three pairs of lovers with space

MICHAEL DAVIDSON IN BERLIN

 

The following is English journalist and boy-lover Michael Davidson (1897-1976)’s account of his time in Berlin in his autobiography, The World, the Flesh and Myself (1962), beginning apparently very early in 1928 and lasting, with interruptions, until about June 1933.  Only a few pages of no Greek love interest are here omitted. The footnotes are his.

 

The World, the Flesh and Myself, Chapter 11

                                     Berlin in the 1920s

As almost always in a new country, especially one whose language I don't know, I loathed Berlin for the first week; and then suddenly, like one of those tiresome screw-tops on bottles that refuse to engage, I found the thread. Suddenly I saw that it was the most exciting town one could conceive of: Babylon, Gomorrah, Rome in decay; and yet galvanic with an intellectual liveliness as bright as the grandiose flood-lighting of Berlin im Licht, then just inaugurated. On the one hand, all the boue that one nostalgic for it could desire—squalor, drunkenness, penury, an ubiquitous underworld, dramatic violence and despair, the turbulence of gangster politics, the whole spectrum of sexual lust, with some unimagined hues added, displayed like fruits in an open Mediterranean market-place; on the other, a novel flowering—as if rain had fallen after a long drought—of architecture, the theatre, music, satire—a new liberty of ideas, a wonderful release of the individual. Of course, within five years all this exploring spirit was crushed— less, perhaps, by Hitler than by its own libertarian blindness which allowed Hitler to pinion it from behind. Except for Tokyo, Berlin must have been the world's ugliest town, though the new architecture was decorating its periphery with gay, thought-out dwellings which for the first time recognized that light and air were constituents of living. Yet one forgot the hideousness of the streets in their unfailingly provocative excitement: one knew that adventure—intellectual, political, sensual—lay round every corner; and there was beauty in the ugliness—the sort of beauty that Georg Grosz drew in his bitter, harrowing satires. …

                           Berlin street scene in the 1920s

I found that the homosexual traffic of the streets began about 9 a.m., the Strichjungen hanging about outside (or inside) the best-known men's lavatories, or idling through the famous Passage, the arcade that ran diagonally into Unter den Linden from the Friedrichstrasse; and that almost any street in Central Berlin had its sprinkling of Stundenhotels or Absteige—small discreet hotels or private flats where a room could be used for an hour or less. An astonishing number of seemingly respectable spinsters and widows, and of dignified elderly men who before inflation may have been living on dividends, let their spare rooms for this purpose, charging M.2.50 for a brief stay and having a working arrangement with a small string of boys who thus knew where to take their transient clients.

The Prayer to Light by Hugo Höppener, 1894, an icon of the interwar Freikörperkultur

I discovered, too, the amazing tolerance of Berlin; the people generally accepted as a human fact, even though many deplored, conduct which in England would have raised cries of horror or menace. Once a policeman appeared when I was having difficulty with an offensive youth whom I couldn't shake off. 'You know,' said the policeman kindly, 'you should be very careful about what boys you pick up—there are some bad ones about.' I had a Swiss friend whom I'll call B--- senior functionary in one of the international organizations in Geneva.[1] He kept going a pied-à-terre in Berlin; and there one morning, he told me later, he found on his doorstep when he answered the whirr of his bell a well-dressed man in a Homburg hat and carrying the inevitable briefcase. 'Herr B---?' said the stranger: 'Jawohl', answered B---inquiringly.

'I believe you're a friend of a boy named ---, the man went on. B--- was taken aback; but the visitor hastened to put him at his ease. 'Oh, it's all right,' he said. 'I just came to call—I always like to know what sort of man my son is going with.' That was Berlin in the years that I knew it, between 1928 and 1933.

There must be people who believe that Hitlerism was a stern reaction to this 'German decadence', or alternatively regard the Nazi Party itself as a foul edifice of degeneracy—in either case blaming Germany's blatant homosexuality for the Hitler tyranny. But both assumptions are false.

