In 1906, Imperial Germany had gained a reputation as one of Europe’s most belligerent empires. Only recently unified as a nation, Germany was showing impatience with its role under the mercurial Kaiser Wilhelm II. Its increasingly provocative policies had led to colonization (and genocide) in Africa, along with confrontations with Britain and France in Morocco. The popular image of Germany was shifting from the land of artists and professors to the violent, thuggish Hun – a charge cemented by the Kaiser encouraging his soldiers dispatched to suppress the Boxer Rebellion by behaving like the Huns of old.
One of Wilhelm’s closest friends and advisers was Philipp, Prince of Eulenburg, who encouraged his sovereign’s worst tendencies. Eulenburg seemed to embody the paradox of many nationalist Germans, so often commented upon by outsiders. He was a sensitive, charming and well-read man who wrote plays, poetry and songs; he doted on his wife, children and mother. But he was also a fanatical racist, whose friendship with French eugenicist Arthur de Gobineau encouraged him to conjure up the “Yellow Peril” of Asia which threatened Western Civilization. He expressed contempt for democracy and urged the Kaiser to rule as an autocrat. He indulged in conspiracy theories about the Catholic Church, whom he claimed was plotting to destroy Protestant civilization, dabbled in the occult and encouraged the adoption of “aesthetic anti-Semitism” in a prelude to Goebbels and Goering.
All of this endeared him to the Kaiser, who appointed Philipp to a series of diplomatic posts before inviting him into his inner circle. Despite Otto von Bismarck’s warnings that Eulenburg “has little sense of what is important and what is not; he allows himself to be influenced by carping gossip, passes it on and this way needlessly puts people’s backs up,” he grew closer to Wilhelm, who called him “my bosom friend” and treated Eulenburg as a major adviser. (Indeed, Eulenburg is widely believed to have engineered Bismarck’s downfall, in revenge for Bismarck trying to derail his appointment as Minister to France.) Bismarck wasn’t the only German statesman to fall afoul of the Kaiser’s favorite: he arranged for the appointment of Bernhard Von Bulow as Chancellor, only to turn on him and urge the Kaiser to fire Bulow after the Moroccan Crisis of 1905.
But the Moroccan Crisis (a confrontation with France and Britain over control of the North African nation) led instead to Eulenburg’s downfall. When the affair led to the dismissal of Friederich von Holstein, chief of political operations of the Foreign Office, Holstein connived revenge. He sent journalist Maximilian Harden, editor of Die Zukunft, an explosive letter detailing a homosexual clique in the Kaiser’s inner circle. For Eulenburg was a gay man, whose marriage and high position did not prevent him from engaging in affairs in Berlin high society. The charges, although motivated by spite and exaggerated in the telling, were quickly proven accurate.
That homosexuality was commonplace in Germany’s highest circles shouldn’t have been a surprise. Germany long had a history of relative sexual tolerance, to the snickers and mockery of its European neighbors, who dubbed it the “German vice.” Activists like sex researcher Magnus Hirschfeld and Adolf Brand, editor of Der Eigene, did much to assert that same-sex relations were not a sin but an acceptable facet of human behavior. Though such tolerance only extended so far: four years earlier, another of the Kaiser’s confidantes, Friedrich Alfred Krupp of the prominent steel family, committed suicide after being outed by a socialist newspaper. At least eight Army officers were known to have committed suicide after being blackmailed in the years leading up to the scandal.
Outwardly a model of rectitude, Wilhelm seemed to enjoy this behavior in private; whether or not gay himself, as some have speculated, the Kaiser found the predilections of Eugenburg’s friends an amusing diversion. His courtiers referred to themselves with suggestive nicknames like “sweetie” and “badger” to the Kaiser’s delight. He even arranged for General Dietrich von Hulsen-Haesler, commander of an elite Guards Regiment, to dance before him in a ballerina skirt with a “marked rectal opening,” while being commanded to bark like a poodle. The General was so mortified by the experience that he died from a heart attack soon afterwards.
By modern standards, the behavior of the so-called “Liebenberg Circle” would draw little comment outside of tabloids. But even in Germany, tolerance expanded only so far, as same-sex relations remained illegal under Paragraph 175. Harden’s writings went beyond the facts, accusing Eulenburg of leaking military secrets to France and asserting that the clique of homosexuals were not only deviant by traitors – a common charge against gay men, then and later. That Eulenburg was found to have an affair with Kuno von Moltke, the commander of Berlin’s military garrison whom he had known since their days in a military academy together, only cemented the charge. What ought to have been courtier’s gossip became a matter of national security.
Harden’s charges against Eulenburg and Moltke, first published in April 1907, led to a series of sensational lawsuits and criminal trials. To the mortification of the Kaiser, and the utter fascination of the public, witnesses were sworn to substantiate the journalist’s writings: Moltke’s own wife Lily claimed that he hadn’t slept with her in years, leading defense witnesses to attack the woman as a “hysterical nymphomaniac.” The case against Moltke was settled not by Lily but by Magnus Hirschfeld, who was friends with the General and confidently testified that Moltke was indeed gay. Libel charges against Harden were dismissed, but the Kaiser’s intervention assured that the verdict was voided.
Indeed, subsequent intervention against Harden, fellow journalist Adolf Brand and others who reported on the claims rigged the trial results. A judge voided Lily von Moltke’s testimony after a doctor diagnosed her with “hysteria” and Hirschfeld sheepishly retracted his own account, resulting in a reversal of verdict and a guilty charge against Harden. Adolf Brand was sentenced to eighteen months in prison for reporting on Bernhard von Bulow’s involvement in the “Liebenberg Circle.” Eulenburg, who developed stress and psychosomatic illness as a result of his harassment, managed to have his own trial indefinitely postponed.
Eulenburg, perhaps influenced by the ordeal, underwent something of a change of heart. He encouraged Wilhelm to engage in a more moderate posture on foreign policy, attempting to sooth relations with Britain and France after the latter two formed the Entente Cordiale. This, however, led to further strain; Maximilian Harden, hardly bowed by the guilty verdict, claimed Eulenburg’s newfound diplomacy as vindication of his wilder claims. “They are striking at my husband, but their target is the Kaiser,” Eulenburg’s wife proclaimed. Wilhelm finally bowed to pressure and sacked Eulenburg, not over his affairs but because he was no longer aggressive enough for His Imperial Highness. He died in 1921, having seen Germany defeated in the First World War, the Kaiser deposed and his later caution in policy abandoned.
The Eulenburg Affair sadly exemplifies how homophobia can be weaponized for political ends. Eulenburg was hardly an admirable man, embodying the worst traits of prewar German Weltpolitik; his personal life was less important than his racism, militarism and encouraging a belligerent approach (until too late) towards Germany’s rivals that did much to make the Great War inevitable. But for the Kaiser’s enemies, it proved easy to combine the two; to equate homosexuality with treason, same-sex relationships with eroding the country’s welfare.