Gay Berlin: Birthplace of a Modern Identity

Robert Beachy

Robert Beachy's study of gay life in pre-Weimar Berlin reveals just how much influence that subculture had on our current understandings of sexuality.

Excerpted from Gay Berlin by Robert Beachy (footnotes omitted). Copyright © 2014 by Robert Beachy. Excerpted by permission of Knopf Doubleday, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Chapter One

The German Invention of Homosexuality

On a bright Thursday morning in late August 1867, the German lawyer Karl Heinrich Ulrichs, a former member of the civil service in the Kingdom of Hanover, approached the Odeon concert hall in Munich. Since the beginning of the week, the Association of German Jurists had been assembling in this magnificent neoclassical structure to present papers and discuss the legal issues of the day. The professional group represented lawyers, officials, bureaucrats, and legal academics from the 39 states and cities of the former German Confederation, a loose association created at the Congress of Vienna in 1815. This imposing body of Ulrichs’ colleagues made up the government establishment of the nascent German Empire. Dressed formally even in the midst of summer, they had first met in 1860 to facilitate great tasks of statecraft: they were all ardent nationalists and hoped to promote German legal unification, even before the emergence of a nation state. Although the jurists’ political program would have important consequences for the incipient German state, Ulrichs’ appearance at the Odeon marked a revolution all its own. He was preparing to address his professional colleagues on an unmentionable subject, same-sex love, and to protest the various German sodomy laws that criminalized it.

Ulrichs had celebrated his birthday the day before, and now, at the age of 42, he hoped to deliver a speech for which he arguably had spent most of his adulthood preparing. As a university student, he had recognized that he was attracted to other men. This sexual peculiarity and rumors of his intimate affairs had forced him to resign the only professional position he had ever held, as a government official. Finally, in an act of enormous courage, he disclosed his secret to his closest kin. Raised in a pious Christian family whose extended members included numerous Lutheran clergy, Ulrichs strove for years with heart and intellect to make sense of his seemingly unacceptable feelings. Were they unnatural? Had he somehow caused them himself, through actions of his own? He examined carefully his own motivations and desires; he scoured legal and scientific publications on the topic. Following the tradition of the great Protestant reformer Martin Luther, Ulrichs developed a theory of his own selfhood – though defined in sexual, not spiritual, terms – and formed the conviction that he must face down an established authority and counter centuries of prejudice. For several years now, since 1864, he had published pamphlets under a pseudonym, arguing his case that sexual deviance was an endowment of nature and must be respected.

But on that morning in August, crossing Munich’s beautiful Odeonsplatz, framed by imposing government and cultural buildings, past the grand loggia of the Field Marshalls’ Hall and the baroque spires and dome of the Theatine Church, Ulrichs felt his heart palpitate almost audibly as he neared the handsome Odeon hall. As he would later recount, an inner voice whispered: “There is still time to keep silent. Simply waive your request to speak, and then your heart can stop pounding.” But Ulrichs also remembered those “comrades” who were anticipating his protest – “Was I to answer their trust in me with cowardice?” – and he recalled a desperate acquaintance who had committed suicide to escape criminal prosecution for sodomy and the public humiliation that would have followed. “With breast beating,” Ulrichs entered the magnificent building, mounted the speaker’s platform, and began reading his text to more than 500 professional colleagues. “Gentlemen,” he intoned, “my proposal is directed toward a revision of the current penal law” to abolish the persecution of an innocent class of persons. “It is at the same time,” Ulrichs continued, “a question of damming a continuing flood of suicides.” The victims, he said, were those sexually drawn to members of their own sex.

Expressions of outrage and scattered cries of “Stop!” began echoing through the chamber. Alarmed by the voluble hostility, Ulrichs offered to surrender the floor, but others in the audience urged him to continue, and he again took heart. This “class of persons,” he went on to say, suffered legal persecution only because “nature has planted in them a sexual nature that is opposite of that which is usual.” Raucous shouts now emanated from the audience; Ulrichs heard hooting, catcalls, and cries of “Crucify!” from groups on his left and directly in front. On his right stood those who were not prepared for the content of his address and out of curiosity demanded that he finish. But the cacophony overwhelmed them and the speaker, and Ulrichs descended from the podium without finishing his speech, while the assembly chairman attempted to reestablish order. The Association of Jurists refused to press Ulrichs’ agenda after the meeting concluded. Within five years member states of the new German Empire had adopted a full penal code in which the punitive Prussian law making a crime of sodomy prevailed over the far more liberal statutes of the other German states. But standing at the podium in Munich, Ulrichs had started something important with the first public coming-out in modern history.

