“Queer history has a problem with memory,” Jennifer Evans contends in her rich and bold monograph that encourages its readers to think, and to think historically. Her readers, I assume, often come from Queer Studies — after all, the monograph was published with Duke University Press, the dream home for queer, postcolonial, and cultural theory.1 Publishing here, Evans— a historian who wears many hats and whom I first encountered with her German history hat on — does, sneakily, a go-between job: she shows Queer Studies scholars why we need to understand that history is a foreign country, and they literally “do things differently there,” to quote LP Hartley. The other end of the mediator task is for historians of Germany to recognize queer desire in particular, and sexuality and desire in general, as a foreign country that they ought to familiarize themselves with. Specifically, Evans looks at decades of queer and trans* lives in Berlin after 1945. Her patient gaze unlocks histories and explanations where, before, we only had strange fragments.
Queer history in Germany was for a very long time written by enthusiasts outside of the academic sphere and foreign academics. That situation has started to change in the last three years — there is a large international German Research Foundation funded project, this year, Evans is a Konrad Adenauer Fellow of the Humboldt Foundation at the Free University, and Martin Lücke (Jennifer’s Humboldt host), the only German History professor who works on queer history, has been training PhDs in queer history, who are now joining academia (one of them is Sébastien Tremblay, who is featured in this roundtable discussion). However, perhaps because queer history, and by extension history of sexuality, has been such a foreign body in Germany, sexuality has been often presented as a strangely bloodless beast; it is a fields in which one frequently shies away from ambivalences. Sex work is far too often depicted as inherently exploitative,2 and gays of the past as victims and heroes. But it is not a good history.
This is where Evans’ new monograph enters the picture, reminding us that sex is messy; it can be exploitative, questionable, but also lasting, tender, beautiful, and a loud expression of desire and lust. Sex and gender encompass, first of all, bodily experience. Evans is resolute returning pleasure and sex back into history of sexuality. In fact, she takes the ambivalences as the point of departure for her book, and invites us to join her in thinking about these uncomfortable insights. Paola Medina Gonzalez’s and Craig Griffiths’ essays have already explored the Herbert Tobias photographs; I want to show how The Queer Art of History opens a new window of reading on these particular source materials.
Anneliese Kohlmann, the lesbian guard who engaged in a forced queer relationship with a Jewish woman prisoner in a satellite camp of Neuengamme in the fall and winter 1944-45 has left but few traces after the war.3 I know that she must have worked as a prostitute in the early 1950s Hamburg, and I know that in the 1960s, she moved with a woman who was possibly her partner to West Berlin. I have her addresses, and then the tidbit that she died in 1976 of heart attack at her job as assistant cook in a hospital. Rather than strange fragments of what I interpreted as a broken life, Evans offers biographies such as Elli Hartung, who ran a much loved beer bar, a haven for many West Berlin gays. But before, Elli also was a member of the Nazi Party, and a personal friend of the chairwoman of the party’s women’s league. People, including some within the queer community, can be profoundly ambivalent; they can achieve great matters for the marginalized, while having benefitted from, or participated in a genocide. These stories from Evans’s book have reminded me of what I already knew: I should not be projecting my assumptions of a happy life on the people I research. As I read through the book, I started seeing glimpses of Kohlmann’s self-determined life after the war.
There is another inherent problem to Queer History being written by activists, and that is the tendency to project our conceptualization of queerness as we know it backwards in history. First of all, that raises the issue of queer identity, a concept that is nearly inevitable today, but far less so 60 or 80 years ago. Evans continues her trenchant critique of queer essentialism that, when she put it forward in 2016, was hugely influential for me.4 Her new intervention is that of queer kinship, a network of relationships, desires, and acts. Here, LP Hartley’s line is to be understood literally: kinship is something that people do rather than something that is. Recognizing queer kinship as a site of queer history can disturb neat linear (and ahistorical) projections of victimhood, heroism, and informed consent. But these assumptions, and backward reading, are a neatly packaged usable past, not a history.
In Chapter 4, Evans briefly looks at the history of Lesben in der Kirche, a group of lesbian activists in East Berlin. These women famously visited the Ravensbrück Memorial several times in the mid 1980s, lobbied for commemoration of lesbian victims of the camp, and, during one visit, were arrested by and experienced harassment at the hands of the Stasi, the German Democratic Republic’s secret police. So went the story, and I admittedly thought it was too simple.5 Evans’ interpretation reveals a more complex picture. The group was actually able to meet with the chairwoman of the survivor association, and while she did not meet them with sympathy, she met them nevertheless. After the harassment by the secret police, the women filed a complaint. And one year after their interrupted visit, the group was actually received at the memorial, where the guide showed them the pink triangle on prominent display. What, then, can we learn from Evans’ reinterpretation? There was an East German lesbian group that was able to push back, and did so with remarkable matter of factness, deploying their rights as East German citizens.6 Evans reveals nuance and agency in a story that, perhaps due to the post 1989 totalitarianism narrative, showed East Germany as a dictatorship. Perhaps it was the victimhood that endowed the lesbian group with legitimacy, as if their courage, and cunning in navigating the system, was not sufficient.
Admittedly, understanding a past that is so very foreign and disturbing to our sensibilities can be difficult. In a particularly astute move, one way how Evans approaches the task is by historicizing some very ugly debates of the past 15 years that many readers (including this one) remember intimately. Chapter 6 explores the battles for the inclusion of lesbian women in the monument to the persecuted homosexuals under National Socialism, the publication of the Beißreflexe (anthology that attacked Muslim Germans’ presumed homophobia), and the Initiative Queer Nations, which for a long time planned to establish an institutional home for Queer History in Berlin, but turned out to be transphobic. Some of the antagonists in these discussions were identical, people whom I met, whose work I took note of, whose writings I endured, and decided to ignore. There is only so much toxicity one can take, and I believed that in engaging in some of these battles, I would give them further oxygen. It is interesting, and unsettling, to see these skirmishes analyzed and contextualized as a bigger history — as opposed to the messy area that we must navigate for our work.
Anna Hájková is a Reader of continental European history at the University of Warwick, UK
- Jennifer Wilson, “The Editor who Moves Theory into the Mainstream,” New Yorker (March 29, 2022), available at: https://www.newyorker.com/culture/persons-of-interest/the-editor-who-moves-theory-into-the-mainstream/.
- Maren Röger, Kriegsbeziehungen: Intimität, Gewalt und Prostitution im besetzten Polen, 1939 bis 1945 (Frankfurt am Main: Fischer, 2015). Unfortunately, Martin Lücke’s prescient study of male sex workers has left little traces, historiographically: Ibid., Männlichkeit in Unordnung: Homosexualität und männliche Prostitution in Kaiserreich und Weimarer Republik (Frankfurt am Main: Campus, 2008).
- Anna Hájková, “Between love and coercion: queer desire, sexual barter and the Holocaust,” German History 39:1 (2021): 112-133.
- Jennifer Evans, “Introduction: Why Queer German History?.” German History 34:3 (2016): 371-384.
- Maria Bühner, “Die Kontinuität des Schweigens,” Österreichische Zeitschrift für Geschichtswissenschaften 29:2 (2018): 111-131.
- To this point, see also Samuel Clowes Huneke, States of Liberation: Gay Men between Dictatorship and Democracy in Cold War Germany (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2022) and Jane Freeland, Feminist Transformations and Domestic Violence Activism in Divided Berlin, 1968-2002 (Oxford: British Academy, 2022): 146-153.