Gay history comes alive

  • by Tim Pfaff
  • Wednesday June 21, 2017
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In calling his compelling new book "Jews Queers Germans" (Seven Stories Press) "a novel/history," Martin Duberman is not being ambiguous, but rather, purposeful. The CUNY emeritus professor of history has long established his scholarly creds, but in his new book, about matters close to his heart, he's expanding on what he knows �" not forsaking history, adding imagination.

As he himself notes, the rise of LGBTQ history as a recognized academic endeavor has made several of his principal subjects �" Magnus Hirschfeld and Count Harry Hessler, in particular �" celebrated figures in the modern campaign for gay rights beginning in mid-19th-century Germany, where queerness first acquired the name "homosexualitaet." But even in books that have considered that enterprise in toto, the tendency to tell the history through individual story-lines has predominated. Duberman achieves his synthesis �" a word I can't imagine he'd mind �" by letting their stories intertwine, weaving in with them the far less well-known figures of Prince Philipp von Eulenberg; Kaiser Wilhelm's close friend, the deeply closeted politician and intellectual Walther Rathenau; and Ernst Roehm, the leader of the brownshirt SA, who was as cautious about the categorization of his sexuality as he was profligate in its notoriously open expression.

Shrewdly telling the story in the present tense �" for "urgency," he says �" Duberman risks everything, probably including his reputation in some circles, by characterizing the men and dramatizing their encounters (when not expressly with each other, with history) by imagining their thoughts, feelings and conversations, boldly extrapolating from the historical record. It's an approach I usually have scant use for; it often produces foolishness and the unintended diminishment of authors' subjects.

Not so here. Duberman's rock-steady authorial hand (and voice) and consistently fine judgment �" fine both in the sense of exemplary and minutely considered �" weave the individual threads together convincingly and with almost devastating cumulative power. He has the confidence to occasionally depart from his explicitly gay themes to provide substantive accounts of the "straight" history in which those themes find maximal meaning, and his characters their fullest realization. The times reveal the players in sharper relief.

These men are granted their stature without recourse to sentimentalizing. Roehm in particular is at considerable remove from a gay hero, but Duberman's treatment of him neither lionizes nor libels. One common assumption gratefully dispatched in the process is that the Nazis were, behind it all, some shadowy gay-male cult. Hitler may have tolerated Roehm, even held him close, admiring his ability to muster and inspire huge cadres of men, but when Roehm's SA became a threat, Hitler's cold-blooded revenge confirmed the simultaneous stigmatizing and eradication of Jews and gays that was to prevail.

The most fully rounded, and perhaps sympathetic, of the author's portraits is of Hirschfeld, personally shy but intellectually bold, courageous in his challenge of the orthodoxies of the day, which held that same-sexuality and other-sexuality were chosen and perverse, yet wise enough to recognize that his testimony would only be blunted by literal martyrdom (not that we don't hear about the lumps he took).

One of the book's only lapses in tone comes when Duberman observes, "For a man rapidly becoming the world's most renowned sexologist, Magnus Hirschfield isn't having a whole lot of sex." "The going gets even tougher in Munich," Duberman writes in a more characteristic later passage. "Despite warnings about threats to his safety, Hirschfeld again refuses to cancel his talk. There are noisy interruptions throughout his lecture, but he does manage to finish it. Yet in the immediate aftermath, he has reason to feel alarm."

Count Harry Kessler, who lived his altogether remarkable life openly, may not have been out in the same way or to the same degree that Hirschfeld was, yet Duberman's characterization of him is similarly warm. "Fortunately for his character," the author writes, "Harry is homosexual �" the one vantage point available to him for understanding what it's like not to belong, to reside among the despised. And the glimmers of empathy he shows as a young man for the less fortunate will expand dramatically over the years �" ultimately earning him the sobriquet of 'The Red Count.'"

Tracing their stories through the larger events and currents that lead to WWI, Germany's resounding and humiliating defeat and Hitler's rise on the back of it, the book takes on the insistent drumbeat of progress into the light inevitably offset by lapses back into darkness. There's a knowingness about Duberman's narration of the rise of European, and particularly German, fascism in the mid-20th-century that signals the author's awareness of its pertinence to our own troubled times. To his credit, Duberman is not crude about it, that is, exploitative of it for his own narrative purposes.

It's a common enough claim �" it was Einstein's �" that what history teaches us is that we don't learn from history. But in "Jews Queers Germans," Duberman asserts the corollary claim that history does have meaning, and that each historian has to tease it out.