Berlin has been a queer-friendly city for well over a hundred year – except for the Nazi period, of course. The history of how the city became a safe haven for queer people started back in the XIX century.
German law wasn’t more liberal than any other law on the continent. At the unification of Germany under the Keiserreich in 1871, an oppressive statute was imposed all over the country, which criminalised bestiality as well as certain acts between men. This was never lifted and in fact in remained law of the land until as late as the 1960s.
By this law someone could be convicted for sodomy only if he confessed or if a witness testified against him. Which made the law admittedly quite hard to enforce, since this wasn’t something people voluntarily confessed. And as for witnesses, people had, of course, consensual relationships and intercourse in their private life. If someone was willing to denounce someone else, it was normally for shady reasons. The law seemed to encourage the practice of blackmailing, which finally prompted the creation of the Department of Blackmail and Homosexuality inside the police.
In the 1880s, police commissioner Leopold von Meerscheidt-Hullessem realised the law was unenforceable and so decided that rather than persecuting alleged homosexuals, it would be easier to just observe and monitor and keep tabs of suspected individuals. The police started to tolerate different public accommodations, such as bars and cafés and eventually even transvestite balls. These places wouldn’t get raided or padlocked. They were allowed to exist and operate. People were not punished for frequenting them. They could meet, socialise and interact. Over the years, this created a true community which was almost in the open.
In the 1920s and 1930s, 25 to 30 separate homosexual German-language periodicals were published in Berlin, either weekly or monthly. Readers could buy them at the newsagent, and in addition to giving news about the community, they would advertise clubs and events and even offer a dating service. There were no other such newspapers published anywhere else in the world until after the end of WWII.
As early as the turn of the century, Berlin’s gay scene was attracting such interest that it was frequently mentioned in tourist guides.At the turn of the XX century, Berlin’s gay scene was attracting such interest that it was frequently mentioned in tourist guides #Germany #history #queer Click To Tweet
The Institute of Sexual Science
The Institute of Sexual Science was founded in 1919 by Dr Magnus Hirschfeld, and it was the first facility in the world to offer medical and psychological counselling on sexual issues to heterosexual men and women, homosexuals, cross-dressers and intersex individuals. It was the first attempt to establish sexual science as a topic of legitimate academic study and research, but it also created many occasions of awareness in everyday life.
Dr Hirschfeld, for example, was a strong supporter of birth control and public education. He created a museum about sexual practices in the world and performed one of the first (if primitive) male-to-female sex-reassignment surgery on a 23-year-old officer who had fought in WWI.
He was instrumental in the creation of the ‘transvestite passes’ issued by Berlin police. In a book that he published in 1910, he argued that some individuals felt a strong drive to cross-dress in public. Hirschfeld considered this a medical condition (he was the one who coined the term ‘transvestite’), but since it was armless, he thought these people should be allowed to do so. Up to the 1910s, cross-dressers could be stopped by the police and questioned or arrested, but after the introduction of the transvestite passes, if they carried such permission, they would be left alone. The transvestite passes had the side effect of allowing actors and performers to freely move from one club to the other where they worked without ever taking off their custom.
The surge of the Nazi power brought all of this to an end. Nazis were strongly opposed to homosexuality and homosexuals. However, at the beginning, they only persecuted them if they were either Jews or leftists – or, as it was often the case, both. It wasn’t hard either, since many homosexual rights movement activists (including Dr Hirschfeld himself), progressive physicians, psychologists, medical doctors as well as lawyers and jurists were Jews.
Not long after the rise of the Third Reich, a Nazi youth group destroyed the Institute of Sexual Science and for long years the bond between Berlin and its queer community for broken.
Amber Aragon-Yoshida, Lustmord and Loving the Other: A History of Sexual Morder in Modern Germany and Austria (1873-1932) (pdf)
The Memorial Hall – The Gay Holocaust: Pre-Nazi Period
NDP National Public Radio – Between World Wars, Gay Culture Flourished in Berlin
The Point – Gay Berlin
Robert Beachy, Gay Berlin: Birthplace of a Modern Identity. Alfred A. Knopf Publishing, New York, 2014
JOHN T. SHEA
Another great post, Sarah! And a timely reminder that progress can be reversed. Bavaria, for example, legalized homosexuality by adopting the Napoleonic Code in 1814, but banned it 57 years later by joining the German Empire.
