By Martijn Icks
“Outing” politicians and other public figures as gay against their wishes is a long-established practice in modern journalism. Some reporters regard it as just another scoop when they can reveal a celebrity’s hidden sexual preference or gender identity. Others have ideological motives. They may want to advance the gay cause, or expose the hypocrisy of persons who have spoken out against LGBT people or homosexual practices.
In some cases, outing is nothing but a blatant attempt at character assassination, aiming to trigger feelings of moral indignation and disgust in a homophobic public. Due to the increased acceptance of gays and lesbians in the United States and other Western countries, however, this practice may now be falling out of favour. More and more often, the customary cries of outrage are replaced by yawns and shrugs.
Things were very different in 1907, when one of the world’s first outings took place in the German Empire. The event became known as the Eulenburg Affair, and it shook German politics to its core – just as it was supposed to do.
The man at the centre of the scandal was Philipp, Prince of Eulenburg and Hertefeld, a Prussian nobleman and close friend to Kaiser Wilhelm II. His castle, Schloss Liebenberg, was a beloved gathering place where Wilhelm and his aristocratic friends could withdraw from the toils of public life to hunt game and make merry.
Even though Eulenburg and his fellow aristocrats typically did not hold powerful positions in the German administration, their informal closeness to the imperial ear gave them an inordinate amount of political influence. Moreover, it seems that the affection between at least some of the men who frequented Schloss Liebenberg went well beyond the traditional bonds of male camaraderie.
All of this drew the ire of Maximilian Harden, a journalist who was strongly opposed to what he dubbed the Liebenberg Round Table. In a sensational piece in the periodical Die Zukunft, Harden revealed that Eulenburg was involved in a homosexual liaison with Lieutenant General Kuno von Moltke, another Liebenberg member.
It’s possible that Harden acted on the instigation of Chancellor Bernhard von Bülow and Foreign Office member Friedrich von Holstein, two of Eulenburg’s main political rivals. However, he also had his own reasons. For a long time, Harden had detested the weakness of German international policy. This was what happened, he reasoned, when control of the country was given over to homosexuals instead of “real” men. Only by tackling the issue head-on could the matter be set straight.
As soon as Harden’s allegations appeared in print, they became a bombshell. A whole series of scandals and libel suits ensued, involving Eulenburg, Moltke and several other prominent public figures. Not only was there a heavy taboo on homosexuality; according to Paragraph 175, sexual acts between men constituted a crime.
The press had a field day. The affair dominated headlines and spawned numerous articles in newspapers and journals, while cartoonists and caricaturists in Germany and abroad rolled up their sleeves and milked the events for all they were worth. In a cartoon by Carl Josef Pollak, the question was raised how German nobles managed to breed. Another artist proposed a new coat of arms for Prussia, with an effeminate Eulenburg and Moltke taking the places of the traditional wild men flanking the shield.
When the dust settled, Eulenburg had not been convicted for same-sex contacts, but he had lost his reputation, his health, his political influence and the Kaiser’s friendship. The Liebenberg Round Table was no more.