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Gay Prostitution In Germany, 1871-1933, Part 1

by Caspar Wintermans in History & Politics , 28 september 2009

Dit artikel is ook in het Nederlands beschikbaar

Alfred Schuler opened his eyes wide in 1903 when in the “Blätter für die Kunst” he came across a poem which had been written and dedicated to him by Stefan George. In it, the twentieth century was criticized by the spirit of Manlius, a boy who around 300 AD had applied himself to “the lowest profession you hardly dare to mention”: “Anointed with Persian perfumes I used to go about this gate by night, and give myself to the soldiers of the emperors!”

A rentboy condemning the Germany of Wilhelm II - that was extremely daring, that was sheer provocation, and it took a talk with George to convince Schuler that he need not be ashamed of the impressive poem’s dedication. A calligraphic letter from Schuler to the writer nipped a conflict between them in the bud; when “Porta Nigra” (as the poem was called) appeared in book form in 1907, the dedication was there.

The “Blätter für die Kunst” were read in a small circle. George’s symbolist, sometimes obscure verse appealed to a highly educated, artistic elite. Schuler was an archeologist. His initial repugnance to be associated with a fictional catamite thus clearly shows the social status of the guild to which Manlius belonged.

Even women of easy virtue and their lovers sneered at the men who sold their bodies to men, a rentboy sighed in an interview that was printed in 1906 in “Männliche Prostitution.” Its author, Hans Ostwald, had previously published popular studies on heterosexual prostitution; his book about the male variant cost half a mark extra.
Ostwald was not the first and not the last to shed light upon hustlers and their customers in fin-de-siècle Germany.

Martin Lücke’s awarded dissertation, “Männlichkeit in Unordnung. Homosexualität und männliche Prostitution in Kaiserreich und Weimarer Republik” recently appeared in a commercial edition. The former book is brief and reads easily; the latter is bulky and written in a turgid, academic style. That is a pity, for Lücke has really exerted himself to investigate his subject. What he has to say is sufficiently interesting; his jargon as well as the lack of an index unfortunately make his study less accessible.

photo: Hans Ostwald, ‘Männliche Prostitution.’ Leipzig: Verlag von Walther Fiedler, [1906] (Koninklijke Bibliotheek, Den Haag)

Karl Heinrich Ulrichs

Before the unification of 1871 Germany was a quilt of tiny kingdoms where the various governments took different viewpoints on homosexuality. Provided they did not do it in the streets and frighten the horses, consenting gay adults were allowed to make love in Bavaria (since 1831), Württemberg (since 1839) and Hanover and Braunschweig (since 1840).

In Prussia on the contrary gay sex was being punished since 1851 with a maximum of four years’ imprisonment and the loss of civil rights - and it was this § 175 of the Prussian criminal code which, as a result of the afore-mentioned unity, came into force throughout the “Second Reich”... only to be definitively abolished half a century after the fall of the Third, in 1994!

Among those up in arms against this Prussian prudery, Karl Heinrich Ulrichs deserves to be named with respect. To us it is almost incomprehensible just how much courage was needed to do what he did on 29 August 1867. On that day German jurists held their annual general meeting in Munich. Some 5000 learned gentlemen were seized with holy indignation when Ulrichs addressed them and argued that homosexual men - Urninge, as he called them - should be secured from criminal prosecution.

What shocked his auditors more than anything else was that Ulrichs made no bones about his own attraction to his own sex. Shouting and whistling drowned the orator. The chairman begged him to continue his speech in Latin, but Ulrichs, dumbfounded, left the stage. He kept on his educational campaign by means of pamphlets and books without being able to reach the wider public.