Hitler didn't, morally, care tuppence about homosexuality; in the early years of his power he tried, so to speak, to cover it over with a clean cloth just as he tried to deny poverty by pushing its more public signs, like beggars and street musicians, out of public sight. But politically he used homosexuality, like anything else, wherever it fitted expediency. Ernst Rohm wasn't shot because the Nary Party felt outraged by the abrupt discovery that he was 'having' his Storm Troopers—that had been known for ages; but because his sway over the S.A. had become a menace to Hitler. In the Hitler Youth the 'dear love of comrades' was evilly turned to a political end.

                  Freikörperkultur, Baltic Sea, 1933

And if the Nazi hierarchy was well larded with homosexuals so was Wilhelm II's court and so was the Weimar Republic. The 'German decadence' wasn't a national trauma left like a scar by 1918; and it wasn't, I suppose, the invention of Frederick the Great and Voltaire. If it's a decadence, it's been decaying for a very long time.

And then I met Werner.[2] I had, of course, surveyed the city's swimming-baths; and most afternoons was going to those in the Barwaldstrasse, somewhere in the wilderness beyond Hallesches Tor. And there one day, naked beneath the showers, I found the most startlingly beautiful person I'd ever seen: a living, and lively, Beardsley decoration for 'Salome'—he might have been the original Beardsley prototype, except that he was an improvement on the artist's invention. He had all the Beardsley sin, but none of the corruption; all the grace and uniqueness, but without the epicene languour. His was the face Beardsley would have drawn, had he not been dying of consumption. Ivory-white skin, parchment-pale, with a fervent scarlet mouth and huge sable eyes, full of black fire; a mass of romping black hair, thick and lively as a bear's, and the figure of a Gemito fisherboy. To Beardsley he added something of the della Robbia choristers in Florence and a great deal of the famous 'Tripod' satyrs in the Naples Museum. It didn't surprise me to find that this face had been chosen from all over Germany to go on the cover of the magazine published by the Socialist Labour Youth—whose blue blouse and red scarf he wore.

          Boys in the German Socialist Workers' Youth

But, I quickly found, it wasn't only his face that was intoxicating; it was a glittering personality and the incomparable friendship that he gave—in his magic company differences of age, culture, language, vanished: he made me his equal and partner. Was ist mein ist Dein, he pronounced early on; and that remained his rule for the next few years—what was his was mine: he would share, when I was broke, his last cigarettes; and gave to the last drop his love and loyalty. I had found at last the 'divine friend much desired', if one of us was faithless it was I—never he.

Before I knew what was happening, that first day, I'd been swept on to the back of his bicycle and was whirling down the Friedrichstrasse—to a schwules Lokal, one of those 'queer' bars whose discreetly blacked-out facades and sombrely curtained doorways proclaimed out loud their nature, where we drank cognac. He was not quite 15. Then, from the homosexual bar, he bicycled me back to his home in the Zimmerstrasse and introduced me to his mother. We must have been an astonishing sight, Werner and I: roistering round Berlin with our arms round each other's necks; both with long bare legs and open necks; singing Wanderlieder or socialist songs, drinking a great deal, embracing and spooning in public places and generally behaving outrageously—I skinnily ugly and 30 years old; he dazzling in looks, with that astonishing head and face in which the angelic and the demonic were tantalisingly blended.

                                                   German socialist youth

We camped one summer on the edge of the Uedersee, beyond Eberswalde, where Social-Democrat families in the nude bathed and basked at one end of the lake, and Communists at the other; we walked one snowing winter in the Kalkberge, staying in village inns and leaving the peasants gaping at Werner's vivid narration of invented adventures; when we had no money we went on the tramp, getting food and cigarettes where we could and sleeping in barns or under forest. In Berlin we swam and sang, and drank beer in Socialist or Communist Kneipen, and later—this must have been in 1931-32 when Berlin's political conflict was at its fiercest—we together joined 'Fichte', the Communist sports organization, and on Friday evenings bathed in the splendid Gartenstrasse swimming pool which 'Fichte' hired weekly so that its members, young men and women, boys and girls of all ages, could be healthily naked together. The cult of Nacktbaden was one of the first expressions of the libertarian bent to be suppressed by Hitler.

