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In ‘Transparent,’ the Dangers of Apathy in Weimar Germany’s Queer Culture

Berlin book burnings in Opernplatz. (photo courtesy German Federal Archive, via Wikipedia)
Berlin book burnings in Opernplatz. (photo courtesy German Federal Archive, via Wikipedia)

They’re on top of the world: partying, popular, queer kids with everything going for them. Their friends are all living along the LGBTQ spectrum, and they have finally found a place to feel alive, free and — most importantly — themselves. Even better, the trans-identified among them have much to celebrate with regards to legal recognition of their gender identities. This is not 1960s San Francisco or 1980s New York or today’s internet communities: it’s 1933 in Weimar Berlin.

A young Rose in 1930s Berlin (via Transparent)
A young Rose in 1930s Berlin (via Transparent)

This day in history, May 10, 1933 to be exact, Nazi youth burned some 20,000 to 25,000 books deemed “degenerate” by the fascist regime. The largest of these book burnings occured in Berlin’s Orpenplatz, with a simultaneous broadcast on the radio for those who weren’t able to attend in person. Writing last year of the historic events, Deutsche Welle described eyewitness accounts:

Selected students threw books into the fire again and again as ideological proclamations were shouted into the crowd. One of the statements was: “Against decadence and moral decay! For breeding and convention in the family and state! I turn writings by Heinrich Mann, Ernst Glaeser and Erich Kästner over to the fire!”

Erich Kästner, the author of internationally renowned children’s books including Emil and the Detectives (1929), was present that night at the Opernplatz and bore witness to the hideous spectacle.

“I stood in front of the university, wedged between students in SA uniforms, in the prime of their lives, and saw our books flying into the quivering flames,” Kästner later wrote. He concluded: “It was disgusting.”

About halfway through first episode of season two of Transparent, Amazon’s popular new television series about an affluent Jewish family in contemporary Los Angeles and their very queer explorations of love and sexuality, we are transported to their Berlin-based ancestors a generation back. The show’s parallel historic timeline starts shortly before the book burning, presaging the tensions in subsequent episodes.

Rose, the family’s aging matriarch, now lives in a nursing home somewhere along the California coast. But in the 1930s, she was hanging out in Berlin with Gittel, who by today’s terminology might have identified as a transgender woman. Gittel had been granted a transvestite pass — the very word “transvestite” was still new and transgender wasn’t yet in us — which allowed her to live in Berlin living as a woman without fear of police violence. It is worth mention that in 1909 queer researcher Magnus Hirschfeld convinced Berlin police to issue permits so that carriers wouldn’t be arrested or hassled in public.

She was just one of many queer people at Hirschfield’s Institute for Sexual Research, which became a critical third space for anyone along the LGBTQ spectrum. According to Lisa Liebman at Vulture, the Institute is grounded in real history: Hirschfield pioneered important research and dialogue around queer identities and sexualities. As show creator Jill Solloway noted in an interview:

There would’ve been a girl just like Hari [Nef, who played Gittel] at that time who had exactly the same shape and resonance and excitement in the world. There are so many commonalities between what was happening then and what was happening now, in terms of fundamentalism and fascism and using queer people as a way to start wars and win elections. These ideas of the foreigner and closing borders — they were happening then and happening now.

The Berlin timeline has demonstrated once more how Solloway masterfully uses flashbacks to connect seemingly disparate time periods and events. Her juxtaposition of contemporary Los Angeles with historic Nazi zealotry should violate Godwin’s Law, as the New Yorker’s Emily Nussbaum wrote, but it works. Part of the reason may be that this isn’t the show’s first flashback, and it isn’t the show’s first foray into a forgotten history. Queer people have always existed, but their ability to find each other and form community has not.

On May 10, 1933, Nazis in Berlin burned works by leftists and other authors considered "un-German", including thousands of books looted from the library of Hirschfeld's Institut für Sexualwissenschaft. (in the collection of the US National Archives, via Wikipedia)
On May 10, 1933, Nazis in Berlin burned works by leftists and other authors considered “un-German”, including thousands of books looted from the library of Hirschfeld’s Institut für Sexualwissenschaft. (in the collection of the US National Archives, via Wikipedia)

In the first season, the flashbacks focused on the show’s eponymous “trans parent” Maura Pfefferman, played by Jeffrey Tambor, who explored her gender identity in furtive fits and starts in the 1990s. But while the transgender “hook” is where many shows end — think Ace Ventura and The Crying Game — in Transparent this is simply a starting point. The show moves backwards in time, to Maura’s utter lack of community and resources and how that affected her ability to be present for her family, and forward in time, with her daughters’ explorations of their own queer sexualities.

Though not above important critique, the show itself is pushing culture forward not just in its groundbreaking depictions of queer sexualities and identities but in its trans-inclusive hiring practices. Except for Tambor, all the trans characters are played by trans actors, and showrunner Jill Solloway has pushed for a trans-inclusive hiring process across the production. When we reflect on this historic moment the Western world is undergoing with regards to gay and trans rights and freedoms, Transparent’s flashbacks remind us of pre-21st century queer life, helping us draw connections with today.

Back to 1933 Berlin. So much of popular queer history discussed in the US focuses on the period from Stonewall to the present, an important trajectory in the advancement of Americans’ LGBTQ rights that continues today. However, in the early 20th century, Berlin was arguably the epicenter of a global, urban flowering of gay culture, taking the form of “pansy parlors,” balls, and cabarets in places like Chicago, New York, Havana, and Paris. It was in this era that the very concept of homosexual and heterosexual identities started to form (much as cisgender and transgender identities are starting to reach popular consciousness today).

Filmposter for Hirschfeld's "Gesetze der Liebe" (The rules/laws of love), 1927
Filmposter for Hirschfeld’s “Gesetze der Liebe” (The rules/laws of love), 1927

This entire period of queer history was crushed so successfully that it was nearly erased. The terrifying end of Transparent’s Berlin story depicts the book burnings that swept Berlin. In the United States, a backlash during the Great Depression forced queer party culture underground, and in Germany, the Third Reich’s fanning of xenophobia started with the targeting of anyone deemed sexually deviant. In fact, on of the Reich’s first book burnings focused on Hirschfield’s library and collection of research — the loss of this material is incalculable, and the ensuing loss of life unconscionable. The pink triangle, today one of many important symbologies used to identify some queers to each other, was then a mark of death in the concentration camps.

“This is the future,” Hirschfield declares on the show when he faces questions about his Institute. It may have been impossible then to imagine today’s battles over bathroom access, or that a future US Attorney General would declare support for transgender individuals’ dignity. However, much of Hirschfield’s work laid the groundwork for contemporary thinking about gender and gender identity.

Today, in an era of digital data, it would be hard to destroy community records with the same totality of a book burning, and trans and gender nonconforming individuals have Tumblr and other social media to support and find each other when their physical surroundings are unsafe. But even a flagship year for better trans media representation has also been a flagship for increased reports of violence. History can bend toward justice when we work hard to make justice possible, or history can snap back into an uncomfortable place if we assume everything will just work out.

Hirschfield was right, of course — we are living in his future — but it would be decades of economic depression, war, and geopolitical strife before transgender, gay, lesbian, queer, and intersex communities would start to see something resembling a light again. Transparent reminds us how quickly that light can be extinguished.

Transparent is available on Amazon Video.

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