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Uncovering Queer History in ‘Gay Berlin’

Gay Berlin reveals a vibrant gay rights movement that flourished in Germany a hundred years before Stonewall.

It was Michel Foucault who famously formulated the idea that homosexuality was invented in the 19th century.

What he meant is that while same-sex eroticism and sexual acts had transpired throughout history, sexuality as a constitutive concept, and homosexuality as a distinct category or identity (particularly a medicalized one, and defined in opposition to heterosexuality), only clearly emerged in the modern era.

Foucault’s argument is now widely accepted by many scholars of sexuality and queer studies. But Foucault was mostly interested in how sexuality has been used in the modern era. Robert Beachy, a German historian currently based in South Korea, is interested in the actual historical context which gave rise to this identity. What exactly was it about 19th century Germany that made it possible for the homosexual identity to emerge there so clearly and distinctly? What were the political, legal and cultural characteristics of Germany at the time that made it ripe for the emergence of a homosexual identity?

This is the focus of his remarkable new book, Gay Berlin: Birthplace of a Modern Identity. It wasn’t incidental, argues Beachy, that Germany became the focal site of modern homosexual identity. The country — not even a country, per se, in the mid-1800s, as unification didn’t happen until 1871 — early on established a reputation for state tolerance for homosexuality and later other non-normative sexual behaviours that was far ahead of its European or even American counterparts. Up until the Nazi seizure of power, the country was at the forefront of sexuality research and a burgeoning activist movement that fought for equality and tolerance for homosexuals, and came very near to successfully decriminalizing homosexuality.

The ‘homosexual milieu’ thus created, and centered in the newly booming metropolis of Berlin, was diverse and dynamic, and drew the attention of fascinated tourists, researchers, creative workers and people exploring their own sexual identities from around the world. The Prussian-dominated German Empire, and the Weimar Republic, which emerged following World War One, wedded a typically German faith in the supremacy of rational thought and science over religious moral traditions, with an equally German taste for bureaucracy and order (at one point applicants could even apply to the state bureaucracy for a ‘transvestite pass’ authorizing them to appear in public in the attire of either sex without the risk of unpleasant police encounters).

Beachy’s book opens with a look at the life and contributions of Karl Heinrich Ulrichs, a remarkable German jurist and writer who played the key role both in defining homosexuality as well as kickstarted the movement for gay rights. A homosexual himself, his promising legal career was cut short when rumours began to spread about his sexual activities with other men. Shut out of the legal profession, he gradually rebuilt himself a career in journalism and writing. But as Beachy points out, he was a true product of the Protestant Reformation (his family were ardent Lutherans), with its drive to question accepted traditions in the search for truth. No matter which way he looked at it, he couldn’t find anything wrong with his sexual attraction to other men, and concluded that it was normal behaviour, and that some people are simply born homosexual.

All this was, of course, highly revolutionary for his time — as was his decision to begin campaigning for an end to the existing anti-sodomy laws and moral persecution which accompanied them. He first opened up a remarkable correspondence with his own family in what was essentially the first documented coming-out in history. He tested his own theories on them, and while they clearly disapproved and urged him to change, they didn’t reject him and even re-affirmed their love and support for him.

Thus bolstered, he began issuing a series of anonymous pamphlets, arguing that homosexuality, or ‘Urning’, as he called it, was natural behaviour. In 1867 he ratcheted things up a notch, giving an address to the Association of German Jurists where he presented his views and argued for revision of the sodomy laws. He was shouted down and unable to finish his speech, but he had opened the dialogue, and at the same time emerged as its public spokesperson. As he continued his courageous campaign, he also refined his theories of sexuality to embrace a diversity of sexual and gender identities.

Germany, of course, wasn’t quite Germany at that time. It was still a loose conglomeration of independent states, which would not formally join together to form the German Empire until 1871. Unification movements, however, were active and political activism was in the air. Ulrichs himself was involved in the unification movement, and here we see the first example of queer politics and nationalist politics intersecting. Ulrichs saw German unification as a way to counter the influence of the strict moralism of powerful Prussia’s penal code; some of the other German states were more liberal on the topic of sodomy and sexuality.

Ironically, the fragmented nature of the German states actually helped Ulrichs spread his views. He published his important series of pamphlets via a publisher based in Saxony. Although Saxony (unlike his native Hanover) had strict anti-sodomy laws, it also had liberal free speech laws. When Ulrichs’ material was seized and he and his publisher charged, they successfully struck down the charges. The court ruled that the “scientific value” of his work outweighed the threat to public morality. This was important, as it set a precedent for open public discussion about homosexuality and Ulrichs’ theories in Germany.

