Gay Berlin by Robert Beachy is a work anyone into the Weimar Period in Germany (1918 to 1933) must read and take seriously. It is a very detailed well documented account of the open homosexuality of the period. With state censorship relaxed there were open sex shows of all sorts in the nightclubs, sexual identities became blurred. Berlin was the place where gay male sex tourists went for rent boys. As Christopher Isherwood put it “Berlin is for boys”. There were vast homosexual subcultures. The streets were full of prostitutes of all sorts. The activity ranged from scandals in the court of the Emperor to the back alleys of Alexanderplatz. The classic novel of this period is Berlin Alexanderplatz by Alfred Döblin. Some say as many as a third of Berlin women worked at least part time in the sex trade. The police commissioner monitored these activities and more or less did not interfere. It as still socially unacceptable for married men to have same sex relations so for the wealthy blackmail was a danger.
Robert Beachy details the start of scientific studies attempting to explain homosexuality. The biggest concern was for men but lesbian relations also were openly practiced. His thesis is that it was in Weimar Germany that the notion of an exclusively homosexual man was first articulated. He suggests it was here where men and women first declared themselves gay.
The Nazis used what was to them the extreme decadence of the Weimar period as one of their “selling points”. They suggested Jews had intentionally destroyed the economy of Berlin by hyperinflation to drive young men and women to commit cheap sex acts with them.
The question for serious readers and autodidacts is why was this period so productive of great art and literature. This is a huge question not touched much by Beachy. I think the answer lies in the quote below.
“UNCHARTED LIVES is a fascinating study by gay psychotherapist Stanley Siegel and straight Newsday columnist Ed Lowe. This data is balanced with Siegel's own dramatic mid-life coming out story. When asked why such a seemingly disproportionate number of creative men are gay this was Siegel's response—" I think that because gay men live in a society that is hostile to them, because they are oppressed, have few role models, and in most cases have no legal rights or institutions that support and honor us we became extraordinarily inventive in the ways we live our lives. The process of become gay, of accepting one's sexuality, is a process of living an extremely original life. The apparatus of a creative life begins early, when we feel we are different in some way but have no language to explain the difference. Young gay boys feel that almost always and consequently they often isolate themselves or are isolated by the outside world. Isolation presents a creative world. Sometimes in fantasy we deal with separation by becoming highly productive—drawing, writing, creating. Usually this stays with the person the rest of their life and is only enhanced by the challenges they meet later on."
Weimar Germany freed people from old strictures and this opened up the gates of creativity as artists and writers struggled to create their own identities.
I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in Weimar Germany, gay studies and German Literature and Art
Robert Beachy was trained as a German historian at the University of Chicago, where he received his Ph.D. in 1998. He is presently Associate Professor of History at Goucher College in Baltimore.