Weimar and Beyond
Finance and Operations Coordinator
Steven Ewin is the Finance and Operations Coordinator at AICGS. Prior to joining AICGS, Mr. Ewin worked in a variety of sales and financial positions throughout the private sector. He spent eight years in the United States Army, where he was stationed throughout the world.
He holds a BA in History from Southern New Hampshire University, where his course of study focused on state sovereignty in Cold War Europe. He is currently completing an MS in Data Analytics.
LGBTQ Representation in Media and Memory
There was once a dream that was Berlin. Weimar Berlin was a reaction, a rebellion against a world in floundering turmoil. This moment’s tragic ending dances through Cabaret, Babylon Berlin, and is reflected in the greater work of Rosa von Praunheim. Further work in documenting Weimar popular culture (and its aftermath) underscores the loss of this moment and the potential of liberation. Odes to Weimar Berlin revel in its downfall and the grief of a community lost.
Wilkommen im Cabaret! Since 1966 the seminal musical Cabaret has provided a view into the spectacularly sinister world of Weimar Berlin. Judi Dench, Liza Minnelli, Alan Cumming, and Neil Patrick Harris have all welcomed us to the Kit Kat Club, imploring us to forget our troubles because while “outside it is winter,” inside the club, “we have no troubles here!” Cabaret is set as the Weimar’s promise rapidly failed. The openly homosexual, the openly transgressive, the openly hedonistic, slowly gave way to a sense of doom. The queerness that was considered normal in the Kit Kat Club, a representation of Berlin’s many cabarets, and of Berlin itself, was leaving.
Paragraph 175 of the Reichsstrafgesetzbuch (Reich Criminal Code) criminalized homosexuality, but by happenstance Berlin police commissioner Leopold von Meerscheidt-Hüllessem tolerated the blossoming underground culture in the late 1800s.
Why did Berlin attract those whose very lives were illegal? Paragraph 175 of the Reichsstrafgesetzbuch (Reich Criminal Code) criminalized homosexuality, but by happenstance Berlin police commissioner Leopold von Meerscheidt-Hüllessem tolerated the blossoming underground culture in the late 1800s. Viewing the law as impossible to enforce, he created the Department of Blackmail and Homosexuality to deal with Paragraph 175’s implications. Blackmail was seen as having a more deleterious effect on society than homosexuality. Further, the publication of sexological literature went uncensored by focusing on scholarly merit. Magnus Hirschfield founded the Wissenschaftlich-humanitäres Komittee (Scientific Humanitarian Committee, WhK) in Berlin in 1897 with a focus on homosexual liberation in Germany.
The Weimar Republic almost outlived Paragraph 175. In 1929, a Reichstag criminal code reform committee passed a resolution to strike the law after a decades-long campaign by groups including the WhK. The “one step forward, two steps back” reform decriminalized male homosexual sex, but still held that male prostitution was illegal. Ultimately, the proposed law still codified homosexuality as deviant and based in decadence. Reformers considered the law insufficient, and conservatives viewed it as an acceptance of “vulgarity.” It was never passed by the Reichstag before the collapse of the republic.
Tolerance of the decadent is woven into Babylon Berlin. Aptly described as “Cabaret on cocaine,” Babylon is a creeping darkness. The series initially leads you to believe this darkness is found in the vice and hedonism of Berlin. The sinister is most memorable in the performance of the series’ signature song, “Zu Asche, zu Stau” by female Svetlana Sorokina performing as the male Nikoros. Yet, the darkness in Babylon Berlin isn’t the hedonistic clubs It is the competing elements of society that strive to end the fragile Weimar Republic. Berlin danced in the splendid failure of the Weimar—denn das dicke Ende kommt ja sowieso.
After the Second World War, the Allied powers sought to strip out all National Socialist influence on German law but critically left questions surrounding the expansion of Paragraph 175 to the new German governments.
We know what came after. One of the first book burnings was of the archives of Magnus Hirschfeld’s Institut für Sexualwissenschaft (Institute for the Science of Sexuality). A partner organization to the WhK, the institute pioneered gender affirmation surgery and worked tirelessly to promote LGBT rights and tolerance. The trials of this institute’s research and the life of its founder Magnus Hirschfeld are portrayed in Rosa von Praunheim’s Der Einstein des Sex. Von Praunheim’s movie dramatizes Hirschfeld’s life and focuses on the sentiment and moment in which he lived. Hirschfeld would never return to Germany after the Nazi rise to power, having been on a speaking tour when Nazis burned the institute’s archives. Research into what constitutes gender and a prototypical model that sought to understand and affirm transgender people were all lost to the flames.
The feigned ignorance of Paragraph 175 was quickly forgotten under the Nazi regime. The Night of the Long Knives purged the hope that Ernst Röhm would tone down the Nazi stance on homosexuality. In 1935, the Nazi regime outlawed all forms of sexual contact between males (while remaining silent on any relationships between females). The Nazis, not wanting to give any ambiguity, outlawed so much as flirtatious glances. The new Nazi enforcement led to the arrest of over 100,000 men. The lives of these men and the trials they endured are horrifyingly recollected in the documentary Paragraph 175. Yet, the pain did not end as war turned cold.
The knives sharpened by the Nazis did not dull until well after they left. After the Second World War, the Allied powers sought to strip out all National Socialist influence on German law but critically left questions surrounding the expansion of Paragraph 175 to the new German governments. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, the West German government continually attempted to adapt laws against male homosexual behavior. Like Leopold von Meerscheidt-Hüllessem, the West German government attempted to make homosexuality a subculture that could be contained. Homosexuality, the conservative ministers of the Adenauer government believed, needed its perverse nature concealed.
In 2002, the German government overturned all convictions carried out by the Nazis under Paragraph 175. It would not overturn the 50,000 convictions carried out from 1946-1969 until 17 July 2017.
The pain of the Weimar, however, provided a roadmap. Berlin, as always, was willing to serve as a reaction. Homosexuality throughout German legal history had always found definition as a prima facie perverse act. In 1969, the Bundestag finally lifted provisions criminalizing sexual activity between males over the age of twenty-one. Rosa von Praunheim would challenge this society with a film credited with launching the gay liberation movement in West Germany. Nicht der Homosexuelle ist pervers, sondern die Situation, in der er lebt (It Is Not the Homosexual Who Is Perverse, But the Society in Which He Lives) was a direct broadside against a society that refused to accept actions under Paragraph 175 were a “National Socialist injustice.” In 2002, the German government overturned all convictions carried out by the Nazis under Paragraph 175. It would not overturn the 50,000 convictions carried out from 1946-1969 until 17 July 2017.
Real people lived in Berlin. It is easy to give in to the idea suggested by Noah Isenberg of the “queasy allure of the Weimar period, with its…palpable sense of gathering doom.” The struggles and the pain were real. Berlin was a place where people could find themselves. People were able to find acceptance on some level in a world that constantly rejected them. Even though their entire lives were illegal, Berlin allowed existence.