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One evening in October 1905, when most Berliners were bundled away at home, Kurt Hiller wandered alone through the Tiergarten. Well, not quite alone. Walking in the southeast corner of the park between Lennéstraße and the Brandenburg Gate, the nineteen-year-old law student found himself boxed in by silhouettes: men searching the shadows for the company of other men, the “warm brothers” (warme Brüder) for which Berlin was so well-known. It was Hiller’s first visit to the city’s most notorious cruising ground, but he quickly found what he was looking for. He sat down on a bench next to a wiry man perhaps ten years his senior, rakish and mysterious in the moonlight. The law student wasted little time with small talk; he asked about the most important things. The man raised his arm and flexed. “I checked for myself,” Hiller recalled. “His bicep was broad, curved, and strong as steel.” Returning to the apartment of his anonymous lover, Hiller noticed with some distaste that the man’s body was quilted with tattoos. This was a man of the outskirts: a sailor or a criminal, a soldier or a circus performer. Taken briefly aback, the law student was rapidly overcome by lust for the man’s taut, sculpted frame. He let the door to the hallway close behind him.

In the early 1920s, an American military intelligence officer stationed in Germany reported that Berlin was “known by connoisseurs as one of the most immoral cities in the world.” The German capital was infamous for its wildly sexual and transgressive atmosphere: the confident young women with cropped hair and revealing skirts, the swingers clubs openly catering to polyamorous couples and curious singles, the cocaine fueling the city’s roaring nightlife. But most of all, as the English writer Christopher Isherwood later observed, “Berlin meant boys.” Here in this tolerant, sexually liberated city, a flourishing queer society of men and women glittered for all to see. Berlin was the homosexual capital of the globe, a town described by Thomas Mann’s gay son Klaus, tongue-in-cheek, as “Sodom and Gomorrah in a Prussian tempo.”

This is the world reanimated in marvelous detail by Robert Beachy in Gay Berlin: Birthplace of a Modern Identity (2014). From a defiant 1867 speech by lawyer Karl Heinrich Ulrichs (Beachy calls it “the first public coming-out in modern history”) to the closure of gay bars by Nazi thugs in 1933, it’s a riveting tale: the rise and fall of a forgotten queer metropolis. As marriage bans tumble across the country and the LGBT movement advances triumphant, Gay Berlin draws our attention to a gay history that began long before Stonewall. Yet most startling of all is Beachy’s sweeping argument about the origins of modern sexuality itself. Our entire understanding of sexual identity, he contends, was invented by the Germans.

Gay Berliners knew that homosexual encounters could be had in the Tiergarten and along Unter den Linden, the city’s royal boulevard, as well as in a stand of chestnut trees near a neoclassical guardhouse designed by architect Karl Friedrich Schinkel. In these shadowy spaces, one was of course more likely to meet one of Berlin’s estimated 22,000 male hustlers than a long-term romantic partner. (Kurt Hiller was politely asked to pay a small fee before he left the apartment of his park-bench paramour.)

Men and women looking for community could drop into one of the dozens of gay establishments strewn across the city map. Isherwood and the poet W. H. Auden preferred the Cosy Corner, a seedy working-class joint in what is now Berlin’s hip and gentrifying Kreuzberg district, protected from the elements by a heavy leather curtain. Others might have frequented the Café Dorian Gray or even the Mikado, an upscale teahouse where the Baron Willibald von Sadler-Grün played the piano in drag and was known as “the Baroness.” In the 1880s, police reported that the male patrons of Seeger’s Restaurant “kissed and caressed one another, patted each other’s bottoms, sat on each other’s laps, addressed each other with women’s names, and fondled one another in the crotch.” Most glamorous of all was the Eldorado, where performers like Marlene Dietrich shared the stage—and the applause—with transvestites and drag queens.

By the 1920s, nearly thirty different gay periodicals were hawked openly on Berlin newsstands: magazines like Garçonne (later called Frauen Liebe) printed lesbian romance novels in serial while Die Freundschaft, a general-interest homosexual monthly, offered everything from news analysis to personal ads. Organizations like the Human Rights League and the Community of the Special lobbied politicians and hosted events. Appropriately situated near the Tiergarten, the Institute for Sexual Science (founded in 1919 by Dr. Magnus Hirschfeld) served as a worldwide center for research into human sexuality. This kind of gay associational and print culture was unmatched anywhere in the world. And so for Isherwood as for many others, Berlin was the stuff of queer dreams. “This is what freedom is,” he thought to himself in 1929 as he walked home from a café to his new apartment next to the Institute. “This is how I ought always to have lived.”

