The indestructable homosexuality in Berlin. Homosexuals since 1896 – public culture, prosecution, remembrance and revival.

Memorial panel 'Rosa Winkel' - U-Nollendorfplatz, Berlin-Schöneberg - December 2012.

Before the nazi’s took power, Berlin was a magnet for homosexuals. Important gay initiatives and pressure groups for the rights of homosexuals were founded here around 1900 and during the Weimar Republic. Many gay and lesbian bars settled, especially around Nollendorfplatz – and also travestites spended their leisure here. Nevertheless, nazi’s made an end to most of the openly gay minded events. How was life as a homosexual in Berlin before the nazi’s prosecuted them? And how is the prosecution remembered nowadays?

First front page of Der Eigene - April 1896.

Adolf Brand (1874-1945) founded Der Eigene (The Own) in 1896 – and therewith worldwide’s first gay magazine which appeared at a regular basis. In the beginning, Der Eigene referred often to a work Der Einige und sein Eigentum (The Ego and Its Own) by the anarchist Max Stirner (1806-1856) – in which he defended openly egotism and rejection of public values. Der Eigene was initially published four times a year – and it became a monthly magazine later. In 1897, the Wissenschaftlich-humanitäres Komitee (Scientific-Humanitarian Committee) was founded by Magnus Hirschfeld, an intellectual sexuologist. This committee protested against §175 of the German criminal code, which illegalised homosexuality by the German law. In 1903, Brand left the Scientific Humanitarian Committee since he didn’t agree on Hirschfeld’s idea that the homosexual is, next to the man and the woman, a type of gender. With this argument – Hirschfeld tried to prove that being homosexual is inborn, and therefore the law is unvalid. Nevertheless, Brand thought of being homosexual as an individual choise – and the homosexual rather as a true and masculine man – in stead of the androgyne character which Hirschfeld had in mind. Brand and the circle around him founded the Gemeinschaft der Eigene.

In 1906 and the years after, the German Empire was shocked by a serie of trials – known as the Harden-Eulenberg Affair, in which military officers were convincted for homosexuality – as well as members of the cabinet. Six of the charged people even commited suicide and twenty men were convincted for homosexuality. Adolf Brand was also imprisoned for eighteen months – for an abusing article in Der Eigene. Eventually, the social taboo on homosexuality was deepened – and homosexuals had to act more carefull than before. During the First World War, initiatives for the emancipation of homosexuals were put on a hold. Hirschfeld was a doctor in a hospital during that time, Brand served the German army for two years.

Memorial for the Institut für Sexualwissenschaft, In der Zelten 10, Berlin-Tiergarten. December 2012.. No © needed. Photo by Joep de Visser

In June 1919, Magnus Hirschfeld founded the Institut für Sexualwissenschaft (Institute for the Science of Sexuality) in Berlin-Tiergarten. Only two weeks later, the first German film about homosexuality – Anders als die Anderen (Different from the others) – was financed by Hirschfeld’s institute. Also, lectures about STD’s and advice in marriage and sex were given here. Furthermore – a library, an archive and a research group for sexuality were hosted. As before the First World War – Hirschfeld and his colleagues mainly protested to reform or abolish §175, in which they were still helped by Brand’s Gesellschaft der Eigene. On top of this all, the first modern transgender operations succeeded in the Institut für Sexualwissenschaft by the beginning of the 1930s.

Eldorado 1926 ©Bildarchiv Preussischer Kulturbesitz

In the meanwhile, a gay public culture developped – especially in Schöneberg, around Nollendorfplatz. By the end of the 1920s, around the 100 gay minded bars were to be found in Berlin. The most famous bar was the Eldorado, which had one bar at the Lutherstraße from 1926 till 1932 – and another bar since 1928, at the corner of the Kalkreutherstraße and the Motzstraße – which were only a block away from each other. In the Eldorado didn’t only gather homosexuals and lesbians – but also travestites. Among the guests were Marlene Dietrich. Also a variety of lesbian bars – such as the Dorian Gray Café or the Damenklub Pyramide – were to be found in Schöneberg. Among the guests were famous and openly lesbians such as Claire Waldoff. Berlin also functioned as a magnet for homosexual writers from foreign countries – of which Christopher Isherwood seems to be the most famous. Isherwood wrote Mr. Norris changes trains (1935) and Goodbye to Berlin (1939) about his time in Berlin.

In 1923 the Bundnis für Menschenrechte (Association for Human Rights) was erected by Friedrich Radszuweit – which became with its 10.000 members the biggest German organisation which struggled against §175. Radszuweit also published various newspapers and books with homosexuality as main theme. In despite of still resisting against §175, Brand and his Gemeinschaft der Eigene lost connection with their anarchist roots – even having an outspoken conservative world-view on the ruling position of men in society. Without a doubt, Hirschfeld was constantly attacked in the nazi press – also for being from jewish descent and left-wing .

