Queer Ancestry as a Problem of Knowledge in Early 20th-Century Germany

Frederick the Great (1712–1786) was not a homosexual. Or so claimed the German physician and amateur medical historian Gaston Vorberg in 1921. Scurrilous rumors about the sexual desires of the legendary Prussian monarch had circulated ever since the eighteenth century. Vorberg sought to debunk them using the tools of critical scholarship and source analysis. In his essay "Gossip about the Sex Life of Frederick II," Vorberg defended the straightness of the king on the basis of his “long and arduous research.”

Adolph Menzel, Frederick the Great Playing the Flute at Sanssouci (1852), Alte Nationalgalerie, Berlin, via Wikimedia Commons.

Vorberg first called attention to contradictory evidence. He conceded that Frederick had been rather “peculiar,” but contended that the monarch had been “susceptible to the charms of fair femininity” from a young age. Vorberg also challenged the uncritical use of tendentious primary sources. The most serious allegations, he observed, had been seeded by the monarch’s enemies. Voltaire’s Mémoires (1759) were especially unreliable: depictions of a debauched homosexual court vengefully written after the philosophe had split from his Prussian patron. Finally, he warned against anachronism. Acknowledging Frederick’s intimate relationships with young men like Hans Hermann von Katte and his valet Michael Gabriel Fredersdorf, Vorberg supposed that it required a “sick disposition” to see them as anything but normal examples of early modern male friendship. The king’s “lavish assurances of friendship and masculine fidelity,” he wrote, “conformed with the needs of the time.” Erotic sensibilities were not transhistorical. And so the claim that Frederick had been homosexual was chiefly a category error, a failure to see the irreducible historicity of sexual orientation. It arose from a problem of knowing.

Vorberg did not make this argument for the benefit of professional historians, many of whom accepted the king’s heterosexuality as a matter of course. In his 1915 masterwork The Hohenzollerns and their Achievements, for instance, Otto Hintze passed over the “gossip” about Frederick’s “perverted inclinations” in a single paragraph. Within the robust queer subcultures of late imperial and Weimar Germany, however, Frederick the Great’s homosexuality had become an article of faith. He was found on the cover of gay and lesbian periodicals like Blätter für Menschenrecht (Journal for Human Rights), and regularly fêted for governing-while-queer by writers in Die Freundschaft (Friendship) and Der Eigene (The Special One). Sexologists like Albert Moll intoned that there was no scientific doubt of the king’s homosexuality.1 Vorberg wrote his essay in 1921 because he begged to differ.

Cover of Gaston Vorberg’s 1921 essay against “Gossip about the Sex Life of Frederick II,” via Internet Archive.

Vorberg’s bid to wrest Frederick the Great from his gay and lesbian admirers met with spirited resistance. Ferdinand Karsch-Haack, an ethnographer and entomologist at Berlin’s natural history museum (as well as a prolific amateur queer historian), rebutted Vorberg’s argument in Die Freundschaft.2 He dismissed Vorberg’s “desperate endeavor” to straighten out the Prussian monarch with a critique that was chiefly methodological. Chastising the good doctor for omitting critical details and misreading the sources to suit his purpose, Karsch-Haack suggested that “Vorberg’s logic doesn’t lead to his desired conclusions [and] his evidentiary method is unscientific … [T]hrough an alternative selection of evidence, one could easily arrive at the opposite results.” When deployed professionally, he observed, the tools of critical scholarship confirmed not the normalcy of the king’s sexual orientation but rather the opposite. As he noted the following year, “Vorberg’s emphatic, fanatical dissent” was no match for the dispassionate methods of “scientific investigation,” that is, the work of careful and conscientious history.3

Ten years later, Germans were still struggling over Frederick the Great’s queer soul. In 1931, the leading gay activist and intellectual Richard Linsert published Intrigue and Love: On Politics and Sexual Life, a massive compendium of empirical findings about eroticism and its role in political history from ancient Egypt to the present.4 He dedicated nine dense pages to the issue of Frederick’s sexual orientation: acknowledging Vorberg’s provocative essay, praising Karsch-Haack as the “representative of historically-minded sexology,” and carefully analysing the provenance and substance of extant letters between the king and his valet Fredersdorf. Linsert believed that the tender correspondence left very little doubt of Frederick’s homosexuality, and that claims to the contrary amounted to “doing violence to historical truth.” Convinced though he was, however, Linsert found it odd that so much attention had been paid to proving the queerness of figures past, “not only in certain small groups, but also among wider circles of the public … In this regard, the fields of science and literature have concerned themselves with Frederick for nearly 30 years now.”

