Gay Berlin: Birthplace of a Modern Identity

Gay Berlin: Birthplace of a Modern Identity

by Robert Beachy


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Winner of Randy Shilts Award

In the half century before the Nazis rose to power, Berlin became the undisputed gay capital of the world. Activists and medical professionals made it a city of firsts—the first gay journal, the first homosexual rights organization, the first Institute for Sexual Science, the first sex reassignment surgeries—exploring and educating themselves and the rest of the world about new ways of understanding the human condition. In this fascinating examination of how the uninhibited urban culture of Berlin helped create our categories of sexual orientation and gender identity, Robert Beachy guides readers through the past events and developments that continue to shape and influence our thinking about sex and gender to this day.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780307473134
Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date: 10/13/2015
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 352
Sales rank: 574,768
Product dimensions: 7.90(w) x 5.20(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Robert Beachy was trained as a German historian at the University of Chicago, where he received his PhD in 1998. He is presently associate professor of history at the Underwood International College of Yonsei University in Seoul, South Korea.

Read an Excerpt

• Chapter One •

The German Invention of Homosexuality

When considering the questions “What is natural?” and “What is unnatural?” it is paramount to apply a standard that is not foreign to one’s own nature.

karl ulrichs, “Vindex: Social-­Juristic Studies of Male-­Male Love,” 1864

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 included lawyers, officials, bureaucrats, and legal academics from the thirty-­nine states and cities of the former German Confederation, a loose association created at the Congress of Vienna in 1815. This imposing body of Ulrichs’s 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. As ardent nationalists, they 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’s 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 anti-­sodomy laws that criminalized it.

Ulrichs had celebrated his birthday the day before, and now, at the age of forty-­two, 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 struggled 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 countered prevailing beliefs and developed a theory of his own selfhood—­though defined in sexual, not spiritual, terms—­forming the conviction that he must face down an established authority and counter centuries of prejudice. To that end, since 1864, Ulrichs 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 imposing Odeonsplatz, framed by government and cultural buildings, past the grand loggia of the Field Marshals’ Hall and the baroque spires and dome of the Theatine Church, Ulrichs felt his heart palpitate almost audibly as he neared the 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 building, mounted the speaker’s platform, and began reading his text to more than five hundred 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 Ulrichs and forced him to descend from the podium without finishing his speech, while the assembly chairman attempted to reestablish order. The Association of Jurists refused to press Ulrichs’s 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 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’s brave initiative was the important contribution he made to the redefinition—­indeed the invention—­of sexuality (and homosexuality) 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’s own coinage) or “homosexual” first entered the German lexicon and later other European languages as well. Ulrichs’s 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’s conservative family trained him for academic study and a professional career, either as a bureaucrat or a clergyman. This early preparation endowed him with a restless intelligence, however, and the independence to follow his own calling.

Ulrichs’s family must be seen as elite—­despite its small-­town ori- gins—­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, the Latin high school that prepared its graduates for university study. Talent was a necessary but rarely sufficient qualification for Gymnasium. 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 city, state, or church bureaucracies. Many such families boasted a long string of church or state officials, often stretching back generations. The Ulrichs family was 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’s mother also imparted the conservative piety of traditional Lutheranism, teaching her son 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 Gymnasium, first in Detmold, home of his mother’s brother (likewise a Lutheran pastor), and then in nearby Celle. The close structure of Ulrichs’s family—­infused with conservative Protestant religiosity, loving attention, and careful social control—­served the boy well. At nineteen he completed his Gymnasium exams with excellent results in Latin and Greek, the subjects required for university entrance.

That fall, he began legal studies at the University of Göttingen. Founded in 1734 by George II, ruler of Hanover and also king of Great Britain, Göttingen was just one of the twenty-­odd German institutions of higher learning established before 1800. Unlike the centralized states of England and France, which had no more than a handful of universities at this time, the semi-­sovereign states of the Holy Roman Empire maintained their independence, both culturally and—­to some extent—­politically. The size and character of these territories varied tremendously, and counting the tiny estates of the imperial knights numbered above eighteen hundred. The largest, including Brandenburg-­Prussia, Austria, Bavaria, Saxony, and Württemberg, often had the trappings of sovereign states. Since the High Middle Ages, the rulers of these largest German territories founded universities in their competition for cultural distinction and to train those who served in state and city bureaucracies. This political fragmentation also explains best the tradition of a Bildungsbürgertum in German central Europe: the many small and medium-­sized states, each with its own princely court and administrative bureaucracy, required both literate staff and the institutions to educate them. Ulrichs was fortunate to live in the Hanoverian kingdom, since Göttingen had established itself very quickly as one of the premier German universities. The law faculty was particularly prominent and trained numerous statesman and scholars, including Austrian prime minister Clemens von Metternich; Wilhelm von Humboldt, who founded the University of Berlin in 1810; and Otto von Bismarck, first chancellor of the German Empire when it was formed in 1871. By the first decades of the twentieth century, more than twenty-­five Nobel laureates had Göttingen affiliations, either as onetime students or professors.

