Jews Queers Germans: A Novel/History
by Martin Duberman.
Seven Stories Press, 2017.
Paperback, 384 pages, $20.


Martin Duberman, in his recent “novel/history” Jews Queers Germans, rarely describes clothing. He describes, instead, physical attractiveness—the role of sex appeal in history. Admiration for male physical beauty shapes the lives and beliefs of all his heroes and, by the end, two of his villains. Describing the social status granted by bodies instead of by clothes also perfectly illustrates one of Duberman’s subjects: the final defeat of conservatism and the violent twin birth of individualism and collectivism. Person replaces office, desire replaces role; will replaces order.

Jews Queers Germans tells a story that begins in 1890 and ends during the rise of the Nazis. Duberman, a historian who has focused on radical left and gay-rights leaders, follows several historical actors (all homosexual or probably homosexual): Socialist industrialist Walter Rathenau; aristocratic art patron Harry Kessler; and the man most obviously relevant for our own time, Magnus Hirschfeld, the Jewish sexologist and leader in the earliest gay-rights movement. To quote a phrase used by Albert Einstein as right-wing violence was on the rise, Jews Queers Germans is a story of “the ethical education of the German people.” Jews and homosexuals were both teacher and text: If we figure out what it means to be Jewish, or to be gay, we can figure out whether there is a human nature, whether there is an absolute morality, whether we shape our own life’s meaning.

The book is not well-written—or rather, if we’re considering hierarchies rather than personalities, well-edited. Duberman confuses “flaunt” and “flout,” puts normal things in scare-quotes (“moral conduct,” “fitting”), and says “the Roman emperor Caligula” as if his readers don’t know who Caligula is. The dialogue can be painful: “In their hostility to Helene Stöcker and feminism they speak for many more male homosexuals than you do, with your support of her extremist views.” There are exceptions: little dagger-phrases, “Only those with access to foreign currency or gold—dentures accepted—can avoid destitution”; or a paragraph about Weimar’s tastes, “cocaine over liquor, the occult over the rational, short hair over long.” Duberman knows just when to insert a small inescapable fact: “the [German] population nearly doubles between 1870 and 1900”; the shocking percentage of salary the average worker spent on food. Overall it’s impossible not to be provoked and challenged by a book with such a responsible, knowledgeable, and misguided author.

Duberman’s sympathies are entirely with the socialist individualists, the Hirschfelds and their supporters. He has no feeling for the world of monarchies, the world of duty and religion: the world where one must accept life, or submit to it. For Duberman’s heroes, Kaiser Wilhelm II’s hysterical autocracy—his appetite for sycophancy, his humiliating pranks, his terrible taste—totally discredits monarchism. (How should we assess the hysterical, humiliating, tacky autocrats of representative democracy?) Walter Rathenau, a Jewish industrialist and one of Duberman’s key figures, might think the Jewish difference or “profound sense of apartness” is an unchosen and communal strength. But we see no Jewish communities. Rathenau is imprisoned in his own privacy—his “apartness” is pure isolation. Jewishness—for Rathenau and others in the novel—appears here occasionally as a duty, but much more vividly as a burden.

That’s partly, of course, because the Jews had absolutely nowhere to go. Scientific modernity was against them: “Jews were believed to suffer a predisposition to insanity, hysteria, sexual perversion, and melancholy.” (Wouldn’t you?) Catholicism and conservatism, the bulwarks of the world of role and duty, never appear in this book without their constant shadow, Jew-hate.

Duberman’s heroes are mostly isolated people, which may be why the pleasures the book describes best are the pleasures of generous friendship: of admiration, of advice-giving and advice-suffering, of smoothing out disputes and enduring long travels in difficult company. His book is occasionally sexual, frequently repressed, but rarely sensual. What Duberman conveys with precision is the worldview from which the past had already been completely hollowed out—the old ways were not merely wrong, but unintelligible—and the only question was whether the future would be socialist, communist, or fascist.

The dispute over the nature of homosexuality is the book’s central case, more fully explored than the nature of government or of Jewishness, of the unintelligibility of a culture already dead but not yet buried. For Duberman’s subjects homosexuality is not about sins. Homosexuality is already not about specific acts, but about a kind of person. Duberman explores the twists and turns of this argument: Are homosexuals “special,” more sensitive than the common brute? Are they men with feminine souls, giving them “an interest in flowers and birds”? Is it biological? (If it’s biological, what’s the cure?) And how do you explain the Greeks? Duberman makes what might seem like old-fashioned irrelevancies painful again, taking us inside the minds of men trying to understand what sets them apart from their families and exposes them to punishment.

