Entanglements and Contingencies of Queer Lives in Postwar Germany: In Prospect of a Different Future

With the AIDS epidemic, the Old St. Matthew’s churchyard in Berlin-Schöneberg has become a cemetery where queer kinship was lived and enacted way before same-sex-marriage became legal in Germany in 2017. Image courtesy of Elissa Mailänder
The Queer Art of HistoryFrom time to time, the New Fascism Syllabus will be hosting roundtable discussions centered around emerging historiographical contributions, questions, or issues. Featuring some of the leading voices on these various debates, these contributions in this series are intended to serve as an Open Access window onto new directions in historical analysis on topics ranging from Fascism, right-wing populism, and authoritarianism in the 20th century. In this roundtable discussion, scholars of German Queer Studies explore the significant methodological contributions made by Jennifer Evans’ The Queer Art of History: Queer Kinship after Fascism (Durham, NC: Duke University Press: 2023). This roundtable discussion was co-curated by Anna Hájková, Brian J Griffith, and Sophie Wunderlich.

Seldom have I read such a mindful, emotionally, intellectually, and politically mature and thought-provoking history of post-fascist Germany, which captured my attention from the acknowledgments to the epilogue. I am quite familiar with Jennifer V. Evans’ work, indeed, it has influenced my own scholarship profoundly. Now, Evans revisits in each of the book’s six chapters topics that she has written on in the past – from a new self-reflexive perspective. Her skillful and radical choice of positionality as a method for queer self-criticism proved a highly persuasive approach to these case studies from divided and reunited postwar Germany.

Queer Art of History uncovers the contradictions and inconsistencies of past progressivism as well as the sometimes disturbing alliances of bad kin, but it also opens the door to resilience in its multiple and messy dimensions (Evans, 217). In a resolutely de-essentializing take, Evans defines queer kinship as emotional, intellectual, political, libidinal, sexual, affective attachments, networks, or affiliations “of varying sorts and degrees” (Evans, 6) that bind people together across communities and despite established biological, political, or social allegiances. In short it signifies multidirectional plurality beyond essentialism, perspectival contingency instead of universalism. Evans astutely argues that kinship is not something one is but does. Like gender, understood as a social practice and analytical tool, doing kinship offers a more nuanced and encompassing understanding of human affiliations than identity. Queer kinship thus constitutes “at once a politics of radical alterity and a method of analysis” (Evans, 205). Evans’ conceptualization of queer kinship comes with the self-critical feminist awareness that power relations are intersectional and entrenched.

As a visual scholar who has worked extensively on photography, Evans not only recognizes the messiness of meaning but uses subjectivities as a heuristic tool. Whatever the sources or data we work on (governmental records, medical or court files, photographs, private letters, diaries etc.), there is no objectively universal message or content, she cautions; readers and scholars need to make sense of this visual, textual, or audio material. This is even more important as sex and gender comprise bodily experiences and a wide range of often contradicting emotions and practices. If queer can function as a noun, an adjective or a verb, the essential feature of queerness is to be at odds with the norm, “normal,” or normalized. Queer, in other words, perpetually defies hegemonic culture.1 Mobile, relational, socially and intellectually libidinous, queer sociability and kinship are different from heteronormative socially and legally constructed family formations. As a conceptual frame, queer kinship allows Evans to write a history of pleasure with all its enchantment and edges.

By carefully choosing examples beyond the cis-male gay world, whether queer female agents or trans lives, Evans offers a gender-balanced book covering a large spectrum of examples. Maybe unsurprisingly, historian of Nazism that I am, I was intrigued by the famous Berlin bar owner Elli, who between 1946 and 1986 ran a queer club in Kreuzberg, which served as a meeting point for all kinds of sexually non-conformist people including hustlers, sex workers, gays, lesbians, and the first Leatherman. Born in 1902 to a non-Jewish German family, Elisabeth (Elli) Hartung was one of a kind. Or maybe she was also a child of her time and female representative of an uncompromising generation, a term coined by historian Michael Wildt to describe the managers of genocide as a modern, experimental, and fascist generation.2 Elli Hartung too was attuned to Nazism and good friends with Gertrud Scholtz-Klink (born 1902), leader of the Nazi women’s league and number one when it came to female political power in a male-run regime. One might perceive Elli’s friend Scholtz-Klink as hetero-conventional; yet this widow, divorcee and mother of five children – eleven, if one counts the patchwork family with her third husband SS-Obergruppenführer (general lieutenant) August Heißmeyer – fits our criteria of a career woman and was a leading female political figure in the Third Reich. But one person’s provocateur is another person’s prude. Helene (Leni) Riefenstahl, another member of this cohort, also born in 1902, certainly can’t be accused of being a puritan. Like nightlife queen Hartung, Riefenstahl continued to push sexual, gendered, and age-conforming boundaries long after 1945, eventually growing into a camp personage par excellence. Born at the turn of the century, this generation experienced childhood in the Kaiserreich, lived a youth in motion during the Weimar Republic, and made their resolutely unconventional adult lives and uncompromising careers in Nazi Germany.

