Between World Wars, Gay Culture Flourished In Berlin In Gay Berlin, Robert Beachy describes the rise of a gay subculture in the 1920s and '30s, how it contributed to our understanding of gay identity and how it was eradicated by the Nazis.

Between World Wars, Gay Culture Flourished In Berlin

Between World Wars, Gay Culture Flourished In Berlin

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In Gay Berlin, Robert Beachy describes the rise of a gay subculture in the 1920s and '30s, how it contributed to our understanding of gay identity and how it was eradicated by the Nazis.


This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Singing) Willkommen, bienvenue, welcome.

GROSS: That's the opening song from the musical "Cabaret." This interview is not about "Cabaret," but it is about the place, time and culture that "Cabaret" is set in, Berlin of the 1920s and early '30s. More specifically, it's about gay Berlin, the gay subculture that flourished in Berlin in the era between World War I and the rise of the Nazis, when there were nightclubs and cabarets that catered to a gay clientele, gay-themed theater and films and gay-oriented publications that were sold at kiosks. Gay prostitution flourished too, so did black male.

This relatively open gay culture attracted English writers and artists, including Christopher Isherwood, whose stories were adapted into the musical "Cabaret." My guest Robert Beachy is the author of the new book "Gay Berlin" that describes that this culture, why it flourished, how it contributed to our understanding of gay identity and how it was eradicated by the Nazis. Beachy is now writing a follow-up book about homosexuality in Nazi Germany. Robert Beachy is an associate professor of history at Goucher College in Baltimore.

Robert Beachy, welcome to FRESH AIR. My impression from your book is that the gay subculture in Berlin not only included, you know, like, clubs and bars, but there were gay movies. There were gay publications that were sold at kiosks, which is, you know, kind of remarkable for the 1930s.

ROBERT BEACHY: Yeah, absolutely. I think there probably had never been anything like this before and there was no culture as open again until the 1970s. So it's really not until after Stonewall that one sees this sort of open expression of gay identity or homosexual identity - lesbian identity. And you're absolutely right. I mean, there was this proliferation of publications that started almost immediately after the founding of the Weimar Republic and it continued really right down to 1933 until the Nazi seizure of power. So I think it's really important to emphasize these publications because they were sort of the substrate, in a certain way, of this culture. They advertised all sorts of events, different kinds of venues and they also attracted advertisers who were really appealing to a gay and lesbian constituency, and that's also really startling, I think.

GROSS: We asked you to suggest a performer, a singer, that we could listen to to give us some sense of the music people were listening to then at perhaps some of the gay clubs. So you chose a recording by Claire Waldoff. And I'd like you to introduce that for us, and then we'll hear it.

BEACHY: Sure. The recording is (speaking German), "There's Only One Berlin" and she recorded this in 1932. So she was not a native Berliner but she came to the city well before the First World War and she had made a name for herself, really, well before 1914, as a kind of review singer. So she was sometimes described then by the 1920s as a cabaret queen. And this song is something that was very popular after it was introduced in 1932. It also has some very minor political content so it was banned pretty quickly by the Nazis after 1933. But at least for a period, it was heard probably throughout the entire city, so.

GROSS: Was she a lesbian?

BEACHY: Yes. I'm sorry - I didn't even mention that (laughter). I almost assumed that. Yes, of course, she was in fact a lesbian. She lived with her partner. She was extremely open. She had a gay-lesbian salon. Not all of her friends were gay or lesbian, so she socialized with lots of other entertainers, but her sexuality was also something that was never hidden. And probably most people understood that she actually loved women and was with a woman. So and that was, I think, very much a part of her identity.

GROSS: OK, so this is Claire Waldoff, a cabaret singer and a lesbian performer, recorded in Germany in 1932.


CLAIRE WALDOFF: (Singing in German).

GROSS: That was Claire Waldoff, a song picked for us by Robert Beachy, the author of the new book "Gay Berlin," which is about the gay subculture in Berlin in the 1920s and early '30s, just before the Nazi rise to power.

What was the law regarding homosexuality in the '20s and early '30s in Berlin?

