“Nobody Flees Without a Reason”: A Walk Through Berlin’s Queer History

Photo Credit: Ryan Garcia

By Ryan Garcia

Growing up, I watched the cartoon Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and the Island of Misfit Toys every winter season. Often, I felt a connection with these toys that Rudolph visited that had some “defect” of some sort but were perfectly okay to play with. The toys were outsiders in a world where everyone wanted a perfectly made toy. At the time, I did not know I was queer, but I knew I was different. I often felt displaced and could never “fit” in anywhere, so I found places where I could be myself leading up to my coming out not too long ago. In relation to Berlin, this is city of who some might call “outsiders”—the ones who were considered “misfits” even where they considered home—an Island of Misfit Toys. Berlin was often a safe place to be queer, often pioneering “proper” spaces without judgment for the “outsiders” of the world.

“The Queer Capital of Europe,” as Original Berlin Walks writes, has a rich history, especially in the queer hub of Schöneberg (referred to as “Boys Town”) to the vibrant and multicultural Kreuzberg. Our tour was guided by Jared Pool, who not only seemed to know a lot about the history of queer Berlin but was ecstatic to share his knowledge with us. Something to note about our knowledgeable tour guide is that he is a published academic with a background in Anthropology. This focus also guides his work in Neuroscience, which has fueled his passion for radical politics and identity analysis. As he walked and talked us through almost a hundred years of queer history from the 1920s to today, we visited some well-known spaces, as well as hidden spaces, while being introduced to a few prominent queer figures along the way.

The Albrecht von Krosigk Stopelsteine (or Stumbling Stone) [Photo Credit: Ryan Garcia]

Hailing from the lands of Great Britain, we are introduced to our first queer artist—an author, Christopher Isherwood, a typical Berliner and man that notably “came for the boys.” Rather than living “out” in Britain and facing castration, he moved to Berlin to be with friends, such as Erika Mann and Auden Spender. While in Berlin, Isherwood wrote two novels that would be collectively put together to become the musical Cabaret. Isherwood wrote his famous works while living with his partner, Carl Heinz. Heinz’s family welcomed Isherwood with open arms, probably because they were excited that Heinz was dating a famous British author. They eventually married and had two children. Under the Nazi party, it was considered safer, politically or legally, to live in Germany if you identified as homosexual. However, socially, it was not safe, as these individuals were often targeted. For this reason, Magnus Hirschfeld, a human sexology specialist, would call on Isherwood to take care of his institute while he was gone in New York doing advocacy work—then, the institute was invaded by a cadre of the Nazi Party to steal books. These books would later be used as the kindling of the infamous book burning.

At our next stop, we visited a queer bookstore—Eisenherz. As the first gay book store in the city since the war, they relabeled themselves as a queer bookstore to be more inclusive in the late 1990s. Here, there are books by Isherwood and various other authors. Eisenherz has also pioneered the gay award for the Berlinale International Film Festival. Jared then proceeded to recommend the book, Gay Berlin, which discusses the difference between the homosexual and homosexualist cultures of the 1920s. Interestingly enough, the Nazi Schutzstaffel (SS) and Sturmabteilung (SA) military organizations believed that the strongest bonded relationships were between men. So, the homosexualist movement was a militant homosexual movement. On that note, we were introduced to Ernst Röhm, a bisexual homosexualist leader of the SA. He often took advantage of those who were helpless in nature, most notably his abuse of children. Because of Ernst Röhm, the “queer pre-history” gay community believed that they would be left alone. But Röhm was not popular amongst the Nazi party. Eventually, he was expunged, bringing an end to the homosexualist movement.

Photo Credit: Nikki Mills

Next Stop, a Bio-Markt on the corner of Motzstraße and Kalckreuthstraße, which was once the El Dorado theater and bar, the biggest in the city. In the past, “Hier ist’s richtig!” (translated to “Here is proper!”) was a sign on display at the store, meaning it was a place of no judgment. Here, we learned about “The Hitler Girls” review, Marlene Dietrich, Anita Berber, and Josephine Baker. The El Dorado became popular, in part, for featuring the former, which some took as a glorification of the Nazi party but was actually the farthest thing from that. Dietrich also frequently performed here, and was very open about her sexuality and relationships. Her most famous relationship was with Berber, a German exotic dancer who, at the age of 18, turned exotic dancing in Germany into an art form. She pioneered a form of androgyneity that allowed her to be booked all across Berlin. However, even before the 1934 laws were passed that shut down the El Dorado, Berber had a fallout with a few male tourists who grabbed at her legs during one of her performances. Berber then grabbed a champagne bottle and “cracked it over their heads” on stage while she was preforming. Due to this, she was made “persona non grata,” or person not appreciated. She eventually made her way back, but died of drug abuse before the Nazi’s could destroy the culture she loved so dearly. Baker became popular in Berlin after leaving France, where she was “exoticized” in the media for her “animalistic character” and “African” features. When the Nazi party came into power, Baker was further dehumanized for these reasons, and was attacked in the media through racist characterizations. This is not surprising when we recall what May Ayim writes in “The Germans in the colonies, that “it is important to recall Germany’s much repressed colonial history and colonial consequences” along with a combination of racism and classism that allows such manifestations (19). Hence, Baker moved back to France and gained citizenship there. Subsequently, the El Dorado became a polling station for the Nazi party. But after the war, there was a “reinvigoration of culture,” along with homonormative gentrification of Schöneberg. Fortunately, this history was not erased, as there is a picture in the bio-markt of Deitrich, memorializing the historic queer culture that once existed there.

We then moved on to a plaque commemorating homosexuals murdered during the Nazi regime at Nollendorfplatz—a large pink triangle that reads, “TOTGESCHLAGEN, TOTSGESCHWIEGAN” (translated by Jared to “beaten to death, silenced to death”). Jared began to explain the conditions under which homosexuals were tortured in order to be taught the “right way” to be sexual. Gay men were raped by various objects, while women were “raped straight.” They were also murdered and “beaten to death.” Additionally, “silenced to death” is a reference to the conditions of these communities after the war. The German government thought everything would go back to the way it was prior to the war; everyone was “released” and homosexuals received blanket apologies from the State. This made me recall Erik N. Jensen’s “The Pink Triangle and Political Consciousness: Gays, Lesbians, and the memory of Nazi Persecution.” Here, Jensen questions whether the use of the pink triangle as a memory of Nazi persecution “trivializes” the suffering of concentration camp victims. The use of the pink triangle, in my opinion, brings an awareness and visibility to a community that. This visibility is crucial because of “the absence of testimony, of personal memories, from the victims themselves” (321), as Jensen points out and the legal and social stigma against the “outsiders”—the homosexual community. Though Berlin is a considered safe place where so-called “outsiders” and “misfits” often flock, the queer community was once ostracized and truly treated as misfits needing to be fixed; a history that is slowly being unraveled piece by piece.


Ryan Garcia is a first-generation rising sophomore at Colorado College. After taking Feminist Theory this past block 6, they decided to dive right in and declare a Feminist & Gender Studies major with an intended minor in Race, Ethnicity, and Migration Studies. They are currently working with the Bridge Scholars Program at CC and co-lead the Queer Community Coalition. This is their first time abroad, and they plan to make the most of this educational experience from getting lost on public transportation to being awed by the tour sites. With an intersectional and transnational approach, they hope to apply prior knowledge to various discussions and tours while also learning more within their field of focus—Queer Studies.

Join the Genius!

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

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com 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 )

Google+ photo

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

Connecting to %s