Perhaps the saddest and most intriguing argument is that homosexuality is simply one variant on the fine old German tradition of (male) same-sex friendship. Intriguing, because this stance suggests that most people can and do experience intense desires for same-sex intimacy and love, desires that they can express in a wide variety of ways. As some of Hirschfeld’s wary straight fans pointed out, this might mean that a homosexual and a normal bluff hearty red-cheeked German friend would look exactly the same to outsiders. But the argument is sad for two reasons. First, it was often made disingenuously: Men accused of sodomy could invoke the storied history of male friendship in order to imply that their own friendships had been chaste, but then witness testimony would describe something obviously carnal.

Yet this first sadness is really only the result of the second one. Those accused of sodomy invoked Socrates and Alcibiades, David and Jonathan, in a world where same-sex friendship had been hemorrhaging public meaning for centuries. Same-sex friendships, which were once public acts involving economic and familial ties, became purely private and increasingly suspect concerns. Same-sex love became the business of a stigmatized sexual minority: those who had a particularly urgent reason to pursue those of their own sex. And therefore anybody who intently pursued someone of their own sex might be described, as Hirschfeld himself suggested in trial testimony he later regretted, as expressing “an idealized, platonic” homosexuality. By 1890 homosexuality was just about the only way left to secure the affection of a friend.

Jews Queers Germans admires its heroes more than they deserve, although perhaps that makes up for what they suffered in life. Rathenau, the idealist-industrialist, spouted socialism but wouldn’t raise his own workers’ pay. “We need total structural change!” translates, always, into, “Somebody else should do it.” Rathenau is most admirable when he’s most crushed in the doom machine: when he’s arguing for and then administering Germany’s payment of her harrowing war reparations.

Count Harry Kessler appreciates art and considers himself superior to the “hysterics” of the Christian martyrs. He thinks “sexual morality” is just “artificial rules [that] … should never be confused with ethical behavior.” He held back from politics, plunged in just long enough to massacre some villages for the Kaiser, then retreated again into art. He’s like the 1970s in human form.

And Hirschfeld? In the fat years Hirschfeld promoted the view that “monogamy is a catastrophe,” that “it’s important to have sex before marriage,” and that your wife’s lesbian affair is none of your business. As Duberman summarizes, “‘morality’ is little more than custom.”

And then a man came to see him, full of revolutionary rhetoric, declaring, “Official—bourgeois—morality is a lie.” The crooked plutocrats must be punished, hypocrisy must be defeated, the times demand a “rebel’s temperament” and not a “goody-goody.” It’s to Duberman’s credit that, in a bravura scene, he lets us hear Hirschfeld’s beliefs from Ernst Röhm’s mouth.

Röhm would get his, and swiftly. But he gave Hirschfeld a taste of what Joseph Conrad called “the definition of revolutionary success.”

Duberman wants us to walk away from Jews Queers Germans feeling that Hirschfeld won in the end, and we live in the happy peace of his postmortem victory. Should Röhm unsettle this confidence? If you exalt the sovereign self, after all, you’ll swiftly discover how cruel the selves of the powerful turn out to be. (And everybody has power over somebody, except babies and the Eucharist.)

It would be reprehensible and tacky to blame Hirschfeld for Röhm, or for all that came after. Both are creatures of their time and place, which differs from our own in both material and moral aspects: For all our inequalities, we are nowhere near those surgically inserted statistics on food costs and worthless currency. And we are a strenuously moralistic age. Nobody is a relativist anymore.

We do have so many workless young men, at best loosely tethered to women and children. We do have a morality that sharpens individualism, making people believe they have a duty to be happy, rebellious, and fulfilled. Above all, we have the reason Hirschfeld’s anti-moralism made sense in the first place. This is the reason Duberman can’t even understand the world Hirschfeld was rejecting. In Hirschfeld’s time as even more so in our own, all the authorities are debased and helpless, pre-discredited before we even turn to them for help. In a world without credible authority—authority that will sacrifice for you, as it tells you how to sacrifice yourself—it’s impossible not to exalt the sovereign self.

And so I keep hearing Röhm’s breathtaking exit line, the individual unleashed: “Many more rules will soon be broken.”  

Eve Tushnet writes from Washington, D.C. She is author, most recently of Amends, a novel.