of women in Germany today are almost unimaginable to those who set the foundations for women’s liberation over the course of the 20th and 21st centuries. That said, in the words of Angela Davis, another honourary Berliner who made her mark on the East German feminism in the 1970s, “freedom is a constant struggle.”

Thumb image credit: Everett Collection /

Olivia Logan


Olivia Logan

Editor for Germany at IamExpat Media. Olivia first came to Germany in 2013 to work as an Au Pair. Since studying English Literature and German in Scotland, Freiburg and Berlin...

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