BEACHY: The law was originally oppression, anti-sodomy statute, and it criminalized certain sexual acts between men and bestiality. So the law had been created by the early 19th century and reformed, revised a little bit, and then it was imposed throughout all of unified Germany after 1871. And it remained in place through the '30s, '40s, '50s and '60s. So it was actually made more draconian under the Nazis in 1935, and that remained the law of the land in West Germany until it was finally reformed, starting in the very-late 1960s.

GROSS: So if homosexual acts were illegal in Berlin in the '20s and early '30s, how did a gay subculture manage to flourish?

BEACHY: Yeah, that's the big question. And it had everything to do with an incredibly progressive and, I think, most of us would think, tolerant policing policy that was introduced in the city in the late 19th century. And there was one individual, one police commissioner, his family name - his hyphenated last name was Meerscheidt-Hullessem - who was really perplexed by the law when he was made responsible for enforcing it because it was an impossible law. I mean, the only way to actually get a conviction was if someone confessed or if there was an actual witness who could testify in court that a crime was committed. And, of course, this sort of crime wasn't something that anyone would confess to voluntarily. And, of course, people had consensual sexual relations in private, so the law was difficult to enforce.

And what he finally ended up doing - he decided that it would be easier to simply observe and monitor and, in essence, keep tabs on suspected homosexuals - suspected violators of the law - than to actually try to persecute them or prevent them from breaking the law. And what this meant in practice was that the police department, starting in the late-1880s, simply tolerated all kinds of different, you could say, public accommodations, bars, cafes; eventually, large transvestite balls, where obvious homosexuals, or, at least, obviously suspected homosexuals, could congregate and socialize.

So there was a kind of homoerotic fraternization, you could say, that was allowed in Berlin by the late 1880s, and this permitted the growth of a whole network of different kinds of bars and restaurants. And so, if you can imagine, this was a critical development for the growth of a sense of community. It made it possible for individuals to find people like themselves and then also learn more about themselves. It was something that really didn't exist in the same way in any other European city.

GROSS: Something really unusual about how this law was enforced was that a department called the Department of Blackmail and Homosexuality was created to enforce the law. Where did the blackmail come into this department?

BEACHY: Yeah, that's such an odd formulation, and it seems incongruous, maybe. But, in fact, because of the character of the law, blackmail was one of the, you could say, side effects. It was something that made anybody who was suspected of breaking the law vulnerable to. So especially a male prostitute, or maybe a spurned lover, might then threaten to expose someone if not given a certain amount of money or maybe, you know, other kinds of gifts. And so blackmail became a huge problem.

And the same police commissioner and then his successors and really the entire police department, recognized that the bigger problem was not homosexual conduct, but the way in which the law itself actually allowed for the practice of blackmail. So this is really how the department, then, ended up being created with this strange name. And the two, then, were always closely linked.

GROSS: I think a lot of the people that the Department of Blackmail and Homosexuality went after were prostitutes because the department, though I interpreted, didn't really want to go after, like, the middle class. And the assumption, too, I think, was that prostitutes who make money in the sex trade were also willing to make money through blackmailing the people they were - who were paying them to have sex.

But that leads to, like, a whole other chapter in the story, which was that there was a lot of prostitution, male prostitutes, in gay Berlin at the time. So let's just address, first, how prostitutes were mostly the people who were prosecuted, if I understand correctly, in the blackmail part of the Department of Blackmail and Homosexuality?

BEACHY: Yeah, that's absolutely accurate. Especially by the beginning of the 20th century, there seemed to be something like a scourge of blackmail. It was almost like a plague, and there were so many cases that there was, really increasingly, a kind of a formal campaign against it. So when these cases would come to trial, the blackmailers, the male prostitutes, tended to receive much heavier sentences than their victims, even if their victims were also convicted under the anti-sodomy statute. So the blackmail was considered, by far, the worst crime.

GROSS: So what was the place of prostitutes in gay Berlin?