       Berlin cabaret 1927

And in Berlin we together went the rounds of the 'queer' bars—more, as London's 'camp' young men would say, 'for a giggle' than for a pick-up. There were dozens of places like the Nüremberger Diele and Kantdiele where middle-aged stockbrokers danced with elegant pansies. But we enjoyed the more specialized resorts like the Schnurbart Diele, as it was nicknamed—the 'moustache café'—where men with magnificent moustaches went to meet other men with moustaches. 'I've got a bigger one than yours', one would say to a new acquaintance—meaning, at any rate in the first place, his moustache. There was the 'Mikado' in the Krausenstrasse, a transvestin joint where the men in female 'drag' punctiliously used the lavatory labelled Damen, and the masculine women in suits that marked Herren; and a place devoted to plump, elderly men who came in little short knickers and sailor suits; and the 'Monte-Casino' at Hallesches Tor, owned by a kind-hearted quean who had built up a team of obliging boys in their 'teens. But the place I liked best—because, I suppose, it was so touching, and tore at my mother's heart—was the 'Adonis-Diele', where farouche yearning boys slumped for hours at the tables, long, yellow hair falling into their eyes and their most urgent desire a pull at a cigarette. Each time the curtains at the door were pushed apart, all eyes would turn to the new customer, each face hungry to be chosen—to be given a cigarette, some beer and Bockwurst and, later, a bed to sleep in. These weren't professionally 'on the game'—they would have been elsewhere had they been that; they were just unhappy, homeless boys. I confess that when Werner was much older, and that early frenzy for him had inevitably sobered to serene friendship, I visited the Adonis-Diele pretty often. But all this covered several years—to July 1933—and two or three returns to Berlin. I can't remember now, in that winter of 1928, how I scraped together a living; of the English lessons I gave, I recall chiefly the failure of some pupils to pay and Werner's anxiety until assured that I was teaching not schoolboys but men old enough to be my own father. …

In the new year of 1929 I was back at the Clarendon Press; but by March was away again—to Geneva, where I had found a job in the International Labour Office, a job most men would have coveted, with good pay, little work, diplomatic privileges and that halo of superior smugness which the international functionaries of Geneva at that time liked to wear: the job of my lifetime, promising a fine pension after 30 years of gentle tedium. But I didn't look at it like that; to me it was a step on the way back to Berlin and Werner.

                                   Berlin street scene

I stayed 18 months in Geneva; and during them rushed to Berlin whenever a week's or month's holiday allowed. And in 1930, soon after I'd been 'confirmed' in my appointment by Albert Thomas, I resigned from the Bureau; collected a month's pay and the money I'd put into a pension fund, and left for the Zimmerstrasse. By now my German was good. I'd been studying it since 1928, and in Geneva, I'd taken lessons; and it was a language, I found, which like learning to ride a bicycle suddenly came to me with a rush. So, to earn money, I looked round for a book to translate; and persuaded Allen & Unwin to publish a book called Youth in Soviet Russia. This was the first of six books which I did into English from German and had published in the early 1930s: all left wing or anti-Nazi.

In the summer of 1932 I was camping on the Uedersee; Werner, then an errand-boy in Berlin, joined me for week-ends. The terrifying Nazi tide had almost reached high-water mark; but here, in the benign peace of that silent lake and its pine-clad dunes, the nightly battles of the streets, the outrageous strut of high boots, the unrelenting rant of Nazi propaganda were far, far away—too far: for here their horrors were diluted by distance; and the bland, negative quiescence of the basking Social Democrats I was living amongst seemed frighteningly ominous: I got the idea that Hitler, already blessed tacitly by the propertied classes, could safely count on the lassitude of the rest. …

[That same summer, Davidson joined the Communist Party, and in the following January the National Socialists took power] …

  Photo by Herbert List, Baltic Sea, 1933

A monotony of fear hung like a pall of smoke over the loveliness of that spring and early summer—at the sound of tramping boots one braced oneself for a blow; the sudden whirr of the door-bell stopped one's heart. Yet in spite of the hideous things that were happening, I was still enjoying life—which was why I didn't take the obvious course of leaving Germany while I could. There was Werner: he was almost grown-up by now, and the intoxication of our earlier years had sobered into a friendship of a quite different, but still wonderful, kind. I had a comfortable job which, though in the service of the heavy industrialists who had carefully fanned Hitler's sulphurous flame, had nothing to do with Nazism. And I still loved Berlin; where, in the early months of 1933, adventure was still abundant.

