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Cruising through Berlin’s queer history

Historian Samuel Clowes Huneke talks lesbian balls in Nazi Germany, looking for sex in wartime ruins and how East and West treated their gay scenes on both sides of the Wall – beyond Cold War clichés.

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Berlin’s gay history needs a serious rethink, according to historian Samuel Clowes Huneke. Photo: IMAGO / Seeliger

“Berlin meant boys,” wrote Christopher Isherwood in Christopher and His Kind in 1976. We think of Berlin’s gay history as a series of golden ages interrupted by political disasters: the flourishing of Weimar, the vibrant subculture in West Berlin and the reemergence of queer culture after reunification. But is it really such a simple story of good Germany versus bad Germany, gay emancipation versus totalitarian repression?

Not according to Samuel Clowes Huneke, an American historian currently researching the history of gay Berlin for his forthcoming book, States of Liberation: Gay Men between Dictatorship and Democracy in Cold War Germany. Huneke called us up from his home in Washington, DC to explain why gay history needs a serious rethink.

Where does Berlin fit in the history of sexuality, as an iconic queer city?

It’s central. Berlin is such a gay city today and it has this great international reputation, as does Germany. And a lot of times, we think there’s this bridge between the happy Weimar era and contemporary Berlin. The Nazi era was one of the most homophobic regimes in modern history; it was incredibly inimical towards gay men in particular, but also queer people of all kinds.

But to me the interesting question is: how do you go from a state that put around 10,000 gay men in concentration camps – that created the infamous pink triangle – and later convicted 50,000 for being homosexual, to a state that is seen as so welcoming and accepting of queer minorities? I wanted to get behind all the assumptions about what makes Berlin so queer or queer-accepting, and to rethink that history, which is actually full of surprises.

Like that West Germany wasn’t such a gay-friendly place. That’s what you found looking into police files, right?

Over the first two decades of West Germany, there was a massive effort to prosecute gay men. More than 50,000 men were convicted under Paragraph 175 [which criminalised homosexuality]. And those documents could be quite painful to read, because these men were engaging in activities that, to us, don’t seem abnormal or criminal – but they wound up with horrifying punishments.

One case that really stayed with me was of a man who was cruising a public toilet in 1944, and he ended up getting beaten up and robbed. When the police caught wind of the robbery, they arrested the victim for being homosexual. After a psychological evaluation, they sentenced him to a mental hospital to be treated for his homosexuality. He was kept there until 1969, at which point everyone he knew was dead and his life had been ruined.

I also had some personal moments of recognition. I read a lot of police files that talked about people cruising through the ruins in the aftermath of World War II, and there was one person whose file I read who wound up having sex with another man in the ruins of a building on Münzstraße, the same street where I was living!

There is this stereotypical view of German history that you have evil Germany under the Kaiser, then good Germany in the 1920s, but as German historians are trying to stress these days, there were continuities over what look like very sharp breaks. When it comes to homosexuality in West Germany, Nazi-era laws were perpetuated and not reformed until 1969. You had Nazi prosecutors and judges who were able to take back their posts, and were very interested in continuing to prosecute and persecute gay men.

In 1950, there was a huge round-up of gay men in Frankfurt, well over 100 and likely more. At least two men committed suicide as a result. So there’s a lingering effect of Nazism in both Germanies, but especially in West Germany. You can’t draw such a clear line between regimes.

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Samuel Clowes Huneke is an assistant professor of European and German history at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia. Photo: Supplied

Was there some sort of continuity between Weimar and Nazi Germany too?

Nazi Germany carried out a massive persecution of queer people, especially gay men. But even during the Nazi period, there were still lesbian balls and mass gatherings of lesbians in Berlin, including in wartime. Lesbians were persecuted, but it wasn’t as systematic as with gay men. And the Weimar era, which we think of as a golden age disconnected from Germany’s older history, actually built on Berlin having been a haven for gay social, cultural and intellectual life in the Imperial Period.

You also can’t draw clear lines – as my book tries to show – between the experiences of people in East and West. Often people ask which place was better for gay men, but you can’t really answer that question. It is a Cold War desire to want to draw such firm delineations. And we need to stop seeing the liberation of sexual minorities as a barometer for other forms of political or social progress, and understand it on its own terms.

Back to postwar West Berlin: what about its gay bars and famous cruising scene?

In the 1950s and 1960s, you had some bars that were known to cater to gay people. You had gay cruising spots: Grunewald, Tiergarten, Bahnhof Zoo, especially for male prostitutes. But there’s a tendency in queer literature and memory to romanticise these moments, to think, “Oh how wonderful to go and cruise in Grunewald.” But reading these police files, it’s hard to come to the conclusion that this was some wonderful subculture.

This was men looking for sex wherever they could, and doing their best to avoid the police and avoid persecution. The men I interviewed didn’t remember those moments fondly. It was the best they could get, but it wasn’t great. And then from 1969, when Paragraph 175 was reformed and homosexuality decriminalised, there was an explosion of opportunity – gay and homophile periodicals were founded with gay personal ads, building a new kind of gay subculture. There were also lots of venues springing up, especially around Nollendorfplatz, which was historically the queer centre of Berlin and became that again.

