Nazis, Sex and Stasi Paranoia: Cruising Through Gay Life in Cold War Germany

Historian Samuel Clowes Huneke extensively researched the lives of gay men in West and East Germany. 'There is no essential connection between queerness and any economic system,' he tells Haaretz

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Two unidentified men embrace next to a banner reading Homolulu during a meeting at the campus of the Johann Wolfgang Goethe University in Frankfurt, Germany in the summer of 1979.
Two unidentified men embrace next to a banner reading Homolulu during a meeting at the campus of the Johann Wolfgang Goethe University in Frankfurt, Germany in the summer of 1979.Credit: Rolf Boehm / AP
Avner Shapira
Avner Shapira

On November 9, 1989, the same historic evening on which the Berlin Wall came down, another extraordinary event took place in East Berlin. A theater named International, on Karl Marx Boulevard, screened the premiere of “Coming Out,” directed by Heiner Carow, whose leading man is a teacher who lives with a female partner and falls in love with a young man, going from repressing his sexual orientation to coming to terms with it. The film, produced by DEFA, the German Democratic Republic’s state-owned production company, was the first, and last, film made about homosexuality under the communist regime in East Germany.

The difficult road the gay community had to walk in “the workers’ and farmers’ state,” as East Germany described itself, until it was able to raise public discussion of the community and have its rights recognized is described by the American historian Samuel Clowes Huneke in his new book “States of Liberation: Gay Men between Dictatorship and Democracy in Cold War Germany.”

A scene from Heiner Carow's 1989 'Coming Out.'

The book, published by the University of Toronto Press, offers a comprehensive and illuminating look at the gay sexual and political history of a divided Germany during the era of the Iron Curtain, on both sides of the Berlin Wall. The author shows how the Nazi past continued to cast its shadow over the status of gay men and women in both West and East Germany in the decades after World War II, and compares the separate struggles by the gay communities in each country.

This is the first book by Huneke, 33, a professor of modern European history at George Mason University in Virginia. It is based on his Ph.D. dissertation, which he wrote at Stanford University. In an email interview, he describes the book as starting “with a big question. How did Germany go from being one of the most homophobic countries in history under the Nazis to becoming one of the most LGBTQ-friendly states on earth today? To answer that question, I needed to look at what had happened to queer people in Germany during the Cold War, in the decades after the fall of Nazism.

“When I started to research, I very quickly realized that this history was still defined by a Cold War mindset that sees ‘the West’ as essentially good and ‘the East’ as essentially evil. The assumption was that gay liberation had come about because of capitalism or liberalism, that there was some necessary connection between LGBTQ politics and liberal democracy. But when I started to speak to people who had lived through this period and began to dig around in archives, I discovered that in many ways communist East Germany was actually more progressive on LGBTQ issues than West Germany had been.”

The gay spy

Describing the differences between the two countries on LGBTQ issues, Huneke first notes the persecution and oppression that were the lot of many gay people during the dozen years of the Third Reich. “The Nazi party was extraordinarily hostile to all forms of queerness, and in 1935 the party passed a new version of Article 175, the law that criminalized male homosexuality in Germany. The new law made it much easier to win convictions in court, which led to a surge in prosecutions – around 50,000 men were convicted under this law in the Nazi period. And another 10,000 or so were sent to concentration camps, where they wore the infamous pink triangle.”

Samuel Clowes Huneke, author of 'States of Liberation: Gay Men between Dictatorship and Democracy in Cold War Germany.'Credit: Hugh Ross

“When West and East Germany came into being in 1949, Huneke says, “the two states had to decide what to do with this law. West Germany decided to keep it. For 20 years, West German courts continued to apply this Nazi-era law. Between 1949 and 1969, over 50,000 men were convicted under it.

"You also see a real continuity in terms of the rhetoric around homosexuality. The Nazis had been concerned about the so-called ‘seduction of youth’ by gay men. Basically, they worried that gay men were seducing younger men and boys and thereby turning them into homosexuals. They also worried that gay men were naturally conspiratorial and thus posed a threat to the stability of the government. Both of these tropes remained powerful in West Germany and were used to justify the law.

