HOW SEXUAL WAS WEIMAR GERMANY?

Cabaret dancers in Berlin, 1928.



















The answer to the question that forms the title of this post for anyone considering not reading on is... pretty damn sexual - if you knew where to go. Especially if you like an iconic use of shadows, lust-murders and a sexually-subversive revolutionary culture even The Beatles would blush at. 

So often thought of in history textbooks as just a period to 'get through' in between the Treaty of Versailles and the rise of Nazism in 1933, Weimar Germany was actually a rich and vibrant period in the history of Central Europe.

The Weimar era began in 1919, in the midst of several major movements in economic stability, European borders, population growth - and in the fine arts.  

After 1920 Berlin increased in size 13-fold, the city became the third largest municipality in the world and experienced its heyday as a major world metropolis. It was known for its leadership roles in science, the humanities, music, film, higher education, government, diplomacy, industries and military affairs. 

A sophisticated, innovative culture developed in and around Berlin, as German Expressionism exploded, including in highly developed architecture and design such as the Bauhaus, as well as a variety of literature, film, painting, music, philosophy/psychology, and fashion. This emerging 'Weimar Culture' was often considered to be extremely decadent and socially disruptive by the more conservative. 


   

Prostitution boomed in Berlin and elsewhere in the areas of Europe left ravaged by World War I. This means of survival for desperate women, and sometimes men, became normalized to an unprecedented degree in the 1920s. 

During the war, venereal diseases such as syphilis and gonorrhea spread at a rate that warranted government attention. Soldiers at the front contracted these diseases from prostitutes, so the German army responded by granting approval to certain brothels that were inspected by their own medical doctors, and soldiers were issued coupon books for sexual services at these establishments. 
Homosexual behavior was also well documented among soldiers at the front. Soldiers returning to Berlin at the end of the War, therefore, had a very different attitude towards their own sexuality than they had a few years previously. Prostitution was frowned upon by respectable Berliners, but it continued in the 20s to the point of becoming entrenched in the city's underground economy and emergent culture. 

First women with no other means of support turned to the trade, then youths of both genders. Crime in general developed in parallel with prostitution in the city, beginning as petty thefts and other crimes linked to the need to survive in the war's aftermath. Berlin eventually acquired a reputation as a hub of drug dealing (cocaine, heroin, tranquilizers) and the black market. The police identified 62 organized criminal gangs in Berlin, called Ringvereine. The German public also became fascinated with reports of homicides, especially "lust murders" or Lustmord. 


Berlin Cabaret girls
Publishers met this demand with inexpensive criminal novels called Krimi, which like the film noir of the era (such as the classic M), explored methods of scientific detection and psycho-sexual analysis. 

Apart from the new tolerance for behavior that was technically still illegal, and viewed by a large part of society as immoral, there were other sexual developments in Berlin culture that shocked many visitors to the city. 

Thrill-seekers flocked to the city in search of adventure, and booksellers sold many specially written guide books to Berlin's erotic night entertainment venues. There were an estimated 500 such establishments, which included a large number of homosexual venues for men and for lesbians; sometimes transvestites of one or both genders were admitted, otherwise there were at least 5 known establishments that were exclusively for a transvestite clientele. There were also several well-reviewed nudist venues. Berlin also had a museum of sexuality during the Weimar period, at Dr. Magnus Hirschfeld's Institute of Sexology. These were nearly all closed when the Nazi party came to power in 1933.


Anita Berber
Artists in Germany throughout the Weimar period became fused with the Capitol's sexy underground culture, as the borders between cabaret and legitimate theatre blurred salaciously. Anita Berber, a dancer and actress, became notorious throughout the city and beyond for her erotic performances (as well as her cocaine addiction and erratic behavior). 


Unfortunately for everyone, with the rise of Nazism and the ascent to power of Adolf Hitler in 1933, the sexy times were over. Many of the intellectuals and cultural figures of the Weimar era fled Germany for the United States, the United Kingdom, and other parts of the world. Hitler had a personal dislike for Weimar Culture and for Berlin as its focal point in particular. His rise to power was quickly followed by actions intended to cleanse the culture of 'degeneracy'. 
Book burnings were organized; artists and musicians were dismissed from teaching positions; curators who had shown a partiality to modern art were replaced by Party members, and homosexuals, liberals and 'communists' were rounded up for concentration camps along with everyone else the Nazis considered 'degenerate'.