To Police and Protect: The Surveillance of Homosexuality in Imperial Berlin

Mar 28, 2009

Mid-Atlantic German History Seminar at the GHI | Speaker: Robert Beachy (Goucher College), Convener: Peter Jelavich (Johns Hopkins University)

On March 28, members of the Mid-Atlantic German History Seminar met to discuss an essay by Robert Beachy entitled "To Police and Protect: The Surveillance of Homosexuality in Imperial Berlin." That piece will form the core of the third chapter of his current book project, Gay Berlin: Birthplace of a Modern Identity (under contract to Knopf). Based on a wealth of archival and other primary materials, the essay argues that police in Imperial Berlin, rather than suppressing homosexual activity to the fullest extent of the law, were to a certain extent instrumental in sustaining and even protecting a gay subculture: in other words, they helped "build the closet," as Beachy noted in the discussion. He attributes that policy largely to the fact that the police were even more concerned with fighting what they considered a greater threat to social order: namely, the blackmailers who often preyed on homosexuals. In fact, the division of the police administration responsible for the surveillance of gay activities was entitled the "Department of Blackmail and Homosexuals" (Erpresser- und Homosexuellendezernat). In the lively discussion, participants questioned the degree to which the police were tolerant, and the reasons for their being so (apart from the issue of blackmail). Beachy responded that the upper levels of the police hierarchy often came from the aristocracy, which regarded homosexuality with "casualness and insouciance." There also were pragmatic reasons for tolerance, insofar as the Criminal Code's narrow definition of illegal homosexual activity (in Paragraph 175) was hard to prove in court, since potentially hostile witnesses would hardly have had chances to observe any illegal acts (unless they intended blackmail from the outset). Beachy further discussed the ways in which his conclusions agreed with and differed from those of other scholars of homosexuality, such as George Chauncey and Michel Foucault. Participants left the seminar eager to read more of Beachy's forthcoming work, which will deal with both the Imperial and the Weimar eras.

Peter Jelavich