Eldorado, 1933. © Landesbildstelle Berlin & the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum

After the nazi’s took power – the §175 was sharpened. In no-time, public homophilia was made impossible and newspapers with a main content about homosexuality were forbidden. All bars which differed from heteronormative standards were closed – and a centre for nazi propaganda was situated in the Eldorado. In May 1933, Hirschfeld’s Institut für Sexualwissenschaft was demolished and all the books were burned. Adolf Brand’s office was searched through. It is said that Brand’s papers and books were given to Ernst Röhm – the SA leader who was homosexual. Brand was, probably through good contacts within the NSDAP, never prosecuted. Hirschfeld already lived in France since 1932, where he died in 1935. Interestingly, a couple of bars were re-opened in 1936, due to the Olympic games – to remain the image for homosexual tourists who still had an idea of Berlin being tolerant towards homosexuals. The Gestapo was instructed not to arrest these homosexual tourists. Around the 100.000 homosexuals were arrested during Hitler’s reign – of which 50.000 were convincted. An unknown number of homosexuals were sent to psychiatric hospitals – and hundreds were castrated. Around the 10.000 homosexual men were sent to concentration camps, where they had to wear a pink triangle. Between July and September 1942, around the 200 homosexuals were shot by the SS in concentration camp Sachsenhausen. It is estimated that 6.000 homosexuals did not survive the concentration camps. Only two weeks before Nazi Germany capitulated, four policemen were shot for their homosexual acts in Spandau. A memorial site is erected for them in April 2011, exactly 66 years after the crime.

Moritzstraße 10, Berlin-Spandau, December 2012. No © needed. Photo by Joep de Visser

In West Germany, the nazi version of law §175 existed till 1969 without being reformed. In the GDR it was reformed in 1950 and was abolished in 1986 – though it came back after Germany’s unification in 1990. Paragraph 175 was defintely abolished in 1994. In Kreuzberg, the Schwules Museum (gay museum) was opened in 1985 – after an edgy and well visited exhibition the year before. In the beginning of 2013, the Schwules Museum will extend and move from the Mehringdamm to the Lützowstraße in Tiergarten. A memorial panel remembering the Institut für Sexualwissenschaft is erected at the 6th of June 1994 – at the location where the institute was opened 75 years before. At the other side of the Spree, the bank is called the Magnus-Hirschfeld-Ufer since 2008 – where two panels are erected to inform about Magnus Hirschfeld.

Denkmal für die im Nationalsozialismus verfolgten Homosexuellen

In December 2003, the decision was made to erect a monument – the Denkmal für die im Nationalsozialismus verfolgten Homosexuellen (monument for the prosectured homosexuals during the nazi reign). It is revealed in May 2008, by Berlin’s mayor Klaus Wowereit – who happenens to be homosexual. The construction of a cube, in which film fragments of kissing men, followed by kissing women are showed. The monument shows to you that love for the same sex is indestructable – as the concrete cube is itself.


Around Nollendorfplatz are various locations remembering the neighbourhood’s homosexual history. Since 1989, the memorial ‘Rosa Winkel’ monument (see the first photo of today’s update) remembers the murdered and prosecuted homosexuals at the station of Nollendorfplatz. At Christopher Isherwood former house (Nollendorfstraße 17) is a memorial stone honouring him, though with partly wrong information since he moved to Berlin in 1931, not in 1929. Since 1996, a new bar called Eldorado is located at the corner of the Eisenacherstraße with the Motzstraße. Since 2007 is the the organic store ‘Speisekammer im Eldorado‘ opened at the former location of the Eldorado, at the corner of the Motzstrasse and the Kalkreuthstraße. Clear as the day, new initiatives with homosexuals as target audience are erected – seen the many rainbow flags and gay bars – and every June is a Lesbisch-schwules Stadtfest (lesbian-gay city feast) organised and in 2011, the film Christopher and his kind came out in cinema. So to speak, the openly homosexual culture came back after all by the end of the 20th century – as it did by the end of the 19th century. I think we all hope that the following prosecution remains history for good – and as we’ve seen, it is indestructable.

Recommanded book:
Michael Bollé, Eldorado. Homosexuelle Frauen und Männer in Berlin 1850-1950. Geschichte, Alltag und Kultur (Berlin 1984)

3 thoughts on “The indestructable homosexuality in Berlin. Homosexuals since 1896 – public culture, prosecution, remembrance and revival.

    • Overigens ga ik zelf tours organiseren rondom het Nollendorfplatz, vanaf (eind) januari. Meer tours (o.a. DDR’s elite-wijk, de grote monumenten vanaf de Reichstag tot Potsdamer Platz) staan in de planning.

  1. Pingback: Overview | Historical tales about the capital of the 20th century

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s