POST WORLD WAR IWeimar Berlin

Homosexual rights and Berlin as the Queer Mecca

Weimar Berlin, also known as the “Cabaret Era”, was closely associated with sexual freedom, queerness, the Camp aesthetic, and a general “degeneration” and decadence, which often went hand in hand with the Camp movement. Shortly after its unification in 1871, the German state implemented the famous Paragraph 175, which criminalised homosexuality. In 1897, a “petition [was] drafted by physician Magnus Hirschfeld, urging the deletion of Paragraph 175; it gathered 6,000 signatories.”¹

Figure 1. Linden Cabaret.

From then on, many similar campaigns followed, including a strong movement in 1929 to repeal Paragraph 175. This campaign eventually led to its abolition in the same year, when the “Reichstag Committee decided to repeal Paragraph 175 with the votes of the Social Democrats, the Communist Party (KPD) and the German Democratic Party (DDP).”² In the Weimar Republic, therefore, Berlin homosexual culture was at its peak, with an established Department of Homosexuals and the Institute for Sexual Sciences led by Magnus Hirschfeld. The impact of this institute was enormous and will be analysed in the next section. Weimar Berlin was also an era of female sexual liberation to a noticeable extent, as “Germany was the centre of the international movement for sexual reform, and public debates over issues of abortion reform, birth control.”³

Trans history and Hirschfeld’s Institute for Sexual Sciences

The Institute for Sexual Sciences was a pioneer institution in the field of Sexology, established in 1919. Their findings changed contemporary ideas about sexuality and gender, contributed to the normalisation of contraception, abortions and the de-fetishization of sexual pleasure.⁴

The founder, Magnus Hirschfeld, was particularly interested in homosexuality because of the increased condemnation following its criminalisation. He wanted to help decriminalise it by researching the not yet accepted concepts of sexuality and gender. His findings on “hermaphrodites” and the establishment of the “third sex”⁵ in his research completely revolutionised the field and helped break down the taboos to a considerable extent. He devoted his life to his cause, but because he presented the effeminate men as homosexuals without exception, and also analysed their supposed “female” psychological traits, his work was disputed by the scientific community and even attacked by homosexual men for his insistence on “demi-women.”⁶ His work on “transvestites”, a term which he coined, could arguably be considered less problematic from a present standpoint, as it closely resembles contemporary ideas of trans people.

He coined the term “transvestite” and defined it as “the urge to present and conduct oneself in the outer raiment of the sex to which a person does not belong-as regards the visible sexual organs.”⁷ He also explained how cross-dressing, which was particularly prevalent during the era, goes beyond the spectrum of homosexuality, and is actually different to homosexuality. During the 1920s he and his staff from the institute “contributed [..] to having “transvestite certificates” introduced and recognized by the Police. These certificates were to safeguard transvestites against arrest.”⁸ With this newly acquired awareness of “transvetisism:”, “in 1920s, male and female transvestites were permitted by the authorities to have their first names changed to gender-neutral names”⁹ , while Hirschfeld and his colleagues “even succeeded in convincing the German government to pay for male to female genital surgery.”¹⁰

The Berlin underworld: sex tourism, gay and lesbian bars

In the context of that particular era, in Europe and worldwide, these new rights and policies were ground-breaking. The gradual acceptance of female promiscuity, homosexuality and decadent lifestyle contributed to the establishment of the image of Weimar Berlin as a Queer Mecca, in contemporary terms. Along these lines, “a law that decriminalized and deregulated female prostitution”¹¹ was implemented, and “after 1927, landlords who accommodated adult prostitutes only committed a criminal offense if they charged excessive rates or exploited prostitutes in other ways.”¹²

Figure 2. Berlin; Tanzkabarett im Europahaus, Stresemannstraße.

British intelligentsia relocated to Berlin during that era, with Christopher Isherwood and W.H Auden being the most famous amongst them. It is well-known that, for Isherwood, “Berlin meant boys” and “Auden told his friend that Berlin was the place to be freely homosexual without having to worry about the strict laws, stigmas, and the social, cultural, and legal implications and consequences of engaging in same-sex behaviour in England.”¹³ Sex tourism was flourishing, and groups of “Eastern and Western Europeans and Americans flocked to Berlin for its gay culture.”¹⁴

“Berlin was the place to be freely homosexual without having to worry about the strict laws, stigmas, and the social, cultural, and legal implications and consequences of engaging in same-sex behaviour.”

The “unregulated sex industry”¹⁵ left many opportunities for experimentation and the Berlin nightlife was notorious. The famous Tauentzeinstrasse with its cabarets and the nightclubs was “a street once associated exclusively with prostitution.”¹⁶ The street remained a symbol of “the moral looseness of Weimar Berlin, in particular the sexual and bisexual play in Berlin night-life,”¹⁷ both in real and fictional worlds. In his novel Goodbye to Berlin, Isherwood used this fictional topos of what he called “an arty ‘informal’ bar” in Tauentzeinstrasse”¹⁸ as the cabaret where the risqué character Sally Bowles performed.

