EPISODE 2, A WEIMAR LOVE AFFAIR, BERLIN’S RAVISHING STREETS
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a ‘Boot Girl’
Welcome to The Weimar Spectacle, where I explore the brief and extraordinary life of the Weimar Republic. I’m Bremner Fletcher, singer, actor and theatre maker. I’ve spent years performing songs from the Weimar period and I’m inspired and slightly obsessed by that moment in time.
So, my big, big idea for these podcasts, is that the Weimar Republic invented everything about the modern world, and we are all still dealing with the possibilities and problems it gave us. To prove that possibly unprovable idea, I’ll be exploring the arts, politics, science, architecture, social innovations and the terrible and irresistible rise of the Nazi Party. So, if you’re a musical theatre fan who wants the lowdown on how Weill and Brecht reimagined theatre, or a fan of modernist architecture who wants to know just how exactly Bauhaus got into our house, or an amateur fashion historian who wants to know who first devised the haircut that swept the world, aka the Louise Brook’s look, this is the show for you.
Today I was planning an episode on the revolutions that began the Weimar Republic, how they came out of the devastation of WW1, and how the catastrophe of WW1 made a place for radical new beginnings. But, honestly, I can’t face it. It’s December 2023 and every day the news is worse from around the world, and I couldn’t face more darkness, even if it does lead into the light. So instead, we’re going to leap into some of the fun, crazy and sometimes completely mad of the Weimar days, i.e. the wild sexual revolution that appeared in in Berlin and to a lesser degree across Germany. So, my warning for you is that this episode is going to be discussing sexuality in all its forms. I’m a shy, gentle-minded and rather vanilla individual, so I’m going to keep it fairly clean, but be prepared to hear about every aspect of the sexual imagination.
My big ideas for this episode are that in Post-WW1 Germany, people had seen so much death they grasped for life through sex and rejoicing in their bodies. The war proved a body that was once hearty and beautiful could be easily broken or snuffed out, and so pleasure was not to be delayed. Also, post war, the crushing poverty forced middle class people into getting used to the idea of their own sex as a commodity and casually selling their it. New scientific ideas allowed experts to examine sexuality as one more expression of the human condition rather than governed by religious and moral laws, and those experts began to communicate these new ideas to the world. Finally, a new mysticism arose in Germany as searched for some new morality, and sexuality became a brutal battleground in the fight for which ideas would govern a new Germany.
Those are the big, big ideas and they might sound a little dry, but believe me the details are anything but dry. You might even call them well lubricated and moist… So, lets start with a pop-quiz: what do Boot-Girls, Grasshoppers, Half Silks, Nuties, Demi-Castors, Table Ladies, Telephone Girls, Gravelstones, Race-Horses, Line-Boys, Doll-Boys and Wild-Boys have in common? I’ll pause a moment while you consider the options…..
That’s right, those are just a few from the long list of categories of male and female prostitutes available in Berlin in the 1920’s.
As the amazing 1920’s writer, actress and glamourous girl about town Anita Loos said: In Berlin, “Sex is the business of the town”
A raid on a Berlin Brothel
Or as Luigi Barzini, the Italian journalist wrote “there were men dressed as women, women dressed as men or little school girls, women in boots with whips (boots and whips of different colors, shapes and sizes promising passive or active divertissements)…… And they could be had for the asking, sometimes without asking, often for the mere price of a dinner…. Shopgirls, secretaries, white Russian refugees, nice girls from decayed families”
Estimates range from 20,000 to 100,000 prostitutes of all types, and those numbers don’t include the approximately 35,000 male prostitutes.
But Sex-Work in Berlin wasn’t a simple matter. Prostitutes, male and female, were split into a bewildering set of categories bases on a clients desires, or the sex worker’s talents.
Wore furs and tall high-laced black leather or shiny patent leather boots. Depending on the colored highlights of those boots a client could tell their particular speciality.