Photo: Martin Lücke, ‘Männlichkeit in Unordnung. Homosexualität und männliche Prostitution in Kaiserreich und Weimarer Republik.’ Frankfurt/New York: Campus Verlag, 2008, 360 blz., ISBN 9783593387512

The Third Sex

Ulrichs tried to “explain” homosexuality by suggesting that the Urning was positioned between the two sexes: he possessed “a female soul in a male body,” a point of view which was adopted around 1900 by the sexologist Magnus Hirschfeld, who coined the phrase “the third sex.” It was a theory which was rejected by many gays who rightly believed it impugned their masculinity. Hirschfeld founded the Institute for Sexual Science. His efforts to end the discrimination of homosexuals made him unpopular with some of his fellow doctors. Anyone opening the medical handbooks from the late nineteenth century will be surprised at the fierceness with which ours were condemned. According to the influential psychiatrist Richard von Krafft-Ebing, for instance, homosexuality was a congenital disease.

Even more reprehensible, he thought, were those men who were, really, quite “normal” and yet went to bed with other men for various reasons: “occasional gays” who for long stretches of time were deprived of female company (such as sailors and prisoners); sybarites who on the contrary had been surfeited with too frequent straight intercourse and were therefore in the mood for something else; finally there were paedophiles who at boarding schools and elsewhere lay their hands upon children. Krafft-Ebing warned for the risk that homosexuality, as if it were a contagious disease, could be transmitted to guileless boys and men. Persons who came into touch with gay sex, the doctor maintained, ran the considerable risk of being changed into gays.

To this theory it may be objected that homosexuals sleeping with women should then equally be transformed into heterosexuals (and it is this misapprehension which explains why in 2009 African lesbians are the victims of gang bangs that according to the perpetrators occur “in their own interest”). Anyway, Krafft-Ebing’s fear of the supposed “missionary zeal” of gays explains why he saw male prostitution as a huge threat that had to be cut up root and branch. The “Real-Encyklopädie der gesammten Heilkunde” from 1898 heartily subscribed to this view. It went so far as to classify any homosexual act as prostitution, whether money changed hands or not!

Photo: Magnus Hirschfeld, 1858-1916

Dealt With In A Hard Way

As we have said, the average German was highly averse from rentboys. A man who paid a woman with whom he was not married to have sex with him did, it is true, go over the line, but he at least did not wander from the path of Mother Nature. Heterosexual prostitution was not, therefore, forbidden. Its regulation served a practical purpose: the fight against venereal diseases. Gay prostitution on the other hand was illegal, and hustlers were dealt with in a harsher way than their customers.

The last named, after all, “were born that way,” and although they could not hope to get much sympathy, they were in the eyes of the law less blamable than the rentboys, most of whom were heterosexual, as statistics showed, and who “betrayed” their sexual identity to make a profit. In so doing they turned all notions of masculinity upside down. A 1909 bill proposed a maximum sentence for them of five years’ detention in a Zuchthaus, and one should bear in mind that this was tougher than being sent to an ordinary prison. A Zuchthaus received serious criminals, some of whom were incarcerated for life; its inmates had to perform hard labour.

Male prostitution was also a pain in the neck to numerous gay activists. Friedrich Radszuweit, a novelist and publisher of magazines about whom more anon, described catamites as “metropolitan hyenas, the unsavoury, parasites, warts, polyps.” He thereby really treated a large group alike. There were surely dangerous fellows among the prostitutes, but most of them were forced by dire poverty to strip off their clothes.

Hans Ostwald passed a fairer judgment in 1906 on them, and on their customers as well. “We have to safeguard our young men against unemployment,” he argued, “and offer them more than just a night’s quarters and dry bread; we must give them what is understood nowadays by ‘bread’ in the broadest sense of the term: good clothes, nice, clean, furnished rooms, the opportunity to amuse themselves and visit the theatre, books to read and supplementary education, summer excursions and everything else that belongs to a simple yet modern life.” As long as such a social safety net did not exist, there would be a supply of gay sex for sale.


