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German and Austrian Literature: Before the Nineteenth Century  
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Johann Wilhelm Ludwig Gleim

Literary history recognizes Gleim as a midcentury anacreontic poet and celebrator of Frederick the Great in his Prussian Soldier Songs. He lost the friend of his youth, Ewald von Kleist, also an anacreontic poet, in one of Frederick's wars.

Of greater relevance, however, are his letters and the historical record of his cultivation of friendship as a way of life. As a bachelor with a comfortable salary, the mature Gleim sought out promising young men whom he supported in various ways. Some lived with him in his comfortable Halberstadt home, where he encouraged them in their poetic endeavors; for others he found positions as tutors in private homes.

He maintained a lively correspondence with more than a hundred persons. In 1778, he published the Briefe von den Herren Gleim und Jacobi (The Letters of Gleim and Jacobi). The excessive tenderness displayed in these letters (over 13,000 epistolary "kisses") was an embarrassment even to the "age of sensibility."

In his living quarters, he established what he called the "temple of friendship," actually two rooms containing approximately 120 portraits of his friends and some family members. (The Gleimhaus museum has preserved these rooms.) Pride of place went to portraits of Gleim himself and his youthful friend Kleist. Bookcases contained bound sets of correspondence that were available for casual reading by house guests.

Was Gleim gay? Although there is no evidence of a specific homosexual act, the impression of an overwhelmingly homosocial culture could only be denied by a determined .

If this is true for Gleim, it certainly also holds for many others. Christian Fürchtegott Gellert was another bachelor poet. His popular novel The Life of the Swedish Countess of G*** (1750) recounts the ordeals of a count and countess who are separated soon after marriage.

While she undergoes an education in reason, he is removed to Russia and Siberia, where he is "educated" in feeling and the body. His tender love for a British fellow prisoner is most accurately described as latently homosexual. As for the countess, she unwittingly commits bigamy when she marries her husband's friend, a sensitive and distinctly unmanly type.

At the conclusion of the novel, the countess is twice widowed, and the only married couple still alive consists of an "Amazon" and the count's sensitive British friend. Gellert has, in every respect, undermined the traditional heterosexual relationship.

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

No account of eighteenth-century Germany is complete without consideration of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. His connection with Winckelmann and Müller has already been mentioned. On the strength of his theoretical writings, it is possible to argue that Goethe believed in a basic human bisexuality; it may be the case that this word best describes Goethe as well.

Homosexual phenomena occur frequently in his literary works. The planned prehistory of Werther strongly suggests the protagonist's homoerotic desire. The Storm and Stress poem "Ganymede" evokes a passive homosexuality. The Roman Elegies, product of Goethe's yearlong sojourn in Italy, have been interpreted as the veiled account of a gay love affair.

In the diaries and letters that were the basis for his Italian Journey (translated into English by W. H. Auden), he describes the homoerotic subculture with interest and approval; in a letter to his patron Karl August, he praises homosexuality as a solution to prostitution and venereal disease.

In Faust, the homosexuality of Mephisto becomes increasingly evident, and insofar as the devil is no longer unequivocally condemned, homosexuality is not demonized. At the play's conclusion, Mephisto is distracted at the decisive moment when Faust's soul is "saved." The distraction: naked angels whose buttocks draw his gaze irresistibly away from Faust's corpse.

During his Roman sojourn, Goethe became acquainted with Karl Philipp Moritz (1757-1793), yet another bachelor, whom he dubbed "my unfortunate twin brother." Moritz's autobiographical novel Anton Reiser (1785-1790) tells the story of a young man who suffers physical deprivation and psychological turmoil, never expresses any interest in women, cross-dresses for the stage (his best role ever), and longs to meet Goethe in order to "serve him."

The record of their intense and unusual relationship in Rome (Goethe tended to Moritz as he recovered from a broken arm) gives evidence of Moritz's tormented love for Goethe. Although Moritz died young, he wrote prolifically, as well as edited a remarkable journal of psychology, the Magazin zur Erfahrungsseelenkunde (1783-1793), which published a stream of first- and third-person accounts of psychological anomalies, among them homosexuality.


Historians of German literature, culture, and sexuality agree that the period of eighteenth-century tolerance concluded in the first decade of the nineteenth century. They call attention to the irony that this coincides with the abolition of Caroline law and the death penalty for sodomy.

Johannes von Müller found no sympathy with the male Romantics (Friedrich and August Schlegel, Clemens Brentano, and Achim von Arnim), though the women poets (Carolina Schlegel and Bettina Brentano, for example) responded warmly to his work.

Possible causes for the shift in attitude include the internalization of moral codes, the collapse of cosmopolitanism and the rise of nationalism, the return to Christian orthodoxy and the rejection of antiquity, and finally, the attraction of irrationalism. Lesbians and gays know that human reason is one of their best allies.