‘Boot Girl’ Sex Workers
Streetworkers without a room who serviced their clients in alleys, doorways and in the wooded parks of central Berlin
Amateur sex-workers moonlighting from regular jobs: secretaries, shopkeepers, office clerks picking up some extra money
Were teenage girls, often using prostitution to finance a fun weekend of drinking and partying
DEMI-CASTOR, which literally means half-beavers, were women from middle class families who worked afternoons and early evenings in high class brothels
Berlin’s geishas. the most exotic and expensive sex-workers. Clients paid huge amounts of money for a whole evening with them, paying ‘table-money’, before retiring to a private room. Dressed often as fetishized National stereotypes, the Gypsy Girl, the Nordic Blonde, the Spanish Aristocrat.
Prostitutes who you could beat or whip.
Child prosititutes, ordered by telephone and delivered by their pimps to private home in limousines
And it wasn’t just women crowding the streets and selling their sexuality. The writer Stefan Zweig, writes “along the entire kurfurstendamm powdered and rouged young men sauntered. They were not all professionals: every high school boy wanted to earn some money and in the dimly lit bars one might see government officials and men of the wold of finance tenderly courting sailors without shame”
LINE-BOYS OR AVENUE BOYS OR YOUNG LIONS
Teenage male prostitutes who hung out conspicuously in gangs of four or five in fancy hotel lobbies. Estimated numbers: 20,000-25,000.
WILD-BOYS—Homeless, gangs of young men who lived and traveled in small groups on the outskirts of Berlin. Traded sexual favors for cigarettes and meals.
DOLL-BOYS—Youngest gay hustlers, from nine years old to 13. Virtually penniless, most worked solely for food, cigarettes, or lodging.
Selling sex in Weimar Berlin was legal for women, for those who wanted to get a permit and go through the indignities of official health inspections, but perhaps even more unusual, it became banal. Post-war the economy had collapsed, and shortly after that, when inflation made currency worthless, sex became one more product that everyone could sell.
Add into this that a huge part of the men were suffering from severe PTSD and mental trauma after four years of brutal trench warfare and they had lost many normal restraints. And during the war years, prostitution had been institutionalized by the German Army. A system of military Brothels were set up, with every soldier given a ration book of sex coupons, with the amount of visits, time allowed in each visit, and the rating of high vs low class prostitute determined by rank.
And if you have trouble imagining how so called ‘normal’ people could be driven to sell themselves then try imagine this: in January 1921 seven marks bought one American dollar. By August it was 550 marks to one dollar. By the summer of 1922 the official rate was 22,400 marks to one dollar and the slide continued till by October 1923 the rate was 4.2 billion marks to one American dollar.
A wheelbarrow of money
Which meant anyone on a fixed income or old age pension lost everything as they continued to be paid their tiny, now worthless wages. A lifetime of savings was now worthless. Families sold every item in their homes and immediately turned that cash into food, since by the end of the day the value of that money would have plummeted yet again. So, like it or not, selling your sex in the early days of the Republic became one more necessary thing people did to get through the day.
Okay, lets step off the streets of Berlin and inside some of the theatres, cabarets and private clubs for a look at some of the more positive aspects of the new Weimar approach to the body. Many of these institutions worked hard to remove any shame from new sexual choices that were creeping into public view. As the sign above the ladies room in the Topkeller bar said: “We are the New Spirit. We do it with Brazenness.”
the Boulevard Kabarett
If you arrived in Berlin in 1925 and had a yen to see strange and wonderful nightlife, it was easy. There were so many guidebooks for tourists giving the details of the Drag Bars, Lesbian Bars, Sex Shows and Gay Bars. The Kurfurstendamm, which during the day was all sleek new department stores and boutiques, at night would transform to nightclubs, pleasure palaces, Drag show cabarets and high end sex-workers would lean s between the glittering shop windows. As one guidebook said ‘Shiny merchandise beside shiny merchandise’. The English Cook Travel Agency featured regular tours of the Berlin nightlife for tourists and visitors. At midnight a bus would pick up sightseers at all the major hotels and deliver them to a tour of late night bars. Straight middle class English couples would mark the trip as a highlight of Berlin’s attractions
A guide to Berlin's darker side
Cabaret became the catch-all name for the theatres that were presenting avant garde theatre, and also the erotic revues and drag revues. Cabaret was essentially a combination of music-hall and vaudeville and operetta where audiences could ogle the chorus girls legs, laugh at dirty jokes and skits, and watch almost nude women walk through opulent theatrics in which oriental harems and slave markets featured highly.