Just how much courage did this take? By August 1867 Ulrichs had already forfeited his career and exposed himself to potential rejection by family members. He had little left to lose and later described his appearance before the jurists at the Odeon as the proudest moment of his life. Freed now to go on making a public case for his cause, he continued publishing pamphlets after 1867, but under his own name, not a pseudonym. And although he failed to avert the imposition of an anti-sodomy law throughout the newly unified German nation after 1871, his writings and his actions helped inspire the world’s first movement for homosexual rights, launched a generation later in Berlin, in 1897.

The truly remarkable aspect of Ulrichs’ brave initiative was the important contribution he made to the redefinition – indeed the invention – of sexuality in nineteenth-century Europe. Traditional medical “science” explained “sodomy’ as a willful perversion and the product of masturbation or sexual excess. “Sodomites” were understood to be oversexed predators who had simply grown bored with women. The established science of sexual “perversion” viewed same-sex erotic activity as that which it seemed to be and nothing more, an isolated genital act. It was possible to imagine, in fact, that almost anyone might succumb to the crime of sodomy, either through seduction or by willful decision, but ultimately as a result of moral weakness. Sexual desire was considered a fluid and malleable drive that might easily be warped and perverted. Only in the 1850s did the first medical doctor, a German in Berlin named Johann Ludwig Casper, question this received wisdom and argue that some “sodomites” had an innate, biological attraction to the same sex. By 1900 a progressive school of German psychiatry had formed around the belief that same-sex attraction might be congenital, and somehow an integral feature of a small sexual minority. It became possible now to imagine that certain individuals were attracted innately to their own and not the opposite sex. Indeed, German speakers – both self-identified same-sex loving men and medical doctors – invented a new language of sexual orientation and identity that displaced the older understanding of perversion and moral failure. Invented terms such as Urning (Ulrichs’ own coinage) or “homosexual” first entered the German lexicon and later other European languages as well. Ulrichs’ pamphlet propaganda played a critical role in this development: his theories of an inborn Urning sexuality and character coupled with his outspoken activism helped not only to influence the incipient sciences of sexuality but also to mobilize an imagined community of homosexuals. Concretely Ulrichs spearheaded a conceptual revolution that transformed erotic, same-sex love from one of deviant acts into a full-blown sexual orientation with its own distinct quality and character.


Ulrichs was an improbable innovator, and certainly an unlikely activist for the civil rights of a sexual minority. Born in 1825 in Aurich, a typical small-town German community located in East Friesland, which became part of the Kingdom of Hanover in 1815, the young Ulrichs was sheltered from the cultural and intellectual life of nineteenth century Europe. His father was a district engineering official and civil servant, and his mother’s clan included numerous Lutheran pastors. From infancy, Ulrichs’ conservative family trained him for academic study and a professional career, either as a bureaucrat or clergyman. This early preparation endowed him with a restless intelligence, however, and the independence to follow his own calling.

Ulrichs’ family must be seen as elite – despite small-town origins – and typical of a wider German class of educated professionals (Bildungsbürgertum), a group that enjoyed significant social prominence throughout the German territories. What anchored their elite status was education: most attended Gymnasium or Latin high school, which prepared its graduates for university study. Talent was a necessary but rarely sufficient qualification for Latin school. Germany’s educated elite shared a class background of social and cultural – if not financial – capital, provided by families that could prepare sons for rigorous training and the connections to navigate social and government networks. Higher education was the credential that guaranteed a civil service career as jurist, teacher, cleric, or official in any one of Germany’s many city, state, or church bureaucracies. Many such families boasted a long string of church or state officials, often stretching back generations. The Ulrichs were clearly no exception.

As his parents’ only surviving son – an older brother died in infancy in 1824 –Ulrichs enjoyed the attention and encouragement that prepared him well for academic study. He later described this as a happy childhood: “From loving motherly care, I received in part my first education and in part a whole series of other intellectual impressions and influences.” Ulrichs’ mother also imparted the conservative piety of traditional Lutheranism, teaching Ulrichs devotional exercises, scripture, and prayers. After the death of his father in 1835, Ulrichs and his family moved to live near his maternal grandfather and a married sister in the Hanoverian town of Burgdorf, where he was confirmed in the Lutheran Church by his grandfather on Easter Sunday in 1839, a religious and social milestone marking a new stage of his life. Young Karl then attended Latin school, first in Detmold, home of his mother’s brother (likewise a Lutheran pastor), and then in nearby Celle. The close structure of Ulrichs’ family – infused with conservative Protestant religiosity, loving attention, and careful social control – served the boy well. At 19 he completed his Gymnasium exams with excellent results in Latin and Greek, the subjects required for university entrance.

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