BEACHY: You know, first of all, maybe it's important to try to account for this male prostitution. And one of the ways in which people have explained this is just to talk about Berlin as a military city or a garrison city. So there had always been a lot of Prussian soldiers, ever since the 18th century, since the 17th century, who were stationed there or who had posts there, who lived there in barracks. And soldier prostitution was considered an age-old phenomenon. Soldiers were, in some respects, at the very bottom of any kind of social pecking order. They were badly treated, badly paid. And one of the ways that they could make a little bit of pocket money was simply to sell themselves for sex. And there are different kinds of even published descriptions of this soldier prostitution from as early as the late 18th century. So this was, you know, considered commonplace throughout the 19th century. So that's probably the source of the male prostitution itself, at least initially. And I think, then, that it's fair to say that wherever you find some kind of significant gay subculture, there's probably an element of prostitution that goes along with that. So this is less so the case, maybe, in the post-Stonewall age, where people can live more openly. But if your love life is criminalized, prostitution is no greater a crime than actually having some sort of personal relationship anyway. So prostitution is just an extension, in a sense, of your personal, private life.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Robert Beachy. He's the author of the new book, "Gay Berlin: Birthplace Of A Modern Identity". Let's take a short break, then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR, and if you're just joining us, my guest is Robert Beachy. And he's the author of the new book "Gay Berlin: Birthplace Of A Modern Identity." And it's about how a gay subculture flourished in Berlin in the 1920s and early '30s up until the rise of the Nazi regime.

So we were talking about the law - the anti-gay law in Berlin - which made gay sex illegal. But the gay subculture was allowed to survive. You weren't punished for going to a gay bar. A gay club wasn't going to be shut down because there were gay people there. So there was still a movement to liberalize the law, even though the law was pretty liberally enforced. But that movement to liberalize the law was ended soon before the Nazis came to power. And once the Nazis came to power, they made the law draconian. What was the law under the Nazis?

BEACHY: The law that the Nazis introduced in 1935 criminalized almost any sort of homosexual fraternization. So that meant that even looking at another man the wrong way might get you in trouble. So if there seemed to be some sort of homosexual, erotic intention, you could be prosecuted under the law. So it was really severe in that respect. And it was also a kind of vehicle for simply eliminating any kind of gay venue. So it didn't require any special effort. If homosexuals were suspected of patronizing a bar or a cafe or a restaurant, it would be closed immediately.

GROSS: Yeah. You describe how the Nazis shut down the homosexual publications - shut down most gay bars, at least the most prominent ones. A Nazi youth group destroyed the Institute for Sexual Science, which was at the forefront of the gay rights movement as well as being advocates of birth control. And at the same time, you write the Nazis initially only targeted homosexual men and women if they were Jewish or leftists. So how did - like, I guess - I can guess why it started that way, (laughter) since it was such an anti - the Nazi culture was so, you know, extremely anti-somatic, to state the most obvious. So how did it broaden out from, you know, targeting Jewish and leftist gays to just everybody?

BEACHY: Well, homosexuality was always something that the Nazis condemned. So we find, you know, different kinds of statements from as early as the early 1920s. The homosexual rights movement was often understood as Jewish. And so Magnus Hirschfeld, some of the other leaders, a lot of the progressive physicians or psychiatrists or medical doctors who also supported legal reform - they were Jewish. A lot of the lawyers and jurists who supported some kind of reform, they were also Jewish. And so one way to smear the homosexual rights movement was to describe it as Jewish. And it's this connection that probably reinforced a Nazi condemnation of homosexuality.

But in other ways, the Nazis were completely ambivalent, and in some cases, they seemed to be completely indifferent. And there's one at least partial explanation for this. One very prominent Nazi, who is also considered Adolf Hitler's best friend within the movement and also one of the so-called Alter Kampfer - somebody who had been a Nazi since the early '20s - was Ernst Rohm. And Rohm was the head of the largest Nazi militia, the Sturmabteilung or the SA. And he was this incredibly charismatic figure. He attracted lots and lots of new members. He was also a patron of many, many different male prostitutes. And he was actually tried in court for violating the law before the Nazis ever came to power in Munich. And this trial was broadcast. Everybody in Germany knew that the man was homosexual. And Hitler didn't seem to care.

So when the Nazis came to power in January of 1933, it wasn't really completely clear what was going to happen. And because Rohm, as the head of this Nazi militia, had already been a prosecuted and accused of violating the law, he was also in some respects a figurehead. So there were actually lots and lots of, we could say, gay Nazi sympathizers who joined the SA, who joined the party, who were members of the movement, so to speak, and who also believed that because of this figurehead, they would never actually be persecuted.

