Science to justice
Updated: Oct 10, 2020
German sexual progress before the First World War
When contemplating Wilhelmine Germany, one might be forgiven for not immediately thinking of emancipatory activism, erotic libertinage, internationalism and utopian lifestyle reform. A rigidly conservative and militaristic climate, the Prussian Pickelhaube and the ends of Kaiser Wilhelm’s moustache, pointing sternly towards the heavens, are more likely to spring to mind. Yet Rixdorf Editions, a new Berlin-based press, has declared its mission to be the deliverers of “unfairly neglected texts of the German Empire” to a contemporary English-language readership, in order to shake up the generally accepted view of German culture between 1890 and the outbreak of the First World War.
The press has chosen what it describes as a “foundational text of gay and lesbian identity”, as well as a selection of short stories by the “bohemian countess” Franziska zu Reventlow, as its first two titles. The former, Berlin’s Third Sex, by the sexologist and gay rights activist Magnus Hirschfeld (1868–1935), was originally published in 1904 as a contribution to the Metropolis Documents project edited by Hans Ostwald. Between 1904 and 1908 Ostwald published fifty-one titles, aiming to present a panorama of the urban experience with a focus on marginal existences, but Hirschfeld’s text remained the most successful in the series. It depicts a flourishing gay subculture populated by cross-dressers, drag queens, sporty dykes, blackmailers and prostitutes, who establish contact with one another via intricately coded classified ads, adopt droll nicknames such as “Squeaky Lotte”, “Rollmop Queen” and “Hiddigeigei”, and generally live it up in bars and cabarets, in the Tiergarten, or at the Opera. The Rixdorf edition includes an informative afterword and helpful notes by the translator, James J. Conway.
Yet Berlin’s Third Sex is not a salacious read. A strange beast of a text, it is marked by starkly conflicting impulses. Although it lures its readers with the promise of titillating insights into the intimate practices of a then illegal subculture, Hirschfeld only delivers this in part, and then almost reluctantly, instead concentrating his efforts on the more laudable mission of humanizing homosexuals and creating sympathy for their legal predicament. The text opens not with depictions of sexual shenanigans in the bars of the Scheunenviertel and other legendary pleasure spots, but with stories about devoted same-sex couples, gay domesticity and a sentimental first-person account of the heartbreak a gay man suffered in his youth. Hirschfeld seeks repeatedly to disentangle same-sex sexual activities (especially anal sex) from gay sexual identity – a strangely moving endeavour, which, to the modern reader, sounds simultaneously prim and heart-rending. “‘Steady relationships’ between homosexual men and women, often of significant duration, are extraordinarily common in Berlin”, he asserts earnestly. Truly “pederastic acts”, in contrast, are exceedingly rare: “the purely sexual moment in the life and love of the homosexual plays no greater part than it does in non-uranian life”. Hirschfeld militates only against cross-dressing men with beards – “a most distasteful, repellent sight” – and otherwise infuses his text with intense pleas for acceptance and a changed legal status.
In 1897 Hirschfeld founded the first homosexual rights organization, the Scientific-Humanitarian Committee. Then, in 1919, he established the Institute of Sexology, which was abolished by the Nazis in 1933. Nowadays, he is perhaps best known for his Zwischenstufentheorie, or theory of intermediate sexual stages. Every human foetus, he argues, is hybrid by nature. Under normal conditions, the foetus develops unambiguously into either a male or a female organism. However, disturbances during the ontogenetic process may result in the “intermediate” forms of human sexuality, such as homosexuality, transvestism (Hirschfeld’s coinage), androgynism and hermaphrodism – all of which he subsumes under the catch-all term “third sex”. Hirschfeld’s dictum per scientiam ad justiciam neatly encapsulates the key motivation for his sexological activities and his unique brand of scientific-political activism, namely, the compilation of objective, rational and scientifically valid arguments for legislative reform. Berlin’s Third Sex contributes to this endeavour.
In the course of his campaign to abolish section 175 of the German criminal code, Hirschfeld mobilized the support of numerous politicians, artists, writers and scientists. The notorious paragraph put homosexuality on a par with bestiality and declared both forms of “unnatural fornication” criminal offences, punishable with imprisonment. Berlin’s Third Sex ends with a comparison between the persecution of homosexuals and that of witches in the seventeenth century – as not just cruel and inhumane, but scientifically unjustifiable. It was only in 1994 that this paragraph was definitively repealed, although a government committee lost a ballot on its abolition by just one vote in 1929.
