The Weimar Republic, also known as interwar Germany, lasted from 1919 and 1933, and was basically a sexual free-for-all. In terms of sexual liberation and divine decadence, there was nothing more in-your-face than the Berlin sexplosion of the '20s. So what was really going down? You've probably seen it immortalized in films like Cabaret, but these real life stories of Weimar decadence make Liza's dance moves in look downright tame.
Sexual liberation and bold, progressive art movements like expressionist cinema, Dada, and Bauhaus burgeoned in post-war Germany, though the restrictive terms of the Treaty of Versailles, imposed on Germany at the end of WWI, created numerous social and political problems. As author Mel Gordon put it, this drug-and-sex fueled cultural Renaissance was born of deep anxiety instilled by WWI: “It wasn’t just sex the way, say, the French would have enjoyed it, like a good meal or music. Rather, it was sex that was always mixed with something else, like danger, power, or death.”
Conservative backlash to the new artistic and sexual progressivism, which was unjustly blamed on Jews, coupled with negative inflation and social unrest created the perfect conditions to blend the vile soup of Nazism, and so died the beautiful chaos of the Weimar Republic.
But while it was good, everything was happening in the Weimar Republic, a gender-bending orgy of modern life. And sex in Weimar Germany was everywhere. Homosexuality, nudity, prostitution, and orgies were easy to come by, as were drugs and alcohol.
So take a look at these real-life accounts of what was going down in the Weimar Republic. You'll never look at Germans the same way again.
Recreational cocaine use started creeping around Germany in the lead up to the WWI. As Carl Ludwig Scheilch wrote in his 1921 paper "Cocaineism", "In the mobility mania that seized the whole of our modern culture before the war there was an ecstatic longing for intesitification." This need was satisfied by cocaine. As the violent fervor of the war subsided, the German craving for stimulation traveled to the nightclubs of Berlin, where cocaine use multiplied.
Coke was so prevalent in Weimar Berlin that poet Carl Zucherson lyrically wove it into the air he breathed: "The air was always fresh and spiced up, One did not need much sleep and never got tired.” A book on Berlin from the time, Children of the Night. Images from the Thug Life contained a section on the dangerous nightlife of Berlin, in which it's written:
The sausage seller sells not only his sausage treats but offers his customers the chance for other, forbidden pleasures as well. For on the side he also does a booming retail trade in cocaine, the white powder, and in this connection his clientele might well be much more extensive and loyal. One has no idea how quickly the vice of cocaine has made its home in Germany; broad groups of the population have fallen hopelessly into its clutches. One can estimate that thirty percent of all prostitutes, gamblers, and pederasts are cocaine users, and in other callings as well, in particular among artists, cocaine has found its loyal slaves.
The constant blizzard of Berlin was aided by E. Merck, the world's leading producer of pharmaceutical cocaine that also happened to be located in Germany. Cafes served coke to patrons, who sniffed it openly from tables. You could also order opium, hash, marijuana, and even glue to sniff. As Barbara Ulrich shows in her book The Hot Girls of Weimar Berlin, cocaine use went hand-in-hand with sexual hedonism and experimentation.
Cabarets were the center of cultural nightlife in Weimar Berlin, a swirl of alcohol, drugs, sex, fashion, and performance art. Seminal playwright Bertol Brecht once took to the stage of a Berlin cabaret to perform Ballad of the Dead Soldier, a pitch-black satirical ballad in which the German army dug up the corpses of soldiers and sent them back to the front. In addition to cabarets, Berlin had hundreds of bars, which were highly specialized, catering to straight men, gay men, lesbians, male cross-dressers, female cross-dressers, and the occasional nonbinary pansexual bonanza. At one particular bar, the Eldorado, historians say it wouldn't have been uncommon to hear androgynous performers claim to be "whatever sex you wish me to be” if asked about their gender.
In this joyous, bacchanal milieu, Berliners could also find a special show called Beauty Nights, an absurd cocktail of night at the opera and sordid jaunt to a nudie bar. As described by Tony Perrottet in Drexel University publication The Smart Set, "Many other 'cabarets' were simply strip clubs or erotic pageants euphemistically known as Beauty Nights, where seedy patrons sat with opera glasses even though only 15 feet away."
Marlene Dietrich earns two spots on this list, which makes sense, given how author Diana McLellan once described her as "perhaps the busiest and most passionate bisexual in theatrical Berlin." Of course, many Americans know the German actress for roles in classic films like Shanghai Express, Touch of Evil, The Devil Is a Woman, and Blonde Venus, but before she landed in Hollywood, Deitrich was a controversial atomic sex bomb of the German stage and screen.
Dietrich's backstage dalliances in Berlin's wild Weimar theater scene are particularly fascinating. She was known for her rapacious sexual appetite, which manifested itself in all manner of wild ways. Noted German actor Klaus Kinski described one such backstage dalliance in his autobiography, writing, "Marlene tore down Edith [Edwards]'s panties backstage in a Berlin theatre and, using just her mouth, brought Edith to orgasm."
When someone writes a book called The Seven Addictions and Five Professions of Anita Berber: Weimar Berlin’s Priestess of Depravity, you know the subject was as licentious as they come. A professional dancer, Anita Berber was an extravagant hedonist, engaging in drugs and alcohol with abandon. She enjoyed coke, morphine, and opium, but her favorite substance was truly dangerous. Stories say she would eat rose petals that had been soaked in a mixture of chloroform and ether.
Above and beyond her propensity for ingesting lethal chemicals for the sake of partying, Berber was most known for her sexual conquests. Rumor was she dabbled in BDSM, and she was famous for breaking sexual and gender boundaries in nude and androgynous burlesque performances. As with her drug use, Berber was overt in her libidinous bisexuality, which often flaunted a complete disregard for public vs. private spheres. Take, for instance, this tale:
As the evening’s petty flirtations turned to suggestive whispers and drunken groping, Anita stood up and enacted a passionate tango with Mia, an attractive strawberry-blonde and the partner of a notorious lesbian named Ellen. While the crowd gathered around the inebriated dancers, Anita methodically palmed the girl’s nipples until the giddy blonde nearly collapsed in orgasmic surrender. Ellen rushed to support her unsteady lover and commanded Anita to sit down. The air crackled with tension and sexual provocation.
Perhaps Berber is most succinctly summed up by the contemporary who described her as “the most remarkable spirit that I ever met in the weird underworld of human sexuality.”