Berlin has always held a special fascination for bohemians of every stripe, but in the late 1920s, it was definitely the place to be gay. Rent boys and gay bars were open for business day and night. Drag shows and fresh beer flowed into the streets. Berlin became a magnet for LGBT pilgrims from around the world, including two impressionable young Englishmen who made the city their home during that tumultuous time. The poet W.H.
Auden got there first, in 1928, and had no trouble luring his friend, Christopher Isherwood, the following year.
Auden called it “the buggers’ daydream,” a hotbed of sexual freedom that seemed too good to be true.
Isherwood, a budding novelist and compulsive diarist, revelled in the decadence and recorded every detail. They’d never seen anything like this before—no one had.
But the German capital was much more than just a sex-tourism destination for horny post-Victorian expats.
Between the two world wars—as Robert Beachy documents in his thoroughly researched Gay Berlin, Birthplace of a Modern Identity (Knopf)—it was the epicentre of an important new movement. For the first time in recent memory, the concept of same-sex love stepped out of the shadows and finally gained a measure of acceptance in the wider community. Homosexuality was nothing new, of course, but as Beachy puts it: “the emergence of an identity based on the notion of a fixed sexual orientation was initially a German and especially a Berlin phenomenon.”
The seeds for this idea were planted decades earlier in Munich, in what Beachy calls “the first public coming-out in modern history” and “an act of enormous courage.” In 1867, a middle-aged gay lawyer named Karl Heinrich Ulrichs petitioned the Association of German Jurists to repeal the nation’s anti-sodomy laws but was drowned out by horrified lawmakers before he could finish his speech. Still, Ulrichs went on to publish pamphlets advocating not only decriminalization but also the hypothesis for a biological source for homosexuality. His theory took root in Berlin’s fertile imagination.
By 1895, gay bars were already widespread in the fast-growing metropolis, but rather than raiding these establishments, the city’s enlightened police commissioner turned a blind eye and let them flourish out in the open. In 1919, pioneer sexologist Dr. Magnus Hirschfeld founded the Institute for Sexual Science in Berlin, where groundbreaking clinical research and some of the world’s first sex-reassignment surgeries were performed.
Hirschfeld also provided therapeutic counselling for his confused and troubled patients, hoping to “reassure the homosexual personality, whether male or female . . . that they have an innocent, in-born orientation, which is not a misfortune in and of itself.”
Berlin’s openness fostered a climate of tolerance, allowing a homosexual subculture to peacefully coexist with its neighbours. By the late ’20s, the LGBT population was approaching 100,000—in a city of four million—and gay and lesbian venues numbered close to a hundred. Up to 30 queer publications appeared from 1919 to 1933, with periodicals targeted exclusively to gay men, lesbians and crossdressers of both sexes; some included personal ads for people seeking same-sex companionship or illicit encounters. In 1930, Berlin hosted roughly 280,000 tourists, many of them curious heterosexuals from across Europe and North America, seduced by the city’s hedonistic carnival atmosphere.
“The Eldorado was Berlin’s most famous transvestite bar,” Beachy points out, “and the one visited most often by slumming straights.” The guest list included such celebrities as Rudolph Valentino, Charlie Chaplin, Greta Garbo and Marlene Dietrich. Even Jack Dempsey—the world heavyweight boxing champion at the time—visited the legendary Eldorado.
But not everyone agreed that Berliners were onto something good. The unprecedented social experiment came to an abrupt end when the Nazis seized power in 1933, suppressing anything they considered offensive to their version of Aryan supremacy. The Institute for Sexual Science was one of the Nazis’ first targets, stormed and trashed by a mob of fanatical students determined to restore Germany’s reputation for order and so-called decency. Isherwood had escaped Berlin ahead of the stormtroopers’ violent purges, his first-hand accounts carried along with him to America. These impressions became the basis of his semiautobiographical Goodbye to Berlin, which went on to become one of the most iconic gay novels of all time.
Isherwood’s bestseller also provided the source material for Cabaret, both the Broadway musical and the Academy Award-winning film. I was just a teenager when I saw that movie the first time and couldn’t get enough of it. I never tired of watching Liza Minnelli in her career-defining role, or the young and handsome Michael York, well, just because. I later read Goodbye to Berlin and devoured everything Isherwood wrote, developing such a romantic fascination with the fabled city that I had to see it for myself. As fate would have it, my trip to what was then West Berlin coincided with the author’s death in Santa Monica, Calif., that same month.
One snowy afternoon in January 1986, I wandered into the Shöneberg district—Berlin’s gay quarter—and found the apartment building on Nollendorfstrasse where Isherwood lived in the early ’30s. The entrance had become a makeshift shrine, complete with candles on the sidewalk beneath a plaque commemorating him, but I didn’t understand the significance of the tributes until I heard news of his passing on BBC radio a couple of nights later.
Back then, the postwar city was still divided among the Allies, and West Berlin was completely surrounded by a heavily guarded concrete barrier known as The Wall. Communist East Berlin felt more like the setting for a John le Carré spy novel than anything written by Isherwood: the difference was palpable—like switching from a Technicolor musical to a silent black-and-white film—but even there, gay bars continued to operate.
In many ways, prosperous, progressive West Berlin had simply picked up where the former capital city had left off before the war, and the gay scene was in full swing, bigger and better than ever. A universal gay identity had been firmly established and the global LGBT movement was well underway. Isherwood probably wouldn’t have recognized the Berlin I knew, but as Beachy makes clear in his remarkable book, this resilient city was, after so many historic upheavals, the place it all began.