A well-known meeting place in Berlin was the Tiergarten where in the small hours rentboys would sit down on a certain bench known as “the art exhibition.” Now and again a customer appeared, lighting a match to inspect the faces of the youngsters before making a choice. According to Ostwald, the park was a rough place. Sometimes “a shrill scream” could be heard in the bushes when someone was being robbed and/or ill-treated, while “a short bang” indicated that yet one more person had shot himself.
A homosexual unable to bear celibacy anymore (“Nature demands her rights from us as well,” a subscriber to “Die Freundschaft” wrote in a letter to the editor in 1921) took a frightful risk at the time when looking for satisfaction in a prostitute’s arms. Imagine the consternation of the poor devil who received the following epistle which ended up in the archive of Magnus Hirschfeld:

“Dear Sir!
A gentleman known to you owns photographs showing you in the greatest intimacy with a beautiful youth. These pictures were taken at a moment when you thought you were unobserved.
The gentleman in question has already sold a great many of these photographs to his acquaintances. Solely in your interest I have induced him to hand me the negatives and all the prints that have not yet been sold, as I am convinced you will do whatever it takes to prevent the sale of these pictures which highly compromise you.
If you will pay me 100 marks through the Post Office you will receive the photographs at once.
Unfortunately I cannot give you my name as I belong to the nobility.
Deeply commiserating you, I remain, yours sincerely v. G***.”

Blackmail! That was the logical outcome of the miserable § 175. Countless gays have been forced to pay hush money over long stretches of time. The case of Otto Zöhn was especially tragic. This employee of the Post Office earned 100 marks each month and had already handed 400 or 500 marks to the blackmailer Alois Dämon before committing suicide in 1926 in the wake of renewed threats. In a farewell letter to his wife he swore he was innocent, adding that Dämon had announced another visit and that the police should be warned to arrest the villain who carried a gun. Which duly happened.

During the blackmailer’s trial it transpired how he used to contact his victims. A well-tried method involved visiting a public toilet where he would smile at men whose homosexual orientation he suspected. If the smile was returned, fondling took place which either led to a climax there and then or which formed a prelude to manoeuvres that were executed in less prosaic surroundings. The police of course was aware that public urinals served as meeting places for homosexuals and kept their eyes on them, which made the gentlemen temporarily to look for other locations.


Every resident of big cities such as Hamburg and Berlin who had eyes to see knew that there were certain bars, restaurants and bathhouses where the Uranians preferred to be. The newspapers regularly reported on this subculture; the articles are characterised by a mix of horror of and fascination for the subject. In 1905 for instance one could read about the tobacconist’s shop that had been opened by a certain Gessler in the Junkerstrasse in Berlin. Neighbours were surprised at the huge number of customers that flocked to it; besides it attracted attention that among these were a great many young fellows who seemingly found it difficult to chose what cigars they should buy as they stayed at the premises an awful long time. It later transpired that the shop was a cover, that Gessler made some rooms available for gay sex and that more than one person who had sought pleasure there was afterwards confronted with blackmail.

A journalist quoted by Ostwald gave an account of a restaurant in the capital where women were conspicuous by their absence.

“Not a bad lot, it would appear. No one spits on the wooden floor, no one has a toothpick between his teeth, no one is scratching his ears or legs. [...] People are seated at clean tables and don’t drink too much. Nothing objectionable is said, the songs that are sung are free from obscenities. It seems rather that the sentimental genre is preferred by these attentive auditors.”

More effeminate types organised dance parties which were tolerated by the police. “The male persons dressed up like women form a curious sight,” wrote a reporter who visited one of these balls, “especially when they carry a moustache.”

Places like these offered harbours of refuge to homosexuals in a hostile world where paranoia was always lurking.

About 1900 a musician took up his pen to inform Hirschfeld about the way he spent his days. More than anything else he feared to be compromised. As long as he stayed in a vicinity where he or his family were known he suppressed his sexual urges, sometimes for months on end, making regular journeys abroad to have intercourse there. He came across rentboys in Berlin, Frankfurt, Leipzig, Wiesbaden, to a lesser degree in Dresden. “One hardly notices this phenomenon in Belgium, it seems not to exist in The Netherlands at all.” This artist, who undoubtedly moved in the high orbits of life, complained about the “medieval prejudices” against gays which were continually ventilated there. He suffered “infernal agonies,” fearing to betray himself; for he would certainly lose friends if they discovered his orientation.