Because I didn't want to implicate Werner's family in the Communist conspiracy which might at any moment land me in trouble, I'd left the Zimmerstrasse and was sharing a flat near the Billowplatz with a scholarly fellow-traveller. There was a Kneipe near where, in the evenings, a group of us met to drink beer, eat Bockwurst, and lament our situation—the Party's leaders had been swept away, the organization had collapsed of itself, and such cautious gatherings as ours were all that was left of communist cohesion. The pub was well-known as a 'Red local'; and the landlord, a courageous man with an engaging charm, was on our side—it was this charm, and the name of Hugenberg, that one March evening saved, perhaps, my life.

The tables along each side of the narrow bar were full. I was sitting with Walli, a sensible woman I liked and the aunt (though she didn't then know it) of my new little love, Kurt. It was Saturday, I think, and the Stimmung of the place was almost lighthearted.

                                  Berlin Brownshirts in 1933

Suddenly the curtains from the street were pushed aside and half-a-dozen Brownshirts marched in, pistols in their hands and boots thumping on the bare floor. At once there was a thunderous silence; we watched, and held our breath. They ranged themselves down the central aisle and covered us with their guns. 'Stand up', ordered the head Nazi, and we stood. Then, each of us in turn, he turned out our pockets, looking through our 'papers' and feeling us over for weapons (naturally, none of us had his 'Party card.). Du bist doch Engländer, he said to me, using derogatively the familiar second person. 'What's an Englishman doing here? 'Heraus!—and then I was being marched out between two armed Nazis. All I remember of that brief walk down the street is that I was very frightened.

We'd marched perhaps a hundred yards when the brave little Wirt of the pub came running up behind us. 'Excuse me', he puffed politely to the Nazis, using to the full the charm of his smile, 'perhaps you ought to know—this Herr is employed by Scherl, by Minister Hugenberg—'. Many of the young Nazis, in those early weeks, were still apprentices in the exertion of official 'terror' and, apparently, afraid of offending their bosses, whose co-operation at the ministerial top was still precarious. Anyhow, for some reason and to my surprise, the little landlord's words and manner did the trick. They let me go; and I badly needed another drink.

I had reason to be frightened. I'd begun posting articles for the Daily Worker to a 'cover' address in London arranged by Felicia Browne; had one of these been stopped it would have been simple to trace it to me.

By early summer Kurt was coming to my flat after school for a midday meal—lentils stewed with bacon and potatoes and dash of vinegar was a dish I was good at (I have, in various parts of the world, often been a competent cook for schoolboys); now and then he stayed for a week-end, and we would go out into the country, bathing in the lakes or walking. I gave him a second-hand bicycle, which he left discreetly with me when he went home.

                                       Hitler Youth

The Grosse Hamburgerstrasse, into which my courtyard debouched, had been a fairly 'Red' street; now from its doorways boys in Hitler Youth uniform, when they weren't on parade, watched and whispered and noted the passers-by. Sometimes, Kurt told me, they shouted after him—he wouldn't have anything to do with the Hitler Youth; and they used to eye me and point as I walked by. For them, the bicycle was the last straw; I've had a lot of experience of boyish jealousy—it can be venomous: how much more, when it's sharpened by political malice. One early July Sunday, Kurt went out for a bicycle ride. After an hour, I knew some disaster had happened; and at dusk, when Kurt's stepfather arrived brandishing threats, I knew what it was. This stepfather, Kurt had told me, had embraced Nazism the moment he was sure that Hitler had won; now he stormed as much against the 'un-German' nature of my political soul as against my very German morals; and declared that he was going to the police.

I filled a suitcase with papers that I wanted to preserve, like Wystan Auden's poems and letters, or that might embroil the young man whose home the flat also was, and went to a friend's where I stayed the night. Next day, I got word that police and S.A. were posted at the gateways of my courtyard. It was a midsummer day; I was wearing only an open shirt and plus-fours—fortunately in a trousers pocket were my passport and a hundred-mark note. I walked down to the Potsdamerbahnhof and took the first train to Prague; and then, with nothing but the clothes I was wearing, travelled to London round the edge of the Third Reich, by way of Vienna, Zurich and Basle.

 

[1] Braun. Secretary of the International Red Cross.

[2] Walfried Reile-Reiljon: father Latvian, mother Berlinerin.