The Death of Chatterton, 1856, by Henry Wallis, via Wikimedia
Friedrich Alfred Krupp, heir to the mammoth Krupp armaments business and the wealthiest man in Germany, committed suicide on 22 November 1902. Only a week before, a socialist newspaper had published rumours of the hedonistic gay orgies that the middle-aged tycoon held on the Italian island of Capri. Rather than face prosecution under Germany’s infamous Paragraph 175, which banned ‘unnatural’ acts between men, he took his own life.
Krupp’s suicide, though a sensation, was only one in a long and remarkable history of gay suicide in Germany. That history points to the present-day stereotype of gay suicide and explains its tenacious hold on our culture.
The propensity for gay Germans to take their own lives dated at least to the 1860s, to the era when the very idea of homosexuality was beginning to take form. Prussia had long criminalised sodomy, and when the German Empire unified in 1871, it adopted the Prussian ban on male-male sex acts as Paragraph 175 of its new criminal code. At this time, campaigners against the ban became the first to publicly mobilise the idea of homosexuality – the idea that a person’s appetite for same-sex sex constituted a medical, biological and social identity. The idea of homosexuality thus first arose not in order to control sexuality but as a way to fight for greater legal recognition and protection for gay men facing stigmatisation and persecution.
The lawyer Karl Ulrichs, the doctor Magnus Hirschfeld, and the sexologist Richard von Krafft-Ebing, among others, all engaged in public campaigns against Paragraph 175. By their efforts, the idea of homosexuality took root in popular literature, spread through affinity groups such as Hirschfeld’s Scientific-Humanitarian Committee and the publicist Adolf Brand’s Gemeinschaft der Eigenen.
In their speeches and writings, these activists discussed what they believed was a gay propensity to commit suicide, claiming that legal sanctions and blackmail led droves of gay men to kill themselves. It was a compelling argument, but in the mid-19th century only a small set of primarily German intellectuals associated suicide with homosexuality.
As gay identity spread, so did the notion that gay men were more prone to suicide. Late-19th- and early 20th-century writers picked up on the association between homosexuality and suicide, using their gay protagonists’ suicides as a way to criticise the German law and its tendency to encourage blackmail.
Following the First World War, Germany abolished censorship, and novelists found themselves able to publish far more freely. Klaus Mann, Anna Elisabet Weirauch, Christa Winsloe, Erich Ebermayer and others wrote novels, short stories and plays openly depicting gay and lesbian characters who, in the course of these works, were never exposed to prosecution under Paragraph 175 nor threatened with blackmail.
Nonetheless, these young authors, who had grown up on a German tradition of neo-Romanticism – from Friedrich Nietzsche and Richard Wagner to Thomas Mann and Stefan George – that glorified sacrifice, yearning and death, made gay suicide central features of their plots. They used the suicides of their characters not to show the suffering caused by the German legal code, but rather as a cathartic catastrophe with which to seal the tragedy of their art.
The novelist Klaus Mann, son of Thomas, made virtually all of his gay characters commit suicide, as he himself did in 1949. In his notorious coming-out novel The Pious Dance (1925), the gay protagonist witnesses a friend’s suicide and writes: ‘so much greater and fiercer the disquietude, that much more blessed will be the calm that follows. Movement is ripe for stillness. Life is ripe for death.’
In Winsloe’s Girls in Uniform, turned into films in 1931 and 1958, the lesbian protagonist Manuela throws herself out of a school window when she is separated from the teacher she loves.
In Weirauch’s trilogy The Scorpion, the lesbian heroine Mette, whose lover shoots herself seemingly on a whim, declares at the end of the first novel: ‘I will learn to love [death]. I will live in order to learn to love death. Perhaps that is why we have to live.’
When the Nazis took power in 1933, many gay intellectuals in Germany fled abroad, often to the United States, and might well have brought this gay-suicide trope with them. The historian George Chauncey noted that when gay American literature began to appear in the early 1930s, it frequently incorporated suicide. The headline of the New York Times’ 1942 review of Klaus Mann’s English autobiography read: ‘Klaus Mann’s Youth: More of his friends have died by their own hands than by disease.’
Thus, when gay characters’ deaths are portrayed lovingly, romantically or cathartically today – such as the suicide of Virginia Woolf in the novel The Hours (1998) or of Michael Corrigan in the TV drama House of Cards (2013-15) – it is worth noting these are echoes of a literary device that first sounded in Weimar Berlin. And to acknowledge that, so long as lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) teenagers see characters who look and talk and think like themselves, and who then kill themselves, suicide will continue to suggest itself as a plausible course of action.
Fictional representations of LGBT characters are important because, in the lonely world of the closet, they might be the only models young people have. Depictions of romantic suicides are particularly insidious because populations confronted with suicide – whether illusory or real – are more prone to it themselves. Gay, lesbian and transgender youth are between twice and four times as likely as their straight peers to attempt suicide.
The irony of the death wish was that – by exposing the victimisation of homosexual men – gay activists, scientists and novelists made victims of the gay population. For, by encouraging gay men and women to see themselves as victims of suicide, they naturalised gay suicide and helped foster the conditions of its perpetuation. The activists who first railed against unjust laws and the authors who dramatised their consequences in literature created a trope that would become a monster. This gay suicide trope is a grotesque and farcical reality that still causes suffering, a literary device perpetuated by a romantic sensibility that absurdly insists that the most fitting end to any gay life is premature, self-inflicted death. The ‘tragic homosexual’ is a stereotype we can live without.
Samuel Clowes Hunekeis a historian of modern Europe at Stanford University. His work focuses on 19th- and 20th-century Germany, and the history of sexuality, science, and mathematics.
This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.