Would it surprise you to know Berlin, Germany was considered the sexual capital of Europe in the 1920’s? The truth is by day, Berlin was like any other city with people going to work and living their lives. However, after 5pm when offices closed and people left work, the city underwent a tremendous transformation. Places that were cafes and restaurants by day became gay clubs, strip clubs and the center of sexual daydreams by night. As the 1920’s became roaring, Berlin became a haven for artist, writers, performers and those seeking a life free of sexual inhibitions.
After World War I Germany was a democracy and it was decided censorship had no place in the New Berlin. There was an attitude of “anything goes” when it came to sex, art, and decadence. Berlin even replaced Paris as the center of hedonism by embracing this new found sexual freedom with total abandon. Imagine living in a city where people were not ashamed of their sexuality and sensuality. For that is how Berlin was during the 1920’s.
Before there were “Naughty Girl’s Guides” written by me, there were naughty guides to Berlin back in the 1920s. Between 1919 and 1933, Berlin was the major destination for sex tourists. Anyone who came to the city looking for something naughty could find many editions of “guide books” to Berlin’s erotic nightlife sold in bookstores. There were an estimated 500 so-called naughty venues in some of the guides, that included a large number of homosexual venues for men and for lesbians; sometimes transvestites of one or both genders were admitted, otherwise there were at least 5 known establishments that were exclusively for a transvestite clientele. There were also several nudist venues that you find in the guides.
When tourists, and naughty ones, came to Berlin, the first thing they would have noticed were all the thousands of prostitutes, on the streets, in hotel lobbies, and seated at cafés and clubs. Unlike Paris, Buenos Aires and Shanghai, Berlin never had an established red-light district or legalized brothels as prostitution was illegal but was allowed in practice.
A person could find any sexual activity there and the city was incredibly tolerant to outsiders. In fact, Berlin became a haven not only for tourists looking for sexual adventure but in a time when people in post war Berlin were desperate for money, many citizens turned their homes into sex houses and brothels. You could buy any form of sex in Berlin; men, women, children, Mistresses to transvestite prostitutes. Indeed, anything known to man on a sexual basis was available. It was estimated that on any given night in Berlin there were over 100,000 sex workers on the street. That is more than the population of many of today’s small towns.
For gays and lesbians who were seeking the freedom of sexual expression, and frowned upon in their own countries, Berlin was like an answered prayer. It was considered the modern town for women and was filled with lesbian life. Instead of hiding their true life, in Berlin they were able to celebrate it. Berlin was considered the more openly gay city in the world at the time.
Have you ever been in a city where you could feel the energy in the air? Berlin in the 1920’s had that energy and then some. In fact, the term “In the Air” was coined in Berlin during this time. There was so much energy and wild sexual behavior that the people actually believed there were amphetamines and other substances “in the air” they were breathing that kept them up all night and energized their behavior.
Berlin was also a mecca for talented artists from all over the world. Singers and other performers, artists, anyone with talent found Berlin to be THE place. Cabarets were everywhere and people could choose from a plethora of entertainment every night. Performances took on a sexual tone with erotic dance, striptease and on stage nudity. Today this can be experienced in the stage show and movie “Cabaret” with Liza Minnelli playing cabaret singer Sally Bowles, which was originally writing in Berlin during this time.
Perhaps the most famous performer to come out of Berlin in the 1920s was Marlene Dietrich. Long before she was launched into worldwide stardom in the film Blue Angel, Dietrich was a performer in Berlin and considered an omnipotent sexual figure. Her androgyny was legendary as she wore men’s suits and a monocle. Quite open about her sexuality and her desire to have sex with both men and women, Dietrich was a fascinating woman who lived her life on her own terms making no apologies for her sexual activities. Dietrich kept her mystery and allure around her sexuality for the rest of her life making her one of the most fascinating women in modern history.
If there was anyone more interesting than Marlene Dietrich in Berlin in the 1920s it had to be Anita Berber. Also known for her androgyny Berber’s name was synonymous for scandal. She was one of the first people to dance naked on the German stage and her performances were known for their eroticism and sensuality. As her reputation grew more scandalous, Berber embraced it and celebrated her fame for debauchery. While her performances shattered boundaries for androgyny and total nudity, it was her life off stage that also made Berber a legend. An open bisexual and prostitute, Berber also experimented with narcotics and was said to eat chloroform and ether off of rose petals. Berber was the subject of a very famous Otto Dix painted called “The Dancer Anita Berber” that was later made into a postage stamp in Germany. Sadly Berber died at the young age of 29 supposedly of a morphine overdose.
One of the most progressive things to come out of Berlin in the 1920s was the Magnus Hirschfield’s research. In 1919 Hirschfield founded the Institute for Sexual Research in Berlin. He is considered to be the first activist for rights of homosexuals and transgendered persons. Known as “The Einstein of Sex,” Hirschfield felt that using science to explain sexual orientation, discrimination against sexual minorities would decline. Since Berlin was bursting with sexual activity including great amounts of gay and lesbian sex, Hirschfield was certainly in the right place at the right time for his research and activism. Sadly, when the Nazis came to power, they burned his books and papers and destroyed the Institute for Sexual Research.
In 1928 Nazi propaganda denounced Berlin and all the Nazi’s thought was wrong with the city. This meant propaganda against sex, gays, Jews and other minority groups. As the Nazi’s continued to rise to power they closed down and raided clubs and even made the Eldorado club, which was a famous transvestite club their headquarters after they closed it down. With the Nazi’s leading Germany into World War II the era of Berlin being the sexual capital of the world passed into history.
Although it exists for us now through other’s memories and stories of the time, imagine if you could stroll through the streets of Berlin and see the cabarets, the brothels and the open attitudes about sex. You would be able to feel the sexual energy “in the air” and know that to have lived in this time and experienced the Berlin of the 1920s was to live with total sexual abandon.