The success of the German crime drama Babylon Berlin attests to the enduring appeal of early twentieth-century Germany, especially when it comes to the topics of sexuality and gender. In academia, there has been a flurry of new publications recently focusing on these topics, for example Robert Beachy’s Gay Berlin (Knopf, 2014), Laurie Marhoefer’s Sex and the Weimar Republic (Toronto, 2015), and Scott Spector’s Violent Sensations (Chicago, 2016). The edited collection Not Straight from Germany is in good company and distinguishes itself by fusing together academic essays with a discussion and reproduction of some of the art shown at the PopSex! exhibition put on in Calgary in January 2011. The title of the book may lead potential readers to assume that it concentrates on homosexuality, which was of course a chief concern of Magnus Hirschfeld’s medical and political work. However, the true focus of this book is Hirschfeld’s Institute for Sexual Science, which played many roles during its short time in existence. It housed a research facility, a medical clinic, a counselling centre, a museum, a library and archive and offices for the Scientific-Humanitarian Committee (Wissenschaftlich-humanitäres Komitee, WhK). Both the essays and the artworks represented in the collection, consequently, throw light on a variety of different dimensions of sexuality in early twentieth-century Germany. The PopSex! exhibition displayed both historical images and artworks that played off of the history traced in the exhibit. As the editors remark in the introduction, the goal was to produce ‘a dialogue between this early twentieth-century German past and our present’, a process that would ‘inspire viewers to actively interrogate the links between historical constructions of sexual knowledge and our continuing debates about the role of sex in society’ (p. 3). The artists chose different aspects of the Institute for Sexual Science’s work, history and fate to integrate into their works. As analysed with deep appreciation in Sabine Kriebel’s contribution for the book, they engaged ‘in critical, interrogative viewing of their own, submitting historical documents to an analytical contemporary gaze. Informed by postwar critical theories of vision, power and sexuality, these artistic interlocutors [brought] sophisticated perceptual frameworks to their dialogue with Hirschfeld’s pedagogical, scientific project’ (p. 82–3). David Folk’s The grass is always greener can stand as a captivating example of this process. It repurposes a metal slide cabinet, like those that might be used to hold specimens in a research facility. The drawers, which stand partially open, seem to struggle to contain a number of explicit illustrations of men engaging in sex acts with one another, often alongside images of animals, some of which are also copulating with one another. Intellectually, the work highlights the role of voyeurism that Michel Foucault and others have observed operating in the seemingly objective study of sexuality. On a more visceral level, the work is equally effective: ‘The work’s interplay of sexuality and order, desire and disruption, hard steel and delicately rendered vulnerable flesh … issues a contradictory sensory charge’ (p. 88). The scholarly essays included in the book cover a lot of territory, ranging from Gary Stark’s useful overview of state efforts to regulate sex and smut in German mass media, to more focused studies, such as Tobias Becker’s interesting examination of the turn-of-the-century variety theatres as spaces of social and sexual mixing. One theme that emerges in many of these chapters is the anxiety that sexuality aroused in public debate and among some government officials. Although Weimar Germany is generally remembered as an era of sexual experimentation, it is important to remember that what experimentation did happen was accompanied by serious efforts by state authorities and cultural conservatives to contain and, when possible, shut down this experimentation. These efforts were limited by the constitutional constraints established by the Weimar Republic, but would eventually meet better chances of being fulfilled under Nazism. A second theme that runs through many of the essays is the issue of scientific authority. Kevin Amidon’s chapter examines the textual strategies of persuasion used by Hirschfeld and the often uncomfortable similarity between them and the arguments employed by Racial Hygiene experts. Kathrin Peters analyses the images employed by Hirschfeld in his presentations and publications to make his arguments about sexual intermediaries. And Rainer Herrn and Christine Brinckmann’s contribution involves a close analysis of the infamous ‘Steinach film’ which popularized Eugen Steinach’s work on sexual hormones and its possible links to sexual orientation and rejuvenation. What emerges from these fascinating essays is a better appreciation of the challenges that sexual scientists faced during the 1920s in establishing and maintaining their authority both among fellow scientists and the wider public. The only misstep comes with Mara Taylor and Michael Thomas Taylor’s close reading of Emma Trosse’s book Ein Weib? Psychologisch-biographische Studie über eine Konträrsexuelle (1897), an interesting and noteworthy work, no doubt, since it represents the first extended study of what we would call lesbian sexuality. It is an odd book, as their reading demonstrates: it blurs scientific styles of writing together with language associated with sentimental love stores; it features a strong narrator’s voices that undercuts the work’s own insistence on objective validity and it includes a dual ending, one of which is supposedly real while the other is presented as a fantasy of what the subject of the study dreamed would happen. However, the essay sticks out as much longer and more detailed than any of the other studies in the collection and includes long excerpts, both in the original German and in English translation. It would have benefited greatly from a firm editor’s hand which might have forced a briefer treatment and a more concise presentation of the main argument. What makes up for the problems with this essay, though, are the extended photo essays, which many readers will no doubt find the most engaging aspect of the book. The first presents many of the historical images included in the original PopSex! exhibition; the second focuses on images from the 1950s and 1960s erotica industry of West Germany, with Elizabeth Heinemann expertly drawing attention to the lines of continuity between this later industry and Hirschfeld’s earlier work. Not Straight from Germany may not be the first place to go for an overview of early twentieth-century German sexuality. Readers will learn little about prostitution or the political efforts of the Weimar sex reform movement, not to mention the impact of Nazi policies on gay men and lesbians. However, as a supplement that offers important academic perspectives, images and artistic contributions, this book is truly unique. It is original, well-written and creatively composed. For both specialists and even students who might want to delve a little deeper into the history of Weimar, it should be highly recommended. © The Author(s) 2018. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the German History Society. All rights reserved. This article is published and distributed under the terms of the Oxford University Press, Standard Journals Publication Model (https://academic.oup.com/journals/pages/about_us/legal/notices)
German History – Oxford University Press
Published: Jun 2, 2018
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