Beachy, Robert. Gay Berlin: Birthplace of a Modern Identity. Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 2014 (305pp.$27.95)
Modern identity politics begins with the struggle of subjugated peoples against European colonialism, a mid-twentieth century movement that commenced with plantation slavery and progressed through apartheid and on to liberation and civil rights. Post modern and post-post modern movements are more nuanced, generally beginning with isolated demands for certain rights of recognition by neglected or ostracized groups (the disabled eg.) and progressing through both liberation and civil rights phases. A good case in point of course are the many individuals and organizations speaking out for gay and lesbian rights in America, while at the same time ratcheting up their own inner resources to find a place in the world at large.
Robert Beachy, a professor of history at Goucher College in Baltimore, examines in a new, authoritative, and well-written popular history, the origins of “sexual studies” as a prelude to gay and lesbian identity politics and traces the development of gay identity through scientific, social and political phases in Berlin. While American and British homosexuals are usually regarded the vanguard of the movement, it was actually in nineteenth century Prussia that homosexual identity politics had its genesis. In fact, perhaps the first crusader for gay rights was the German lawyer and pamphleteer Karl Heinrich Ulrichs, who, in spite of anti-sodomy laws that made “openness” somewhat dangerous, managed to bring the issue of homosexual rights to public attention as early as 1867. Ulrichs, who lost his civil service job on account of his courageous campaign, died in relative obscurity, having started a rather important ball rolling.
Strangely enough, Berlin, with its progressive police commissioner the Social Democrat Leopold von Meerscheidt-Hullessem, and its large, diverse, and competitive gay culture of bars, theaters, salons, and private clubs, provided a safe haven for many homosexual activities that would have been prosecuted in places like London and Paris, not to mention Peoria. Berlin hosted the first “sexological research center” headed by Dr. Magnus Herschfeld, an international pioneer in sex research and a driving force behind a lobby for legal and political reform. Herschfeld, and an American doctor named Harry Benjamin, advanced the theory that homosexuality is a sexual orientation fixed from birth, as normal as heterosexuality, and a condition not amenable to treatment but rather an endowment of nature that should be respected as part of a person’s identity. In short, identity politics focused on gay and lesbians as human beings and not as perverts or freaks.
Beachy’s book is wide-ranging and contains a couple of chapters on “outing” and blackmail, which, given the prevalence of unscrupulous male prostitutes, had a rather prominent place in Berlin newspapers of the time. Another fascinating chapter involves Wilhelmine scandals in high places, in which homosexual blackmail played a prominent part. After all, sexual identity if legitimated would negate blackmail. Finally, another chapter examines the Wandervogel movement headed by Hans Bluher that became a prominent part of German youth culture in general.
In the early 1920’s, Weimar Germany had become a modern, if troubled, social democracy, advanced in political and cultural outlook far beyond what England and American could have imagined. In Berlin, Gays, cross dressers and transvestites held open balls and dances, gathered in clubs and bars without fear, and led lives relatively free from government interference, or even the inference that their activities were unnatural. Of course, all that changed in January 1933, when President Hindenberg made Hitler Chancellor. It only took a few months before Hitler closed the bars and ballrooms and hunted homosexuals down like dogs. He conducted the Night of the Long Knives in June, routing homosexuals from the Brown Shirts, murdering Ernst Rohm its homosexual leader, and turned that organization over to the Army.
Gay Berlin is excellent popular history, a beautifully made book printed on fine paper with a collection of rare photographs depicting many famous gay “haunts” of the 1920s like the Eldorado and the Mikado.