Bent director Moisés Kaufman was surprised to discover that in the 1920s and early 1930s, Berlin was home to over 100 gay bars—far more than you’d find in any global city today. The first scenes of Bent take place there in 1934, just as that world came crashing down. Why was pre-World War II Berlin an epicenter of gay life, and what was that culture like? We talked with Robert Beachy, author of Gay Berlin: Birthplace of a Modern Identity and a historian at Yonsei University, to find out about the lives the characters in Bent—Max and his boyfriend, Rudy, bar owner and drag queen Greta—might have led before Hitler came to power.
Homosexual acts were illegal on the books, but a combination of factors allowed a vibrant gay culture to begin to establish itself in Berlin as early as the late 19th century. The police tolerated gay bars, which was one reason that Berlin became a global center for gay prostitution. Berlin was also home to a burgeoning gay civil rights movement led by a German-Jewish physician and sexologist, Magnus Hirschfeld. Hirschfeld was at the forefront of a medical establishment that widely accepted homosexuality as a “new sexual minority,” said Beachy. In fact, Germans’ “respect and regard” and faith in science, said Beachy, is part of the explanation for why they rejected traditional religious views of homosexuality more quickly than the rest of the West.
After World War I, Germany almost completely eliminated its censorship laws, and a gay press flourished in Berlin. Beachy said that from 1919 to 1933, over 25 separate gay, lesbian, and transvestite journals were published in the city. They were supported by advertising from bars and clubs—as well as dentists and doctors and lawyers, said Beachy. During this time, Hirschfeld founded a research center that experimented with the first sex reassignment surgeries and primitive hormone therapies. And of course there were those 100+ gay clubs and bars, catering to a variety of tastes and background—the world we know from Cabaret.
Berlin at that time “reminds me of what I know about New York and maybe San Francisco in the 1970s,” said Beachy. You could be out, at least in smaller circles of friends. Lots of prominent cultural figures were “pretty widely recognized as gay or lesbian, and in some cases they had life or long-term partners” who were treated as spouses—not people to be hidden or embarrassed about, said Beachy. “They would have lived their lives quite openly.”
One such public figure was Ernst Röhm, Hitler’s closest friend, one of the earliest members of the Nazi Party and the leader of the SA, the Nazi militia. Röhm, like many men and women, didn’t see Hitler’s anti-gay crackdown coming. Nazi rhetoric associated homosexuality with femininity and Jewishness; it was only “an issue in the sense that it undermined Nazi pro-natalist policies,” said Beachy. But Nazi attitudes toward homosexuality “didn’t have the racialist or ideological heft of the anti-Semitism or any of the other racially motivated persecutions.” The Nazis didn’t believe in homosexuality, so they weren’t interested in killing this group to wipe out their culture. “They thought it was a perversion,” said Beachy. “They thought it was something that could be cured for the most part.”
A criminal act included flirtation. If you looked at someone the wrong way you could be arrested and interrogated.
Most of Berlin’s gay bars remained open after the Nazis took power, except for about 15 of the best-known establishments, which they closed in the first months of their rule. Then, in June 1934, in part because of political infighting among Nazi leaders, the SA was purged, and Röhm and the other high-ranking leaders were all killed. “It was only after that, a full 17 months into the Third Reich, that it’s going to start to dawn on some people that they’re going to be in trouble if they continue to be openly homosexual,” said Beachy. “I think that probably a lot of people were taken by surprise.”
In the fall of 1935, the Nazis put in place a more draconian version of anti-homosexual law Paragraph 175. It was worded, said Beachy, to make it possible for “almost anyone” to be arrested if the Nazis suspected they might be gay. “A criminal act included flirtation,” said Beachy. “If you looked at someone the wrong way you could be arrested and interrogated.” And then sent to a concentration camp.
Why has history erased the stories of gay Berlin? It’s partly because in both East and West Germany, Paragraph 175 stayed on the books long after World War II ended. In West Germany, homosexuals were persecuted and sent to prison into the 1960s. But it’s also, said Beachy, because the Holocaust and World War II “obscures everything that might be thought of as progressive in German history.” The previous generation of historians of Germany devoted their work to explaining fascism and Nazism as an outgrowth of German culture. The openness of Berlin was not part of that story.
But it is part of the story of Bent, and it’s one reason Kaufman was drawn to the play. Bent begins in a “moment of possibility, said Kaufman. “There was a sense in the streets that you could maybe be gay.” The Nazis killed that moment, but for Kaufman, the struggle of the characters in Bent resonates with it. “This idea of coming out and owning your identity and owning who you are and fighting for who you are is at the core of this play,” he said.