Didn’t know that. Thanks for commenting… and yeah… history might be strange…
It is such a shame the Nazis came along and ruined Berlin for queer culture. Of course it’s a shame they came along at all because they’re Nazis. They created such hatred.
Tasha’s Thinkings – Movie Monsters
They were very hard times, those years after WWI. For all of Europe, but for Germany in particular. Sometimes I think that the long peaceful XIX century and then the war had muddled what would have been the ‘normal’ evolution of society, and that’s were many problems mioght have come from.
But then, history will alway have its way and it’s hard to argue with it.
We don’t always think of this aspect of the liberalism of Berlin during that time. But it’s true that it it was, as you say, a gay-friendly city. Thanks for providing the background for why that was so, even before the Weimar years. It makes me ache for what was lost during the Nazi years. Yes, of course, millions of Jews were killed, and we should never, ever forget that. But plenty of people who were gay were, too, and their only crime was loving the ‘wrong’ person. What talent, what creativity, what energy and what intelligence was sacrificed during those years of the Third Reich…
We generally identify concentration camps with the slaughter of Jews (for obvious reasons), but in the concentration camps lost their life all kinds of people and for the most different reasons. Homosexuals were one of the targats.
I’ve alwasy had a perception that Berlin was a gay-friendly place (it is still today), but it was very interesting researching why this is. If we look at its history, I’d say that was a logical evolution of things 😉
Hi Sarah – this was such a great history post – I don’t think I’ve ever known …but so interesting to read … I’m learning lots here – cheers Hilary
I knew Berlin was the place for queer people, especailly int he 1920s, but didn’t know the history behind it. I enjoyed learning it too.
Excellent informative post. I’m reading backwards and trying to catch up with my reading and commenting on my new favorite blogs!
Thanks Nancy! I’m so behind with my blog reading that I’m even embarassed…
I didn’t know this bit of history.
I find that, because the rise of the Nazi is so relevant, a lot of the rest of German social history of that time kind of tend to get lost.
Melanie Atherton Allen
Wow! I knew that there was a visible Queer Culture in Weimar Germany, but these details are fascinating. And I didn’t know about transvestite passes– a sort of doctor’s prescription, I guess. That is pretty neat. Also the m-to-f sex change; I had no idea that the first such operation was done in Weimar Germany (though it is not actually very surprising, now I think about it). A friend of mine had such an operation recently, actually. Interesting to think of the first-ever sex change op. Thanks for the great article!
Thanks Melanie! 🙂
I really enjoyed researching this topic about which I knew very little. It was amazing discovering the extent of Weimar sexual liberality – which is a subject that is often misrepresented, I feel.
Another excellent post that showed how advanced the Weimar Republic was and how it all went to hell. So many ended up in the same camps as the Jewish people which is heartbreaking. The sad part is how many gays, transvestites and transgender people were abused all over the world. They were placed in prisons, given lobotomies ughhh…just so sad.
This is really a part of history that is often overlooked and I wonder why.
JOHN T. SHEA
In 1945 the Allies liberated the surviving concentration camp inmates. The German gay inmates lost their pink triangle badges but were simply moved to ordinary jails.
Why we don’t normally learn this history? It’s unfair.
Fascinating to know they had such leniency for the LBGT community in Weimar, before Hitler’s rise. I had no idea they were also one of the First Nations to study sexual science too, that’s leaps above many cultures at the time.
German culture – but I should say Berlin culture, actually – was ahead of its time in so many ways. Some articles I’ve read claim that Berlin was the most modern city int he world during the Weimar period, and from what I’m discovering, I’d tend to agree.
This is an amazing post – I had no idea about this aspect of history. I would love to learn more about Dr. Hirschfeld. He certainly was a man ahead of his time. I wonder what happened to him after the Nazis rose to power?
Without doubt he was a remarkable man.
He was abroad when the Nazi took power and in 1933 destroyed his Institute. He never went back to Germany and died in Nice in 1935.
I wrote Dr. Hirschfeld’s biography for Find a Grave. He appears as himself in the 1919 film Different from the Others, which I believe is one of the first films ever to have openly gay male characters and an obviously gay storyline and relationship.
I didn’t know that. Thanks so much for contributing the intormation. I’ve just looked up the film, and it sounds really very good. I need to watch it 🙂