The Secrets of Ed Koch
A new film on gay life in postwar Germany prompts a reflection on New York's former mayor and the great burdens of freedom
May 8, 1945, was a “day of liberation” for ordinary Germans. Those were the words that the former president of the postwar Federal Republic of Germany Richard von Weizsäcker memorably used to describe the downfall of the Third Reich on the 40th anniversary of its defeat. Yet there was one group of Germans for whom war’s end did not mean liberation but rather the continuation of their torment: gay men.
After the war, the victorious Allied Powers essentially remade from scratch what would become the Federal Republic of Germany in the West and the German Democratic Republic in the East. Nazi statutes and laws were repealed, and new constitutions were written. One section of the legal code that remained largely untouched in both Germanies, alas, was Paragraph 175, the Prussian-era decree outlawing sexual acts between men. (Female homosexuality, the mechanics of which apparently eluded the nation’s lawgivers, was ignored.) And so it was that, upon liberation in 1945, gay men who had been incarcerated under the Third Reich were shipped directly to prisons administered by the postwar occupying powers.
This largely overlooked chapter of history provides the setting for the remarkable new Austrian film Great Freedom. The movie depicts 25 years in the life of a fictional gay West German man, Hans Hoffman. We first encounter Hans in 1968, when a camera hidden in a public toilet records him engaging in sex with a procession of men. Hans is sentenced to prison, but as we later discover through a series of flashbacks, this is far from his first visit to the slammer.
It turns out that Hans is a habitual homosexual. As is made evident by the tattoo visible on his arm upon his transfer to a postwar German prison by an African American GI in 1945, he was first arrested sometime during the Nazi era. His cellmate, a drug dealer who doesn’t know whether to take Hans for a Jew, a homosexual, a communist, or possibly all three, is instantly repelled. As portrayed by the remarkable German actor Franz Rogowski, whose scar and lisp from a childhood cleft-lip operation imbue him with authenticity and distinctiveness rare among leading men, Hans is unashamed of his nature. Whether in Nazi Germany or the postwar Federal Republic, being gay is like being a dissident, and Hans, who preternaturally understands that it is not he but society that is sick, slips easily into the role of dogged contrarian. “They have no right,” he plaintively declares to one of his fellow gay inmates, who fruitlessly pleads with him to just submit to their shared fate as sexual outlaws. Hans naively proposes that they escape from prison and flee to the communist East, where Paragraph 175 is less strictly enforced. Despondent, the other inmate takes his own life.
Between 1949, the year the Federal Republic of Germany was created, and 1969, when enforcement of the law was substantially reduced (and Hans is released), 100,000 men were arrested under Paragraph 175, which remained on the books until 1994.
The atmosphere of shame and terror invoked by Great Freedom stayed pungent in my mind when, just a few days later, I read The New York Times’ posthumous outing of former New York mayor Ed Koch. Koch’s homosexuality was one of the biggest open secrets in New York City politics.
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Few fell for the imposture of his beard Bess Myerson, the first Jewish Miss America, whom Koch enlisted during his 1977 mayoral campaign against Mario Cuomo. Signs declaring “Vote for Cuomo, not the homo,” were plastered all over Queens (presumably at the direction of Cuomo’s son and future governor, Andrew). Koch was heavily criticized for not doing enough to address the AIDS crisis, a hesitancy that many suspected emanated from his fear of being perceived as gay.
While it has become fashionable to villainize Koch, and while he can certainly be criticized for his record in public office, the real villain is the closet. That a man with such sterling progressive credentials, whose constituency comprised the very place where gay liberation began, felt the need to remain confined within his closet is ultimately an indictment of the society that produced him. The fictional character of Hans Hoffman is remarkable because he is brave. As the sad life of Ed Koch shows, what was liberation for some was for others just another form of bondage.