However, many of the cabarets were also feeding from a new ideal of women that was transforming women’s lives in Germany, a modern fantasy creature called GIRLKULTUR. The new woman who became, in a way, the spirit of the Weimar Republic: slim, stylish, not interested in children, irreverent, sexually aggressive, interested in a good time and accumulating money and material goods. She was described as an unsentimental machine-age femme fatale. The act of seduction was no longer about acquiring a husband for marriage, but for her own pleasure. In GIRLKULTUR women and men were on an even playing field, both fighting for the same winnings. And in the Cabarets, Girlkultur also referred to the new image of women literally taking the stage, and particularly the lines of topless women covered in glitter and pearls doing kick lines, imitating and parodying the Hyper-Masculine Prussian army.
But it wasn’t all sexy eroticism in the clubs: Bizarrely, as a contrast to all the sensuality floating around Berlin, the anti-sensualist spectacle was wildly popular. At the Cabaret club and restaurant Hackepeter’s, the speciality dish was a huge plate of hot lard, onion and pork, but the wildly successful show was a notorious ‘Hunger Artist’. The artist only known as ‘Herr Jolly’ made a fortune for himself, sitting encased in a sealed glass bubble, in his underwear and chain smoking cigarettes, while guards ensured that no food passed his lips. As patrons filled their stomachs the MC would announce how many days and hours it had been since he ate. Even more bizarrely, Herr Jolly became a romantic obsession for many Berlin women and finally was rumored to have accepted the hand in marriage of the American Heiress Evelyn Rockefeller.
Many of the cabarets specialized in LGBTQ clientele and became safe spaces for the German queer culture to create their lives with Drag balls and Queer performances. The Gay life of Berlin became famous across Europe. However, this wasn’t as new as it all seemed. 180 years before Christoper Isherwood fell in love with the men of Berlin in 1920’s, the Prussian military garrison stationed there was famous for its culture of fetishized Gay life. In the 1750’s Frederich the Great, founder of modern Prussia decreed that the elite troops must not be married and proclaimed that German women weakened the fighting skills of the men and encouraged his guards to find lovers amongst themselves.
AND OF COURSE, GAY BERLIN WAS ALSO INTRICATELY CATEGORIZED
traveled in packs of six to eight. Often costumed in wild, leather fetish outfits.
Travelled in gangs dressed in outlandish cowboy or top hatted leather hobo outfits and established peter pan camps in parks and abandoned warehouses, and gave those camps names like ‘Fear No Death’ and ‘Indian Blood’ and ‘The Forest Pirates’, ‘Red Apaches’ or ‘Gypsy Lovers’
With plucked eyebrows, dark mascara eyes, face powder, lipstick, and the trendy 1920’s female Bubikopf haircuts
And as for the other categories, well, this is where my modesty takes over and I’ll let you google the habits of the AUNTIES, the BUBES, the BUTCHERS, the BRESLAUERS, THE CELLAR-MASTERS, THE CANAL-MEN, The YOUNG BUCKS.
On the other side of the gender divide, Berlin’s lesbian population was large enough to support two ice skating leagues, several nudist retreats, three outdoor sporting associations, 85 nightclubs and several dozen social clubs where they took holidays together, organized to fight discrimination and help struggling members of the group.
And likewise, the Lesbian Culture also had endless subcategories
Wore mens clothing, especially fedoras and leather ties and long leather coats in winter and ubiquitous cigars. Often with delicately drawn “mustaches”
Wore tuxedos with dark, curly hair, which hung loose, in a Gypsy, Romani style. Their faces were powdered ivory-white, and they wore horn-rimmed eyeglasses or monocles.
Dressed in exaggerated French street urchin clothing
GARÇONNES or BACHELORETTES or HANSIS
Had shaved, penciled-in eyebrows and wore French male fashions and had their own weekly magazine, Garçonne; motto: “For Friendship, Love, and Sexual Enlightenment.”
