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  • Gay Berlin: Birthplace of a Modern Identity by Robert Beachy
  • Geoffrey Giles
Gay Berlin: Birthplace of a Modern Identity. By Robert Beachy. New York: Alfred Knopf, 2014. Pp. 336. $27.95 (cloth); $16.95 (paper).

His title alone suggests that Robert Beachy’s study should sit on our shelves alongside George Chauncey’s landmark book, Gay New York; but it feels like a scholarly lightweight by comparison.1 Despite its considerable scholarly apparatus (almost fifty pages of notes and bibliography), there is not much here that will strike the historian of Germany or of sexuality as new. It appears to be directed at an interested public with little knowledge of European history, and the author’s research is primarily based on published sources rather than on archival documents. That said, Beachy has compiled a useful [End Page 510] digest of the emergence of a homosexual identity in Germany, drawing on much literature that has appeared only in German.

The book begins with a chapter on Karl-Heinrich Ulrichs, an admittedly important figure in the history of homosexuality in Germany but not one quite as unknown to an English-speaking audience as Beachy presumes. We do not learn much more than what Hubert Kennedy’s 1988 biography already provided, and since Ulrich’s famous 1867 coming-out occurred in Munich rather than Berlin, this way of opening the book is a bit baffling. We then move to a more appropriate focus on the qualified tolerance of the police in nineteenth-century Berlin as a facilitator for the growth of a gay subculture. Yet Beachy cannot quite make up his mind why this occurred. After all, in the wake of a spectacular trial for pederasty and murder in 1869, the Prussian cultural minister, Heinrich von Mühler, ignored the advice of medical experts and declared that homosexual conduct was a crime, not just a vice. Why he took this step is “not clear” to Beachy (36 ff.). Providing a range of possibilities—from the effect of the trial itself and “public hysteria,” to backroom lobbying and the personal intervention of the minister’s wife—Beachy leaves the reader puzzled. He is equally tentative in his analysis of the reasons for the light-handed approach to enforcement by the Berlin police after the law against homosexuality came into force for the entire country in 1871. Why did police commissioner Leopold von Meerscheidt-Hüllessem not close down the many gay-friendly bars that began opening in the late 1880s? Neither of Beachy’s tentative suggestions—that police were reacting to police president Bernhard von Richthofen’s own suspected homosexuality or that investigating dozens of suspected gay bars was “a nearly impossible task in a large, sprawling city”—is satisfying (46).

A chapter on the growth of a homosexual emancipation movement tells a familiar story of the intense rivalry between the scientifically imaginative but rather effeminate Magnus Hirschfeld and the rigidly masculinist Adolf Brand. Beachy breaks some new ground here, overcoming the problem that records on police surveillance of Hirschfeld’s Scientific-Humanitarian Committee (WhK) seem to have been destroyed, by relying on minutes of meetings from the WhK’s central committee that are held at the Kinsey Institute in Indiana and local records in Munich, neither of which was used in the two major biographies of Hirschfeld by Charlotte Wolff and Manfred Herzer.

The next two chapters on the Eulenburg scandal and the Wandervogel movement are less successful. Covering well-trodden ground, Beachy surveys the story of the trials and courts-martial for homosexual behavior of several prominent members of the Kaiser’s entourage between 1907 and 1908. He does not engage with the latest scholarship on the Eulenburg scandal, ignoring Peter Winzen’s persuasive evidence that Chancellor Bernhard Bülow may have secretly been behind the denunciations of the [End Page 511] Kaiser’s best friend. It is true that the Kaiser was deeply shocked by the whole affair, but it is an exaggeration to say that he “suffered a nervous breakdown” (129), an analysis for which Beachy provides no evidence. In contrast, Isabel Hull cites the Kaiser’s marshal of court, who said he had “lost his...


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