Gay Life flourished in Berlin before the Nazis snuffed it out

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Last year, close to 13 million people visited Berlin, twice the number of annual visitors recorded 10 years previously. The city is positively bursting at the seams. Not many years ago, a vast number of Berlin apartments stood empty; these days, a pervasive housing shortage threatens to get worse. Berlin is in. But Berlin is also a projection surface for dreams and desires, a promise of a different, freer, better life.

Now, this Berlin enthusiasm is nothing new. Close to a century ago – as the Weimar Republic was nearing its end – Berlin was already a vibrant metropolis the likes of which could not be found anywhere else in the world.

“The city looks to me like a scintillating gem,” the American dancer and singer Josephine Baker observed.  “These big coffee shops are like ocean steamers, and the orchestras are their machines that resound all over the place, keeping it in motion. The music is everywhere.”

Visitors both German and foreign, such as the two English writers W.H. Auden and Christopher Isherwood, felt almost magically attracted by Berlin – by the city’s great size, by its rhythm, but most of all by its gay scene. “Berlin,” Auden remarked, “is a dream for pederasts.” And Isherwood, years afterward, expressed the city’s fascination most succinctly: “To Christopher,” he wrote, “Berlin meant boys.” Everything seemed possible; everything was possible.

As the capital city of the German Empire (the Second Reich, dissolved in 1919), Berlin was already the home of a multibranched, many-sided queer subculture. In the 1920s, Berlin could offer more than a hundred cafés, bars, and taverns that were mainly frequented by queer people of all stripes.

The writer Emil Szittya remembered a visit to a transvestite bar named “Mikado”: “At the piano sat the Herr Baron Sattlergrün, who however preferred to be called ‘Baroness.’” Another legendary spot was Silhouette, a small, permanently smoke-filled pub that did a thriving business well into the wee hours of the morning. While the guests ate chicken soup, a pale young man, wearing woman’s clothes and accompanied by a blind pianist, would sing melancholy songs; Marlene Dietrich and the composer Friedrich Hollaender were two of Silhouette’s regular customers.

In the evening hours, certain parts of the Tiergarten (the large park in the middle of the city) were turned into gay playgrounds; moreover, there were veritable gay brothels, camouflaged as bathhouses or massage parlors, where men could meet and have sex.

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Comments 6

  1. Has anyone seen the TV series Babylon Berlin. I saw the first two series set in 1929 just before the Great Depression. Boys and Girls selling themselves on the street, young boys getting filmed in togas about to have sex with each other and a dirty fat old cunt that charges two marks for someone to stick their forearm up her cunt. (Her husband was in the backyard slaughtering dogs for meat).

    Wasn’t the head of the SA Ernst Rohm a lover of young blond boys? I read somewhere he had a 27 cm fat cock and he had his comrades go round the schoolyards looking for boys to fuck for a couple of Marks. The school leaving age for the poor kids was 14.

  2. Another good movie about the lively youth culture in 1930s Germany is “Swing Kids.” It’s not gay, but it is good, and the antics of the Nazis are no less chilling than the antics of today’s Leftists.

  3. Duh!

    Sidog is on the money regarding Cabaret. However, the production has many more numbers than in the movie which emphasized Berlin’s gay culture more. If a local theatre will take it on, buy a ticket; it’s worth it. Christopher Isherwood’s stories in Goodbye to Berlin still bring 30s Berlin to life. The character Sally Bowles was famously inspired by a regular at the KitKatClub.

    The same gay culture years later also inspired the legendary club, Berghain. In addition, many underground gay clubs with weekend-long parties are all over the city, but especially in Kreuzberg and surrounding neighborhoods. I was there; partying at Berghain is NOTHING like anywhere else.

    Anthony Bourdain of Parts Unknown did a great episode on Berlin before he died (the first one to air after his passing). Unfortunately, it doesn’t focus a lot on the gay culture. Nevertheless, I thought it was very spot-on. That too is worth looking at.

  4. — ” In 1948, Dr. Alfred Kinsey changed the world’s understanding of human sexuality. Today, Dr. Sue Carter and the Kinsey Institute have a broader mission: investigating the science of love, its connection to sexuality, and their collective impact on our humanity. ”
    — Kinsey demonstrates that the USA has its own very lively homo life. Even the gays hate him as well as the straights for his writings in publc books from his personal one-on-one research.

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