4 min

Exploring Berlin

A city rich in joy, tragedy and gay history

It is my second day in the city, and that simple answer to my clumsy touristy question is, really, everything I need to hear. As though he’d stepped out of the pages of an Isherwood story, the beautiful gay Berliner I stopped for directions set the stage for my encounter with the legendary city. 

For me, Berlin is a city of contradictions. A feast of culture — the state theatre system, classical and contemporary art galleries, three major opera companies, many orchestras — in coexistence with the most rank kitsch. The first sight that met my eyes after deplaning at Tegel Airport was an electric-pink billboard advertising Dirty Dancing: Das Musikal. The special quality of the city rests in this collision of very high art with very low, as though the city itself is camp. Berliners feel much the same: utterly forthright or steely and protective, willing to share their city’s hidden wonders one minute and covetous of its hidden treasures the next. In broken German, I very apologetically ask a rather severe looking Bavarian ticket agent on the S-Bahn platform at Friedrichstrasse — one of Berlin’s central public transit arteries — if she speaks English. “Ich lebe in Deutschland. Ich spreche Deutsch!” she replies, before slamming her window. Evidently, not everyone is as helpful as my beautiful gay stranger.

I have come to investigate the pre-history of the gay rights movement and connect to my roots. I also want to stare the endgame of homophobia directly in the face by visiting the monuments to the Nazi persecution of homosexuals. Like Isherwood, I, too, am “a camera with its shutter open.”

Magnus Hirschfeld-Gesellschaft

I join a meeting of the highly active grassroots organization Magnus-Hirschfeld-Gesellschaft, a group that exists to promote the legacy of pioneering sexologist and father of the gay rights movement Dr Magnus Hirschfeld. The group’s extensive archive, dating back to the 1800s, contains documentation of the early struggle for gay and lesbian rights in Germany. Some of the organization’s activities include the establishment of two permanent memorials to Hirschfeld in Berlin’s Tiergarten central park. There’s a street named in his honour and a monument where his Institute for Sexual Science stood before it was attacked and looted by the Nazis. A memorial to the Nazi book burnings that followed is located at Bebelplatz, a public square off the Unter den Linden across from the Staatsoper (the State Opera). The excellent collection at the Jüdisches Museum (the Jewish Museum) features an exhibit exploring Hirschfeld’s contribution to sexual science and contains many photographs and sexual artifacts.

Schwules Museum

In the Kreuzberg neighbourhood of Berlin, a mix of Turkish immigrants and artists of all disciplines coexist in a constant state of flux. In Kreuzberg’s Mehringdamm 61 district is the Schwules Museum, Berlin’s major international museum of gay and lesbian history. Opened in 1984 and run entirely without government support, the museum has grown from a single room to incorporate several floors. Its collection includes a vast archive of books, documents and ephemera representing queer experience. The museum also hosts various exhibitions, such as “Self-Awareness and Persistence: 200 Years of History.” The permanent collection focuses on Hirschfeld’s struggle against Paragraph 175, Germany’s anti-sodomy law. Gay sex wasn’t entirely decriminalized in Germany until 1994. While the term “Schwules” refers specifically to gay men, museum director Karl-Heinz Steinle tells me the museum has expanded its focus to include the histories of lesbian, transgendered and other queer people as well.


Schöneberg, Berlin’s once infamous gay neighbourhood, is a short walk from the Kurfürstendamm, an upscale shopping district. Germany’s oldest gay and lesbian bookstore, Prinz Eisenherz-Buchladen, is located on Lietzenburgerstrasse and is definitely worth a look. It features a huge stock of magazines, videos and books, including a selection of English titles. While in Schöneberg, make time to travel to the U-Bahn metro station at Nollendorfplatz. A hangout for Christopher Isherwood and WH Auden during their time in Berlin, Nollendorfplatz is at the heart of Berlin’s gay village. In 1989, the first public memorial was established there to the homosexual victims of National Socialism. Attached to the wall outside the station is a pink triangle inscribed with the phrase Totgeschlagen/Totgeschwiegen (beaten to death/silenced to death).

Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp

An hour on the U-Bahn from the city centre is the storybook town of Oranienburg. The place is best known as the site of Sachsenhausen, a Nazi concentration camp built originally for political prisoners. As many as 15,000 gay men, branded race traitors for failing to aid in procreation for the Fatherland, met their deaths in Nazi camps. Many thousands more had their lives ruined, blackmailed and prosecuted under Paragraph 175.

As you navigate the grounds at Sachsenhausen, you follow the story of one pink-triangle prisoner — so-called because of the badge sewn onto his uniform marking him as a homosexual — named Walter Schwarze, who was born in Leipzig and arrested under Paragraph 175 in 1940. There is, it must be said, something slightly crass about feeling more deeply about the Holocaust when it affects you personally, but it isn’t until I see a metal plaque attached to an interior wall at Sachsenhausen that I truly break down. Wandering past a set of gallows, I realize I am seeing a memorial to Sachsenhausen’s homosexual victims, killed in the infamous brick works, starved, beaten, tortured or subjected to inhuman medical experimentation. It’s all a chilling reminder of the importance of vigilance in the face of day-to-day homophobia and bigotry.

Inside the ruins of the former crematoria, a wall is marked with the words of Sachsenhausen survivor Andrzej Szczypiorski: “And know one thing more — that the Europe of the future cannot exist without commemorating all those, regardless of their nationality, who were killed at that time with complete contempt and hate, who were tortured to death, starved, gassed, incinerated and hanged.”

Memorial to the Homosexuals Persecuted Under the National Socialist Regime

Across the street from the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe is Berlin’s second memorial to the Nazis’ gay victims. Resting just off the street in the Tiergarten and a short walk from the Brandenburg Gate, the monument — designed by Danish-Norwegian artists Michael Elmgreen and Ingar Dragset — is a rectangular concrete box with a small cut-out window. Inside is a video display of two beautiful gay men embracing, kissing passionately.

“It comforts me to know that no matter how much hatred exists in the world, somewhere in Berlin two men are kissing,” a friend once told me.

May it ever be so.