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German and Austrian Literature: Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries  
 
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The story of gay and lesbian literature in the German-speaking countries during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries reflects the changing cultural definitions of "homosexual" and the differing meanings of homosexual identity over the decades. An evolving discourse around homosexuality affects the literature until literary representations are characterized by a broad multiplicity of homosexual figures and conceptions of homosexuality itself.

The examples that follow are largely from German literature because it has produced more works on the topic than have Austrian or Swiss literatures.

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Historical Background

With the rise of industrial capitalism in central Europe during the first half of the nineteenth century, gender roles became ever more rigidly defined. Masculine and feminine were seen as natural opposites that would seek their complement in each other. These positions carried over into the bedroom, where sexual practices not aimed at reproduction were increasingly defined as signs of illness, rather than exclusively as indications of immorality, as was previously the case.

One such illness was homosexuality, a desire that received this name only much later, in 1869. Terms such as , , boy-love, love, and others preceded it. Homosexuality was defined as a crossing of gender borders; thus, the homosexual was assigned the characteristics (dress, personality, preferences) of the opposite sex.

Nineteenth-Century Literature

The perceived "effeminacy" of male homosexual authors and characters is a central feature of early nineteenth-century German literature. The best illustration of this phenomenon is the poet August von Platen (1796-1835), who was attacked by his critics, especially by his rival poet Heinrich Heine, for being "effeminate." To these critics, his poetry seemed not only unmasculine, but also offensive in its excessive praise of male beauty.

An early work evokes the theme of crossing gender borders while integrating another motif common to this literature: seeing ancient Greece as a utopia of male-male love. In the pastoral story, Ein Jahr in Arkadien (A Year in Arcadia [1805]) by August, Duke of Saxony-Gotha (1772-1822), a tender love grows between two young men in ancient Greece.

The Romantic cult of Duke August's time allowed men to express deep affection for each other, but even some of the author's contemporaries felt that his characters (and Duke August himself) stepped over the bounds of manly affection into unseemly eroticism.

The Enlightenment philosophy that saw homosexuality as counter to the procreative demands of reason and nature could also be used to defend same-sex desire. Heinrich Hössli, an educated Swiss homosexual, recognized this possibility and turned to his countryman Heinrich Zschokke (1771-1848), a renowned author and political liberal, in the hope of providing such a defense in fiction.

Hössli, not a professional author, supplied Zschokke with information, much of it otherwise unavailable to the public, about an infamous 1817 court case in which a thirty-two-year-old lawyer in Berlin murdered his younger lover when the latter tried to end their relationship. Zschokke transformed the case into a novella, Der Eros oder Über die Liebe (Eros or Concerning Love [1821]), turning it into the object of heterosexual debate.

A group of middle-class family and friends discusses the murder of Walter by Lukasson, "the most abhorrent oddity of the day," and declare it to be the act of an insane person.

The son of one of Lukasson's judges, Holmar, provides the countervoice. For him, the abhorrent character of the day lies in the execution of Lukasson. Lukasson was driven insane, Holmar believes, by a society that has debased the noble love of the Greeks. Unable to express his inner yearnings freely and naturally, poor Lukasson was, according to Holmar's reasoning, destroyed by the society that seeks to confine male-male erotic desire to avenues of aberrance.

His listeners reject this thesis, and their judgment carries the most weight in the text. Extremely disappointed in the story, Hössli later wrote his own two-volume nonfiction defense of homosexual love, Eros: Die Männerliebe der Griechen (Eros: The Male Love of the Greeks [1836 and 1838]).

Similar themes appear in the stories and novels of Alexander von Sternberg (1806-1868), prolific author for a liberal middle-class audience. His novella Jena und Leipzig (Jena and Leipzig [1844]) tells of the love of one Prussian officer, Franz von Selbitz, for another, Andreas Walt.

Andreas welcomes Franz's friendship but cannot answer his love because he is heterosexual. When Andreas falls in love with a woman, Franz breaks off their friendship, renounces love, and immerses himself in his military career.

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Heinrich Hössli wrote the two volume Eros: The Male Love of the Greeks (1836-1838) as a defense of homosexual love.
  
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