“In East Germany, on the other hand, socialist courts struck down the Nazi version of Article 175 already in 1950 and reverted to the significantly more lenient pre-Nazi version. This meant convictions were only a fraction of those in West Germany, even accounting for the population difference.

The courts made this change to the penal code as part of the socialist country’s broader push to define itself as an ‘antifascist’ state that had made a clean break with the Nazi past. At the same time, the Socialist Unity Party that ruled East Germany remained hostile to homosexuality within its own ranks, using it as an excuse to purge troublesome party members and often stoking animus against LGBTQ people in anti-Western propaganda.”

The cover of Samuel Clowes Huneke's new book.Credit: University of Toronto Press

In one of the most compelling chapters of his book, Huneke examines the roles played by members of the LGBTQ community, especially gay men, in spy wars between the two blocs –as agents and informants, and as subjects for surveillance. Both the Stasi – the East German secret police – and West German intelligence were deeply interested in gay people and attempted to infiltrate their social circles.

“The gay spy is a long-enduring Cold War stereotype,” Huneke says. “It’s something that shows up in fiction as well as in the persecution of individuals. In the United States, fears that gay men and lesbians posed a danger to national security led to the Lavender Scare, a decades-long purge of gay and lesbian employees of the federal government. These fears were grounded in the belief that queer people were more susceptible to blackmail and that they were naturally conspiratorial and thus primed to act as agents for foreign powers. These fears were also grounded in the knowledge that the gay subculture cut across classes. Sex workers and government ministers might cruise for sex in the same parks or attend the same private house parties. Governments in this era worried that an inadvertent slip of the tongue was all that it would take to leak sensitive security intelligence.

“What I discovered in the archives, however, was that intelligence agencies in Cold War Germany were so convinced of gay men’s conspiratorial natures and the class-crossing potential of the gay subculture, that they actively recruited gay agents to gather intelligence for them. In the West German state of Hesse, for instance, there was a public scandal in 1953 when it came to light that the domestic intelligence service had tasked a gay officer with building a network of gay informants. It was an effort to unmask what the bureau thought was a cabal of East German officials in the state government.”

A fateful meeting

In a way, the moment when gay activism was born in East Germany was in the locker room of a swimming pool in East Berlin, where in 1971, two young gay men met by chance – 18-year-old Michael Eggert and 21-year-old Peter Rausch. Rausch recalls that Eggert “rose out of the water like an Adonis.” The two began to talk and formed a close friendship. Eggert shared ideas he had heard from gay activists in West Germany, whom he had met shortly before when they visited East Berlin. The pair brought in other East Berlin gay men and women, and thus the first LGBTQ organization was founded under the East German dictatorship.

Soviet soldiers watch a man at a meeting of gay liberation groups at East Berlin's Alexanderplatz, Germany, in the summer of 1990.Credit: AP Photo/Jockel Finck

This group, Huneke says, was “inspired by gay liberation activism in West Germany, and they decided to try to convince the communist government that it needed to address the prejudice and discrimination that many gay men and lesbians still faced. This group, which eventually took the name Homosexual Interest-group Berlin or HIB, started organizing cabarets, poetry readings, and other private social events, while also petitioning the government for recognition. The government, and especially the security forces, saw these efforts as dangerous, as perhaps an opportunity for Western intelligence. And so, the bureaucrats stonewalled, eventually shutting the group down in 1978.”

It was a transgender woman, Charlotte Von Mahlsdorf, whom Huneke calls “probably the most famous trans person in German history,” who spurred on the group. She was born in 1928 and began living openly as a woman after the end of World War II. She had long been fascinated with a period of late-19th-century German history known as the Gründerzeit (“founders’ period”) and had collected furniture and other objects from that era. In the late 1950s, she convinced socialist functionaries to allow her to take possession of a decaying mansion slated for demolition, which she turned into a museum dedicated to the Gründerzeit.

