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Saved by the Centaurs

by Marc van Bijsterveldt in Films & Books , 29 juni 2014

Dit artikel is ook in het Nederlands beschikbaar

Half horse, half man. Everyone knows the somewhat bizarre appearance of the centaur, a figure from Greek mythology. Centaurs are usually depicted as brute, beastly creatures, often armed with a bow or club. Why appears this savage in the title of a collection of essays on “side-roads in male love”?

The answer is given in the last contribution to “Kentaurenliebe: Seitenwege der Männerliebe im 20. Jahrhundert” (Centaur Love: Side-Roads in Male Love in the Twentieth Century) by literature historian Marita Keilson-Lauritz, published in 2013 by Hamburg based publisher Männerschwarm. In an essay titled “The Love of the Centaurs” (“Die Liebe der Kentauren”), she tells the story of the pedagogically and erotically inspired Wolfgang Frommel and Wolfgang Cordan (pseudonym of Wolfgang Horn). In the Second World War, both men played an important part in providing safe houses for some Jewish youngsters, also in a house on the Herengracht in Amsterdam. But more on this later on.

Frommel and Cordan were passionate lovers of youth and called each other “centaur” as a title of honor. They took a remarkable centaur as an example: the wise Chiron, who lived solitary and in isolation from other centaurs. He was, and there is the connection with the classically inspired attitude to life of Frommel and Cordan, the teacher/educator of various Greek heroes. One of them was Achilles, the main hero in the Trojan War and the main character in Homer’s “The Iliad.” The duo Chiron-Achilles is on the cover of Keilson’s collection as a reference to a connecting key element in the various contributions: the pedagogical Eros.

This self-nomination as “centaur” by Frommel and Cordan is a clear statement. Both men are sympathetic to the Hellenistic ideal of the close bond between man and youth. By doing so, in a certain way they were taking position (not explicitly) in the debate that was characteristic of the early years of the gay emancipation movement, and the subject of the first essay in this collection. Keilson-Lauritz obtained her doctorate in 1997 on the history of the German magazine “Der Eigene” and knows everything there is to know about this early period. Generally, there were two camps. One of sexologist Magnus Hirschfeld, who argued that homosexuals were a kind of “intermediate sex” between men and women using biological-medical concepts.

The more politically oriented men behind “Der Eigene” particularly stressed the typical “bond between men” (or rather men and lads), in which they referred to ideals from classic Greek culture. Even though Frommel nor Cordan advertised themselves as “homosexual,” in their doings they were pre-eminently representatives of this latter vision on the intense bond between men, both older and younger. And the centaur that was their inspiration may have been wise, but the virile aspect of this mythological figure, say a humanized stud horse, was just as important for the image they wanted to embrace. They certainly were not sissies!
Gay Studies avant la lettre

Literary scholar Keilson-Lauritz contributes much content to the collection. She is a very smooth writer, and even the “technical” disquisitions - for example in “Der Tod und der Knabe,” about the classic dance of death theme in “Der Eigene” – are a pleasant read. Also her view on the love concept “übergeschlechtige Liebe” (supra-sexual love) of poet Stefan George (is it a sexuality beyond gender or eroticism that contains much more than just the gender aspect, so precisely the sexual too?) is certainly of interest to people besides the connoisseurs. But the most fascinating contributions are the very well-documented biographical sketches. Keilson-Lauritz’s digging led to wonderful essays, in which she rescues relevant gay-historical stories from obscurity.

Take the story of Hans Dietrich Hellbach, who at the age of twenty-three obtained his doctorate in 1930 in Leipzig on “Die Freundesliebe in der deutschen Literatur.” Freundesliebe is a word that is difficult to translate, but the connotation in “Friendship Love” is one of a close bond that goes beyond camaraderie. Keilson-Lauritz calls Hellbach’s thesis, which appeared under the pseudonym “Dr. Hans Dietrich” – gay studies avant la lettre. (Verlag rosa Winkel reprinted the text in 1996 as part 9 in the series Homosexualitat und Literatur.) In her story, Keilson-Lauritz gives a detailed account of Hellbach’s life history as a teacher who is in a “normal marriage,” but who in his pedagogical relationships is quite erotically oriented. In 1938, he is involved with the police after a suspicion of prohibited acts with a young man, but a Countess friend saves him by testifying that she “did” it with him. After which Hellbach gets in trouble as a teacher with the education authorities for “committing adultery with a married woman”...

In 1943 there is another incident when a boy from the Hitler Youth presses sexual abuse charges against him, but only after having been treated to outings and other entertainment. This time, Hellbach does not escape the house of correction, where his wife visits him regularly. After the war, he makes a living for a while as a bar pianist and a salesman, but in the 1950s he is rehired as a teacher. This was not meant to last. At the age of fifty, he passes away after complications from a relatively simple operation in hospital.

In the short period of his post-war teaching, he did manage to firmly establish his reputation as a passionate educator. Keilson-Lauritz manages to recover a lot of first-hand accounts, not just in this contribution about Hellbach. This very personal aspect makes the biographical sketches in her collection especially fascinating. The minor and major historical figures come to life beautifully. The readers gets an interesting look into a world that is now completely gone, in which the erotic relationships between the old and the young were judged at their merits, namely from a very personal and loving interest for adolescents, and not as a source of danger or a deceitful front for indecent lust. In Hellbach’s case this is expressed in an affectionate remembrance by one of his students, a teacher himself by now: “He was both an enthusiastic and inspiring teacher. The term ‘pedagogical Eros’ truly applied to him.”

