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

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.

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.