The Incarnation Of Evil

It was a musician whom the director Richard Oswald and Magnus Hirschfeld selected as the protagonist of the feature film “Different from the Others” that was premiered in 1919. The doctor, who appeared in front of the camera (he played himself), believed the time was ripe to educate the masses about the undeserved sufferings of a minority. The violin virtuoso in the film falls in love with one of his pupils, affording an opportunity to a crook to blackmail him. The violinist commits suicide and his - heterosexual - pupil resolves to do what he can to combat the taboo that had proved fatal to his teacher.

Colleagues of Hirschfeld thought that the movie provided too positive an image of gays, and the state censorship, which was maintained in the Weimar Republic, ordered that cuts be made. Yet the fact that “Different from the Others” had been shot in the first place did show that the climate in Germany had changed, and many homosexuals hoped that the abolition of § 175 was only a matter of time. More than ever before they organised themselves in associations which, incidentally, were inaccessible to the lower classes because of the high membership fees, while the regulations prescribed that rentboys need not apply. They were still seen by many as the incarnation of evil.
Some writers, however, advocated a more balanced view of this category which, according to a 1933 survey, consisted for 51.2% of labourers. Sailors (11.1%), schoolboys (4.6%), apprentices (9.3%), artisans (13.2%), merchants (8.6%) and intellectuals (0.9%) made up the rest.

Photo: Poster for the movie ‘Anders als die Andren’ (1919)

Three Categories

Research carried out by Richard Linsert was of particular interest. It was published in 1929 and told the life stories of one hundred catamites whom Linsert had interviewed on benches in the park and other places where they were looking for potential clients. Linsert concealed the fact that he was pumping them as part of a scientific inquiry, an original approach that resulted in more frank conversations than would have been possible had he talked to the boys in his office.

He distinguished three sub-groups of hustlers: the so-called Pupenjungen or Edelpupen, who were gay themselves; the “ravens” who from economic hardship did not scruple to resort to blackmail and armed robbery; and the Strichjungen, occasional prostitutes who offered themselves because of their insufficient salaries, sudden unemployment or the illness of a family member which led to massive doctor’s bills.

Youths from this last category seldom remained in business for more than a couple of years.
From a surviving typescript that contains information not included in the published article, it emerges that Linsert had great affection for some of his interlocutors and that he had had the opportunity to study them in the nude.

Thus he wrote about Toni S***, a well-dressed 25-year-old waiter: “S*** likes to say how much he is desired in the gay scene. [He] makes a sympathetic impression, not least because of his dialect and his relaxed insouciance.

His physical attitude is a bit nonchalant, but when all the draperies fall, one is surprised at his beautiful shape (fine proportions, expressive body lines).” The car mechanic Willi M*** also captivated Linsert: “Spiritually distinguished, the consequence of his character; proletarian, and yet a man of culture. Communist, deeply impressed with his convictions. An idealist of the first water. [...] An enthralling figure.”

Linsert’s notes show where his political affinities lay, and Hans Siemsen was a left-winger, too. In 1927 he published “Forbidden Love. Letters from an Unknown,” a novel in which the hustler Ernest Arno describes his vicissitudes.

Photo: Blackmail-scène from the movie ‘Anders als die Andren’ with Reinhold Schünzel and Conrad Veith

To be continued

The novel “Forbidden Love” is the first in a modest series of fictional works which earned male love for sale a place in German letters, which Caspar Wintermans addresses next month in the second part of this article.

The erotic photo's in this article are collected in the book ‘Jeux d’Hommes. Photographies érotiques clandestines, 1895-1940.’ Paris: La galerie Au Bonheur du Jour, 2008, 112 blz., ISBN 9782952332279



In the New Issue of Gay News, 326, October 2018

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