Garconnes at the Eldorado Kabarett
And there were the GIRL-FRIENDS, the HOT SISTERS, the GOUGNETTES, the SALVATION ARMY GIRLS, the MÄDIS, LITTLE MEN, or SWEET MOMMIES, the SHARPERS, the SCORPIONS, and the TADPOLES
So the streets and clubs of Berlin are becoming places creating a new idea of sexuality and its display. Watching and thinking about those ideas and working to move some of them out to a mass culture were a host of scientists, social thinkers, politicians and moralists who became known as Sex Reformers. They set up Institutes and wrote books and gave lectures and made laws promoting and attempting to define and, again, categorize the new sexuality. Because, in Post war Germany the imperial censors no longer ruled what could published, so sex reformers and politicians could appeal directly to the people. Sexual reformers published books, created new therapies, fought for the right for abortion, founded clinics and got involved in politics: many believed that Sexual repression serves the interests of capitalism and so the only way to overthrow the inequalities of the class society was to have good sex.
For example, In 1926 the book the Ideal Marriage was a huge success in Germany and around the world – it’s America Edition had 44 reprintings. It was a book about sex and marriage, with explicit descriptions of sexual techniques and how to lead pleasurable and productive sexual lives and the writer lectured to sold-out audiences across Germany telling his audiences that the key to enduring happiness in marriage lay in mutual, ongoing sexual pleasure. Okay, so he also said the man was always the leader and teacher, with the woman always in a passive role, still he wildly criticized men for their sexual ignorance and defended the rights of women to have fulfilling sexual lives in marriage. He aimed to “banish the monotony of the marriage bed” and that “the true love achieves ecstasy by giving the joy of love”
One of the most influential reformers was Magnus Hirschfeld. In Germany he was called ‘The Einstein of Sex’. Hirschfeld was an outspoken advocate for sexual minorities, including gay, lesbian and transgender rights. In 1897, after he witnessed so many of his Gay patients take their own lives in shame, he founded the first organization devoted to the protection of Gay rights: the Scientific Humanitarian committee. He developed a system which categorized 64 possible types of sexual types, ranging from masculine, heterosexual male to feminine, homosexual male, including those he described under the term transvestite which he coined in 1910, and those he described under the term transsexuals, a term he coined in 1923.
Sex and pain were particularly popular in Weimar Berlin. Innumerable magazines and sex workers specialized in every facet of sadism, masochism and just plain pain with a great emphasis on raised asses beaten by whips, canes and lashes.
Hirschfeld categorized four main scenarios: Number 1 was Servilism, submitting to a dominant partner as slave, servant or page 2. Peurile Masochism, wishing to be treated as an infant or schoolboy by an angry mother, father or governess 3. Zoomimic Masochism, wishing to be treated like a beast of burden with a saddle on your back and ridden by a mistress or master and finally 4. Impersonal Masochism wishing to be used as an ashtray, footstool, coffee table or animal skin rug
His new Institut für Sexualwissenschaft ('Institute of Sexual Research') opened on 6 July 1919. He studied pornography, aphrodisiacs and sex toys, the connection between crime and sexual fetishes and the erotic basis of war. People from around Europe and beyond came to the institute to gain a clearer understanding of their sexuality. Medical advice and treatment for sexual diseases was free, scientific lectures were open to the public and the library, accessible to all, had the largest pornography collection in Europe and teams of lawyers met to fight against laws that prohibited homosexuality and abortion. In institutes museum were African Dildoes, Sanskrit Sex Manuals, Medieval Chastity Belts, Torture Instruments from Brothels, an entire window of ankle boots donated by a foot fetishist and steam driven vibrators.
Thousands of Germans took his Sex Survey, with questions like
Question 17 – in your immediate family are there any females who look like men: or males with obvious female characteristics? Do any of your siblings exhibit any aspects of the opposite sex?
#44 – Can you whistle
#61 Are you left handed
#100 which do you find more exciting, the naked body, the clothed body, the partly clothed body. Does the smell of sweat ever excite you? Repel you?
#132 have you ever been sexually aroused by an animal
On 30 January 1933, President Paul von Hindenburg appointed Adolf Hitler as chancellor. On the morning of 6 May, 1933, a group of university students belonging to the National Socialist German Students' League stormed the institution, shouting 'Burn Hirschfeld!' and began to beat up its staff and smash up the premises. In the afternoon, the Nazis destroyed the institute, taking all volumes from the library and storing them for a book-burning event which was to be held four days later.
