‘Gay Berlin’

GAY BERLIN: Birthplace of a Modern Identity. By Robert Beachy. Knopf. 247 pages. $27.95.

The title of this book and the photographs in it seem to promise a sensational, albeit highbrow, look at a time and place rich with sexual experimentation, gender role reversals, transvestite balls, “rent boys,” scandal and joie de vivre. But historian Robert Beachy does not deliver on that promise.

What he gives us, instead, is a scholarly, closely reasoned interpretation of events during the period in question that lays the foundation for the following thesis: A homosexual “species” took root in Germany after the mid-19th century. It was a product of a collaboration between the country’s medical scientists and its sexual minorities, a uniquely German (a key point) phenomenon in which it was asserted that one’s sexual orientation was determined at birth. Small wonder that Beachy seems to resent the fact that present-day German gay pride parades are held on what is called Christopher Street Day, a reference to the Stonewall Inn Riots that took place in Greenwich Village in 1969, some 100 years after the Germans themselves began their astonishing leap forward in the fight for both an accurate delineation of gay identity and gay rights.

Beachy follows the battle from the era just prior to the unification of the German Empire, when the laws of the various German territories differed, through the creation of a single penal code under the North German Confederacy, including the addition of the notorious Paragraph 175, which criminalized sex between men and became the rallying point in the campaign for legal reform over the next century.

Beachy covers at length the Eulenburg Scandal (1907-09), which threatened to expose “perversion” in the highest reaches of the Hohenzollern dynasty and, according to the author, made homosexuality a “household word” in Germany. By the eve of World War I, the unique relationship between the police and the gay community in Berlin had evolved into one of “qualified tolerance,” an approach that fit neatly into the atmosphere of artistic and cultural freedom that was one of the hallmarks of the Weimar Republic of the 1920s.

Sadly, that very atmosphere opened the way for a nationalistic, reactionary response that was crowned by the appointment of Adolf Hitler as chancellor in 1933, signaling the death knell of the movement for homosexual rights.

Much of the book is built around figures instrumental in the effort to dismantle the Prussian anti-sodomy law. Karl Heinrich Ulrich, whom Beachy asserts some described as the “first open homosexual,” wrote voluminously about his own struggle with identity and, as early as 1868, was proclaiming, “I raise my voice in a free and open protest against a thousand years of injustice. Unbiased, oral and open debate of man-manly love has been until now kept under lock and key. ... Hatred alone has enjoyed freedom of speech.”

Magnus Hirschfeld, a medical doctor and founder of the Institute of Sexual Science in Berlin in 1918, was both a longtime defender of the theory of biological determination of gender identity and, with his institute, the creator of a place where education on topics of “straight sexuality” like marriage, birth control and abortion could be obtained.

Hans Bluher provided another dimension as a representative of the “masculinist” version of male-male homoeroticism, one that, in some cases, evolved into the establishment of misogynist, anti-Semitic and nationalist organizations.

Within this concept, male homosexuality reflected a higher calling in life, paid tribute to the superiority of “super-virile” men, and valued women only in their role as breeders. Bluher had been inspired, in part, by his membership in an all-male “wandervogel” group, which was characterized by a charismatic leader called a “fuhrer” and an initiation ceremony that began with a “heil” salute.

Indeed, it is impossible not to see a connection between some aspects of Nazism and the masculinist theories of Bluher and others. Beachy’s quiet but powerful building of that case is one of the most intriguing portions of his book.

There is an eerie similarity between the arguments surrounding this topic that took place nearly 150 years ago and those we hear today. Perhaps most startling of all, though, is the sense that the Germans of the earlier period seemed to have had such a deep, multilayered and decidedly progressive take on the issue.

Livelier than all the use of scientific data and philosophical discussion might imply, Beachy “Gay Berlin” has provided us with a superbly written and researched foundation for any serious study of the development of homosexual identity.

Reviewer Rosemary Michaud is a writer in Charleston.