If Elli Hartung was attuned to Nazism and had kinship relations to Nazi dignitaries, other queer figures surely did too. With Hartung, Ernst Röhm, but also ordinary queer people in mind, we should revisit Susan Sontag’s 1975 dictum about the fascinating radiance of fascism in popular culture during and after Nazism.3 After all, among the “Wehrmacht generation,” gay men in their twenties and thirties were massively drafted into the German army, like photographer-artist Herbert Tobias, whom we encounter in chapter 3. Most of them carefully avoided outing themselves and passed as straight, silently enjoying military homosocial intimacy while being part of a colonizing and genocidal army.4 If Nazi culture and (hetero)sexual mores are both prurient and idealizing, where then lies the protofascist queer culture in Weimar Germany? It is important to re-evaluate fascism from a queer and integrated perspective, especially today, as new esthetics and practices gain more and more traction, as Evans rightly underscores in her last chapter. How then can we best grasp the contingent politization of queerness and queer kinship of people who were doing queer but also doing Nazism? Seen from this perspective, some queer bodies and minds might not be that antifascist after all.

In Evans’s book, we encounter a significant amount of sex in private and public spaces, in the gutter, in parks, apartments, clubs, saunas, and dark rooms. The author rightly underscores the radical political and revolutionary meaning of non-conformist sex subcultures. The Old St. Matthew’s churchyard in Berlin-Schöneberg is a wonderful case in point of how the lesbian and gay community appropriated the formerly bourgeois cemetery in the wake of the AIDS epidemic in the 1990s as a queer memorial site where diversity is lived, and people concomitantly mourn and celebrate life. Surrounded by colorfully decorated graves where unconventional partnerships rest united in peace, the majestic tomb of writer and artist Napoleon Seyfarth (1953-2000) stands out. The enfant terrible of the Berlin gay scene lived with HIV for twelve years before finally succumbing to the disease. His final unapologetic message on the gravestone reads: “Lust wants eternity – death has it.”5

The gay liberation movement managed the AIDS crisis of the 1980s and 1990s with creativity and stamina, showing compelling examples of elective kinship and self-help. Yet the crisis management also necessitated political support and influence. Conforming to normative liberal-democratic standards, as Evans demonstrates in chapters 4 and 5, the movement merged into a respectable political force, neutralizing some of its transgressive grit. Either way, sexually conformist or not, isn’t the gay hisstory of sex and succession based on the construct of an omnipotent functioning (male) body and mind: lustful, well-built, desiring-and-desirable, erected and ejaculating? This esthetic and performative dictate of Western postwar queer culture cannot be dissociated from capitalism. As Dagmar Herzog put it: the sexual revolution came hand in hand with a commercialization and commodification of sex following capitalist logics.6

In his enlightening photo exhibit A Hard Man is Good to Find! on gay cruising culture in postwar London from the 1950s to the 1990s, curator Alistair O’Neill walks us to truly astonishing geographical places and social spaces. Drawing upon a variety of photographic images taken from catalogues, print ordering sheets, personal albums, magazines, and publications, the exhibit explores how the clandestine visual culture of male bodies was circulated, exchanged, and shared between men. While in the 1930s and 1950s we see here and there an amputated veteran, it is noticeable that even “crippling” masculinities – to use David Serlin’s terminology – appear as hard-boiled and hard-bodied. Sociologist Raewyn Connell has long emphasized that gender performances are physical, underscoring the inescapability of culturally and socially-developed body practices.7 Men’s bodies thus tell us a lot about their relation to masculinities. Which brings me to another topic, the myth of functioning (male) bodies and minds in postwar gay culture.