Richad Linsert (1899–1933), gay activist and intellectual, via Wikimedia Commons.

Indeed, queer activists in early twentieth-century Germany were fascinated by their own past. In books and magazines, in the pages of novels and medical treatises, to say nothing of public readings, salons, and organized lectures, lesbians and gay men rifled through the historical record for their own ancestors. They sought “impressive homosexuals” (hervorragende Homosexuellen) who could be honored as pioneers and whose cultural and political achievements could be claimed as queer. In other words, Frederick the Great was not the only celebrity whose sex life mattered for Germany’s burgeoning homosexual rights movement. He was regularly identified alongside other monarchs and rulers (Ludwig II of Bavaria, Alexander the Great, Christine of Sweden), artistic geniuses (Michelangelo, da Vinci, Tchaikovsky), poets and dramatists (Sappho, Shakespeare, Walt Whitman), and scholars (Plato, Winckelmann, Alexander von Humboldt). Amateur enthusiasm for queer ancestry was especially pronounced in Germany, site of the world’s earliest and most well-developed campaign for gay and lesbian emancipation. But the queer canon lived in other countries, too, most of all Britain, France, and the United States.

Historians have noticed this invention of queer traditions in fin-de-siècle Europe and the United States, describing it as the construction of “a homosexual cultural canon” (Robert Beachy) or a lingering tradition of “gay folklore” (George Chauncey).5 Nevertheless, scholars have yet to fully acknowledge the sheer scope, sophistication, and transatlantic ambit of this early queer historical imagination. Nor have we taken it altogether seriously as knowledge work.

This essay marks the beginning of a research project that will attempt to reconstruct this transnational archive of gay and lesbian historical knowledge in Germany and elsewhere, with an eye to its political significance as well as its relationship to histories of scholarship and professionalization. The modest proposal here: that the historical record performed important work for early queer activists in western Europe and America, that it was a site for contesting and resolving epistemological problems as much as political ones.

Today, the claiming of ancestors remains popular among lay queer audiences but it has been mostly banished from the historical academy. In a bid to professionalize the study of the queer past, gay and lesbian scholars in the 1970s and 1980s specifically differentiated their modern, often social-historical research from what Jeffrey Weeks dismissed as “the ‘great kings and queens’ approach.”6 With the more recent rise of histories of sexuality and queer theory, the distance has only grown between works of what Laura Doan calls “ancestral genealogy” and more critical, historically sensitive practices of queer academic scholarship.7

Why, then, is it worth paying so much attention to the historical enthusiasm which marked queer life in late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Germany? Why might this pioneering ancestral work, however crude or even anachronistic, nevertheless be useful for historians to think with? Let me propose two tentative hypotheses.

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The first has to do with disciplinary knowledge and the origins of modern sexuality. Scientific expertise occupies a prominent place in this well-rehearsed story: by naturalizing rather than pathologizing sexual difference, so the established narrative goes, researchers in new fields like sexology and psychiatry made possible an explosion of associational life and queer activism in the early twentieth century. The heroes in this tale are typically male voices of scientific expertise like Richard von Krafft-Ebing and Magnus Hirschfeld.8 Yet amateur gay and lesbian historians in Germany frequently remarked upon the “one-sided” nature of the “medical and scientific viewpoint” and proposed that the vocabulary of homosexual emancipation should also include a “humanistic” perspective—that is, the historical work of locating and claiming queer ancestors.9 We might thus reframe early gay and lesbian political culture as a contested knowledge space in which powerful medical claims coexisted and competed with rich historical discourses developed by queer people themselves. As Richard Linsert commented in 1931, “the less we attempt to understand homosexuality as a medical matter, and the more we try to grasp it using social sciences, the sooner we’ll be liberated from and protected against prejudices and errors in judgment.”10