One of the strangest battles to look back on in Weimar’s ultra politicized culture was the brutal culture war over Nudity. And not whether or not Nudity was good, or legal, or moral but what exactly it meant for the hundreds of thousands of German’s who stripped off their clothes to frolic naked, or, as a Berlin Nudity Slogan said “MORE SUN + MORE AIR+ MORE NUDITY = MORE LIFE”
The French novelist Louis-Charles Royer wrote “I have just come back from the land of the naked, where men, women, children, oldsters, fathers and mothers of families, virgin and adolescents come and go quite nude, where they bathe, laugh, eat, drink and cook their meals in a stat of total stark and utter nakedness. Do not go and search for this earthly paradise at the antipodes. It is situated at a distance of twenty hours from Paris”
Every political stripe had its social club promoting its own vision of nakedness, there was
Berlin League of Free Body Culture
Concerned Community of Free Sunland and Naked Sports
League for Free Life Improvement
Federation for Body Culture and Nature Indoctrination
German Air Bathing Society
State Federation for Free Body Culture
Federation of Free Light
Light Federation Fairy Meadow Enthusiasts
The Socialist Party’s ‘Alliance Of People’s Health’ nudist group boasted 30,000 paid members in 1932
It’s a little surreal to think of right-wing and left-wing and Nazi nudist groups, but the nudist movement continued through the Weimar Republic and far into the Nazi Rule. Mystics, socialists, feminists, Nazis, nationalists and communists all took up arms to defend their belief in how the naked body would serve their cause. What united them all, from the naked right-wing nationalists to the naked fundamentalist communists was the fight against Modern Capitalism, its unhealthy factories and how Capitalism turned human beings into cogs in its machinery. They promised that stripping off and coming together naked would reform German society and reestablish human life, body and society as the primary source for the whole culture. Nudism, abstinence from alcohol and tobacco and vegetarian food would not only regenerate the individual but would regenerate the entire German race.
The idea racial hygiene was also there in the nudist movement, as, with the whole body exposed, racial impurities would be easier to spot and so called healthy desire would be easier to police and because of this Germany would prevail over its impure neighbours and the diabolical dirty Jews. The ultranationalist Hans Suren published the oddly homo-erotic “Man and the Sun’ dedicated to images of muscled naked men wrestling each other on grassy plains. It sold over 235000 copies in its first printing. For the Nazis nudity was about ancient, pure German traditions. Apparently ancient Aryan German tribes had spent their daylight hours frolicking naked and carefree until evil Southern missionaries had made them cover their bodies in shame. To be truly Aryan again required dancing naked in the forest.
And in the political realm, all political battles were cast into sexual struggles, with Germany’s male heroes, of the right or left, portrayed as the ultimate masculine heroes, and their opponents as sexual deviants, subhuman rapists, violators of defenseless German woman and filled with primitive bestial desires.
As a foreshadowing of the terrible victory of Hitler only ten years later, In 1922 the convicted conman Louis Heusser founded the Christian Nationalist Party, later renamed the League of National Communists, He toured Germany to huge crowds calling for erotic freedom, and called himself Germany’s future Superman and collected a harem of women who he claimed were his Divine Protectors. He ran for president of the Reichstag as Zarathustra-Heusser and Anti-Christ Heusser. Unlike the Nazis, his movement splintered into factions of “Jesus Worker Parties”.
Each Political party had demands about what German sex should be, and each party had an image of the ideal family, woman and man. And those images were used in posters, propaganda, and movies. And against those idealized images, each political party had a counterimage: the sick, depraved bodies of their enemies. Communists and Socialist propaganda depicted all bosses as huge, soft, fat symbols of luxury and wealth. Communists turned center-leftists into bent, frail, pot-bellied bureaucrats and all women under capitalism were downtrodden and beaten. For the right wing Jewish people were hunchback, hook-nosed, long bearded, spiders with arms like tentacles spreading over the world, and the new independent women were hyper sexual parasites, eating and drinking and shopping and contributing nothing to the nation, nurturing no family and producing no children.