“In the mid-1970s,” Huneke explains, “Von Mahlsdorf met HIB activists at a lecture at the East Berlin city library. Overhearing them talking about how they had no public venue at which to meet, and that they had outgrown the limited capacity of their apartments and houses, she suggested that they could meet in the cellar rooms of her museum. This space also housed the bar from an old Berlin queer pub that Charlotte von Mahlsdorf had rescued from demolition. The group took her up on the offer and met there for several years, hosting large parties, cabarets, and readings. Once the security services made clear that they did not approve of the gatherings, however, Mahlsdorf – who was also a secret police informant – requested that the group stop meeting there. She worried that continuing association with the group might jeopardize her museum.”

Charlotte Von Mahlsdorf, who hosted gay activists in her private museum, where they met, hosted large parties, cabarets, and readings.Credit: Eckertz-Popp / ullstein bild / G

How did the great change eventually take place in the status of the LGBTQ community in the 1980s, which was the last decade of the existence of East Germany?

“In the early 1980s, activists began organizing under the umbrella of the Protestant Church, which was one of the only independent organizations in authoritarian East Germany. Over a dozen of these groups had formed across the country by the mid-1980s, posing a far more serious challenge to the government than had the HIB. Searching about for a way of stalling the groups’ organizational efforts, the Stasi decided that the government would have to solve what it came to call the ‘humanitarian problems of homosexual people in the GDR's [i.e., East Germany's] socialist society.' That is, the government would have to actually address the problems that gay men and lesbians had been telling it for years that they faced. Stasi officials hoped that this approach would rob the movement of its internal impetus and raison d’etre.”

The communist government, Huneke says, soon “passed a slew of far-reaching policy changes and legal reforms. They rolled back press censorship of queer issues, allowed gay men and lesbians to access the country’s network of sexual health counseling centers, commissioned books and films about homosexuality, worked with gay and lesbian groups to spread information about HIV, equalized the age of consent, and adopted a new policy of allowing homosexual people to serve openly in the military.”

Huneke notes that after the progress made by LGBTQ East Germans in the second half of the 1980s, the reunification of Germany was received with ambivalence by the community. The period “produced an initial surge of optimism. In spite of the remarkable progress of the 1980s, many of them still saw socialist society as one in which they could not flourish. Queer East Berliners flocked eagerly to West Berlin to take part in its vast commercial subculture of bars, saunas, clubs, bookstores, and so forth. But many of them came away disappointed, preferring the more intimate solidarity of the East German subculture.”

Generally, what are your historical lessons from this case of the two Germanys’ policies regarding LGBTQ people in the Cold War period?

“The first and most obvious lesson is that there is no essential connection between queerness and any one state form or economic system. That is to say, I don’t think we can say either East or West Germany treated gay men and lesbians strictly better than the other. There were certain opportunities and forms of tolerance that existed in East Germany, but not in West Germany – and the opposite is also true. It shows that communist states can actually be progressive on queer issues, while liberal democracies can be remarkably hostile to their LGBTQ citizens. That Cold War mindset I mentioned earlier, which sees LGBTQ rights and liberal democracy is inextricably connected—I think ‘States of Liberation’ shows that this assumption is false.

“But more broadly, I think that this history has serious ramifications for how we think about the relationship between citizens and states and how we define the very idea of progress. The warning of this history is that things can shift for the worse, oftentimes quite suddenly, and that the success of capitalism or of democracy is never a guarantee of individual rights.”

On the other hand, Huneke adds, “this history shows how ordinary citizens living in different states and different economic conditions can take a hand in shaping their own life possibilities and can call progress into being. It’s worth knowing that a relatively small group of tenacious activists in East Germany succeeded in pressuring one of the most infamous authoritarian surveillance states in modern history to advance gay and lesbian rights in a way that very few other states had up until that point in history. It’s important to remember that even in the direst of circumstances the convictions and courage of the few can, indeed, make all the difference.”

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