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Celebrating Queer Joy in 1920s Berlin

Prior to Nazi Germany, in a period known as the Weimar Republic, queer people lived openly in a society that allowed LGBTQ+ spaces to exist to such an extent that Berlin was considered the queer capital of the world. In these spaces queer people found freedom, community, and joy living openly as their authentic selves. To honor the queer people of Weimar Berlin – and the queer community today – Illinois Holocaust Museum is dedicating an evening to celebrate the most famous LGBTQ+ nightclub in Weimar Berlin: the Eldorado.

The Eldorado was one of an estimated 170 LGBTQ+ spaces in Berlin, even as anti-LGBTQ+ discrimination was prevalent. Paragraph 175 of the German Criminal Code, which made same-sex relations between men illegal, was in place, if not strictly enforced. Persecution was not limited to cisgender men: historian Laurie Marhoefer’s research illustrates that while lesbian sex was not illegal, it was still regulated and contained by the state.

Trans people were targeted as well – appearing in public wearing clothing that didn’t match the person’s sex assigned at birth could result in arrest. LGBTQ+ establishments were tolerated, rather than supported, largely to restrict open expressions of queer life and culture to specific spaces and kept out of the wider public eye. Acknowledging this complicated juxtaposition doesn’t detract from the thriving LGBTQ+ subculture that existed and the spaces that affirmed and celebrated LGBTQ+ people.

These spaces were able to exist because of the work of German scientists and activists and the groundwork they set in the late 19th century. In his book, “Gay Berlin: Birthplace of a Modern Identity,” Robert Beachy argues that the modern LGBTQ+ identity originated in Berlin. The use of the term “homosexual” as a positive way to identify someone attracted to the same sex is credited to a German psychiatrist in 1886. Magnus Hirschfeld, a queer German-Jewish sexologist, later argued that LGBTQ+ people were born that way and that gender does not exist as a binary but rather as a spectrum. In 1897 Hirschfeld founded Scientific Humanitarian Committee, which is credited as the first LGBTQ+ rights organization in the world, and spent his life supporting LGBTQ+ people with counseling and medical services, fighting against LGBTQ+ discrimination, educating about LGBTQ+ related issues, and advocating for LGBTQ+ rights in Germany.  

Berlin: Das Vergnügungsetablissement “Eldorado” an der Ecke Motz- und Kalckreuthstraße. (Aufn.: 1932) 12933-32

The Eldorado was the most famous of Berlin’s queer spaces, and it was known in particular for its drag performances. But its fame, and that of other similar establishments, came at the cost of being a tourist attraction for people outside the community wanting to see queer people and culture on display. The Cook’s Travel Agency guidebook from 1931 advertised that they “take tourists to these locales as if to a cabinet of curiosities, because this state of affairs is considered one of the sights of Berlin.” Conversely, the fame and notoriety of LGBTQ+ spaces in Berlin also meant that queer people had the opportunity to easily find their community through guidebooks created exclusively for them, such as 1928’s “Berlin’s Lesbian Women,” which provided information on Berlin’s queer spaces specifically for lesbian women and those described as “women who prefer to appear in men’s clothing.” Having access to spaces designed for the queer community allowed LGBTQ+ people a space to live authentically and find love, friendship, and support.

The Eldorado was closed soon after the Nazis came to power in early 1933 and turned into a local SA headquarters. In what appears to be a carefully staged propaganda photo taken weeks after Hitler became chancellor, two German police officers stand outside the well-known and recognizable location, now with Hitler campaign posters and swastikas covering the building – sending a clear message to the German population in general, and to the LGBTQ+ community in particular.

The Eldorado in 1933: https://perspectives.ushmm.org/item/photo-of-the-eldorado-club

Under National Socialism, queer people were increasingly targeted through legislation in the revision of Paragraph 175, denunciations to the Gestapo, confinement in prisons and concentration camps, forced labor, violence, and murder. The intersectionality of being LGBTQ+ along with other identities, such as being Jewish, Roma/Sinti, or disabled, among others, put an even greater target on queer peoples’ lives. But while LGBTQ+ people were victims of the Nazi regime, they were not only victims. Many fought Nazism in various ways, such as armed resistance, writing and distributing anti-Nazi pamphlets, hiding Jewish people, stealing ration cards, and forging new identity cards.

The Eldorado was a place for queer people to freely and openly gather and socialize, finding joy and community in the relatively tolerant but still threatening and turbulent world of the Weimar Republic. It is in this spirit that Illinois Holocaust Museum celebrates LGBTQ+ life today, while still being aware of the increasing attacks on the LGBTQ+ community in the United States. We must continue to advocate for basic human rights denied to LGBTQ+ people and especially fight against the increasing legislation targeting the transgender community. No person should be denied access to medical care and public restrooms, turned away from a business because of their identity, have their history and experiences deliberately erased from classrooms, or countless other examples of prejudice and discrimination that LGBTQ+ people face every day in the United States.

Illinois Holocaust Museum is dedicated to fighting hatred, prejudice, and indifference – including that aimed against LGBTQ+ people. But it’s also important to pause and celebrate the diversity, brilliance, and beauty of the LGBTQ+ community. Focusing on the positives of the LGBTQ+ experience, and finding community and love and joy within a society that also discriminates and legislates against LGBTQ+ people, can empower those who would otherwise be seen as victims and sends a loud and clear message to those who want to silence LGBTQ+ voices. Queer joy, particularly in the face of hatred and discrimination, can be revolutionary. It was revolutionary in 1920s Germany, and it is in 2020s United States.

Leah Rauch, Director of Education 

Resources:

Laurie Marhoefer: “Sex and the Weimar Republic: German Homosexual Emancipation and the Rise of the Nazis”
Robert Beachy: “Gay Berlin: Birthplace of a Modern Identity”
US Holocaust Memorial Museum: “Magnus Hirschfeld” https://encyclopedia.ushmm.org/content/en/article/magnus-hirschfeld-2

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