Rather than analysing it, Franziska (born Fanny) Reventlow practised free love, rebelling against her conservative aristocratic origins, and much else besides. Before the outbreak of the First World War she was a pivotal figure in Munich’s bohemian Schwabing circle, which also included Thomas Mann, Stefan George, Frank Wedekind and Rainer Maria Rilke. Vacillating between the role of “scandal magnet, party aristo, pagan idol and wry satirist”, as James J. Conway puts it in his afterword to The Guesthouse at the Sign of the Teetering Globe, Reventlow bore a son out of wedlock, and cherished both her sexual liberty and financial independence. When her family disowned her, she took on various jobs, ranging from the translation (reportedly at high speed) of novels originally written in French, acting, painting, and selling sexual favours, to writing for the satirical journal Simplicissimus. Reventlow published four novels, including, in 1913, the roman-à-clefHerrn Dames Aufzeichnungen (Mr Dame’s Notebooks), in which she paints a vivid picture of the eccentric characters and conflicting philosophical movements in bohemian Munich. In 1910 the “pagan Madonna” moved to the Swiss town of Ascona, where a motley crew of anarchists, vegetarians, free love advocates and lifestyle reformers assembled in the Monte Verità community. She died in 1918, aged forty-seven, after a road accident.
Like Hirschfeld’s text, the ten stories in the collection, of which seven are loosely connected, are hybrids, hovering between genres and styles, ultimately remaining unclassifiable, with a whiff of the parabolic Kafkaesque riddle about them. Showing a wry and understated sense of humour, some might perhaps best be described as surreal travel tales, sharpened by a satirical gaze and a finely developed gift for evocative details. The seven connected stories are all written in the first person plural, evoking the communal point of view of a band of displaced international travellers, who, presumably having escaped the war, become fascinated by eccentric characters and prone to contemplating disturbing resemblances. But, like the reader, the narrative “we” generally remains quite puzzled as to what it might all mean.
Reventlow has E. T. A. Hoffmann’s gift for educing the uncanny, primarily by exploiting linguistic and visual connections. In a story entitled “Spiritualism”, for example, a man called Ravensbeak “alighted on the idea of seeking a partner whose personhood would do justice to the dark, sharp, chopping sound” of his surname. In another, “Mister Otterman”, a lawyer awakens the interest of a group of travellers at a seaside resort by stubbornly shunning the water. When a forester shows the group a dead otter, he loses his composure, and eventually makes a disturbing confession. A few years earlier, he had spent the summer at the same seaside resort with the love of his life, Alvina, whom he was planning to marry. Alvina was a strong swimmer, “devoted to the sea with a passion that at times almost unsettled him”. One day, a strange man appeared at the resort. He swam in an odd fashion, bobbing up and diving down, and then “in a straight line on his back”. He had a “round – strikingly round – shaved head and circular, somewhat cloudy eyes”. When he swam up to Alvina and introduced himself with courteous reserve – “If you please, madam, my name is Otterman” – Alvina uttered a shrill shriek and drowned. The lawyer blamed Otterman for her death, challenged him to a duel, killed him, and is thereafter forever haunted by the “glassy eyes of the unfortunate man”.
Not all the tales in the collection are wholly satisfying. The title story, for example, tends more towards the satirical than the mystic-surreal. To discover that its protagonist, Hieronymous Edelstein – who parades a crocodile on a leash around a small Spanish island, lures new arrivals to take up residence in a teetering guesthouse, and urges them to sign up to his “Flame Federation” – is based on Reventlow’s querulous cousin does little to reconcile us with the story’s sheer oddity. But there is also some beautiful writing in these tales, which have been thoughtfully translated by James Conway. They are fuelled by a sense of liberal, open-minded, if perhaps also lost and bewildered, internationalism that tries to reassert itself on the margins of war-torn Europe.
Every age begets the activists it deserves. Cultural regression breeds its own brand of resistance, and it is no coincidence that the era of Hirschfeld and Reventlow also saw the emergence of Expressionism and Dadaism. It will be interesting to see which other Wilhelminian rebels will be added to Rixdorf’s exciting new list.