The second hypothesis relates to the consolidation of the modern historical profession. After all, the drive to identify queer ancestors occurred alongside an ongoing process of professionalization among academic historians in both Europe and the United States: the creation of scholarly organizations and journals, the establishment of norms of scholarly behavior, and the embrace of institutions like the research seminar in service of historical objectivity.11 One of the most striking qualities of this early queer historical imagination, especially in Germany, is how explicitly its practitioners (none of whom were academically-trained historians) engaged with issues of methodology and modelled professional behavior. They conducted research in archives, published primary sources, analyzed them closely and critically, and publicly debated the limits of their evidence. Thirty years ago, Bonnie G. Smith brilliantly revealed the epistemological salience of women qua amateurs for the birth of the modern historical discipline and the gendered making of expertise.12 That early amateur gay and lesbian historians were so mindful of methodological concerns, and that their attention to the erotic past so far outstripped the traditionalism of the fin-de-siècle academy, suggests the need to integrate queer voices into the stories we tell about this professionalizing moment in our own discipline.

Ian P. Beacock currently teaches modern European history at the University of British Columbia. He will spend the 2019–20 academic year at the German Historical Institute Washington as a visiting postdoctoral fellow. His Twitter handle is @IanPBeacock.

  1. Albert Moll, Berühmte Homosexuelle (Wiesbaden: Verlag von J. F. Bergmann 1910), 30–31. ↩︎
  2. F. Karsch-Haack, “Der ‘Klatsch’ über das Geschlechtsleben Friedrichs II.,” Die Freundschaft 3, no. 47 (1921): 1–3. ↩︎
  3. F. Karsch-Haack, “Urnische Chronik,” Die Freundschaft 4, no. 3 (1922): 14. ↩︎
  4. Richard Linsert, Kabale und Liebe: Über Politik und Geschlechtsleben (Berlin: Man Verlag, 1931), esp. 243–52. The title was borrowed from a 1784 play by Friedrich Schiller. ↩︎
  5. See Robert Beachy, Gay Berlin: Birthplace of a Modern Identity (New York: Knopf, 2014), 105–12; George Chauncey, Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World, 1890-1940 (New York: Basic Books, 1994), 280–86. ↩︎
  6. Jeffrey Weeks, Coming Out: Homosexual Politics in Britain, from the Nineteenth Century to the Present (London: Quartet Books, 1977), x. ↩︎
  7. Laura Doan, Disturbing Practices: History, Sexuality, and Women’s Experience of Modern War (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 2013). On similar themes, see also Heather Love, Feeling Backward: Loss and the Politics of Queer History (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007). ↩︎
  8. See, for instance, Harry Oosterhuis, Stepchildren of Nature: Krafft-Ebing, Psychiatry, and the Making of Sexual Identity (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2000). ↩︎
  9. Ewald Tscheck, “Der mann-männliche Eros in der deutschen Romantik,” Uranos 1, nos. 6/7 (1921): 139–43. ↩︎
  10. Linsert, Kabale und Liebe, 152. ↩︎
  11. Peter Novick, That Noble Dream: The “Objectivity Question” and the American Historical Profession (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1988). See also Philippa Levine, The Amateur and the Professional: Antiquarians, Historians and Archaeologists in Victorian England, 1838–1886 (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1986); Georg C. Iggers, The German Conception of History: The National Tradition of Historical Thought from Herder to the Present, rev. ed. (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1983); Georg C. Iggers, Historiography in the Twentieth Century: From Scientific Objectivity to the Postmodern Challenge (Hanover, NH: Wesleyan University Press, 1997), part I. ↩︎
  12. Bonnie G. Smith, The Gender of History: Men, Women, and Historical Practice (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1998). ↩︎
Suggested Citation: Ian P. Beacock, “Queer Ancestry as a Problem of Knowledge in Early 20th-Century Germany,” History of Knowledge, May 23, 2019, https://historyofknowledge.net/2019/05/23/queer-ancestry-problem-of-knowledge/.