The Back Room

With respect to Socrates, my unexamined life is not worth living. The front room is the face we show everyone but we hide our true self in the back room.

The Germany I did not know


Before reading Robert Beachy’s new book Gay Berlin: Birthplace of a Modern Identity, I was unaware how trailblazing Germany was in pioneering for gay rights, at least half a century before anywhere else in the world.  And how such visibility sealed their fate.

But we can back up a bit.  Homosexuality wasn’t yet named, the love between men instead being relegated to the bowels of sexual deviancy that included pederasty and bestiality.  Psychiatrists up until the mid- 19th century considered same-sex love as the product of masturbation and sexual excess.  It was deemed “a perversion given to sexual proclivity that can be persuaded or tempted”.  Or it meant men were simply tired of being with women.  Behavioral.

In short, pathological.

In the summer of 1867, Karl Heinrich Ulrichs,  a lawyer-activist,  fed up with Prussia’s criminalization of Homosexuals, issued a series of polemics declaring himself a homosexual, coining the term Urning to describe the feeling of a feminine side trapped in a man’s body.  Innate.  Congenital.

In short, biological.

Prussia, facing public pressure for stricter codes towards homosexual behavior after a series of child murders were linked to a known homosexual, made revisions to the law code in 1870.  Specifically, anti-sodomy statute was revised criminalizing sex between men.  The statute was called Paragraph 175.

The statute was hard to prove but there were ways around it.  Homosexuals could be arrested for creating a disturbance, if the offended party was made to feel uncomfortable being around certain people.  Well-to-do homosexuals were blackmailed by hustlers threatening to expose them.

Following the revision of the statute, Berlin became even more lawless and exciting.  At the turn of the century, Berlin established a Department of Homosexuals and Blackmailers, where they could keep tabs on all known offenders.  Police officers attended the homosexual bars and transvestite balls fostering an unlikely relationship and aiding in the propagation of homosexual activity.

The discussion and freedom of homosexuality was under fire since the Prussian-engineered anti-sodomy law especially making same-sex activity illegal.  Social activity was particularly visible to two psychiatrists:  Magnus Hirschfeld and Adolf Brand.

Hirschfeld believed in the biological homosexual, and especially the tortured life an individual goes through feeling so different.  Hirschfeld counseled gay men as well as transvestites at his institute (SHC) Scientific-Humanitarian Committee.  Coining the term transvestite in 1910.

Magnus Hirschfeld and two cross-dressers Source:

Magnus Hirschfeld and two cross-dressers

Brand believed in the pathological principle, following the Masculinist theory, the chosen love between two men made them superior to even heterosexual men.  His group fittingly called (CoS) Community of the Special.

While Hirschfeld tried to find a safe place for all the numerous sexual types to express themselves and be given the same rights and protection as heterosexuals, Brand was interested in thinning out the weaker homosexual herd.

Both men were often called to testify in criminal cases, each espousing their theories.  It was Brand’s practice to “out” powerful closet homosexuals as a way to show their strength and virility and pride of their lifestyle or succumb to the consequences.  Hirschfeld was against the practice calling it “a path over corpses” referring to the many suicides following discovery of secrets.

One particular criminal case, where paragraph 175 was cited, involved royalty directly under Kaiser Wilhelm II.  In 1906 Prince Philippe Eulenberg-Hertefeld, part of Wilhelm’s Liebenberg Roundtable, the close associates of hearty men, sharing thoughts on the day, athletics, food and wine and deep fellowship, was publicly outed in print and soon became an embarrassment for the Kaiser.  The trial also drew attention from the Mannerbund, this close fellowship of men advising Wilhelm.

A student and current member of the Wandervogel, Hans Bluher was fascinated by this brotherhood of man, and conceptualized the two groups: Mannerbund and Wandervogel into an evolved pathological theory on homosexuality.  Wandervogel; translated into “hiking bird”, was a nature and musical group of young men disenchanted with the academic structure of institutions like Gymnasium and teachings of parental adults who learned about life under the guidance of a slighter older boy.  Unconditional fealty to the group and especially the leader was demanded.  The boys saluting their leader with an upturned hand.  Heil, Fuhrer.