Many of Ulrichs’ arguments echo those deployed a hundred years later in the same cause. He argued it was vital to repeal sodomy laws since they led to many ‘Urnings’ committing suicide. They also led to blackmail against gay men (and straight men, too), a type of crime that became so prevalent that entire police units were formed to combat it. And even where sodomy laws did not exist, the broader stigma they created among the German states led to social ostracism and harassment, such as that which drove Ulrichs from his own position as a judge some years earlier.

Ulrichs wasn’t the first to suggest homosexuality was an innate behaviour, rather than acquired or constructed. But he was significant in drawing together the previously disparate research on the topic, and on launching an overt campaign for tolerance. Battle for Freedom from Persecution was the title of his 1865 publication (one of many). When his views were denounced in the press, some newspapers — including the powerful Deutsche Allgemeine — gave him space to defend his views. “My writings are the voice of a socially oppressed minority that now claims its rights to be heard,” he wrote.

And this was more than a century before Stonewall.

His work and fearlessness inspired many of the researchers and activists who came after him. But in the end, it was German unification that was the undoing of his campaign. Although Ulrichs and other lobbyists nearly succeeded in bringing about the repeal of the Prussian anti-sodomy laws, their efforts were derailed by a series of brutal sex attacks and murders that inflamed public hysteria against homosexuals. Prussia kept its strict anti-sodomy laws, and then came to lead the German Empire, imposing its penal code on the rest of the country, including those states which had previously enjoyed more liberal laws around sexuality. Ulrichs left the country, and spent his final years in Italy and focused on his literary work.

With the stage thus set, Beachy explores how homosexuality in Berlin, and in Germany more broadly, unfolded as a public, scientific, and legal identity. The Prussian-dominated new Imperial German state established the legal framework in which homosexuality would be treated, but it was the surge in intellectual activity in the newly vitalized capital of Berlin, that would shape the complicated identity of the German homosexual.

Beachy explores extensively how German policing came to terms with enforcing the fraught anti-sodomy statute (Paragraph 175 of the penal code). Discouraged from over-enthusiastic enforcement by the fact the police president himself was widely considered to be homosexual, police officials eventually settled on a policy of surveillance and qualified tolerance. Putting into practice newly developed ‘scientific’ techniques of policing such as mugshots, the police maintained active files on so-called ‘pederasts’, yet they also allowed homosexual publications, bars and even fancy dress balls. Indeed, they often attended themselves, and were provided tables of honour.

The police thus came to also act as a liaison between the homosexual community and the scientific community, taking researchers on ‘tours’ of Berlin’s growing gay scene. When criminal activity or public opinion warranted, they could crack down on specific individuals or venues, but by and large (and in a remarkable iteration of typically German efficiency, perhaps) they decided, as one police president put it, that this approach of good relations and tacit tolerance “simplifies the observation of these circles for the criminal police, and it keeps them from causing public disturbances in the streets”.

Against this tolerant backdrop, however, more proactive activists began to question and challenge the legitimacy of criminalizing homosexuality at all. Their target was the anti-sodomy statute, Paragraph 175. Led by the young medical doctor Magnus Hirschfeld who, in 1897 organized what he called the ‘Scientific Humanitarian Committee’, they hoped that “scientific research (together with public education) would effect a dramatic cultural reassessment of homosexuality within Germany, leading eventually to acceptance and legal reform.”

The focus on medical science reflects their approach to the homosexual identity, and reflects a debate that was to prove equally fraught a hundred years later. Is homosexuality (and sexual identity more broadly) something people are born with — an innate scientifically observable medical state? And if so, should it not be accepted and tolerated free of value judgments? (Yet while for some this theory begged tolerance, for others it opened the door to the argument that homosexuality could also be ‘cured’.)

Or, on the other hand, is homosexuality an identity that one chooses? Do people exert choice and control over their sexual desires and preferences? And if so, should the state regulate certain sexual desires and choices as morally unacceptable?

All Good Things Must Come to an End

These debates continue today, although the cultural framework has shifted dramatically. Even in recent years some gay rights campaigns have pushed the perspective that people are ‘born that way’; others reject that as disempowering and as a dismissive form of medicalization of their lifestyle choices, which should be tolerated simply as their private choice. Now, as then, advocates of both perspectives awkwardly collaborate in the aim of achieving social and legal reform, tolerance and equality.