And this was more or less the case for the first year and a half until the summer of 1934. And at that point, Ernst Rohm and the leadership of the SA were assassinated. And this was an event called The Night of Long Knives. And in the aftermath, the Nazis justified this action by pointing to Rohm's homosexuality - his perversion. But the real reason, of course, was because the SA had proved to be a threat to the German Wehrmacht - the military. And Hitler needed to propitiate the military. He needed to bring them into the movement and win their support. But the only way to do that was to essentially eliminate the SA as a threat. And to do that, he had to eliminate the leadership, including Rohm himself.

GROSS: So when...


GROSS: ...Rohm was assassinated - pardon my German (laughter)...

BEACHY: No, not at all.

GROSS: Pardon my pronunciation. When he was assassinated, Heinrich Himmler took over enforcement of the anti-gay law. And things got really bad then.

BEACHY: Right, and Himmler and Rohm had always been sworn enemies. Himmler was head of the other Nazi militia - smaller organization, the SS - more ideological, more elite and at least in the early years of the movement, not nearly as powerful - also formed much later. But with the elimination of Rohm, Himmler then was able to assume more power within the regime and also within the movement. And he was also then single-handedly responsible for pushing to have the law revised and made more draconian. And he really spear-headed the campaign then to essentially eliminate homosexuality from Nazi Germany.

GROSS: Robert Beachy will be back in the second half of the show. His new book is called "Gay Berlin." I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with Robert Beachy, author of "Gay Berlin." It's about the gay subculture that flourished in Berlin between the end of World War I and the rise of the Nazis. Beachy is writing a follow-up book about homosexuality in Nazi Germany.

Where did homosexuality fit into the Nazi fear of contamination?

BEACHY: That's a great question. The Nazis actually rejected the idea that homosexuality was somehow congenital, biological, innate, and they embraced what was a much older - a much more conservative and traditional view. Homosexuality was something that might be learned. It could be a learned behavior, and it really spread almost like a disease or a contagion, the way you described it. And so the idea was you simply eliminate any diseased members of the folk - of this sort of biological body, and that would make the body stronger. That would make it pure. And of course there were all sorts of metaphors for this, but that was really the attitude. But this also meant that the Nazis had a completely different attitude towards homosexuals than they did, for example, towards Jews, towards Slavs, towards most of their ideological opponents. Homosexuals weren't nearly as threatening, ultimately, I think, in that respect.

GROSS: But they did threaten the virility of German culture.


GROSS: I'm not saying they did. The Nazis were saying they did.

BEACHY: Right, right, right.

GROSS: I'm referring to their believes.

BEACHY: Sure, sure, yeah. But, you know, even here again, virility would have to be understood maybe not as much in terms of our traditional sense of masculinity, but in terms of procreation. It was really all about creating new little Germans, and it was almost a kind of every-sperm-is-sacred sentiment, and if men were having sex with men instead of with other women well, then they weren't, you know, reproducing a new generation of...

GROSS: They weren't doing their job.

BEACHY: Yeah, exactly. So virility really in the sense of, you know, making babies - that was, for the Nazis, the most important thing I think.

GROSS: Did the Nazis outlaw birth control, too?

BEACHY: They did. Yeah. And they also did their very best to eliminate any kind of abortion practice. And so women were also, you know, of course targeted and considered absolutely second-class citizens.

GROSS: So what's the estimation of how many gay people were imprisoned during the Third Reich, and how many died in concentration camps and prisons?

BEACHY: The figure that most scholars cite now is something like 50,000 imprisoned either in work camps, concentration camps, in some cases also in death camps, and then a kind of fatality rate of five to 15,000. And of course, in the late '70s into the '80s, the estimates were much, much higher but they've sort of been pegged down as people have done more research and done some actual archival work to establish those figures.

GROSS: During the 1920s and the early 1930s, there were movements to try to liberalize the anti-gay law or to eliminate the anti-gay law. And, you know, some of those people were, I think, gay-rights activists that we would recognize today - you know, whose agendas were very similar to agendas of the past few decades. But there was one strain of that movement to change the law that was led by somebody named Hans Bluher, and he seemed to combine a kind of gay rights agenda with a proto-fascist agenda. Would you talk about him and what he stands for in gay Berlin?

