Privates on parade

Following the recent extract from my translation of Franziska zu Reventlow’s The Guesthouse at the Sign of the Teetering Globe, I am happy to present a section from the other newly published Rixdorf Editions title, Berlin’s Third Sex. Magnus Hirschfeld’s extraordinary, ground-breaking 1904 text examines the gay and lesbian subculture that flourished in Berlin at the time, a vibrant, diverse milieu offering everything that Christopher Isherwood would eventually discover – just a quarter of a century earlier. This passage deals with the phenomenon of soldier prostitution. Although the German capital was undergoing rapid industrialisation, it was still in many ways a barracks town, so Hirschfeld’s findings were highly inflammatory. But it is testament to the writer’s nuanced reporting that his portrait is not just salacious but sweet as well, offering a homely tableau of affection between soldiers and civilians. Note that Hirschfeld uses ‘uranian’ as a synonym for homosexual, much like Britain’s Uranian poets.

Among Berlin’s uranian drinking spots, its ‘soldier taverns’ merit particular attention. Usually located near barracks, they are busiest in the hours between going-home time and taps. Around then you can see up to 50 soldiers in these establishments, including non-commissioned officers, who have come to seek out a homosexual to pick up their tab, and rarely do they return to barracks without getting what they came for. These establishments seldom last. Before long an unidentified person blows the whistle, usually motivated by envy or revenge, and they are almost always forbidden on orders of the regiment. One or two will arise soon after, and sometimes there are several similar establishments in the same area. Only recently a typical soldier pub in the south-west of the city named the ‘Katzenmutter’ was rumbled; I do not know if the unusual name came from the old landlady, whose slinking gait and round, whiskery face betrayed something of the feline, or from the cats that jumped around the tables and chairs and whose likenesses graced the walls of the unusual establishment.

Were a normally sexed person to enter such an establishment, he might be puzzled to see so many finely dressed men sitting there with soldiers, though he would find nothing particularly offensive. The friendships between homosexuals and soldiers forged here over sausage, salad and beer frequently endure for the full term of service, and often longer. The soldier returns home, living as a married farmer far from his beloved Berlin garrison, but many a uranian still receives freshly killed quarry as a token of friendship. Sometimes these relationships are even passed on to younger brothers; I know one case where a homosexual had relations with three brothers one after the other, all of whom were with the Cuirassiers.

His day’s service at an end, the soldier usually goes home to his friend, who has already prepared his favourite meal for him with his own two hands, which the soldier hungrily wolfs down in great quantities. Then the young warrior, in the pink of health, takes up a goodly part of the sofa, while the uranian, humbly perched on a chair, darns the torn clothes he has brought with him or knits the Christmas stockings with which he intends to surprise his beloved, although keeping them secret presents a considerable challenge to the happy lover’s self-restraint.

All the while they discuss the little details of royal service; what the ‘old man’ (the captain) said at muster, what the next day will bring, what the coming sentry duty holds and whether he might be seen marching past in the coming days. Finally the lover accompanies the soldier to a spot near the barracks, but not before filling his flask with wine and packing his sandwiches.

On parade mornings, the uranian stands on Belle-Alliance-Strasse at the agreed spot bright and early to secure a place in the front row. Hopefully his soldier is a flank man so he can get a good look at him. And afterwards he holds out until he comes home again, and in the evening he has leave, then they go to the ‘Busch’ Circus, after the soldier drops his 50 pfennig day bonus in his friend’s money box.

An even greater event is the ‘Kaiser’s Birthday Company Pleasure’. That is when the homosexual accompanies his friend as a ‘cousin’. With touching bliss he dances with the girl who has just danced with his soldier; he has no idea what she looks like because he only had eyes for his soldier and thinks only of him as he holds her. Probably the captain too will speak to him as the cousin of a private or non-commissioned officer. But it can also come to pass that the homosexual must stay away from the celebration, to his dismay, because a few days previously he attended the same banquet as one of the officers present.

It is not difficult to see why soldiers might entertain relations with homosexuals. For one, it is a desire to make life in the metropolis more comfortable for themselves, to have better food, more drinks, cigars and pleasures (dancehalls, theatre, and such). Moreover, the soldier – often a farmer, tradesman or labourer of minimal education – profits mentally from relations with the homosexual, who gives him good books, talks to him about current events, takes him to museums, points out what is appropriate and what is not, while the merry, witty nature that many uranians share contributes to his amusement. In his naivety he is heartily entertained when his friend sings him couplets or even dances for him with a lampshade as a bonnet and an apron arranged to maidenly effect. Other reasons might be lack of money, or of maidens – at least those who do not charge – the fear of venereal diseases which are so frowned upon by the military, and his earnest intention to remain true to his bride at home, to whom he swore fidelity in parting and whose every anxious letter reminds him of this oath.

Near such taverns there is also often a ‘military beat’, where soldiers go alone or in pairs to make contact with homosexuals. Here I wish to point out a significant phenomenon, of which a well-travelled homosexual made me aware, and whose accuracy has been unanimously confirmed to me on enquiry by reliable informants since then – that is, that ‘soldier prostitutes’ are more prevalent in countries where there is greater legal persecution of homosexuals. Clearly this is related to the fact that in countries where the statute books affect uranians, soldiers have less to fear from blackmail and other nuisances. Apart from London, where numerous soldiers prostitute themselves in unambiguous fashion in the most popular parks and streets from late afternoon until after midnight, our informant claims never to have found such a selection of soldiers of various branches, every evening, as in Berlin. There are around half a dozen places where soldiers parade back and forth with intent after the fall of dusk.



  1. Thaddeus J Reycraft

    I just ordered Berlin’s Third Sex. I am excited to read the words of this trail blazing thinker and activist.

  2. Thombeau

    There’s nothing quite like a friendship forged over sausage!

    • The part about the lover receiving freshly killed quarry always makes me laugh. I imagine a slightly precious mo in his doily-covered parlour taking delivery of a brown package in the shape of a leg of venison, dripping blood. ‘Oh, Friedrich, you shouldn’t have!’

  3. john

    Did you ever peruse Lionel Gossman’s erudite study of entre deux guerres : “Brownshirt Princess”?

  4. Pingback: 20 books for 2020 | Strange Flowers

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