Later, British author Beatrice Colin in her 2009 novel The Luminous Life of Nelly Aphrodite, which unfolds in Weimar Berlin as well, uses Tauentzienstrasse for the “tingle-tangle”¹⁹ cabaret where Hanne Schmidt sings. In that sense, this street marked the collective memory for years to come and accommodated female characters who remain eternal symbols of “the Girl[s] from the Tauentzienstrasse” who “know more about sex than [their] prudish and well-to-do mother[s]”.²⁰

Figure 3. Liza Minnelli as Sally Bowles from the film Cabaret.
Figure 4. W.H. Auden and Christopher Isherwood.

Christopher Isherwood’s and W. H. Auden’s Berlin

With its modern and tolerant culture, the capital of Germany attracted many foreigners during the Weimar era, including British intellectuals. Both Christopher Isherwood, who resided in Berlin for more than a decade, and his friend W.H. Auden were very inspired by their experiences in Berlin, and incorporated the city into their written works. Berlin offered them easier access to ‘forbidden’ pleasures, and the freedom to express their sexuality, which would have been impossible in the more conservative city of London. Indeed, they frequently visited gay bars in the German capital.²¹ For them, English culture was associated with repression, while Weimar Berlin culture was characterised by freedom, and this freedom allowed them to explore themselves further and to develop their artistic abilities.²² Early after his arrival in Berlin, Isherwood was already regarding the experience as “one of the decisive events” of his life.²³ Throughout his decade-long in the city, the British novelist found excitement “in Berlin’s drab streets and shabby crowds, in the poverty and dullness of the overgrown Prussian provincial town” and showed this admiration in works such as Mr. Norris Changes Trains (1935) and Goodbye to Berlin (1939).²⁴ Similarly, his beloved friend W.H. Auden created his famous six German poems after his nine-month visit to the capital. It is possible to see his time Berlin as a time of self-reflection, during which his interest in the city only grew.²⁵ In fact, years later, Auden himself wrote that he “would like to become, if possible, a minor Atlantic Goethe” in The Cave of Making (1965), emphasising his admiration for German intellectualism. Moreover, decades after his first visit, he stated, “I like the ‘Berliner’ so much, it has not changed, this pertness, this humour, I liked that very much,” thereby reaffirming the city’s influence on himself.²⁶

The Case of Vita and Virginia

Just as intellectual men chose to live in Berlin, British women were likewise drawn to the German capital. Letters exchanged between Vita Sackville-West and Virginia Woolf provide insight into the authors’ thoughts about Berlin in the Weimar era. Their relationship as depicted in the letters demonstrates not only what the city offered for women but also sheds light on women’s queer romantic relationships. Unlike the works of their male counterparts, the letters do not necessarily offer a positive depiction of Berlin, although Sackville-West emphasised her adoration for “a bookstall which deals entirely in homosexual literature” and stated the  certainty of “very queer things to be seen in Berlin”.²⁷

Sackville-West reconstructs the capital from her memories of Woolf. The very fact that Woolf came to visit her in Berlin meant that the city became a romantic location. Vita describes Virginia’s coming to Berlin as “quite the most exciting thing that has ever happened.”²⁸ Their relation to the German capital is therefore defined by the opportunities it offered them to come together physically and romantically, in a city renowned for its homosexual liberation. In her own responses, Woolf is rather negative towards the city itself, using harsh words to describe Berlin. She finds the city great fun in many ways but makes it clear that she does not want to come return.²⁹ In fact, she calls it “the ugliest of cities,” underlining how she got sick on her return! The experiences and memories of the two women in Berlin—made possible due to its liberal environment—provide an alternative perspective of the city.

Figure 5. Letter from Virginia Woolf to Vita Sackville-West.
Figure 5. Letter from Virginia Woolf to Vita Sackville-West.

“The possibilities and opportunities that Berlin provided during the Weimar era were refreshing and promising enough to fascinate British visitors.”

It is still very important to note that, “even in the famously liberated atmosphere of left-moderate Weimar-era sex activism, sexual identity and sexual freedom came into being by demarking their limits.”³⁰ In other words, under all the glitter and glamour, the German capital was not a source of infinite freedom. However, the possibilities and opportunities that Berlin provided during the Weimar era were refreshing and promising enough to fascinate British visitors.