Simon Richter

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social sciences >> Overview:  Austria

A small German-speaking country in middle Europe, Austria is now home to a thriving glbtq subculture.

social sciences >> Overview:  Berlin

Notable in the twentieth century both for its pioneering efforts in homosexual emancipation and for the subsequent Nazi persecution of homosexuals, Berlin is now a major participant in the struggle to gain legal recognition of gay relationships.

literature >> Overview:  German and Austrian Literature: Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries

With major periodic setbacks, over the last two centuries German-speaking authors have gradually developed a gay and lesbian positive literature.

social sciences >> Overview:  Germany

While Germany, until recently, never officially accepted or welcomed members of the glbtq community, German culture and homosexuality have a long and significant history.

social sciences >> Overview:  Switzerland

Switzerland is a very cosmopolitan nation with a vibrant glbtq community, but it has lagged behind much of Europe, particularly the Nordic countries, when it comes to assuring equal rights.

social sciences >> Overview:  Vienna

The capital of Austria, Vienna is also the country's largest city, as well as its political, economic, and cultural center, and the undisputed hub of Austrian gay and lesbian life.

literature >> Auden, W. H.

One of the most accomplished poets of the twentieth century, W. H. Auden found that his gayness led him to new insights into the universal impulse to love and enlarged his understanding of all kinds of relationships.

literature >> Fichte, Hubert

Novelist Hubert Fichte was the first author to introduce homosexuality openly into German literature after World War II.

social sciences >> Frederick the Great

The homosexuality of Frederick the Great of Prussia was an open secret during his reign, yet some historians have attempted to deny it or to diminish its significance.

arts >> Rosenmüller, Johann

Seventeenth-century German composer Johann Rosenm├╝ller survived a homosexual scandal in Leipzig to reconstitute his career in Venice.

literature >> Winckelmann, Johann Joachim

The art historian Johann Joachim Winckelmann, the first German to have been publicly acknowledged as a homosexual, developed an aesthetic deeply rooted in his homosexuality.


Brall, Helmut. "Geschlechtlichkeit, Homosexualität, Freundesliebe: Über mannmännliche Liebe in mittelalterlicher Literatur." Forum Homosexualität und Literatur 13 (1991): 5-27.

Crompton, Louis. "The Myth of Lesbian Impunity: Capital Laws from 1270 to 1791." Journal of Homosexuality 6 (1980-1981): 11-25.

Derks, Paul. Die Schande der heiligen Päderastie: Homosexualität und Öffentlichkeit in der deutschen Literatur 1750-1850. Berlin: Rosa Winkel, 1990.

Fichte, Hubert. Homosexualität und Literatur 1. Frankfurt a/M: S. Fischer, 1987.

Jaeger, C. Stephen. "Mark and Tristan: The Love of Medieval Kings and their Courts." In Hohem Prise: A Festschrift in Honor of Ernst S. Dick. Winder McConnel, ed. Göppingen: Kümmerle, 1989.

Mohr, Heinrich. "Freundschaftliche Briefe-Literatur oder Privatsache? Der Streit um Wilhelm Gleims Nachlaß." Jahrbuch des Freien Deutschen Hochstifts. Detlev Lüders, ed. Tübingen: Max Niemeyer, 1973.

Neel, Caro. "The Origins of the Beguines." Signs 14 (1989): 321-341.

Richter, Simon. Laocoon's Body and the Aesthetics of Pain: Winckelmann, Lessing, Herder, Moritz and Goethe. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1992.

Spreitzer, Brigitte. Die stumme Sünde: Homosexualität im Mittelalter. Göppingen: Kümmerle, 1988.

Steakley, James D. "Sodomy in Enlightenment Prussia: From Execution to Suicide." Journal of Homosexuality 16 (1989): 163-175.

Strauch, Gabriele. "Mechthild von Magdeburg and the Category of Frauenmystik." Die Frau als Protagonistin und Dichterin im Mittelalter. Albrecht Classen, ed. Göppingen: Kümmerle, 1991.


    Citation Information
    Author: Richter, Simon  
    Entry Title: German and Austrian Literature: Before the Nineteenth Century  
    General Editor: Claude J. Summers  
    Publication Name: glbtq: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual,
Transgender, and Queer Culture
    Publication Date: 2002  
    Date Last Updated July 2, 2005  
    Web Address  
    Publisher glbtq, Inc.
1130 West Adams
Chicago, IL   60607
    Today's Date  
    Encyclopedia Copyright: © 2002-2006, glbtq, Inc.  
    Entry Copyright © 1995, 2002 New England Publishing Associates  


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