The Masculinists engaged in the Dionysian as a way to achieve full potential.  The education of young men believed in the power of homosexuality as an extension of moral strength, physical release, attainment of the highest pleasure and spiritual calm.  For the young man under tutelage strict adherence to rules included abstaining from masturbation or unhealthy love, like prostitutes.  Bisexuality was encouraged, with the understanding that eventually his wife would become a breeder.

Brand and Hirschfeld continued to parry throughout the 1920’s.  It would not be a true debate unless it got dirty.  Though Hirschfeld, Brand and Bluher were German, Hirschfeld was also Jewish.  Brand differentiated his theory claiming that true German homosexuals were pure and that Hirschfeld’s homosexuals were effeminate Jews, drawing both the anti-Semitic and sexist lines in the sand.

As this debate dragged on, both schools of thought having their own societies and rallying groups, there was already a growing resentment of impure Germans.  When the political tide began to shift in the Nazi party’s direction, Hirschfeld fled the country fearing the worst but Brand proudly requested entrance believing their ideologies identical.

Given the efforts of these three men in particular, I can see how the Nazi Party was ultimately able to carry out their diabolical plan.  Though visible, the homosexual community was still in the minority.  Keeping Germany pure was something still lingering from the defeat of the First World War, including Jewish resentment.  The steps taken to ensure lifestyle equality and raise consciousness may not have sat well with the majority of Berliners, either and it only took a leadership to say, okay, enough of this gay stuff and Jew stuff, this why we have lost credibility with the rest of the world, and we must re-purify ourselves as authentic Germans.  Everyone else must go.  In early 1933 the Nazis began their Campaign for a Clean Reich.

Beachy explores the final hold out by elected leader Adolf Hitler.  Hitler’s main enforcer, leader of his Brown Shirts army, was Ernst Rohm, a known homosexual.  Hitler knew but would not betray his friend… until he realized he could only go so far in his mission with this albatross around his neck and eventually signed his death warrant allowing Rohm and scores of others to be massacred during the Night of the Long Knives on July 2, 1934.  With Rohm out of the way, Himmler and his SS team were unstoppable.

And of course, everyone else must go soon begged the question, where do they go?  Germans didn’t care and so their segregation was accepted.  Then it was, okay, we’ve got them all together now, living together, but they are still around, infecting this pure country and so let’s get them out and away from our sight.  Away from the re-building of a pure nation.  Since they were already out of sight, out of mind by way of extermination was a short journey.

The post-script is that Berlin now celebrates Christopher Street Day in honor of the 1969 landmark Stonewall incident, a touchstone for gay rights one hundred years after Berlin themselves lit the first match.


4 comments on “The Germany I did not know

  1. Lucy
    June 18, 2015

    The transvestite photos are beautiful, sounds like a really interesting book. On one hand it’s great how in so many areas and countries rights and attitudes have moved on, but then there’s Russia.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Andrew Davis
    June 18, 2015

    It was especially fascinating for me since I don’t know much about Germany and its history. And I liked that the book allowed me to correlate homosexual visibility with the rise of the Nazi party and how the country rallied around one, castigating the other.
    I do not know much about Russia and its history. Now you have intrigued me!
    Thank you so much for your generous comment.


  3. Sarah
    June 19, 2015

    I recently read a couple of novels by Christopher Isherwood which described the vibrant Bohemian counterculture in Berlin just as it was beginning to be curtailed. I’d previously had no idea that such individual freedom of expression had existed before the rise of Nazism. That book does look interesting, and I, too, gasped at the fabulous photograph of the transvestites – so elegant!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Andrew Davis
      June 19, 2015

      The book does have a chapter on Isherwood- Auden and their “sexual tourism”. I was going to write at the beginning it was Isherwood’s written experiences, including what became “Cabaret” that intrigued me about the book. The normalization, accept us as you would heterosexuals, was so bold given until recently, it had still been compared to bestiality as a behavioral problem. Quite fascinating. Thank you for continuing the discussion.


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