GAY BERLIN by Robert Beachy


Birthplace of a Modern Identity
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An elucidating, somewhat startling study of how early German tolerance and liberalism encouraged homosexual expression.

Anti-sodomy laws were unevenly applied in the German confederation of states before imperial unification in 1871. In this singular, persuasive work, Beachy (Yonsei Univ., Seoul; Soul of Commerce: Credit, Property, and Politics in Leipzig, 1750-1840, 2005, etc.) traces the legal and medical precedents to increased tolerance of same-sex love, especially in Berlin before 1933. Despite the recommendation by medical experts against the archaic anti-sodomy statue (they argued that “male-male sexual relations” were “no more injurious than other forms [of illicit sexuality]”), the law was upheld in the Prussian-led unification, largely due to a horrific assault in the Invalidenpark, which swayed public opinion. Nonetheless, a lawyer who had been advocating for same-sex rights through his writings, first anonymously and under threat of scandal, then by his real name, Karl Heinrich Ulrichs, momentously addressed the Association of Jurists in Munich in 1867, protesting the anti-sodomy laws. Part of the stupendous reach of Ulrichs’ writings on homosexuals was due to the lax censorship laws of the Leipzig publishers, “who dominated the German-language book trade.” Ulrichs’ work would later inspire Dr. Magnus Hirschfeld in the founding of the Scientific Humanitarian Committee in Berlin—what Beachy calls the first homosexual rights organization. Moreover, in Berlin, the police commissioner Leopold von Meerscheidt-Hüllessem took a rather laissez faire enforcement policy toward what came to be at century’s end a proliferation of homosexual bars and drag costume balls (“homosexual” being a neologism coined by another German journalist and activist, Karl-Maria Kertbeny in 1869). These events were often used for tours so that the city became a kind of “laboratory of sexuality.” Beachy looks at the roles of blackmail and criminality, the rise of homoerotic youth groups in Weimar Germany and an accompanying anti-Semitic reaction.

A brave new work of compelling research.

Pub Date: Nov. 20th, 2014
ISBN: 978-0-307-27210-2
Page count: 336pp
Publisher: Knopf
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 15th, 2014


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