by Aaron Lamb
In 1918, following the humanitarian disaster of World War I, a parliamentary government was established in Germany. The Weimar Republic was a constitutional democracy. Authority was divided between an elected President, an elected national parliament (the Reichstag), and regional parliaments. A chancellor was appointed by the President in order to oversee parliamentary coalitions.
As students of history, we are all more aware of the failings of The Weimar Republic: it was stalemated repeatedly, and repeatedly dissolved by the President. The political parties on the Right were able to move closer and closer to cooperation, while those on the left—the Social-Democratic Party and the German Communist Party were completely unable to form a strong enough coalition to compete. In 1932 the National Socialist German Workers’ Party, which had grown from political obscurity in recent years, became the largest voting bloc in the Reichstag with 37.5% of the popular vote in the July elections. While powerful in the Reichstag, their popularity with the public immediately began to decline. This did not stop them from securing from President Hindenburg the appointment of their leader, Adolf Hitler, to the post of Chancellor of the German Government—the Third Reich.
The history we are less aware of are the successes of this constitutional democracy. The fourteen years of the Weimar Republic were marked by explosive intellectual and artistic productivity. German Expressionism and Dada, along with The Bauhaus dominated the visual art world, and artists such as Jean Arp, Max Ernst, and Paul Klee created with liberty. Bertolt Brecht began creating his “Epic Theatre,” and Alban Berg, Arnold Schoenberg and Kurt Weill crafted new musical forms. A new medium, cinema, began to thrive in Berlin at this time: Metropolis, The Threepenny Opera, and The Blue Angel (with Marlene Dietrich and Emil Jannings) are only a few examples. Albert Einstein won the Nobel Prize for Physics after developing his two theories of Relativity, Max Planck and Werner Heisenberg made significant advancements in Quantum Mechanics, Ludwig Prandtl founded Mathematical Aerodynamics, and Magnus Hirschfeld established the Institut für Sexualwissenchaft (Institute for Sexual Research).
Berlin became the Nightlife Capital of Europe with the Weimar Cabaret dominating the scene. These cabarets were restaurants or nightclubs where patrons were entertained by a procession of singers, dancers, and comedians on a small stage. Such places were hotspots for political, philosophical and social conversations, gatherings, and advancements.
Berlin at this time was also considered the Gay Capital of Europe. In 1896, the world’s first gay magazine was started in Berlin titled Der Eigene (The Self-Owning). The world’s first gay village started in the 1920s in Berlin’s Schöneberg. By the late 1920s, Berlin had nearly 100 gay bars and nightclubs and was the center of the world’s first LGBTQ rights movement. Magnus Hirschfeld’s book Die Transvestiten coined the term Transvestite – a term he used to describe transgendered and transsexual people. Although Gay Life thrived in Berlin, Germany’s Paragraph 175 still prohibited “homosexual acts”—a law dating back to 1871. By 1929, however, the Reichstag very nearly decriminalized homosexuality—a vote to repeal Paragraph 175 seemed imminent. Unfortunately, the year’s economic crash rendered a vote impossible. Still, Gay Life continued to thrive in Berlin throughout the 1930s.
With Hitler, of course, came a turning of the tide. By 1933, during an effort by the Nazi’s entitled The Purge, The Institute for Sexual Research was destroyed; its research and writings burned; its manager, Kurt Hiller, sent to a concentration camp. More than 8,500 gay men were arrested, most likely using lists of names and addresses from the Institute. Between 1933 and 1945, an estimated 100,000 people were arrested for homosexuality and sentenced, many to concentration camps where the death rate for gays may have been as high as 60%. Heinrich Himmler, the leader of the SS exclaimed, “We must exterminate these people root and branch… the homosexual must be eliminated.”
After the collapse of Germany in 1945, Berlin was divided into four zones with each superpower (France, Britain, Russia, the US) controlling a zone. In 1946, reparation agreements broke down between the Soviet and the Western zones, and the three Western zones were merged in 1947. The Soviet Union feared this, since the balance of power was tipped against them. Exacerbating the issue, the western powers introduced a new currency into the Western zones on July 23, 1948, and the Soviet Union responded by imposing the Berlin Blockade. On the night of August 12, a wall of barbed wire was hastily built along the 30 mile line dividing the city.
For those homosexuals in Berlin who were fortunate enough to survive Hitler’s Third Reich, they now had the same probability of losing two coin tosses in a row as to whether this oppression would continue.
Charlotte von Mahlsdorf was born Lothar Berfelde in Berlin on March 18, 1928. This would put her formative years firmly in the height of Gay Culture until she came of age right about the same time as The Purge. And of course, Mahlsdorf was an area of Berlin squarely within Soviet control. As Doug says in his play, “It seems to me you’re an impossibility: you shouldn’t exist.”
I, like others around me, can’t help but notice parallels between 1920s and 30s Berlin and our own America today. And I, like others, can’t help but wonder where we would be now if progress had continued along the trajectory initiated by Weimar Culture, free from the nearly hundred-year setback by the Third Reich.
After the war, the treatment of homosexuals in concentration camps went largely unacknowledged. Germany did finally repeal Paragraph 175 in 1994. In 2002, the German government officially apologized to the gay community. In 2005, the European Parliament adopted a resolution on the Holocaust, which acknowledged the persecution of homosexuals.
Still, thankfully, survival is a basic human instinct. And the dignity, grace, poise, and resilience with which Charlotte survived these two oppressive regimes is truly one of the most beautiful stories I have ever heard. It takes my breath away every time.
Unfortunately, Charlotte passed away in April of 2002. She would never see or read Doug Wright’s play about her, which swept the awards in 2004 (garnering the Drama Desk, the Drama League, the Lucille Lortel, three Tony nominations and two awards including Best Play, and the Pulitzer Prize). Doug writes:
I’m often asked, “If she were still alive, what would she think of your script?” I can’t answer for her. Nevertheless, I fervently hope—beneath the pages of transcript, the Stasi files, the old letters, and the newspaper articles that constitute the work—she’d see a love letter, peering out through all that paper.
Yes, Charlotte, your quiet heroism and your unwavering sense of self are an inspiration to us all. Please accept this token of our affection.
Doug, Aaron, Corey, and the Harlequin team