BEACHY: He's a really fascinating figure. He actually came out of the early German youth movement, and he was from Berlin. He grew up in Berlin. And he was also exposed as a student to the gay rights movement before the First World War. So he befriended Hirschfeld - another important figure, Benedict Friedlaender. He also had a correspondence with Sigmund Freud in Vienna. And what he did is he theorized something that's called in German the Mannerbund. It means something like the male community, but it has many, many other associations in German.

But in his account the Mannerbund was a male-dominated elite society that had a kind of homoerotic bond. And it included many members and probably the leaders who were openly homosexual and had sexual relationships only with other men. And this homosexuality was sort of an expression of their virility, of their charisma, of their strength. And he published a whole series of different books and pamphlets starting around 1911, '12.

And he was extremely controversial, of course. He ended up alienating a lot of people on both the left and the right . And by 1914, in part because he had come under attack from the right wing, he also became extremely anti-Semitic. So this Mannerbund was then also something that was supposed to be ethnically German. It was also something that was very, very ultranationalist and understood in racial terms.

But by the 1920s he was really popular - a sort of pop-sociologist. And his theories had this incredible cultural influence, and a lot of people - people like Thomas Mann wrote, just in passing, how pervasive these ideas about the Mannerbund actually were.

So anyway, what comes out of it is this idea that there are actually really, really sort of virile, nationalist and, as you put it, proto-fascist individuals who also happen to be homosexual. (Laughter). So it's a very odd, I think, sort of configuration for us today.

GROSS: Can we add that in addition to being anti-Semitic, he sounds pretty misogynistic too. He opposed the social interaction of girls and boys - thought that males were superior in all ways to females.

BEACHY: Yeah, that was also implicit in his sort of description of the Mannerbund. Women were really just necessary for reproduction and otherwise they had very little role in public life and human society.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Robert Beachy. He's the author of the new book "Gay Berlin: Birthplace Of A Modern Identity." Let's take a short break, then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Robert Beachy. He's the author of the new book " Gay Berlin: Birthplace Of A Modern Identity," and it's about gay Berlin in the 1920s and early '30s, just before the Nazis came to power.

I think one of the heroes of your book is Doctor Magnus Hirschfeld who in 1897 created the world's first gay rights organization which was called the Scientific Humanitarian Committee. And then in 1918, he founded the Institute of Sexual Science What did that institute do?

BEACHY: That institute was supposed to promote legal reform. So - and that had been one of the projects of the scientific humanitarian committee since the 1890s, but it was also supposed to be the first real center for sexological research. So it was supposed to be able to pursue different kinds of projects. It might be thought of as a kind of proto-Kinsey Institute. And it did, in fact, then undertake some really interesting - some fascinating work.

One great example is the kind of work that Hirschfeld did at the Institute on what we might describe as transsexuality. So Hirschfeld paid a lot of attention to the work of a pioneering endocrinologist named Eugen Steinach, an Austrian, who really discovered sex hormones. And so for Hirschfeld, this was a confirmation that sexual orientation was biological. He thought that it was probably an imbalance of male and female sex hormones that accounted for homosexuality or homosexual behavior.

He also then decided that one might be able to use sex hormones to influence behavior and also ultimately to transition to a different gender. So he was intimately involved in thinking about people who would describe themselves today as transgender, who felt trapped in the wrong physical body and wanted to then change to a different sex.

So at the Institute, they pioneered some of the first sexual reassignment surgery, and they also use some of the first hormone therapy. It ultimately wasn't very successful, but arguably had a huge influence on what followed after the Second World War.

GROSS: He issued several what were called transvestite passes. What were transvestite passes?

BEACHY: He didn't issue them. They were issued by the police.


BEACHY: But he was instrumental in getting the police to issue them. And what happened before the First World War a lot in the 1890s into the 20th century - cross-dressers, people who, you know, donned the clothing of the opposite sex, would end up being accosted in public, sometimes by private individuals but often then by the police who would accuse them of disturbing the peace. And they would then be charged, usually under the anti-homosexuality law.

