Gay & Lesbian Review

Book review: Queer Identities and Politics in Germany, by Clayton J. Whisnant

CLICKITY-CLACK, clickity-clack. I whipped my head around to see a gaggle of drag queens racing down Grunewaldstraße in stilettos, boas fluttering in the wind. It was the summer of 1990 in West Berlin, a pivotal moment between the fall of the Berlin Wall in November of 1989 and formal German reunification in October 1990. East and West Berlin still seemed to exist in a historical bubble. One could travel without hassle to the East, passing through still boarded-up trolley stations along the dead-man zone. East Berlin seemed in a postwar suspended animation: rubble strewn in the streets, walls pockmarked with bullet holes, and artists squatting in abandoned buildings. Life in West Berlin was heavily subsidized to maintain the population, so it was a haven for artists and “alternative Leute”—Germans who couldn’t stomach the stereotypical rule-abiding conservatism of West Germans. What could be more rebelliously countercultural than a drag cabaret—part song and dance, part political satire—staged weekly by the band of fabulous queens I encountered that balmy evening? I became an instant groupie. Naturally, it reminded me of the musical Cabaret and the work it was based upon, The Berlin Stories (1939), Christopher Isherwood’s tales of his experiences during another pivotal time in Berlin.

Consequently, it was with nostalgic delight that I read Clayton Whisnant’s historical survey of gay and lesbian life in Germany from 1880 to 1945. Whisnant is a professor of humanities and European history at Wofford College (Spartanburg, SC), and the author of Male Homosexuality in West Germany: Between Persecution and Freedom, 1945-1969 (2012). The present work covers an earlier period from the formation of the German Empire through two world wars. Rather than an academic monograph, it is a skillful narrative history accessible to a broad audience. As Whisnant points out, the identity and cultural politics he examines resonate with recent American queer history. Even without that relevance, his work is approachable and engaging. He quickly dispenses with the thorny academic issue of what to call his historical actors: gay, lesbian, homosexual, LGBT, queer. For practicality he uses contemporary terms, but throughout he elucidates the explicit debates of the time about the diversity of alternative, non-normative sexualities—debates that do indeed echo contemporary ones about assimilationist gays versus gender-bending trans-folk.

Central to Whisnant’s survey is the pioneering sexologist Magnus Hirschfeld (1868-1935) and the battle against sodomy laws. Hirschfeld is finally coming to broad public attention thanks to his role in the current Amazon television series Transparent. A German-Jewish homosexual and a restless intellect, Hirschfeld studied medicine at several German universities before completing his thesis in 1891 in Berlin. He briefly tried his hand at journalism in the U.S. before settling down to a practice in Berlin. He soon started publishing defenses of homosexuals, relying on biological explanations as to the innateness of sexual attraction. In 1897 he cofounded the earliest known homosexual organization, the Scientific Humanitarian Committee (Wissenschaftlich-humanitäres Komitee). The WhK attracted a variety of professionals also seeking to rely on scientific, enlightened principles to explain homosexuality and thereby overturn Paragraph 175, Germany’s anti-sodomy law.

Such laws were widespread in Europe and America. While they relied on biblical precedent, English “anti-buggery” law was only codified under Henry VIII. The French Revolution swept away such laws in France and in countries conquered by Napoleon. Prussian law criminalizing male same-sex activity had come under criticism since the 1860s by a Hanoverian lawyer, Karl Heinrich Ulrichs. He relied on biological ideas of the time to argue that “Uranism” was a form of congenital psycho-sexual hermaphroditism. He argued that this was a natural variant and not a pathological outcome of hereditary degeneration, as most physicians of the late 19th century maintained. Prussian-German unification in 1871 incorporated the Prussian code in Paragraph 175 criminalizing “unnatural” sexual acts or lasciviousness (widernatürliche Unzucht) between males or with animals. The law was expanded under the Nazis and would not be fully voided until 1994. Hirschfeld relied initially on Ulrichs’ hermaphroditic model but expanded it greatly with the biological research of his day into a theory of near universal sexual intermediaries: “male” and “female” were ideals, while most people were on a spectrum of sex somewhere in between. In 1919 he established the Institute for Sex Research, which included a sexology research institute, the home of the WhK, a medical clinic, and a significant library and archives. The WhK published the Journal of Sexual Intermediates from 1899 until 1933, when the Nazis closed the institute and burned its archives. The journal included a mix of scientific articles, intellectual essays, and creative writing. From the WhK, gay politics fragmented into diverse groups, often in conflict, as much over ideology as about big egos.

One prominent faction disliked the implication of effeminacy in the sexual intermediary theory, arguing that there were perfectly masculine homosexuals with no taint of biological imperfection. Like their counterparts in France and England, these “masculinists” relied on classical Greek models of martial same-sex bonding, with more or less explicit pæderastic enthusiasm. They tended to be male chauvinists to the point of portraying male bonding as culturally, intellectually, and spiritually superior to heterosexuality. Some of these masculinist groups were political, others more like literary and social clubs. Aside from Classical Greek ideals, some homosexuals would turn to medieval chivalric or German Romantic models of male bonding, “manly culture,” and a return to nature. These ideological inspirations also coalesced around the youth movement that sprung up in the late 1890s: the Wandervogel (wandering bird) and similar groups. While religiously and politically diverse, the youth groups would subsequently be remodeled into the Teutonic, hypernationalist Hitler Youth, even as the Wandervogel were outlawed by the Nazis in 1933.