It was as a student at Göttingen that Ulrichs first identified the issues that would inspire him to take up his activism. He identified his own sexual peculiarity, and also embraced the ideal of großdeutsch, or greater German, statehood, a nationalist ideology that promoted the idea of a unified German state that would incorporate all German speakers, including denizens of Austria and the Habsburg crownlands. Although these two strands of political action were seemingly unconnected, Ulrichs’s human rights activism and his nationalism were curiously intertwined. By promoting “greater German” statehood, Ulrichs hoped to counter the influence of Prussia, and, in turn, the likelihood that Prussia’s anti-­sodomy statute might be imposed on the other German territories.

After five semesters in Göttingen, Ulrichs transferred to the University of Berlin, where he studied for one year. His decision to move was on its face of no particular note; many German students attended several universities before taking a degree. Ulrichs had a special motive, however, for coming to Berlin. In his second year at Göttingen, he had become self-­consciously aware of his attraction to men. As he divulged later in a family letter, “Approximately half a year . . . before I went to Berlin, I was at a dance. . . . But among the dancers there were about twelve young, well-­developed and handsomely uniformed forestry pupils. Although at earlier dances no one caught my attention, I felt such a strong attraction that I was amazed. . . . I would have flung myself at them. When I retired after the ball, I suffered true anxieties in my bedroom, alone and unseen, solely preoccupied by memories of those handsome young men.” Clearly this sexual awakening jolted the young Ulrichs, but it also underscored the loneliness he felt in Göttingen. As far as he could see, there was no one else there like himself.

Ulrichs almost certainly had an awareness of Berlin’s reputation. With a population of nearly 400,000, the city was bound to be more exciting than the sedate university town of Göttingen. But there was something more specific. As a garrison city, Berlin had been known for its male prostitution since at least the eighteenth century. As early as 1782 one guidebook devoted a short chapter to Berlin’s “warm brothers” and the prevalence of male prostitution as an income source for garrisoned soldiers. This reputation was well established by the time Ulrichs moved to the city. One telling account, an 1846 volume on Berlin prostitution, identified the areas where men sought sex with other men. These included the city’s main thoroughfare, Unter den Linden, the large, forested Tiergarten Park at the western edge of the city center, and a grove of chestnut trees just north of the neoclassical Guardhouse, designed by the architect Karl Friedrich Schinkel. An anonymous informant, corresponding with Berlin’s chief medical officer Johann Ludwig Casper in the 1850s, described his sexual initiation as a youth when, on the promenade of Unter den Linden, he encountered a gentleman, who then accompanied him to the Tiergarten for a tryst. Both Unter den Linden and the Tiergarten Park remained prominent locations—­well into the twentieth century—­for male prostitution and men cruising for sex with other men. Whether Ulrichs took advantage of the city’s soldier prostitution and clandestine sexual networks remains unclear. But his later writings make plain that he was keenly aware that in Berlin he would be far more likely to find congenial company....

Table of Contents

Introduction ix

Chapter 1 The German Invention of Homosexuality 3

Chapter 2 Policing Homosexuality in Berlin 42

Chapter 3 The First Homosexual Rights Movement and the Struggle to Shape Identity 85

Chapter 4 The Eulenburg Scandal and the Politics of Outing 120

Chapter 5 Hans Blüher, the Wandervogel Movement, and the Männerbund 140

Chapter 6 Weimar Sexual Reform and the Institute for Sexual Science 160

Chapter 7 Sex Tourism and Male Prostitution in Weimar Berlin 187

Chapter 8 Weimar Politics and the Struggle for Legal Reform 220

Epilogue 241

Acknowledgments 249

Notes 251

Sources and Bibliography 275

Index 297

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