What about gay political activism?

There was a radical gay movement of activist groups that got started in the 1970s, like the Homosexual Action West Berlin (HAW). What’s interesting is that they were quite oppositional to the subculture as it existed, and particularly to the commercialisation of the subculture. They criticised many gay magazines for being essentially trashy porno mags, and they would organise boycotts of bars in West Berlin, which they said were a distraction from revolutionary political work. Interestingly, the HAW would eventually turn into SchwuZ, so this icon of the gay clubbing scene is essentially the legacy of a group that got its start by fighting against clubbing and the subculture because it prioritised solidarity and political action instead.

Things were also developing in East Berlin at the time. You’ve written about the GDR’s surprising late shift towards embracing gay rights, with the Stasi in the driving seat.

East Germany formally decriminalised adult male homosexuality in 1968, though it had not been prosecuted nearly as much as in the West. Western activists, especially HAW members, started to cross the border and meet queer people in East Germany – and that’s the start of the Homosexual Interest Group Berlin (HIB) in the early 1970s. Unlike Western groups that perceived themselves as radicals opposed to the state, wanting a revolutionary change in society, the HIB said it wanted to help gay and lesbian people become fuller socialist citizens.

That’s when the Stasi started paying attention to gay activism in a systematic way. As a paranoid surveillance state, they perceived this as a form of political op- position. In the 1980s, queer people began organising under the umbrella of the Protestant Church, which was the only partially independent organisation in East Germany. Queer people could organise working circles there, free of state interference; they just needed the local vicar or whoever to agree. And those groups began to quickly spread across the country.

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The Nazi era was one of the most homophobic regimes in modern history. Photo: Tony Webster

How did the Stasi keep an eye on the gay scene?

In my research, I found this wonderful, horrifying Stasi map of Prenzlauer Berg. It’s colour-coded, with dots all over it. There’s a ton of red dots, which mark buildings where they knew at least one gay person lived – and it’s literally every building of every block. Then there are green dots, which are bars known to be welcoming to gay people. And then there’s one black dot – a lot of these Stasi files are darkly funny – the black dot marks what the Stasi called an “internationally known public toilet” [laughs]. I mean it’s obviously a cruising area.

There’s this almost naive or childlike effort from the Stasi to actually understand the subculture, but then they’re just translating it into this paranoid surveillance mindset they have. They won’t just say, “This is a public toilet where men have sex with each other.”

So what changed during the 1980s?

The Stasi continued to surveil and disrupt these groups, but they also circulated what seems to be a national policy advocating for pro-gay policies in order to meet the activists’ demands. And a genuinely radical change takes place. The age of consent is equalised. Gay people are allowed to place personal ads in the newspapers. Marriage and sex counselling centres start seeing gay and lesbian patients, offering help with coming out. The state authorises gay bars and discos, including Die Busche in Weißensee, East Berlin’s first gay disco.

For queer people in the East, there was a sense that West Germany was a land of opportunity.

They commissioned a DEFA film, which premiered on the night the Berlin Wall fell. I also found a policy that allowed gay men to serve in the military and encouraged military officers to try and deconstruct prejudices against gay people. That’s a really radical shift over three to four years. There’s still the question of how real the changes were, how they were actually implemented.

So this was the work of activists, not simply a spontaneous change of heart by the regime?

Yes. The East German activists knew they were under surveillance, and they got quite savvy. I think part of why the Stasi started getting behind the push for pro-gay policies is that the activists did a very good job of defining themselves to the state. They insisted that gay people weren’t oppositional, they said they just want to be able to meet people and live, to be well-integrated socialist citizens. They understood how the regime worked and how to get things out of it.

What happened after the Wall fell?

For queer people in the East, there was a sense that West Germany was a land of opportunity. Even if things were changing politically in the GDR, it’s not as if there was this great commercial subculture. So gay people living in East Berlin, when the Wall fell, flooded across the border wanting to experience all of this – and some, at least, came away disappointed by what they described as a soulless commercial subculture where sexuality was commodified. Again, that points to the difficulty in coming to some black-and-white definition about where’s better and where’s worse.

How does this long queer history live on in today’s Berlin?

I think the way Berlin memorialises its gay history is one of the really wonderful things that came out of the West German gay movement. The Schwules Museum has wonderful archives, and they do very good work to both preserve queer German history and cast a critical eye on it. Generally, there’s a lot of work to be done in thinking critically about this notion that Germany’s a very welcoming place for queer people today. In a lot of ways that’s obviously true, but in other ways…

I remember, when I was living in Berlin in 2016-2017, I was shocked I wasn’t able to get a prescription for the HIV pre-exposure prophylaxis drug Truvada, which by that point was routinely prescribed in the United States. But that’s just my experience. Personally, I love being in Berlin; it’s such a queer city and I just feel like a fish in water when I’m there.

But I worry about how gentrification is changing the city. Berlin’s marginalisation in the Cold War was part of what made it so unique, and I hope there are ways it can continue to be affordable and stay a special place for queer people in Germany and globally to come to.”