Diverse women’s groups also emerged—some dedicated to leftist politics or feminist causes. Whisnant highlights the participation and leadership of lesbians in these groups, such as Johanna Elberskirchen, an early member of the WhK, who wrote on feminism, socialism, and the “third sex”—i.e., masculine women. Like many of the early lesbian writers (e.g., Radclyffe Hall), she adopted the prevailing medical and popular stereotype that lesbians are masculine, even while advancing the cause of women’s emancipation and gender equality. Predictably, many of the masculinist homosexual men were hostile to feminism, even as they tried to make common cause with lesbians against Paragraph 175.

Whisnant pieces together an abundance of new research on urban gay culture and its suppression by the police. They are two sides of one coin: much of the documentation we have on urban gay life comes from police records on cruising, prostitution, bar raids, blackmailing, and “pink lists” (pederast surveillance files). It is thanks to these documents, in part, that we know about masquerade balls and bars catering to homosexuals since the 1870s in Berlin. By the time of the Weimar Republic (1918–1933), Berlin was globally notorious as a decadent city. Hirschfeld also documented Berlin’s gay scene and estimated there were ninety to a hundred bars there in 1923. There were over fifty lesbian cafés and clubs, and a published guide to the lesbian scene. Whisnant notes that there were venues for every class, from proletarian to wealthy. In some clubs the social strata could commingle; some venues were exclusive and discreet, while others catered to tourists; there were trade bars and drag clubs; some were predominantly male, others exclusively female. There is less but still fascinating evidence of the gay scenes in other major German cities.

Ironically, this vibrant gay life occurred while homosexuality was still a crime; in fact, arrests by the homosexual squads increased in the 1920s. Hirschfeld himself offered a rather Foucauldian explanation: the police tolerated the bars and clubs to better contain and supervise homosexuals rather than encouraging blackmail, theft, and public sex. Gay and lesbian book and magazine publication also flourished during the period, but it too faced increasing censorship on the basis of distributing “obscene materials” or procuring sex via personal ads.

Inevitably, we know that all the wild times will come crashing down. On this topic, too, there has been much new research since Richard Plant’s pioneering The Pink Triangle: The Nazi War Against Homosexuals (1986). Homosexual scandals in the upper ranks of German government had broken out in the early 20th century, and in complex ways had served to besmirch Kaiser Wilhelm I and his court. Early on, the Nazis also had a notorious gay scandal. World War I veteran Ernst Röhm had joined the German Workers’ Party in 1919, a year before it became the Nazi Party. He became Hitler’s right-hand man and was appointed leader of the Sturmabteilung (SA) or Brownshirts in 1931. At the end of that year, a socialist newspaper exposed his homosexuality in an attempt to discredit the Nazis and Hitler in particular. Nazi glorification of male bonding and the homoeroticism of its official imagery have continued to fuel speculation of the latent homosexuality of Nazi leaders. Although Hitler defended Röhm through two trials for violating Paragraph 175, he eventually had him assassinated in 1934 in a purge of SA leaders.

The crackdown on homosexuals had already begun in 1933 along with the suppression of trade unions and other perceived pol- itical enemies. The gay press was squashed, Hirschfeld’s archives and books were burned, and his Institute was closed. Arrests under Paragraph 175 escalated, especially after the law was broadened to include male prostitution and sex with men under the age of 21. The burden of proof was reduced, and the maximum jail time was doubled to ten years. Anyone could denounce someone as a suspected homosexual to trigger a police inquiry, which could have devastating effects. An estimated 100,000 gay men were arrested, and half of them were sent to jail, concentration camps, or psychiatric asylums. Gays could face castration under laws either promoting eugenics or controlling sex offenders. Some were subjected to hormonal experiments in concentration camps under the guise of treatment. Whisnant examines the multiple rationales the Nazis evoked—from the genetic to the psychological and sociological—for their policy of extermination. Hirschfeld’s biological defense that being “third sex” is congenital would only backfire as a justification for the eugenic cleansing of homosexuality. Lesbians were not categorically targeted for their sexuality, but many suffered due to the suppression of feminism and socialism.

A tragic irony is that even after the war, homosexuality remained a crime. As a result, gay men who suffered under the Nazis received no compensation or recognition. The decriminalization of homosexuality occurred first in the East, although homosexuality was often still condemned as a manifestation of capitalist decadence. There were short-lived gay magazines in the West, and Hamburg developed a thriving gay scene. It was only with the sexual revolution across the globe in the 1960s that West Berlin experienced a renaissance of its gay scene—one that I would first discover decades later. Whisnant has done a terrific job of tracing the complex, turbulent path of LGBT Germans with liveliness, intelligence, and poignancy.

* “In the Beginning”

Reviewed by Vernon A. Rosario