Kaiser Wilhelm II famously led his country to defeat in World War I. But prior to that, the erratic ruler suffered a nervous breakdown over the Eulenberg affair and his association with the so-called ‘German Vice’ — homosexuality. He died on this day — June 4, 1941.
Germany’s Eulenberg affair eclipsed even the Oscar Wilde trial as the greatest gay scandal of the pre-World War I era. Wilde no doubt exerted immense cultural influence in the 1890s. But Prince Eulenberg, as a close friend of the German Kaiser, impacted the public policy of Europe’s most powerful nation. When political enemies outed Eulenberg, the Kaiser risked becoming collateral damage.
Philipp, Prince of Eulenburg, first met the grandson of the first German emperor in 1886. The 39-year-old prince and 27-year-old heir to the throne became, in Wilhelm’s words, bosom friends. Within two years, the deaths of Wilhelm’s grandfather and then father saw him on the throne as Kaiser Wilhelm II.
However, the Kaiser soon came into conflict with the empire’s long-serving and able administrator, Otto von Bismarck. Wilhelm engineered the resignation of the Iron Chancellor and assumed direct control over Germany.
Wilhelm proved a poor administrator, especially in the area of foreign affairs. Many blame him for World War I pointing to the antagonism that resulted from his inept diplomacy. But, by the time of the war, Kaiser Wilhelm already lost substantial control of his administration and military due to fallout from the Eulenberg affair.
In 1907, Eulenberg and others in the Kaiser’s cabinet and entourage were outed as gay. The resultant scandal continued until 1909 with public outrage constantly reinvigorated by revelations from a series of scandalous court cases.
Although married with eight kids and known to indulge in extra-marital affairs with women, Eulenberg preferred sex with men. He made little secret of it among his friends. Most scholars dismiss as ridiculous the Kaiser’s claimed ignorance concerning the sexuality of his intimate companion of 22 years.
But then many scholars question the sexuality of the Kaiser himself, either describing him as a ‘repressed homosexual’ or referring to ‘homosexual inclinations’. Years before, Bismark hinted at his own suspicions about the Kaiser and Eulenberg in a letter to his son. He said there were aspects of the relationship he did “not wish to commit to paper. I will not write down very much that I want to talk to you about.”
Not that queers want to claim Kaiser Wilhelm II as one of their own. But queer people are just… people. Which means, like everyone else, they can be good, bad, or any point between.
Eulenberg and Kaiser Wilhelm undoubtedly rank with the bad. Racist and anti-semitic, neither believed in democracy, both firmly favouring autocratic monarchy. As Kaiser, Wilhelm did nothing about Paragraph 175 of the German Criminal Code which criminalised male homosexuality. Nor did Eulenberg ever speak out against it. But Maximilian Harden did. A journalist heavily involved in Eulenberg’s outing, Harden, despite believing Eulenberg unfit for public office, advocated the decriminalisation of homosexuality. It’s a funny old world.
The German Vice
The Eulenberg affair played into the hands of Germany’s unfriendly neighbour, France.
Just as Russia’s Putin and Uganda’s Museveni describe homosexuality as a western phenomenon today, throughout history, various nations associated gay sex with people from other countries. During the 20th century, people in the anglosphere commonly referred to anal sex, — and by extension, homosexuality — as Greek. During the 16th and 17th centuries, the French nicknamed homosexuality the Italian vice, and then in the 18th redirected their disdain to the English.
But by the late 19th century, even gay Frenchmen referred to homosexual activity as the German vice. Men loitering in Parisian pissoirs sounded each other out by asking “Do you speak German?”
Pink tutus and circus poodles
French satirists and cartoonists risked repetitive strain injury in their eagerness to pump our artwork depicting the Huns as slutty gays, often slutty cross-dressed gays. The Eulenberg affair gave them licence to include likenesses of the Kaiser.
Especially following the death of Dietrich von Hülsen-Haeseler, Chief of the German Imperial Military Cabinet, in 1908. Not so much that he died, but how he died.
The general collapsed and died following a performance he gave for the Kaiser and his mates at party. The esteemed military official had performed a dance complete with pirouettes, jumps, capers and flirtatious kisses to the all-male audience. All while dressed as a woman in a pink tutu.
Wilhelm apparently enjoyed such performances with soldiers regularly tasked with performing as either ballerinas or poodles. A letter from one of his courtiers to a German count requested that the aristocrat parade as a circus poodle wearing a fig leaf in front and ‘a genuine poodle tail [with] a marked rectal opening’ behind. Pioneering puppy play!
The Eulenberg affair ended with Eulenberg and a few others exiled from court, some short prison sentences and Kaiser Wilhelm II suffering a nervous breakdown.
But while Germany tried to move on, France proved to have a long memory. During World War I, French artists produced thousands of propaganda postcards depicting Germans engaging in carnal same-sex pursuits. They drew German soldiers responding joyously to a French bayonet up the arse or stealing clients from honest hard-working French streetwalkers.
The war of course proved Wilhelm’s undoing. He abdicated, went into exile in the Netherlands, remarried and did his best to rewrite history with himself front and centre as a blameless genius.
As you do.
French propaganda postcards
ברחבי אירופה הופצו גלויות שלעגו לצבא הגרמני מוכה ההומוסקסואליות. בחלק מהגלויות ניתן לראות חיילים גרמנים בוחנים ישבנים של חיילים תורכים, חיילים גרמנים נחדרים ע״י נשקיהם של חיילים צרפתים או איורים של זונות שנאלצות להתחרות בחיילים גרמנים (שעל פי השמועות עסקו בזנות כהשלמת הכנסה) pic.twitter.com/81gjjGlA6U
— Shir Decker (@shirdecker) February 19, 2021
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