Suicidal Courage

Another inspiring contribution is the story on the “suicidal courage of professor Schoeps.” Keilson-Lauritz wrote the essay in 2009 after a request from the son, Julius Schoeps, who wanted to organize a meeting in honor of the hundredth birthday of father Hans-Joachim. The writer admits feeling a bit uncomfortable outing Schoeps posthumously, but the explicit invitation of his son Julius was also an honor. Her research led to another pearl in her cultural-historical work. The story begins with fourteen-year-old Schoeps becoming a member of the progressive youth organization Freideutsche Bund, in which a friendship between boys was flourishing intensely. Schoeps was a real Prussian, but also Jewish, and with the rise of the Nazi party this combination was only getting more explosive. Keilson-Lauritz describes the evolution of the young and intelligent Schoeps to the religious scholar he would eventually become. In 1950, on his return from a “voluntary” exile in Sweden, he is a professor of Religion and the History of Ideas at the University of Erlangen. He continues to focus on the subject of homosexuality. In 1960, he writes in plain terms that homosexuality in his view is not a disease, but a “primary phenomenon in the psycho-spiritual structure of man.”

His attitude increasingly becomes more political. In 1961, he openly defends Helmut von Grollmann, the formal representative of the German army in the German parliament, who is suspected of having a relationship with a seventeen-year-old boy. Schoeps points out that this court case can only be in place because of article 175 of the German penal code. This code was introduced by the Nazi’s and remained in place after the war without any fuss. Schoeps is of the opinion that as a persecuted Jew he is allowed to make a comparison between the fate of his fellow Jews in Nazi times and the post-war persecution of homosexuals under article 175. He states that he promised himself never to be silent about injustice. And he does not remain silent indeed, because Schoeps keeps hammering away at the injustice of article 175, which makes a distinction between heterosexual and homosexual affairs with minors (under twenty-one at the time). His unrelenting readiness to fight leads to the characterization “suicide courage” in an article that is colored with admiration in the “Münchner Merkur.” With her carefully drawn up essay, Keilson-Lauritz pays tribute to the fight of this courageous man and makes it plausible that he was fighting “as a homosexual.” A kind of “outing” indeed, but not to create a scandal, but as historical veracity that is in full compliance with the motto of the Freideutsche Bund where it all started for Schoeps: “Truthfulness is our goal” (“Wahrhaftigkeit ist unser Programm”).

Circle of Jewish Boys

In the last contribution, we arrive at the previously mentioned “Centaurs” Frommel and Cordan. Their bravery should not be underestimated either, even though in their case the potential and indirect suicide was much more literal. Both pedagogues, inspired by a classical ideal of a deep and erotic bond between adolescents and men, had formed a small circle of mostly Jewish boys around them. When things became too tense in Germany, both Centaurs ended up in The Netherlands, eventually meeting again on the Herengracht in the center of Amsterdam. Their hiding place was called the Castrum Perigrini – the “fortress of the pilgrims,” which is a reference to a hiding place of the crusaders in Palestine. After the war, it became the name of an Amsterdam publishing firm that would specialize in German language publication and published a magazine under the same name.

In their footsteps the youngsters also came to The Netherlands and found shelter in several places. Some thought they were safe in a Quaker school in Ommen. But when the persecution of Jews under German occupation was getting serious, the management of the school decided it was better to cooperate with the authorities. Jewish students and staff were advised to stay on and not to go into hiding, an advice that would cost most of them their lives. The Centaurs had a different view on the situation and managed to convince five boys from the circle to hide. This did in fact save them, even though one of them eventually could not stay out of Nazi hands.

The story of the Centaurs and their protégés reads as a thrilling boys’ book. But it is also the tale of an exciting friendship between youth and men. Of particular interest is the testimony of one of the boys, Claus Bock, who had a “stormy erotic encounter” with Frommel at the age of fifteen. He has outspokenly described his experiences in Castrum Perigrini in “Untergetaucht unter Freunden” (Hiding with Friends).

The Dutch young man C.M. Stibbe also has very positives memories when it comes to the Centaurs: “I have often wondered what would have become of me if I had not met the Centaurs at eighteen, at that decisive moment.” In line with the then concepts of “homosexuality” – which were very intergenerational from a Hellenistic ideal – but rather contrary to the current relational ideology of “equality” – in which intergenerational rather equals “danger” - Keilson-Lauritz sticks to observation. The persons in hiding remain grateful to their “centauric saviors,” who were sometimes “wild” and sometimes “wise.” And the writer concludes that this is “the most important thing to say about it.” Mindful of the subtitle of the collection, the question remains whether we are not simply dealing with one of the main roads of the love between men?

Marita Keilson-Lauritz, Kentaurenliebe: Seitenwege der Männerliebe im 20. Jahrhundert.
Hamburg: Männerschwarm Verlag, 2013, 184 blz., ISBN 9783863001384,



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