“Jews Queers Germans: A Novel/History” by Martin Duberman— The Historical and Political Influence of Gay Life

Duberman, Martin. “Jews Queers Germans: A Novel/History”, Seven Stories Press, 2017.

The Historical and Political Influence of Gay Life 

Amos Lassen

This time writing fiction, Martin Duberman, esteemed writer and professor gives us a look history and of gay men at a time when it was dangerous for many gay men, especially those in government and the upper classes to be open about their sexuality. We get an intimate look at Europe from 1907 through the 1930s when the world was simultaneously experiencing great destruction and suffering and t creativity and freedom.

We go back to Germany’s Kaiser Wilhelm and a time of social upheaval when “the relics and artifices of the old world word still mattered, and yet when art and the social sciences were pirouetting with successive revolutions in thought and style”. There is no doubt that there were many men in the upper classes living closeted lives. Among these men were Prince Philipp von Eulenburg, Kaiser Wilhelm II’s closest friend, who became the subject of an infamous and notorious 1907 trial for homosexuality; Magnus Hirschfeld, the noted, Jewish sexologist who testified at the trial; and Count Harry Kessler, a leading proponent of modernism who had a set of diaries in which were recorded the intimate details of the major social, artistic and political events of the day and that suggest that he was a homosexual. Kessler also was a patron of the arts and a collector. Walter Rathenau was the head of the AEG industrial powerhouse and one of the rare heterosexuals in the novel; Magnus Hirschfeld was a leader in the growing field of sexology and in efforts to kill Germany’s Paragraph 175 that made sex between men a criminal offense. Duberman traces the noblemen (who were gay) that surrounded Kaiser Wilhelm II. Then there is the “muckraking newsman” and the libel trials that caused so much moral outrage that was ignored by the Kaiser. He was much more interested in building ships and competing with the British in doing so.

Kessler is quite a man and he seems to know every major artist and most of writers in Europe. He collaborated with Hugo von Hofmannsthal on the libretto of “Der Rosenkavalier”. He and Rathenau met at a Berlin salon and they continued to argue over politics and culture which Duberman uses to balance the heaviness of what else was going on. We learn that there was a time when gays were more tolerated than Jews (notice the word “tolerated” as opposed to “accepted”) in Germany there is more tolerance of gays than of Jews in Germany, although Rathenau was able to rise high because he knew how to use his industrial clout and diplomatic skills. With the brown shirts things began to change and there is a rise in violence against queers and Jews and other Germans (hence the title). With the assassination of Rathenau and the huge funeral that followed, there was a moment that we might have thought that Hitler would not gain power.

Using gay life of the upper class as his main and central theme, Duberman shows us that what was going on in Germany had an impact on political upheavals that would later shape the modern world forever after.

Concentrating on five major characters who were real men during this period, we learn about how they fit into the historical, social and political events of the time

This is quite a look at an important era in history, a period of influential German men who were responsible for social and political trends from the late nineteenth century through the 1930s.

This earnest historical novel traces an unusual nexus of influential German men behind social and political trends from the late 19th century to the early 1930s. What we see is what was going on and who was running it in the time before the rise of Hitler.

When I first saw the book, I was a bit put off by the title and as an American gay Jew, I did want to think of what it might actually mean. Duberman explains in the author’s note that this is not quite a historical novel and this made me wonder about what is “not”— is it not historical? Is it not novel? Is it not both? With these questions to challenge me, I sat down to read to discover that I would meet some very interesting characters whose lives come together. Personally I love this book and I see it as something of an expose of our collective history. We certainly learn about the underground thriving gay community before the Nazis came to power and we meet the five men men who were either Jewish, homosexual, German or all three and quite remarkable.

I suppose we can say that this is a novel that is based upon documented fact and it makes us aware of a time when anti-gay and anti-Semitic persecution replaced any kind of democracy. It is an especially timely read when we consider what could happen here with the new presidential administration.

Leave a Reply