In its uniquely twisted ideology, the National Socialist Party of Germany (NASDP or Nazi) presented itself as the natural champion of traditional morality. It rewarded and honoured mothers who had strengthened the fatherland by bearing prodigious broods. It supported wholesome exercise and outdoor activities through its ‘Kraft durch Freude’ (Strength through Joy) leisure organization. Indeed, the Nazi’s original 25-point programme made their position clear:
“21. The State has the duty to help raise the standard of national health by providing maternity welfare centers, by prohibiting juvenile labor, by increasing physical fitness through the introduction of compulsory games and gymnastics, and by the greatest possible encouragement of associations concerned with the physical education of the young.”
This wholesome aspiration jarred against the Germany of the Weimar Republic. Berlin, the decadent heart of the ‘morally bankrupt’ republic (as conservative Germans saw it), was the world-famous liberal, radical and tolerant backdrop for a frenetic artistic, cultural and social scene.
A disorientating and unprecedented mood of sexual liberation had seen the establishment of approximately 500 erotic entertainment venues in the German capital. Homosexuality, transvestism, free love, experimentation and, inevitably, prostitution accompanied the more benign cabarets and drinking dens.
It was inevitable that in the clash of worlds following the Nazi assumption of power in 1933, Weimar culture would be crushed and Berlin forced to be a conservative city better reflective of the priorities of the ruling party. The city’s Jewish population was immediately targeted for special persecution and Berlin’s new ruling elite steadily attended to the ‘problems’ of homosexuals, prostitutes, ‘immoral’ nightlife and anything they felt was decadent or improper.
This was not simply the exuberant excess of a movement fresh to power – persecution would only increase as the months and years progressed. Homosexuals were specifically targeted in a major wave of arrests in October 1934 and the assault on the Jewish population was intensified by the Nuremburg laws of 15 September 1935.
This left the Nazi’s propaganda minister, Josef Goebbels, with a unique challenge. Weimar Germany had secured the rights to host the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin. It was a unique opportunity for Goebbels to showcase the regime to a sceptical international audience. But what was to be done with the inconvenient daubs of anti-Semitic graffiti and posters declaiming the menace of the Jews that were liberally spread throughout Berlin?
And how could they ensure visitors were not disappointed by the low-key nightlight that had replaced Weimar Berlin’s famous (and infamous) social scene. Goebbels was keen demonstrate that the Nazi regime was civilised and desperate to avoid criticism. The Anti-Semitic posters and graffiti were hastily removed from Berlin’s central area and the propaganda ministry stressed the importance of providing warm, Teutonic hospitality to foreigners.
Perhaps the most startling element of this campaign was the relaxation of controls on prostitution. Approximately 7,000 prostitutes were given the freedom to ply their trade, so ensuring male visitors could be provided with an intimate introduction to Germany’s virtues. This gave an uncharacteristically erotic spin on the concept of Strength through Joy. A relaxation of the regime’s sexual prohibitions was also made for foreign visitors – they would not to be subjected to the Nazi’s criminal sanctions against homosexuality.
The façade of tolerance and welcome was well maintained – the Berlin Games garnered widespread press approval. A report in the New York Times suggested that the successful hosting of the Olympics had put Germany “back in the fold of nations,” and even made Germans themselves “more human again.” William Shirer, the perceptive foreign correspondent for CBS, noted in his diary that:
“I’m afraid the Nazis have succeeded with their propaganda. First, the Nazis have run the Games on a lavish scale never before experienced, and this has appealed to the athletes. Second, the Nazis have put up a very good front for the general visitors, especially the big businessmen.”
Despite this, the Nazi regime worked assiduously behind the scenes to round up and incarcerate gypsies, homosexuals and any other undesirables from the streets of Berlin. On 16 July 1936 approximately 800 Gypsies were interned in a special camp in the Berlin suburb of Marzahn.
The veneer of Nazi tolerance was paper-thin even during the Games and was completely stripped in the following months and years. The persecution of Germany’s Jews would escalate inexorably through Kristallnacht to the unprecedented horrors of the Holocaust.
Homosexuals were targeted with renewed zeal when the Nazis created a department (Reichszentrale zur Bekämpfung der Homosexualität und Abtreibung – the Reich’s Central Office for Combating Homosexuality and Abortion) in 1936 with a mission seek out, arrest and detain homosexuals.
The Weimar Republic’s brief flirtation with tolerance and openness was over, but would return after then destruction of the Third Reich. Berlin today revels in the raucous glow of its Weimar past and comfortably wears the raffish, artistic air of a liberal cultural centre.