Have we known this world forever? Sometimes it seems that way. But in fact we have mostly been dazzled by impressions: Marlene Dietrich’s smoldering turn in tuxedo and top hat, the enduring sex appeal and knife’s-edge pleasure of Cabaret. Beachy is the first historian to offer a satisfying sense of what this radiant queer world was actually like: where gay people went, how they met one another, where they felt comfortable doing what. It’s an archaeological project, but not an antiquarian one. Oriented by a constellation of overlooked gay heroes, we can make out a new, unfamiliar tale about how Germany became modern: not in fits and starts, stunted by an authoritarian legacy and doomed to fascism, but rather freely and precociously, with brio, imagination and courage. It’s a story about how we became modern, too, a compelling narrative about sexual pioneers and the genealogy of the self.

Here we find ourselves on terrain most famously charted by Michel Foucault in The History of Sexuality. Today, we believe that our romantic attractions and erotic desires are guided by sexual orientation, plotted along a spectrum from gay to straight. What Foucault suggested (and what most historians now concede) is that this way of thinking about sex had to be invented; in fact, it was only in the late nineteenth century that the kind of sex you had began to indicate anything essential about what kind of person you were. Individual acts of sodomy gave way to the idea of homosexuality: the condition of feeling sexual and romantic desire exclusively for members of one’s own sex. Whether it was thought to hinge on biology or culture, sexual activity stopped being understood as a set of merely physical acts and began to signify something about your personal identity.

Gay Berlin doesn’t challenge this chronology. But it does bring the Foucauldian project down to earth by showing how modern sexuality emerged among men and women living in a particular place and time. Berlin wasn’t the only turn-of-the-century gay metropolis, but it was in the German capital that a distinctive admixture of tolerance, science and intellectual courage first made it possible to imagine—and live—sexual identity as we know it today.

The most persuasive reason to credit the Germans with inventing modern sexuality is that they were the first to figure out how to talk about it. Ulrichs, a German nationalist lawyer, came out to his family as early as the 1860s. In an extraordinary letter home, he described a dance at which several “well-developed and handsomely uniformed forestry pupils” had turned his head. “I felt such a strong attraction that I was amazed,” he confessed to his family. “I would have flung myself at them.” Ulrichs went on to publish a series of explosive pamphlets (with titles like “Vindicator” and “Raging Sword”) in which he articulated the idea of the Urning: a feminine nature permanently trapped in a man’s body. Even the term “homosexuality” was hatched in German (as Homosexualität), first appearing in an 1869 pamphlet by author and journalist Karl-Maria Kertbeny. For Beachy, Ulrichs is a forgotten trailblazer, a man who “spearheaded a conceptual revolution” by providing German homosexuals with the language they needed to build a community. “We were a scattered body of defenseless weaklings, persecuted and mangled,” Ulrichs wrote in 1868. “We have found courage!”

Germans had even more to say about sexual identity after sodomy was criminalized throughout the Empire in 1871. Gay activists like Ulrichs raised their voices louder, publishing a fresh wave of pamphlets and articles in order to explain and defend themselves against this new, more serious threat: official state persecution designed to excise them from the body politic. These political defenses of sexual identity were soon stamped with the confident and spine-stiffening imprimatur of modern science. After 1871, psychologists and criminologists rushed to understand the causes of same-sex attraction; by the turn of the century, pioneering scientists like Richard von Krafft-Ebing and Magnus Hirschfeld were arguing that men who desired other men were neither diseased nor criminal but simply possessed of a different sexual orientation. Sexology itself, the biological and psychological study of human sexuality, emerged first and most vigorously in the German language.

A uniquely tolerant policing regime made Berlin into an urban “laboratory of sexuality” in which the population could live these new theories and categories more openly than anywhere else. In the mid-1880s, police commissioner Leopold von Meerscheidt-Hüllessem determined that enforcing the federal anti-sodomy statute would be impossible in a city of nearly two million people. He therefore opted for containment, allowing gay clubs to flourish within limits, establishing a Department of Homosexuals, and even leading visiting dignitaries on tours of Berlin’s queer demimonde. Hüllessem “actually gave life to a theoretical construct,” Beachy writes, “by projecting it as a social and cultural identity and allowing it to develop within a network of bars and same-sex establishments.” Prurient night watchmen, Hüllessem and his officers allowed Berliners to explore their new identities proudly and collectively.

