Christopher and His Kind
I first read this book in 1977, during a euphoric time when the radicalism of Gay Liberation from the 1969 Stonewall Riot was going mainstream. People who had been openly gay to only a small circle of friends and family were going public.
I was 25, just a year older than Christopher Isherwood was when he arrived in Berlin in 1929. I was looking optimistically ahead. I did not see the coming waves of attach (political backlash, the AIDS pandemic) that would come in the next decade; nor did Christopher Isherwood know what would be coming in the ten years this memoir covers.
Christopher Isherwood revisits his 1935 and 1939 novels, Mr Norris Changes Trains and Goodbye to Berlin, which were the basis for I Am a Camera and Cabaret. Those novels, the play, musical and movies, have become a window into Wiemar Germany. However, they show a fictionalized story. In this memoir, Christopher Isherwood gives us their names and genders, placing his own homosexual coming-of-age and rapid maturing, front and center. The first half of the book is set mainly in Berlin. In the second half, Christopher and his lover Heinz, are traveling Europe in a futile attempt to find safe haven from the reign of terror which had become Germany.
The selections below tell us of his excitement on first going to Berlin and then the desperate times that follow.
The book I am now going to write will be as frank and factual as I can make it, especially as far as I myself am concerned. ... I shall begin at the point where the earlier book ends: twenty-four-year-old Christopher's departure from England on March 14, 1929, to visit Berlin for the first time in his life.
It was Berlin itself he was hungry to meet; the Berlin Wystan [W. H. Auden] had promised him. To Christopher, Berlin meant Boys.Page 2
Christopher Isherwood's first lodging was next door to the Institut für Sexualwissenschaft, Institute of Sex Research, run by Dr Hirschfeld, where Christopher joined the staff for lunch.
Dr. Hirschfeld seldom ate with them. He was represented by Karl Giese, his secretary and long-time lover.
While Paragraph 175 of the German Penal Code criminalized homosexual behavior, there was very limited prosecution.
The Berlin police “tolerated” the bars. No customer risked arrest simply for being in them. When the bars were raided, which didn't happen often, it was only the boys who were required to show their papers. Those who hadn't any or were wanted for some crime would make a rush to escape through a back door or window as the police came in.
Any tolerance or possibility of decriminalization of homosexual behavior had ended with the Campaign for a Clean Reich in February 1933.
Most of Christopher’s Jewish friends had left Germany or were about to leave. Dr. Hirschfeld had been away on a world tour since 1930. The tour had ended in France, where he remained, knowing that it would be fatal for him to return. Karl Giese had joined him there.…During the past year, politics had increasingly divided the bar boys. They had joined one or another of the street gangs which were encouraged, though not always officially recognized, by the Nazis or the Communists or the Nationalists. Now the non-Nazis were in danger, but many of them changed sides and were accepted. If you did get beaten up, it was more likely to be because you had a private enemy; this was a great opportunity to settle old scores.
Boy bars of every sort were being raided, now, and many were shut down. Christopher had lost touch with Karl Giese's friends. No doubt the prudent ones were scared and lying low, while the silly ones fluttered around town exclaiming how sexy the Storm Troopers looked in their uniforms. He knew only one pair of homosexual lovers who declared proudly that they were Nazis. Misled by their own erotic vision of a New Sparta, they fondly supposed that Germany was entering an era of military man-love, with all women excluded. They were aware, of course, that Christopher thought them crazy, but they dismissed him with a shrug. How could he understand? This wasn't his homeland . . . No, indeed it wasn't. Christopher had realized that for some time already. But this tragic pair of self-deceivers didn't realize — and wouldn't, until it was too late — that this wasn't their homeland, either.
Page 124 - 125
Christopher and Heinz spent four years traveling Europe, seeking a safe haven. In 1937, Heinz had to return to Germany where he was arrested for avoiding reporting for military service.
Heinz's trial was held in the middle of June. Christopher's name appeared in the transcript of the proceedings, incorrectly spelled. "The English citizen Ischervood, who unfortunately cannot be brought to justice," was accused of having committed reciprocal onanism with the prisoner in fourteen foreign countries and in the German Reich. The judge observed that, since he was ignorant of the various penalties for the prisoner's crime in these other countries, he would have to punish him according to German law. This remark may or may not have been meant as a joke, but its tone does suggest that the attitude of the court was relatively unhysterical, un-Nazi. Heinz got what was in those days considered a light sentence: six months in prison, to be followed by a year of labor service for the state and two years in the Army.
During the trial, Christopher had been mercifully ignorant of the greatest danger which had threatened Heinz. Instead of being sentenced to a fixed term in a regular prison, Heinz might easily have been sentenced to an indefinite term in a concentration camp, as many homosexuals were. In camp, Heinz would have been treated as an outcast of the Reich who differed from a Jew only in having to wear a pink triangle on his clothes instead of a yellow star. Like the Jews, homosexuals were often put into "liquidation" units, in which they were given less food and more work than other prisoners. Thus, thousands of them died.After Heinz had been sentenced, all Christopher could do for him was to send him letters so discreetly worded that they were no more than tokens and to provide him, through the German lawyer, with cigarettes and with food that was better than the regulation prison fare. There was no hope, now, of the two of them being able to see each other before 1941, when Heinz finished his military service, and very little hope that he would be allowed to leave Germany, even then.
Page 286 - 287
And then there was that old persisting question: Should he ever have taken Heinz out of Germany? Was Heinz now cursing him for this in his prison cell?(Fifteen years later, when Christopher next saw Heinz, in Berlin, Heinz assured him that he wouldn't, for any thing, have missed their travels together. But Heinz was then speaking with the maturity and generosity of an extraordinarily lucky survivor who had served in the German Army on both the Russian and the Western fronts and come out of the war with a whole skin. He alone had the right to blame Christopher. It had never occurred to him to do so.)
Christopher and His Kind (1976)
Christopher And His Kind 1929 - 1939
by Christopher Isherwood
Farrar Straus Giroux 1976