By Martin Duberman. $19.95; Seven Stories Press; 384 pages
Without history there is no freedom. And the history that Martin Duberman masterfully unravels in Jews, Queers, Germans: A Novel is remarkable for the territory covered.
He calls the book a novel/history, a clever mixture of documented history in novel form that is a gripping read. "I never invent anything that is contrary to the known record," Duberman told Windy City Times. "I had a lot of angst writing this book, thinking about how it might be received by traditional historians."
The book opens with Margarethe, wife of Fritz Krupp, who made all of Germany's armaments during World War I and therefore vital to Germany's interests as Europe unravels. She informs Kaiser Wilhelm II that her husband's affairs with comely teenage boys is moving from whispers to headlines. Eventually, there's a salacious trial, much like the 1895 Oscar Wilde case.
"I started with Magnus Hirschfeld but the more I got into the period the more I became intrigued with several others," Duberman explained. To tell the entire story, Duberman convenes Count Harry Kessler, Walter Rathenau, and Prince Philipp of Eulenburg.
Regarding Kaiser Wilhelm, "there has never been consensus that he was gay. There has been reporting on contemporary speculation about his relationships," Duberman says in the book. Kaiser Wilhelm was a member of the infamous Eulenburg group and consequently became embroiled in the Eulenburg Affair, the biggest domestic affair between the formation of the Reich in 1871 and the abdication of Kaiser Wilhelm II in 1918. Prince Philipp, whom Wilhelm called "my bosom friend ... the only one I have," was accused of homosexuality and almost immediately fell in disgrace and lost all his influence on German policy.
I've always been interested in my historical characters' feelings, relationships, and fantasies, their whole psychology. I've always been intrigued with the story part of the story. And what grabs me I write about," Duberman writes. "And I do think that for the people I'm writing about there is a lot of camp. The tone of irony has long been part of the gay subculture." The pages are lush with descriptions of internecine love affairs, tailors who craft military uniforms with exquisite gaydar. Testimony during Krupp's trial by a soldier about his wearing white tights and black boots makes a reader's eyes roll.
The historical characters Duberman selected were precursors to today's dialogues.
Hirschfeld, founder of the Scientific Humanitarian Committee, thought he could identify homosexuals by their distinguishing effeminate qualities. Although that's true for some guys ( and so what ) that's not true of all ( and not all effeminate guys are gay ). And that's the point: No maxim about human sexuality or behavior is universal.
In opposition to Hirschfeld, The Community of the Special butched it up by promoting the masculine, Greek ideal. Perhaps they were extraordinarily insecure about who they loved. Men of all sexualities overcompensate for many reasons.
Next came The League of Human Rights, a home for Conservative homosexuals like our current CPAC, the Conservative Political Action Conference. Some CPAC members today ( as were League some members? ) are transgender. Transgender Conservative activists Jennifer Williams and Jordan Evans caused a stir when last February they attended CPAC. The annual event has been home to Ronald Reagan, Sarah Palin, and President Donald Trump. CPAC's web site hails itself as the "birthplace of modern conservatism" and the conference as an "Activism Boot Camp." Williams said in a recent interview she became a conservative "because of Jimmy Carter and the Iran hostage crisis."
Also in a recent interview, Gina Roberts, chair of the San Diego Log Cabin Republicans, a chapter of the nation's largest gay GOP political organization said, "I believe Conservative principles are more closely aligned with the intent of the U.S. Constitution. Conservatism leads to smaller, less invasive government."
It is remarkable how much we have changed and how much we have remained the same. Arguments made 100 years ago about the nature of human sexualityand homosexualitycontinue today.
"People have not changed in the 100 years since all of this has taken place. The political environments in which they operate have changed but not the people," Duberman observes. For example, Kaiser Wilhelm's had many unappealing qualities: "his adolescent humor, his harshness, his inability to listen; his pretension to knowledge and wisdom he doesn't possess; his assumption of infallibility in all matters…his limited attention span…"
"Well, I started writing the book in 2015 much before the Trump phenomena. And it turns out there's lots that resonates with a person like President Trump. He and Wilhelm represent petulant boys, spoiled bullies," Duberman writes.
One chilling coincidence is when in 1923 Hitler tried to take over Germany's Ruhr district using the slogan Make Germany Great Again. His efforts were fueled by German perceptions that the nation was being disgraced by the conditions of the Versailles Treaty. The political scenario sounds alarmingly like Trump's claims that our trade agreements and treaties make chumps of the United States. And he alone can fix the problem.
Paragraph 175, the section of the German legal code which criminalized homosexuality, figures into the story. The infamous section of law resembles today's anti-transgender "bathroom bills" aimed at making self-expression illegal. Opposing propaganda machines worked hard to make linkages. "Groups tried to link Nazis to homosexuals, Jews to homosexuals," Duberman explains. Attempts to link opponents to homosexuals resembles current "The Gay" conspiracy theories about the gay community's plan to take over, well, everything. Interestingly enough, during the years before Joseph Stalin took over from Vladimir Lenin, Russia had begun the process of decriminalizing homosexuality. Today in Chechnya there are horrible rumors of homosexuals being rounded up, beaten, killed.
The old guilt by association trick used decades later by the US House Un-American Committee ( HUAC ) against State Department officials makes appearances in the book.
Then, like now, who is and who isn't "homosexual"and what that means still fuels debate. Maybe RuPaul said it best when he told The New Yorkerwe're all born naked and it's all drag from then on.
Duberman said in a previous interview "As I get older I get still more radical" And he confirms that "Yes that's still true. Strange but true."
He may be getting more radical but not slowed down. On April 22, he assembled two panels to discuss Beyond Marriage and Beyond Equality, leading fellow scholars and activists in provocative discussions that examined recent LGBT political advancementsand the cultural price paid for assimilation. Duberman anticipates writing Taking Stock: Has the Gay Movement Failed? but not before releasing The Rest of It, the third and final memoir. "I've chronicled my whole life and now here's the rest of it," he said.
For readers who want to revisit or Duberman virgins, there is The Martin Duberman Reader, a compilation of his most important writings that gives readers an overview of our times. His essays provide a new generation of activists, scholars, and readers benchmark understandings of what has come before us. For five decades, Duberman has tackled the complex and the inconvenient and produced definitive biographies ( Paul Robeson, Lincoln Kirstein, and Howard Zinn ), essays, books, plays, reviews, and commentary. He founded the nation's first graduate program in LGBT studies and is well known for his book Stonewall, close up portraits of six participants of the event that gave birth to the modern gay movement.
Seven Stories Press?