By James Carson:
On a warm autumn night, I ordered a beer at a bar in the Schöneberg district of Berlin. On one of the plasma screens positioned behind the bar, Danny Kaye was duetting with Kermit the Frog. On another, a different coupling was in progress between a half-naked firefighter and a young man with a hunger for a half-naked firefighter. A third screen was advertising forthcoming events: Leather Pride, Halloween, Christmas. Before long, another year would have passed into memory.
In a city freighted with history, Schöneberg carries the weight of the past with a rare delicacy. A few blocks from the bar, the art nouveau U-Bahn station on Wittenbergplatz is a testament to Berlin’s imperial heritage, and to its 19th century transformation from “a dingy city in a marsh” – as Mark Twain put it – to “ the Chicago of Europe.“
Next to the station, an understated sign displays the names of Auschwitz, Treblinka, Dachau and the other prison camps where millions were murdered. Many of them began their hellish journeys at Wittenbergplatz.
Further south, the sandstone city hall of Schöneberg was the location for John F Kennedy’s famous speech, in which – depending on who you believe – the President of the United States may or may not have proclaimed himself to be a jam doughnut.
This well-heeled quarter is an architectural Irish stew. Gründerzeit apartments, sporting preposterously ornate balconies, rub shoulders with plainer post-war facades painted in unexpected flavour combinations of aubergine and custard, beetroot and lime. Modern, glass-fronted hotels share the streets with antique stores, booksellers and sex shops. The famous names attached to Schöneberg are as diverse as the landscape: Helmut Newton, David Bowie, the Brothers Grimm.
It’s in this multifaceted neighbourhood that I found myself on a still, September night. Like many a gay bar from Brisbane to Baltimore, this one had a cross section of clientele: locals and tourists, the handsome and the hopeful, the deluded and the desperate.
A low buzz of conversation – punctuated by the occasional grunt escaping from the darkroom – was overlaid by a soundtrack of Europop. The barman conveyed quiet authority, his burly figure contained by a leather harness that was less of a fashion accessory, more a work of civil engineering.
I was embarking on my second beer when the cops arrived. Two, then four, then half a dozen police officers entered the small bar, and paused to survey the scene. Hello, I thought, it’s somebody's birthday, and I sat back to enjoy the show. I had to hand it to them: they looked the real deal, right down to their off-yellow uniforms and don’t-fuck-with-us expressions.
They fanned out, resting glances on clots of men around the bar. From somewhere, a wolf whistle was followed by a snigger. One of the cops caught my gaze, then released it before heading into the darkroom. The occupants must have thought Christmas had come early.
Two officers were stationed at the door. One nudged the other and gestured in the direction of the plasma screen, where the firefighter was no longer merely half-naked. The cop’s mate gave a little smirk.
The lights went up, Sophie Ellis-Bextor was cut off in her track and the show began. I looked on as the police did their thing: asking questions, taking names. The years fell away.
During the 1920s, Berlin was a magnet for people in search of the freedom to be themselves. In Motzstrasse, Marlene Dietrich performed at The Eldorado club, where men dressed in lace frocks and called themselves Letty and Countess Marina. A few streets away, Christopher Isherwood chronicled a decade of decadence in the company of Sally Bowles and an assortment of male playmates. Beyond Schöneberg, more than 100 Berlin bars, cafes and clubs welcomed homosexuals, lesbians, transvestites, and any curious souls open to the idea of difference as a way of life.
The new era of tolerance extended to wider society. In print, on the stage and on the cinema screen, gay men and lesbians began to emerge from the shadows. And in medicine, a pioneering physician, Magnus Hirschfeld, attempted a better scientific understanding of homosexuality.
While some regarded Berlin as enlightened, others viewed it as degenerate and perverse. By the beginning of the 1930s more bars were being raided by the police. Names were taken, arrests were made and most bars were closed. A fortunate few, like Christopher Isherwood and Magnus Hirschfeld, escaped the worst. Hirschfeld’s library was an early victim of the Nazi book burning frenzy.
Homosexual men now lived in fear. Affection and affectation became incriminating acts. A gesture or a look could lead to the concentration camp. Once there, inmates were ‘re-educated’, through slave labour, castration and horrific forms of surgical experimentation. Almost two-thirds of the 50,000 homosexual men sent to the prison camps died there.
I approached the barman who was grimly observing the police as they checked ID cards. “Is it drugs?” I asked, in a low voice. He rewarded me with a look that Berliners hold in special reserve for imbeciles, and nodded towards an ashtray on the bar.
As quickly as they’d arrived, the cops were gone. The soundtrack resumed, accompanied by a chorus of resentment.
“They made us feel like criminals!” said one aggrieved voice. “Yeah, said another, “You can smoke dick in here, but you get treated like shit for a fucking cigarette!” I’d never answered tobacco’s siren call. It was this that had spared me a brush with the law.
Today, The Eldorado is a supermarket, with a photograph of Marlene Dietrich at the door, and further down the street, the Hirschfeld pharmacy is named in remembrance of an early champion of gay rights. On nearby Nollendorfstrasse, a plaque outside Isherwood’s apartment offers a reminder that these storied streets are where Cabaret was born. And at Nollendorfplatz, a triangle carved in pink marble remembers the homosexual victims of a regime that promised to make Germany great again.
It was business as usual when I returned to the bar the following evening. Except now there was a hand-scrawled note taped to the door:
NO SMOKING – BY ORDER OF THE GOVERNMENT
James Carson is a writer from Glasgow. His work has appeared in various magazines, including From Glasgow to Saturn, The Skinny and ExBerliner, and his stories have also been selected for anthologies such as Streets of Berlin, Tip Tap Flat and A Sense of Place.