We can’t talk about the strange contradictions of German political sexuality morality without mentioning Ernst Julius Günther Röhm. A close friend of Hitler, Röhm was the co-founder of the Nazi Party's paramilitary wing and was instrumental in the rise of the party via the street-fighting and extra-judicial murders. Röhm’s was gay but he stressed his hyper-brutal masculinity to counteract views of homosexuality as feminine. In his regiment, handsome warrior-comrades were supposed to be united under the banner of discipline and order against the threatening “wave” of women, Jews, socialists, and Bolsheviks, all of whom represented weakness, chaos, and disorder—in short, the Weimar Republic. However, when Rohm’s sexuality became a public liability for the Nazi Party, in The Night of the Long Knives in late June 1934, Hitler personally placed Röhm and other high-ranking SA leaders under arrest and those not immediately executed in prison were taken back to the Leibstandarte barracks at Lichterfelde, given one-minute "trials", and shot by a firing squad.
As the Weimar Republic steadily descended into chaos and the right wing grew in power above all, and from all sides, the new vision of a liberated, independent, sexually active woman came in for particular hatred. That New Woman had become the spirit of the new Republic and now were blamed as the cause of cultural degeneration and economic crisis and accused of threatening the very existence of the German nation and race, as she refused to have children to replace all the men lost in the war.
Churches said “the recovery of the German people can occur only if there is a strengthening and renewal of marriage and family life”. The 1929 Catholic conference said “The preservation and promotion of the genuine, natural character of women is more important than the achievement of form-legal…rights…”
And so by 1932 the erotic world of Berlin was crumbling. One of Hitler’s first moves, upon taking power was to try and shut down all cultural spaces. One such, The Eldorado Club, which was featured in countless novels and contemporary guide books, including those by Christopher Isherwood, was raided and closed.
The Eldorado featured regular performances by the likes of Marlene Dietrich and was a welcoming space for the LGBTQ communities.
When Herman Goering ordered the closure of the Berlin Kabaretts the Eldorado Club was taken over by the Nazis and used as a local headquarters.
The Nazis were happy to use Berlin’s reputation for a hotbed of sin in their own propaganda, insisting that Berlin had been the gateway into Germany’s heart for Jews and Gays, traffickers in white slavery, dope peddlers and every manner of perversion intent on destroying the pure Aryan health of the country and it was up to the new National Socialist Party to cleanse this filth. As as Goebbel says: “another Berlin is lurking, ready to pounce. A few thousand are working days and nights on end so that sometime the day will arrive. And this day will demolish the abodes of corruption…. It will transform them and give them over to a risen people. The day of judgement! It will be the day of freedom!”
Damn, you see, the problem with thinking about the Weimar period, is that it always ends dark. It always ends with the Nazis. But let’s remember that ultimately they don’t win. And in terms of discovering an entirely new way of dealing with sexuality and gender in a new society, the Nazis lose big time. We inherit so much that was good from the Weimar Republic. And yes, we’re still arguing about it, but so many of the fundamental beliefs of the Republic are now the consensus across much of the world. Which brings me right back to the big idea of this whole podcast series, that is, if some of those concerns and desires and frustrations in this episode seem familiar, well they should, because I believe the Weimar Republic helped give birth to the modern world.
Thanks for listening. Hit subscribe or follow if you want to know when the next episode appears. Join me in the coming months as I explore more about the strange birth, life and death of an experiment in creating a new society.
I’ll put images for this episode onto my website: you’ll see examples of all the many, many categories of sexuality in Weimar Berlin, the Boot Girls, the outlandish Wild-Boys, Magnus Hirschfield and his Institute, the Cabarets and Drag Bars.
And who am I to discuss Weimar? Well, I’m not a sociologist or political scientist or historian. I’m an obsessive artist. A singer, play-write and cabaret performer who has been obsessed with the arts and music of the Weimar republic all my life. I’ve recorded three albums dedicated to the music of this era and particularly the music of Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht. If you want to listen to them, just search for Bremner Fletcher Duthie in any music streaming site, and you’ll find all my albums. And if you want to know more about my work, check out my work at www.bremnersings.com
Join me next time for a walk through the amazing creative madness of 1920’s Berlin, and a deeper dive into the events at the end of WW1 that led to the creation of the Weimar Republic
I've read innumberable books on the Weimar Republic (possibly too many…) and my major sources for this podcast was two amazing books: Voluptuous Panic, the Erotic World of Berlin by Mel Gordon and Weimar Germany by Eric D. Weitz