Even though it was the leftist political parties that had championed gay rights in the legislative sphere, gay Germans themselves identified all across the political spectrum.

Hirschfeld’s scientific-humanitarian approach, predicated on the idea of homosexuality being innate, initially bore tremendous success, spurring a range of research and publication and drawing immense public support. Petitions were organized for the repeal of the anti-sodomy statute, and a debate on the topic was even held in the German Reichstag in 1898 (the motion failed). Support for decriminalizing homosexuality became part of the agenda of many of Germany’s ‘countercultural’ movements, from the ‘life reform movement’ (the hippie vegetarians of Imperial Germany) to the anarchists. Yet at its core remained a literary and scientific elite who were convinced that a rational scientific approach could overcome prejudice and moral bigotry.

As the movement grew, however, it also began to splinter. A split in strategy and attitude was caused by the so-called ‘masculinists’. These were prominent supporters of the decriminalization movement who were not happy about the medicalization of homosexuality. They didn’t consider it a medical condition — with the implication of helplessness and pity that seemed to suggest — but rather a lifestyle choice they proudly assumed. In this, they were shaped by the powerful German Romantic tradition, which had long idealized the strength and power of male ‘friendships’.

Drawing on Greco-Roman motifs, they praised homoeroticism as an important component of male virility. Some of them advocated marrying women and forming families (presided over by themselves as patriarch) while also forming homoerotic and/or sexual relationships with men (this often involved a tradition of older men partnering with younger men). Others rejected relations with women entirely, sometimes promoting a thinly veiled misogyny. Either way, they championed the Romantic image of masculine homoeroticism as a part of male virility befitting the militaristic aspirations of the German Empire.

This tradition also sometimes dipped into anti-Semitism, drawing as it did on the notion of a racially pure German folk tradition steeped in homoerotic ideals. In this (tragically ironic in view of later events) the masculinists would come to share a position on the extreme of the German ‘Volk’ tradition with the Nazis.

With homosexuality increasingly in the public purview — to the regular shock (and delight) of other European and American visitors — it even came to be a tool of politics. Newspapers would ‘out’ prominent politicians or industrialists — often those on the other side of the paper’s political spectrum — as being gay (sometimes they were spurred on by the paper’s political allies). Beachy offers an in-depth analysis of one such case, the Eulenburg Scandal, which led to libel charges against a prominent German newspaper editor who had accused two of the Kaiser’s close associates of being gay.

Remarkably, the influence of Hirschfeld’s scientific-humanitarian approach came to play an important role in the trial, when the judge ruled that the editor had neither committed libel, nor had the aristocrat violated the anti-sodomy statute. Drawing on Hirschfeld’s expert testimony, the judge ruled one could be scientifically defined as homosexual without engaging in sexual activity; “He has an aversion to the female sex, he has an attraction to the male sex, and he has certain feminine features. These are all characteristics of homosexuality…” He was, in effect, ‘proven’ to be homosexual without being ‘guilty’ of homosexual acts. The Kaiser had a nervous breakdown, the government sponsored an appeal of the case, and following several more sensational legal twists and turns, a settlement was finally reached.

Beachy covers a tremendous deal of ground in his ambitious study. He examines the achievements and legacy of Hirschfeld’s Institute for Sexual Science, which offered tolerant and sex-positive counseling to patients, conducted research and public education and outreach campaigns, and even pioneered some of the first sex reassignment surgeries for transsexuals. He also surveys sex work and prostitution in Berlin, drawing on copious first-hand accounts from tourists and residents alike. Although a scholarly work, his account succeeds in bringing gay Berlin to life, from its smoke-filled cafes to its public parks and toilets. He also explores the roles of homosexuality in some of the more uniquely German cultural and lifestyle movements, such as the Mannerbund and the Wandervogel movements (the latter a sort of nascent boy scouts which became extremely popular before the Second World War).

Beachy’s account is indeed one that is primarily about ‘gay’ Berlin. Lesbianism and women’s roles are discussed but only peripherally and largely in the context of the broader movement for legal and social reform. Of course, as he notes, there were also lesbian magazines and lesbian bars, and German feminists were important allies in the work of Hirschfeld’s Institute for Sexual Science, which also advocated for birth control (American birth control ‘pioneer’ Margaret Sanger traveled to Hirschfeld’s Institute while doing research in Europe). But the overarching social and historical focus of Beachy’s work is on men and the male homosexual culture that developed in Berlin and Germany more broadly. In this task alone he clearly already had his hands full; what his work reveals is that there’s an important history of lesbian Berlin also waiting to be written.