Wikipedia contributors. “Paragraph 175.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 12 May. 2019. Web. 6 Dec. 2019; 2. Ibid.; 3. Julia Roos, “Prostitution Reform and the Reconstruction of Gender in the Weimar Republic”, (2006); 4. Elena Mancini, Magnus Hirschfeld and the quest for sexual freedom: A history of the first international sexual freedom movement. (Springer: 2010); 5. Magnus-Hirschfeld-Gesellschaft e.V.; 6. Ibid.; 7. Ibid.; 8. Ibid.; 9. Ibid.; 10. Elena Mancini, p. x (Prologue); 11. Laurie Marhoefer, ”Degeneration, Sexual Freedom and the Politics of Weimar Republic, 1918-1933”, German Studies Review, (2011): 52912. Julia Roos, 1013. Zoë C. Howard, ”Berlin Meant Boys: Christopher Isherwood in Weimar Germany’s Gay Culture”, 1814. Ibid. 1615. Ibid. 1616. Suzanne Jill Smith. Berlin Coquette: Prostitution and the new German woman, 1890-1933, (Cornell University Press: 2014): 14517. Linda Mijezewski, Divine decadence: Fascism, female spectacle, and the makings of Sally Bowles, (Princeton University Press, 2014)18. Christopher Isherwood, Goodbye to Berlin, (London: Hogarth Press, 1939): 3719. Beatrice Colin, The Glimmer Palace, (New York: Riverhead Books, 2009): 6620. Suzanne J. Smith, 14521. Poger Sidney. “Berlin and the Two Versions of W.H. Auden’s “Paid on Both Sides”” pp: 1922. Emig, Rainer. “Transgressive Travels: Homosexuality, Class, Politics and the Lure of Germany in 1930s Writing”. Critical Survey, Vol. 10, No. 3, Literature of the 1930s (1998): 5323. Isherwood, Christopher. Christopher and his Kind. (Toronto: Collins Publishers, 2013): 824. Ibid. pp: 15325. Arnold, Hannah. 17, 19. “’A minor atlantic Goethe’: W.H. Auden’s Germanic bias”. Submitted for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy. University of Oxford. 201426. “Ich habe der Berliner so gerne, er ist nicht verändet, diese Kessheit, der Humor, das hatt ich sehr gerne’” Ibid. p. 4827. DeSalvo, Louise. The letters of Vita Sackville-West to Virginia Woolf / 1. ed, (New York : Morrow, 1985): 328, 30628. Ibid. pp: 30729. Nicolson, Nigel. The Letters of Virginia Woolf. Volume IV 1929-1931. (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1979): 2130. Marhoefer, Laurie. “Degeneration, Sexual Freedom, and the Politics of the Weimar Republic, 1918-1933.” German Studies Review (2011): 543 

Figure 1: Linden Cabaret © Wikimedia Commons, Author: Jo Steiner
Figure 2: Berlin; Tanzkabarett im EuropahausStresemannstraße.
1931 © Bundesarchiv
Figure 3: Liza Minnelli as Sally Bowles from the film Cabaret © Wikimedia Commons, Allied Artists Pictures Corporation
Figure 4: W.H. Auden and Christopher Isherwood © National Media Museum
Figure 5: Letter from Virginia Woolf to Vita Sackville-West © Papers of Virginia Woolf, Mortimer Rare Book Collection, MRBC-MS-00001, Smith College Special Collections, Northampton, Massachusetts 

Arnold, Hannah. “’A minor atlantic Goethe’: W.H. Auden’s Germanic bias”. Oxford: University of Oxford. 2014Colin,  Beatrice. The Glimmer Palace. New York: Riverhead Books, 2009DeSalvo, Louise. The letters of Vita Sackville-West to Virginia Woolf / 1. ed. New York: Morrow, 1985Howard, Zoë C. ”Berlin Meant Boys: Christopher Isherwood in Weimar Germany’s Gay Culture”. The Interdisciplinary Research Journal (2016): 16-18Isherwood, Christopher. Christopher and his Kind. Toronto: Collins Publishers, 2013Isherwood, Christopher. Goodbye to Berlin. London: Hogarth Press, 1939Magnus-Hirschfeld-Gesellschaft e.V
Mancini, Elena. Magnus Hirschfeld and the quest for sexual freedom: A history of the first international sexual freedom movement. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010Marhoefer, Laurie. ”Degeneration, Sexual Freedom and the Politics of Weimar Republic, 1918-1933.” German Studies Review (2011): 529-543Mijezewski,  Linda. Divine decadence: Fascism, female spectacle, and the makings of Sally Bowles. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2014Nicolson, Nigel. The Letters of Virginia Woolf. Volume IV 1929-1931. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1979Poger Sidney. “Berlin and the Two Versions of W.H. Auden’s “Paid on Both Sides”” pp: 19Roos, Julia. “Prostitution Reform and the Reconstruction of Gender in the Weimar Republic”, (2006). URL:https://scholarworks.iu.edu/dspace/bitstream/handle/2022/803/Weimar_Roos.pdf.Emig, Rainer. “Transgressive Travels: Homosexuality, Class, Politics and the Lure of Germany in 1930s Writing”. Critical Survey Vol. 10, No. 3 (1998): 53Smith, Suzanne Jill. Berlin Coquette: Prostitution and the new German woman, 1890-1933. Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 2014Wikipedia contributors. “Paragraph 175.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 12 May. 2019. Web. 6 Dec. 2019.