My favorite piece of the London exhibit was a newspaper-like catalog ad from 1991 where 120 young male models of different origins and colors, all between 18 and 24 years old, exposed their toned, attractive bodies and praised their “virile” qualities: “German; ‘tough’ but ‘sweet’! A super holiday friend!!!,” one reads for instance. Or: “Jamaican, Dark, All superlatives fully deserved!!” Clearly, this cruising culture was sexually transgressive in its own right while at the same time also pointing to the “fraught dynamics of masculinities.”8 What struck me in this exhibit as well as in Evans’s history of queer kinship is that the historical gay and queer agents of the 1980s and 1990s all present themselves as handsome, youthful, healthy, and sexually ebullient. Yet I can’t help but wonder: what place did malfunctioning, unable, or apathetic bodies and minds have in this hyper performative and competitive gay market of sex and desire in post-fascist liberal West Germany, just as in Great Britain? Was there a space for un-athletic, un-virile, or average bodies cruising for sex? In what way did people who lived through the AIDS pandemic acknowledge and embrace the beauty and desirability of nonnormative sick bodies?

Finally, what about physical, emotional, and psychological abuse in queer relationships? A famous and disturbing example is Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s auto-portrayal documentary Deutschland im Herbst, where the director, high on coke, verbally and physically mistreats his partner, a former rent boy, bullying him in a humiliating spectacle in front of the camera set up to capture their antifascist politicized everyday couple life. Fassbinder, who vigorously aims to fight fascism and the extreme right with this movie, taps into the gender trap and inadvertently shows us the dictator in him. What is shocking is not so much his violent and despotic behavior towards his mother and partner as his unapologetic patriarchal entitlement, the fact that as a talented artist, spoiled enfant terrible, and self-righteous male he doesn’t even care what others might think or feel. The people we encounter in Queer Kinship all pursue happiness, some in a rather (self)destructive way. With transgenerational cisgender gay sex, for instance, Evans raises important questions about power imbalances and potentially abusive queer desires or kinship that we need to acknowledge. Yet historian of violence that I am, I would like her to expand more on this as she only touches upon the topic of physical, emotional, and psychological violence. If critical masculinities studies today are able to see cisgender men, straight and gay, as men, pointing towards a patriarchal bias in the New Left and postwar gay liberation movements, how does this translate into queer and *trans studies?

As messy, ambivalent, compromising, fraught, or downright objectionable as their sexual desires and transgressions might be, the beauty of the Jennifer V. Evans’ take is that her viewpoint on the queer historical agents and their subjectivities is never judgmental but always analytical. By writing against the misunderstanding of queer kinship as identification in the sense of sameness or wholeness, Evans frames queer ties as a radical humanistic commitment to “being together in difference” (Evans, 185). What does it all matter and where should we go from here?, she asks (Evans, 4f). Her book makes a strong case for dignity, resilience, tolerance, and understanding as a filial formation that bind us humans together. One does not necessarily need to inhabit queer or *trans subject positions “to live in good relations to the queer and trans* past” (Evans, 20). Aware of our perilous times, Evans invites us to read, think, listen, and feel with one another across divides. A different future of queer kinship requires us, as she rightly posits, to “re-wire […] the senses” with a fair dose of self-reflexivity, self-criticism, and empathy.


Elissa Mailänder is Associate Professor of Contemporary History at Sciences Po in Paris, France



  1. Tamsin Spargo, Foucault and Queer Theory, New York: Totem Books, 1999.
  2. Michael Wildt, An Uncompromising Generation. The Nazi Leadership of the Reich Security Main Office, translated by Tom Lampert, Madison, University of Wisconsin Press, 2009.
  3. Susan Sontag, “Fascinating Fascism,“ The New York Review of Books, 6 February 1975 and Jack Halberstam, “The Killer in Me Is the Killer in You.” Homosexuality and Fascism, in: J. Halberstam, The Queer Art of Failure, Durham/London: Duke University Press, 2011, pp. 147-171.
  4. Andreas Sternweiler, Fotos sind mein Leben: Albrecht Becker, Berlin: Verlag Rosa Winkel, 1993; Katrin Köppert, Queer Pain. Schmerz als Solidarisierung, Fotografie als Affizierung. Zu den Fotografien von Albrecht Becker aus den 1920er bis 1990er Jahren, Berlin: Neofelis Verlag, 2021).
  5. Napoleon Seyfarth, Schweine müssen nackt sein. Ein Leben mit dem Tod (Pigs need to be naked: A life with death), Berlin, Edition diá, 1991.
  6. Dagmar Herzog, Sex After Fascism. Memory and Morality in Twentieth-Century Germany, Princeton, Princeton University Press, 2005, S. 220-258.
  7. R. W. Connell, Masculinities, Berkeley/Los Angeles, University of California Press, 2005 (1995), p. 45-86.
  8. Cynthia Enloe, “Who is ‘Taken Seriously’?,” in Cynthia Enloe, Seriously! Investigating Crashes and Crisis as if Women Mattered, Bereleky, University of California Press, 2013, pp. 1-18, p. 4 and 6.

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