What all of this suggests is that the German state played a major role in conjuring modern sexuality into being. Berlin’s police department certainly helped—however inadvertently—but the federal state had a hand in things, too. The criminalization of sodomy triggered aggressive research into the nature of same-sex desire, and forced men like Ulrichs, backs against the wall, to defend themselves from persecution using the power of the press. It’s a counterintuitive but persuasive case: by turning gay men into criminals, the German state forced them to articulate their worth as citizens.

Twenty years ago, George Chauncey told a very different queer origin story. In his pathbreaking book Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World, 1890-1940 (1994), Chauncey situated the birth of modern sexuality after World War II, suggesting that it wasn’t until then that most Americans defined themselves by a fixed sexual orientation, straight or gay. In the early twentieth century, New Yorkers made sense of same-sex behavior through the lens of gender or class, not sexual identity: effeminate men known as “fairies” and masculine working-class men termed “rough trade” were the most well-known categories. How a man behaved in the bedroom (and with whom) didn’t make him gay or straight; it made him more of a man—or less of one. In Queer London: Perils and Pleasures in the Sexual Metropolis, 1918-1957 (2005), Matt Houlbrook argued that gay Londoners lived and loved in similar terms well into the 1950s.

Gay Berlin is thus history in counterpoint, echoing its predecessors while plotting a tale of German exceptionalism. Berlin was, without a doubt, one of the most vibrant and politically active queer spaces in the world, a freer and more tolerant city than most. And Beachy has done a superb job of tracing the German heritage and history of sexology. But he also implies that Berlin felt different, that the place itself produced a particular kind of homosexual experience and consciousness: liberal, scientific, modern. After all, this isn’t a biography of Ulrichs but a book about “how Berlin shaped sexual identity.” It’s almost as though there was something in the air. Only in the German capital, we’re told, did visitors like Isherwood and Auden really begin to think of their sexuality in a modern way.

Here one hesitates. After all, New York appears to have generated a similar kind of homosexual identity: fairies and rough trade may not have thought in terms of sexual orientation, but most of the city’s gay men did. Calling themselves “queers,” these (often middle-class) men recognized their exclusive sexual attraction to other men and sought out companionship and romance, not just casual sex. They may have been more closeted, but New York’s queers seem to have understood themselves in ways that would have been familiar to gay Berliners.

On the other hand, the notion of a fixed, innate sexual orientation was by no means universal in Berlin. Class certainly inflected queer life much as it did in New York. Ulrichs was pressured to resign in 1854 from his job as an assistant judge because of his abnormal sex life, and the nature of the allegations (glossed over in Gay Berlin) are revealing about the connection between class and homosexuality. According to the report filed against him, Ulrichs fell under suspicion because he was “often to be seen in the company of lower-class persons under circumstances that allow one to conclude a closer connection.” Much later, Isherwood recalled that upon arriving in Berlin “he couldn’t relax sexually with a member of his own class or nation. He needed a working-class foreigner.” The city seems not to have changed him all that much: he ended up living with the family of his first Berlin boyfriend, Otto Nowak, in their “slum tenement” in the rough neighborhood around Hallesches Tor. Did the residents of gay Berlin understand their sexual behavior in different ways depending on the class of those involved? It seems likely.

Gay Berliners were also divided by politics. Right-wing homosexuals preferred a hypervirile, masculinist vision of same-sex love, inspired by the homoeroticism of ancient Greece as well as the more recent male sociability of the Wandervogel youth hiking movement. In this telling, developed most fully by Hans Blüher, loving other men didn’t make you weak or abnormal; it made you better, stronger, fiercer. Close-knit associations of homosexual men (Männerbünde) would lead the German race and nation towards a glorious future. Among veterans, monarchists and members of the racialized völkisch right, this was an enormously popular way of making sense of homosexual desires. And it couldn’t have been more different from the liberal-scientific model advanced by sexologists and activists like Ulrichs and Hirschfeld.

Beachy doesn’t neglect these alternative paradigms, but he does leave some of the most vexing questions unanswered. With such fierce competition, how did the liberal-scientific model of fixed sexual orientation come to dominate Western culture? Why did alternative visions grounded in masculinity, race or class not emerge victorious? One would expect the Nazi catastrophe to have poisoned the völkisch model for good, but the masculinist approach favored by Blüher enjoyed a surprising renaissance in Germany’s dour 1950s. Was the scientific model of sexual identity simply more translatable than one steeped in the blood and soil of German nationalism? After all, gay men and women moved between London, Berlin and New York as early as the 1890s, and we still don’t know enough about the global circulation of queer people, ideas or practices in the early twentieth century.

