Uncovering Queer History in ‘Gay Berlin’

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

Gay Berlin: Birthplace of a Modern Identity
Robert Beachy
October 2015

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 sexuality and queer studies scholars. 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?