Rosa Wien: Gay Rights, Schlager and Self-Exile: 1918-1938

By Casey J. Hayes

So…What comes to mind when you hear the word “Cabaret”? Perhaps…Liza Minelli? Yet, however historically accurate this depiction of the 1920s Weimar Berlin cabaret scene may be (I doubt they had Liza or Bob Fosse,) it was a more reserved cabaret culture that developed within the Austrian capital; more quick conversation, jokes, political statements, and sentimental chansons; less drag queens and spectacle. It would have, I believe, looked much more accessible to the conservative Viennese and less like the pages from a Christopher Isherwood novel. Still, there are many historical yet little-known events that played out at the intersection of the struggle for civil rights for western society’s gay communities, the National Socialist’s persecution of homosexuals, and the fate of some of Europe’s greatest performing artists self-exiled in Vienna. The wildly hedonistic world of German-speaking Cabaret would be the backdrop for a collision which resulted in the ultimate elimination of the art of the “Kleinkunstbühne” throughout Central Europe.

Whether you were in Berlin or Vienna or New York City during the years leading up to the “Anschluß” of Austria into the Third Reich, one thing was certain; cabaret culture, based around the hit songs, or “Schlager” of the period, was not only a popular form of entertainment for the dominant, heterosexual culture, but an extension of the sexual sub-cultures of the cities, particularly the LGBTQ/Gender Fluid communities.

I approach the homosexual and gender fluid culture of Vienna from 1918 until 1938 as a door which opens and then closes for non-binary sexual tolerance. Vienna’s unique status as both Austrian state and controversial Socialist enclave during the early 20th Century made it a home for those seeking a sympathetic society, paralleling New York City’s role within the United States. Through information gleaned from the popular music and musicians of the period, I have been working to detail the change in societal opinion toward the gay male in Vienna, change resulting from swift and efficient Nazi propaganda and the expansion of Paragraph 175, which supplanted Austria’s Paragraph 129 after March of 1938. It was this shift of societal tolerance which led many of Europe’s gay musicians and performers living in Vienna to flee the city which at one time welcomed them with open arms. I examine these issues through the life and music of cabaret performer Paul O’Montis, a homosexual, Protestant performer, composer, artist, and radio/recording star who was at the height of his career upon the rise of the National Socialists and his self-exile to Vienna.

Viennese Cabaret was a smaller extension of a larger German-speaking cabaret culture which included Berlin and Prague. Although based largely in Berlin, the artists would frequently move from one city to the next, creating a circuit of performers. Berlin, due to its high wages and less restrictive social norms, would take the lead on developing a wildly diverse cabaret culture inclusive of Jews, such as Max Ehrlich and Willy Rosen, Gays, such as Paul O’Montis and Teddy Sinclair, Lesbians such as Claire Waldoff and Anita Berber as well as Transvestites and other Gender Fluid performers, such as Marlene Dietrich and Wilhelm Bendow. Performers outside the mainstream constructs of gender found Vienna gracious and accepting, yet with a reservation that insisted upon keeping the activities on the stage less vivacious or scandalous than Weimar Berlin.

The sudden growth of Viennese Cabaret can be traced back to the Vienna Theater Act of 1930, in addition to a wave of emigration from Germany following 1933. The 1930 Theater Act differentiated between events that “only have to be registered with the authorities” and those “that require an official permit (license).” The lesser registration requirement, which also came with significant tax relief, applied to “all theatrical and variety performances if the [venue] has a capacity of less than 50 people.” Thus, to avoid the high cost, long wait and scrutiny of a permit, many venues chose to limit their audience size to 49 spectators, making the new “Theater für 49” and Cabaret the most popular form of entertainment within the city.

With the rise of the National Socialists in Germany, many Weimar Berlin performers sought refuge in Austria. The sudden oversupply of talent created a heyday for Cabaret. A quote from Hilde Haider-Pregler’s Exilland Österreich states:

Under Goebbels’ and Rosenberg’s leadership, Germany has started its journey back to primitivity. This homeless art is anxious, looking for a new home… And this new home must be found in Austria. Austria is today the mobile depot of German culture. From Austria, our German brothers should pick up this culture if they long for it.

Yet, in April of 1934, the Austrian parliament was brought together by Chancellor Engelbert Dollfuss and accepted an authoritarian constitution. Elected assemblies disappeared and human rights, guaranteed under the previous democratic constitution, were nullified as the word “Republic” was removed from the official name of the country, becoming the “Federal State of Austria.” This new Austro-fascist government required that all artistic performers in Vienna possess a permit to practice their profession in one of the theatres subject to Austrian rights restrictions. These restrictions meant membership in one of three organizations, all of which denied entry to performers with undesirable “racial” or “political” affiliations.  An unforeseen consequence was that this accelerated the growth of Viennese Cabaret. Vienna’s finest performers had no choice but to play in a “Theater für 49” or in one of the smaller Viennese Cabarets which required no license.  By 1938, no fewer than 25 of these “Kleinkunstbühnen” were playing in Vienna, where many “Schlager” or “Hit Songs,” written to bring the German-speaking LGBTQ community together, were performed to an eager audience. Examining just a few select “Schlager” can illuminate the socio-political status of the LGBTQ community in Central Europe by gleaning information from the lyrics and the performer.