Whether Berlin was the singular birthplace of modern identity or simply first among equals, it’s hard not to be astonished by its forgotten past. Our queer ancestors turn out to have been prouder and our straight forebears more tolerant than we give them credit for. But a freethinking, experimental city like gay Berlin also confronts us with questions about the ingredients of intellectual work, about how the places we live shape the ways we think.

There’s a long tradition of thinking about how human beings are molded by their natural environment. “You will find, as a general rule,” the Greek physician Hippocrates (or one of his followers) wrote,“that the constitutions and the habits of a people follow the nature of the land where they live.” Two millennia later, in The Spirit of the Laws (1748), Montesquieu used similar logic to explain liberty, despotism and racial difference. Only a cold and unforgiving climate, he thought, would produce men hale and hearty enough to be free. Fernand Braudel, one of the finest historians of the twentieth century, grappled with the question while imprisoned behind enemy lines. In The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II (1949), written from memory in a POW camp in Nazi Germany, Braudel tried to show that societies were deeply imprinted by the ecological rhythms of land and sea.

Climatic determinism makes most of us squirm, but we also know that there are places like gay Berlin, historical moments marked by extraordinary creative output and a heightened sense of possibility. Renaissance Florence. Revolutionary Paris. Fin-de-siècle Vienna. Silicon Valley. We are learning, too, that the digital commons is no substitute for concrete spaces where people can think and act freely; recent events in Paris and Copenhagen remind us that hashtag activism is cheap, that free inquiry is impossible while staring down the barrel of a gun. Safe, tolerant, freethinking places made us modern, and they continue to be essential sites for the experimentation and innovation that define an open society. Set against a violent, interconnected world, our liberal harbors have begun to seem rather vulnerable.

Gay Berlin turned out to be especially fragile. Within weeks of Hitler’s ascent to the chancellorship in January 1933, the homosexual press was silenced and the best-known gay bars were shuttered. As part of this “Campaign for a Clean Reich,” the Eldorado itself was boarded up and made over into an election billboard for the Nazis. The most iconic loss was Hirschfeld’s Institute for Sexual Science. Set upon by dozens of Nazi students one morning in May 1933, its library was ransacked, its medical files seized, its premises vandalized and shut down for good. Federal anti-sodomy statutes were strengthened, and the number of prosecutions leapt dramatically. Nazi Party membership guaranteed nothing, not even to a gay man as prominent as Ernst Röhm. A distinguished war veteran, commander of the party militia (the SA) and a close confidant of the Führer, Röhm was killed on Hitler’s orders on July 1, 1934—a prime target in the bloody purge of the SA leadership that is known as the Night of the Long Knives. Although he was murdered for political purposes, rumors also circulated that Röhm had transformed the SA into a debauched homosexual cabal; his death made it clear that gay people had no place in the radicalized national community envisioned by the Nazis. Thousands of gay Germans ended up in concentration camps, their jumpsuits emblazoned with pink triangles.

Queer spaces are shadowy by nature, hard to see and even harder to find again once they’ve been lost. It’s what makes writing their history so difficult— and so important. For they’re also quintessentially liberal spaces: sites of daring and experimentation where it seems more possible than anywhere else to take risks and imagine new ways of being. Their disappearance is significant, their loss worth mourning. Queer spaces are threatened today, too. Neglect, obsolescence, economic pressure: in Western cities, the culprits wear velvet gloves. Not even historic neighborhoods like San Francisco’s Castro district are immune to metastasizing wealth and the convenience of hookup apps. Around the world, bars are raided and bodies crumple and martyrs are made. In places like Russia, Iran and Uganda, both state and society are determined to dismantle gay people and the shelters they’ve built.

Germans have largely forgotten that Berliners were so bold. So have we. That such a vibrant community was stolen in a heartbeat should give us pause. How could an existence that felt so secure and open and free unravel so rapidly? Klaus Mann remains one of the best guides we have to this lost world. Eighty years after its destruction, however, Mann’s satirical one-liners resonate less than his reflections on the saving grace of memory. “It is our capacity for recollection,” Mann wrote in his 1942 memoir The Turning Point, “which stands between us and chaos—a rather fragile bulwark, we must admit.”

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