But all good things must come to an end, as they say, and the end of the world’s first overt gay rights struggle came about as dramatically as it began. Beachy devotes the final part of his book to chronicling the tragic end to a courageous movement; a movement whose development bore remarkable parallels to that which would follow 60 years later. The ’20s saw the rise of the ‘Human Rights League’ in Germany, a broad-based movement whose organizing and lobbying for legal reforms was predicated on the presentation of gay identity as one that was respectably middle-class, bourgeois and entirely non-threatening.

Building on the permissive public space that had been carved out by groups like the Scientific-Humanitarian Committee and the masculinist organizations before them, the Human Rights League had at its height tens of thousands of members in cities across the country. It was led by a savvy businessman, Friedrich Radszuweit, who determinedly downplayed the subversive and countercultural elements of gay identity, pushing for middle-class respectability. This would be echoed in the fight for decriminalization of homosexuality and gay marriage in the late 20th century, led as it was by groups which also by and large eschewed the threatening edge of queer subversiveness and strove instead for middle-class respectability.

Radszuweit had a good grasp of his constituency, though, and realized that even though it was the leftist political parties that had championed gay rights in the legislative sphere, gay Germans themselves identified all across the political spectrum. Internal opinion polling suggested as many as a third of his group’s members were affiliated with right-wing political parties like the Nazis, even though the Nazis were overtly hostile to homosexuality. Beachy notes the tragic contradiction in the homoerotic appeal that right-wing nationalism apparently held for many gay Germans: “the many homosexual men who embraced the Nazi cause misapprehended the centrality of Nazi racialist doctrine and how homosexuality appeared to threaten it. Viewing Nazis as the literal embodiment of the homoerotic Mannerbund, many were blinded by the homoeroticism of the masculinist ideologues.”

The end of the ’20s marked the high point of the gay rights movement, as well as its precipitous collapse. Although the three key groupings of gay activists — Hirschfeld’s Scientific-Humanitarian Committee, the masculinist groups headed primarily by the tempestuous and erratic Adolf Brand, and Radszuweit’s Human Rights League — competed with each other for primacy in the movement (and presented dramatically different representations of gay identity), collectively they carried forward broad momentum for social tolerance and legal reform. As late as 1929 a Reichstag justice committee voted to eliminate the anti-sodomy statute—the breakthrough goal toward which they had all been striving. But the breakthrough came too late. The financial and political pressures bearing down on Germany’s fragile inter-war republic proved too much, and the final coalition government collapsed (along with the economy) before it could pass a revised legal code.

The ensuing financial depression meant that most of the gay rights organizations and journals could no longer sustain themselves, and they, too, collapsed one by one. Meanwhile, the rise of the Nazi party amid street violence and paramilitary orchestrations led to the end of parliamentary democracy in Germany. The Institute for Sexual Science was stormed and looted by Nazi gangs in 1933; Hirschfeld (a Jew) had already left the country and died two years later in France. Radszuweit, clinging to his vision of the gay community’s respectable, middle-class and nationalist character, allegedly made overtures to Hitler seeking protection for right-wing gay Germans before he died of a heart attack in 1932. The key leader of the masculinist movement, Adolf Brand, survived the Nazis (he was, after all, married and German) but was killed by Allied bombs near the end of the war.

The Germany which rose from the ashes of World War II strove to be more racially tolerant, but its leadership was conservative and Christian-Democratic. The world would have to wait another half century before the rise of an equivalent gay rights movement.

Gay Berlin is an outstanding work of scholarship. It tells a riveting story, and one which has a lot to teach us and future generations. Pieces of this history have been told before, but never in such a thorough, comprehensive and analytical fashion. In his conclusion, Beachy notes that Germany is still recovering its history, so much of which was destroyed by the war. So, too, is the broader queer community, however, and Gay Berlin contributes an important, and for many, hitherto mostly unknown part of that history. It reveals that there’s still much to learn, both about the fascinating history of gay and lesbian Germany, but also about the history of sexuality more broadly. Beachy’s magnificent volume offers a superb example of meticulous research and engaging, accessible writing to inspire and guide future researchers.