Why Berlin Meant Boys

In a review of Robert Beachy’s Gay Berlin: Birthplace of a Modern Identity, Alex Ross ponders why the city proved a relatively hospitable place for a thriving gay subculture that emerged at the turn of the 20th century. One reason? A deep and abiding connection between Romanticism and German culture:

Close to the heart of the Romantic ethos was the idea that heroic individuals could attain the freedom to make their own laws, in defiance of society. Literary figures pursued a cult of friendship that bordered on the homoerotic, although most of the time the fervid talk of embraces and kisses remained just talk.

But the poet August von Platen’s paeans to soldiers and gondoliers had a more specific import:

“Youth, come! Walk with me, and arm in arm / Lay your dark cheek on your / Bosom friend’s blond head!” Platen’s leanings attracted an unwelcome spotlight in 1829, when the acidly silver-tongued poet Heinrich Heine … satirized his rival as a womanly man, a lover of “passive, Pythagorean character,” referring to the freed slave Pythagoras, one of Nero’s male favorites. Heine’s tone is merrily vicious, but he inserts one note of compassion: had Platen lived in Roman times, “it may be that he would have expressed these feelings more openly, and perhaps have passed for a true poet.” In other words, repression had stifled Platen’s sexuality and, thus, his creativity.

Gay urges welled up across Europe during the Romantic era; France, in particular, became a haven, since statutes forbidding sodomy had disappeared from its books during the Revolutionary period, reflecting a distaste for law based on religious belief. The Germans, though, were singularly ready to utter the unspeakable.

In an interview about his book, Beachy sizes up just how remarkable such an outpost of gay culture was:

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. … [T]here 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.