And what Hirschfeld argued was that these individuals felt this sort of strong drive to cross-dress in public and should be allowed to do so. It was what he considered a medical condition. And he then wrote a book about it, and he invented the word transvestite to describe them. That was published in 1910.

But even before that, he managed to convince Berlin police officials to issue transvestite passes. And so if somebody had one of these transvestite passes - say, a male cross-dresser who liked to wear women's clothing, he could then show it to a police officer and say I have formal permission to appear in public in women's clothing. So this was a phenomenon in Berlin already before the First World War, and it continued then into the '20s and early '30s.

GROSS: So was there a lesbian subculture separate from the gay male subculture? Did the two subcultures thrive in the same places?

BEACHY: There's less evidence about a lesbian subculture, but it's clear that lesbians attended a lot of the same transvestite balls. So the different kinds of descriptions - some ethnographic, some journalistic - of these balls from the 1890s and early 1900s describe women wearing men's clothing, women in men's clothing dancing with women wearing dresses. So it's clear that there were a lot of lesbians who sort of participated in that kind of culture.

There were also already, before the First World War, specific venues that were known as lesbian hangouts or maybe bars or cafes where lesbians would congregate. It's probably the case that lesbians in Berlin had more private social networks and were maybe less visible and less public. But it's certainly documented that there were both venues and different kinds of organizations that really catered specifically to lesbians.

GROSS: So now you're in the process of writing another book called "Long Knives: Homosexuality In Nazi Germany." Why have you decided to continue your research on gay people in Germany?

BEACHY: Well, I thought when I started this that I would end up writing some concluding chapters or a concluding chapter about the Third Reich. And I realized the topic was simply too big, and it was a separate subject and also a separate book. I also came across some remarkable Gestapo files - so a huge collection of Nazi police files from the 1930s and early 1940s that document the Nazi persecution of gay people, and these files are just unbelievable. The Nazis would arrest someone and interrogate them and take down an entire sexual history and then demand that the individual recount all of his sexual contacts, all of his social networks. And so they're incredibly rich in that way, in terms of information.

There's a second element, and that has to do with something that I think we talked about a little bit before. The presence of a lot of gay-identified, in some cases openly homosexual, individuals who were involved in the Nazi movement and who participated at least in the early years and then up until the so-called Night of Long Knives - up until the assassination of Rohm. And this is a very politicized and complicated history. Nobody's really told it, and I think it's extremely important. There's always this association that gay politics is progressive. It's maybe left-wing. It promotes tolerance. But there are some clear exceptions to those generalizations.

GROSS: Well, I look forward to reading that book. Good luck with that.

BEACHY: Thank you.

GROSS: Just one more thing I wanted to ask you - you end your new book with a kind of irony. You know, you've talked about Berlin as being, like, a place where gay culture has flourished - that there was a more flourishing above-ground gay culture in Berlin than in the U.S. when you started going to Berlin in the 1990s. But the kind of gay rights day in Berlin is called...

BEACHY: Christopher Street Day.

GROSS: Right, named after (laughter) the gay-rights movement in the U.S. So do you find that funny?

BEACHY: Well, I find it a little bit sad, really. (Laughter).

GROSS: Why sad?

BEACHY: Well, you know, after completing this book and after writing about what I think is really the birth of modern homosexual identity and homosexual rights activism, I have trouble understanding why Germans still recognize the Stonewall riot or riots at the end of the '60s in 1969 as the beginning of the modern homosexual rights movement.

So I think the Germans need to sort of honor their own history and recognize the importance of somebody like Magnus Hirschfeld and the scientific humanitarian committee founded in 1897, you know, almost 70 years before the beginning of the so-called modern homosexual rights movement. So I think in some ways that the Germans have almost been brainwashed, and so that's - I guess that explains my ironic tone at the end of the book.

GROSS: Well, Robert Beachy, thank you so much for talking with us.

BEACHY: Thank you so much for having me on the show, Terry.

GROSS: Robert Beachy is the author of "Gay Berlin." Coming up, Ken Tucker reviews D'Angelo's new album, "Black Messiah." This is FRESH AIR.

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