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literature

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Roellig, Ruth Margarete (1878-1969)  

Chronicler of Berlin's lesbian club scene of the late 1920s, writer Ruth Roellig was part of the lively gay counterculture of Germany's Weimar era. Although she survived the rise to power of the Nazis and lived well past the end of World War II, Roellig's most popular work was done during the Weimar period.

Roellig was born in Schwiebus, Germany on December 14, 1878, to a family in the restaurant and hotel business. She was sent to exclusive schools in Berlin and Saxony, where she studied to become an editor. Like many educated women--even in later eras--she had to support herself with secretarial work before advancing in the publishing industry.

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Roellig began her writing career by publishing in literary magazines and newspapers. At the age of 35, she published her first novel, Geflüster im Dunkel (Whispers in the Dark, 1913), about a poet and his muse. Her travels in Finland and Paris provided settings for two other works, Traumfahrt -- Eine Geschichte aus Finnland (Dream Journey: A Story from Finland, 1919) and Lutetia Parisorum (1920). The latter work, a novel, is set amidst Parisian theater and circus life.

Returning to Berlin in 1927, Roellig immersed herself in Berlin's "world of women." In her Schöneberg district home, where she lived with a much younger woman partner and a pet monkey, she hosted parties for writers and actresses, and pursued interests in spiritualism and the occult.

Roellig is best known for her guidebook to Berlin's lesbian clubs, Berlins lesbische Frauen (The Lesbians of Berlin, 1928), which featured a preface by pioneering German sexologist and activist Magnus Hirschfeld.

After an introduction deploring religious attitudes toward lesbians and decrying discrimination against "priestesses of Sappho," Roellig describes the ambience and offerings of 14 Berlin clubs and dance halls that catered to lesbians. At this time in Germany, lesbians were not subject to criminal prosecution, but they faced ostracism and employment discrimination, and Roellig is keenly aware of such injustices. Indeed, her introduction must be considered a contribution to the literature of the Geman homosexual emancipation movement.

Hirschfeld's preface was featured prominently on the book's cover in order to characterize the book as a work of social significance rather than simply a guidebook for tourists. But perhaps the greatest function of Berlins lesbische Frauen was to alert isolated women to the presence of a larger lesbian community. As a measure of its success in this endeavor, the book underwent several printings.

In "Lesbierinnen und Transvestiten" (Lesbians and Transvestites), her contribution to Agnes Countess Esterhazy's 1930 collection Das lasterhafte Weib (The Vices of Women), Roellig again attacks prejudices against lesbians and other sexual minorities.

Roellig also published poems, articles, and short stories in outlets such as the lesbian magazine Frauenliebe (Woman's Love, which later became Garçonne) into the early 1930s. Her 1930 short story "Ich Klage an" (I Accuse) deals with a lesbian struggling against authority; a novel, Die Kette im Schoss (The Chain in the Lap), about young Persian women living in Berlin, was published in 1931 and also features lesbian characters.

Roellig's career as a nonconformist writer was sidetracked when the Nazis came to power in 1933. Bowing to the political pressures of the new regime, Roellig joined the Reich Literature Association, membership in which was required for publishing during the Nazi period.

Under the Nazis watchful eyes, Roellig continued to write. Her novels, Der Andere (The Other, 1935), a mystery, and Soldaten, Tod, Tänzerin (Soldiers, Death, Dancer, 1937), a heroine tale set during World War I, complete with anticommunist and anti-Semitic references, include strong women characters who may be read as lesbian in highly coded terms, but they have generally been seen as pandering to romantic myths of the fatherland. The anti-Semitic references were probably necessary in order for Roellig to maintain good standing with the government; she is known to have offered shelter to a Jewish acquaintance on at least one occasion during this period.

Accommodationist strategies appear not to have helped Roellig very much. In 1938 Berlins lesbische Frauen was included on the government's list of "harmful writings" and banned from circulation. (In the 1980s and 1990s, however, it was reissued in German and French editions.)

Although her Berlin home was destroyed by Allied bombing in 1943, Roellig survived the war. After a brief period living in Silesia, she and her partner resided in Berlin with Roellig's sister in the post-war years.

Roellig lived to be 91. She died on July 31, 1969.

Ruth M. Pettis

     

    
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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:  Nazism and the Holocaust

As part of its agenda to preserve an "Aryan master race," Nazism persecuted homosexuals as "asocial parasites"; more than 100,000 men were arrested on homosexual charges during the Nazi years, with 5,000-15,000 gay men incarcerated in concentration camps.

arts >> Berber, Anita

Expressionist exotic dancer and actress in German silent movies, Anita Berber epitomized for many the decadence of Weimar-era Berlin.

social sciences >> Hirschfeld, Magnus

German-born Magnus Hirschfeld deserves recognition as a significant theorist of sexuality and the most prominent advocate of homosexual emancipation of his time.


    Bibliography
   

Colvin, Sarah. "Roellig, Ruth Margarete." Who's Who in Gay and Lesbian History from Antiquity to World War II. Robert Aldrich and Garry Wotherspoon, eds. London: Routledge, 2001. 376-77.

Espinaco-Virseda, Angeles. " 'I feel that I belong to you': Subculture, Die Freundin and Lesbian Identities in Weimar Germany." Spaces of Identity 4.1 (April 2004): www.univie.ac.at/spacesofidentity/contents/issue_4_1.html.

Roellig, Ruth Margarete. Berlins lesbische Frauen. Berlin: 1928.

_____. "Lesbierinnen und Transvestiten." Das lasterhafte Weib. Agnes Eszterhazy, ed. Vienna: Verlag für Kulturforschung, 1930. 67-81.

Schoppmann, Claudia. Days of Masquerade: Life Stories of Lesbians during the Third Reich. New York: Columbia University Press, 1996.

 

    Citation Information
         
    Author: Pettis, Ruth M.  
    Entry Title: Roellig, Ruth Margarete  
    General Editor: Claude J. Summers  
    Publication Name: glbtq: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual,
Transgender, and Queer Culture
 
    Publication Date: 2005  
    Date Last Updated August 16, 2005  
    Web Address www.glbtq.com/literature/roellig_rm.html  
    Publisher glbtq, Inc.
1130 West Adams
Chicago, IL   60607
 
    Today's Date  
    Encyclopedia Copyright: © 2002-2006, glbtq, Inc.  
    Entry Copyright © 2005, glbtq, inc.  
 

 

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