Voluptuous Panic: The Erotic World of Weimar Berlin
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The first few things that everyone think when the Weimar Republic is mentioned are piles of worthless banknotes burned for heating, sleazy cabarets and prostitution – and for good reasons. These were in fact prominent aspects of life in Germany in the 1920-30 decades, but what most people never consider is that the Marlene Dietrich imagery of decadent, debauched Berlin we know of is but a stereotype created by Nazi propaganda to justify the “cleansing” regime of Hitler. The truth was much more complex than that, and Voluptuous Panic – The Erotic World of Weimar Berlin does a great job of portraying it.
Mel Gordon’s obsessive research unearthed mountains of original literature, newspapers, photos and reports that miraculously escaped der führer’s suppression, and he pieced them together to draw a picture that is at once more disturbing and more reasonable than the shallow myth of a sauerkraut-fueled Babylon on the Spree. And while the history part is enlightening, the bulk of the book – dedicated to deviance in postwar Berlin – is a simply amazing analysis of what happens when a confluence of factors leaves mankind free of the rules imposed by a normal society.
Briefly put, terrifying economic conditions and a highly reduced male population forced an unprecedented number of women into prostitution of every kind. Which attracted comparatively wealthy clients from all over the world. Which inspired more people, including underage and male persons, to whore themselves out. Which attracted more clients, for whom adult clubs were opened catering to all inclinations. Which allowed gay people to come out in droves. Which attracted even more clients, and gave rise to lots of specialized venues (up to 85 lesbian-only clubs existed at a time in town!) and a veritable culture of gender-bending. Which begat an unique style of live entertainment, but also magazines, associations and actual research into unusual sexualities. Which allowed the creation of Magnus Hirschfeld’s sexology institute and its paraphilia museum. Which attracted more punters, sex tourists, uncommon people and artists… in a vortex of very liberated but also rather unsavory sexual exploration and excesses.
Spectacular themed clubs notwithstanding, this was fertile ground for con-men, lust murderers, drug dealers, occultists and Satanists – and it inevitably caused a social reaction that took many forms, from the “return to a healthy lifestyle” naturist and FKK-associations with their odd politics and struggles to the pseudo-moralistic Nazi party, that promised to “make Germany great again”. And we all know how it went – except I wasn’t aware that their very first violent act was raiding Hirschfeld’s institute, destroying its priceless research material and burning its library.
Gordon’s book walks the reader through all of the above pointing out every twist and turn in extreme detail. It is a fascinating read, only made somewhat tedious by the tendence to repeatedly enumerate things like the dozens of street names for very slightly different types of prostitutes, or the size of the dancing troupes of the many adult theatres in town. Voluptuous Panic is bound to surprise today’s readers with the description of a conception of sexuality so far and alien you could think to be fictional, if it wasn’t for the abundant photographic evidence before your eyes. It will often make you question whether our civilized and relatively affluent times could learn something from that unexpected social experiment in erotic anarchy – both in terms of warning and of inspiration.
I guess that each of us will take one or more different lessons from this unparalleled candid look at a part of history that is normally and criminally presented under a much more sanitized light. Like an Otto Dix painting it may initially repel, but ultimately its uncompromising view of reality will do wonders for your personal growth – especially if you have an interest for the less common parts of sexuality and eroticism.