Sheet Music Cover for “Das Lila Lied”

In the case of the first LGBTQ Anthem, “Das Lila Lied” or “The Lavender Song,” the direct and poignant lyrics speak to the nature of what it meant to be “Anders als die Andern” or “Different from the Others,” a phrase taken from the first film addressing the topic of homosexuality. Written by one of the most prolific and popular composers of Schlager at the time, Kurt Schwabach, with lyrics by Mischa Spoliansky (under the pseudonym Arno Billig), “Das Lila Lied” was dedicated to Magnus Hirschfeld and his “Institut für Sexualwissenschaft,” which pioneered gay rights as early as 1919 from his institutes in Berlin and Vienna. “Das Lila Lied” was written in 1920 and premiered in 1921 with lyrics that articulated a gay community’s disgust with the way they were treated by the dominant culture. Regardless of the fact this was an anthem for the gay community, this song became among Kurt Schwabach’s first hits with the public and here’s how…

When the song was recorded by the Marek Orchestra, it was done without the vocal track. It became popular as a dance number with the general public, most completely oblivious to the lyrics. It would only be through the purchase of the sheet music that the lyrics would be revealed. Reflective of the general malaise of Weimar Germany, the song would take off in the large urban areas and be dismissed by the rural masses. The cabaret scholar Alan Lareau notes:

“Das Lila Lied” addresses its audience with a frontal assault on traditional notions of morality and “culture,” arguing in the first-person plural that homosexuals are intelligent, good, playful, and loving people and that narrow-minded Philistines must learn to accept and appreciate them.

However, there were many performers who would record lyrics that were meant to shock or offend the general public. The freshly minted Marlene Dietrich would sing a duet with the more-established Margo Lyon declaring that being with a woman is a vast improvement over a man titled “Wenn die beste Freundin mit der besten Freundin.” In it, there is wonderful spoken dialogue which deemphasizes the need for a man when one has her best girlfriend! Yet, there are some Schlager that are further emphasized by who sings them and rare was the performer who could match Paul O’Montis. Ralph Raber notes:

The Chanson singer Paul O’Montis, the Dandy who was a touch “Effeminate” with leggings and tie – at times even wearing “Pumps,” strolled lightly through everyday life, flirting with men and women at the same time. He remained completely superficial, non-committal and self-loving – but none the less uncertain…frequently hiding his true feelings, choosing instead to play the part of the aloof star; suspended in a world of music, art, and conflict…

Paul O’Montis Cigarette Card

O’Montis lived his homosexuality openly, whether in public or on the stage. A German citizen born in Budapest in 1894, O’Montis was a talented singer, recording artist, even a book and sheet music cover illustrator. While living in Berlin, he performed at the Charlott-casino as well as made appearances in “Cafe Meran,” “Florida,” and the well-known nightclub “Simpl.”  However, it was when he became acquainted with the writer and lecturer Frank Günther, who finally brought him into the world of Weimar Cabaret that he began his ascent. Together with Blandine Ebinger and Valeska Gert, he was on stage in the Friedrich Hollaender revue “Laterna Magica” in February 1926; a break-through performance which launched his performing career.

In the reviews, he is now almost “cheered.” His sophisticated – caricatural couplets, puns and ambiguities as well as the open coquetry (with a lot of self – irony) about his homosexuality on the stage are very well received by the audience.

By the end of 1933 he didn’t shock anyone with his effeminate appearance; he was praised in all newspaper reviews, even the Westdeutscher Beobachter, a daily newspaper in Cologne which was a well-documented mouthpiece for the National Socialists, published an extensive “portrait of the artist.” The homosexuality of O’Montis is evidently overlooked, and he even refers to himself as being “Aryan.” Whether those were his exact words or a creation by the article’s author remains unknown.

In his Schlager “Was hast Du für Gefühle Moriz?,” written in 1927 with text written by Fritz Löhner-Beda and music by Richard Fall, we can see the double entendre that becomes characteristic of an O’Montis performance. The playful ambiguity, the veiled yet open secret, made his acts quite intriguing: “What are your feelings, Moritz?” he coyly asks of the stylish but devilishly evasive stud who has all of Berlin at his feet. “You don’t say yes, you don’ t say no-there’s something funny going on here,” people grumble. And when he pays a visit to the aging starlet Frau Camilla, she becomes quite concerned when he fails to succumb to her charms, however explicitly they may be offered up to him. So, is Moriz … or is he not …?  Beda and O’Montis play with this question through gossip over Moriz’s alleged female affairs of which, in the end, it is noted with a smile that he flirts only with the male porters.

O’Montis was a beacon for the German-speaking LGBTQ community. His effeminate nature and open homosexuality not only made him an admired figure within the gay and lesbian subculture, but also an open target for the Nazis. One notable performance set the stage for O’Montis’ future within the Germany of the National Socialists. During Berlin’s “Scala” Festival between October 1 and October 31, 1933, O’Montis, with fellow performers Otto Wallburg, Maria Solveg, and Werner Finck were observed by Nazi Minister for Propaganda Joseph Goebbels. Following the performance, Goebbels is said to have referred to the evening as the “Festival of Disreputable Figures.”

O’Montis fled to Vienna in 1934 and in 1935 received an official ban on performing in Germany, a ban that affected all “degenerate” music and performers. In Vienna, he continued the occasional appearances at the Volkstheater as well as daily performances at the “Kaiser-Bar” at Krugerstraße 3 in the 1st District beginning on March 18, 1936.

After the “Anschluß,” O’Montis fled to Czechoslovakia, where he was arrested in Prague on June 27, 1939. He passed through several internment camps, first in Zagreb, then to Lodz. Finally, in June 1940, he arrived at the Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp, where he was housed in isolation block 35, a familiar location for imprisoned homosexuals. O’Montis was beaten to death by the Kapo on July 17, 1940, a fact contrary to the original Gestapo file stating that he died from suicide, sadly indicative of many of the country’s great cabaret artists. Sadder still is that much of the music, life, and legacy of performers such as O’Montis has been lost to time. The few researchers into the musical aspects of this period are still uncovering gem after gem of lost works and recordings.

Performers who were fortunate e