‘The German Vice’: Male Same Sex Desire in East Africa, by Dr Heike I. Schmidt

In 1910 the Governor of German East Africa, Georg Albrecht Freiherr von Rechenberg, filed charges of defamation against Willy von Roy, the editor of the colony’s main newspaper, the Deutsch-Ostafrikanische Zeitung (DOAZ). What then transpired is rather astonishing. The chief magistrate in the capital Dar es Salaam heard the governor’s testimony in chambers, even sending the African sentinel at the outside of his door away, maintaining utter secrecy. The judge then recorded:

‘Freiherr von Rechenberg has in his entire life never acted according to Paragraph 175 of the German Criminal Code and never made the attempt to do so. During his entire stay in German East Africa [since 1906] as governor he has not been sexually active at all.’[1]

As in other western countries, the German Penal Code declared male same sex practices illegal:

Dreizehnter Abschitt. Verbrechen und Verghen wider die Sittlichkeit.
§. 175.
Die widernatürliche Unzucht, welche zwischen Personen männlichen Geschlechts oder von Menschen mit Thieren [sic] begangen wird, ist mit Gefängniβ zu bestrafen; auch kann auf Verlust der bürgerlichen Ehrenrechte erkannt warden.


Chapter 13. Felonies and misdemeanours against morality.
§. 175.
Unnatural obscenity committed between persons of the male sex or between men and beasts, is to be punished by imprisonment with labour. The sentence may include the forfeiture of civil privileges.

A guilty sentence meant up to four years imprisonment and loss of civil rights.

Dr. Baron von Rechenberg,
Governor of German East Africa, took leave from office.

What the circumstances and content of the governor’s statement clearly show are that any insinuation of male same sex practices was not just illegal but also so scandalous that the married but childless, forty-nine year old Baron Rechenberg claimed not to have had any sex of any kind in the past four years in the colony. The judge did his best to maintain utter confidentiality in the matter, being concerned about European and about African gossip. But what ensued was a complex range of court cases over the course of the next twelve months that involved not just von Roy, the newspaper editor, but also several members of the colonial government in Dar es Salaam.[2] This colonial affair demonstrates the tremendous vulnerability of European men who were gay or wished to have intercourse with men, while at the same time living as masters in the colony with the power to enact will and violence upon African men – and in fact women and children – to satisfy their desires, sexual and otherwise. Unsurprisingly the African witnesses in the court cases that ensued, including Max, a servant in the governor’s palace who was supposed to have regularly had sex with the governor, denied any knowledge of this.

Governor’s palace Dar es Salaam
Koloniales Bildarchiv, Frankfurt/Main, Germany

At the turn from the nineteenth to the twentieth century one of Europe’s economically and politically most powerful and newest nation states, Germany, was widely mocked of suffering from ‘the German vice’. Rumours culminated in the Eulenburg Affair, 1907 to 1909, which showed that the emperor himself surrounded himself with men who expressed male same sex desire and that he hosted performative explorations beyond heteronormativity, including cross dressing. Meanwhile the sudden death from a heart attack was kept silent successfully, when during the ongoing Eulenburg trials, the chief of the Military Cabinet, Earl Dietrich von Hülsen-Haeseler, aged 56 years, died after performing a flirtatious ballerina solo for the emperor and his guests, dressed in a pink tutu with a flower garland in his hair, in 1908.

There was, at the time, a public discourse in Germany itself, an awareness that Berlin was an urban centre of experimentation and exploration for members of this society that had late and rapidly industrialised resulting in the social question of the sudden creation of a substantial middle class and urban proletariat. Class, gender, and politics were greatly in flux leading up to the horrors of World War One, the Great Depression, and the 1933 elections of a Nazi government that condemned male and female homosexuals to concentration camps. But under imperial rule a caricature such as the ‘New Prussian Arms’ illustrates that then it was still possible to mock the nation rather light heartedly about what were perceived to be upper class, aristocratic, and military sexual transgressions, standing rather strongly in contrast to the image of the Protestant ethic and Prussian disciplined male body.

It was in German East Africa (today mainland Tanzania, Burundi, and Rwanda) where von Roy, the newspaper editor, saw his chance to attack the governor whom he despised for what many settlers considered a soft view towards the African population. Rechenberg, from an old aristocratic family, Catholic, and even by German standards highly educated and well travelled, had a diplomatic rather than military background when he was appointed governor to German East Africa at the end of what had become a scandalously brutal anti-insurgency campaign against the African populations who rose in the Maji Maji war from 1905 against colonial rule. He was not a good fit for what Germans perceived to be colonial respectability and von Roy insinuating that another Eulenberg affair may be emerging from the colony’s headquarters hit a raw nerve.

The verbatim witness accounts in the ensuing court cases provide a layered understanding of gendered articulations of identity mediated by class in the colony that are inextricably embedded in the unequal power relations between coloniser and colonised. The evidence shows quite clearly that Rechenberg had regular sexual encounters with his African servant Max, even though the governor, Max, Max’ wife, and other African servants denied this in court. Regardless of what the actual relationship between Rechenberg and Max was from both their perspectives, the governor was the master and Max was the servant in the colony and, if the evidence is reliable, the very nature of their sexual encounters demonstrates that these were consistently controlled by Rechenberg and subservient on part of Max. All of this is further complicated by Rechenberg annotating the paperwork with the order to move ‘the brothel’ to Zanzibar. This was in reference to a brothel in Dar es Salaam that apparently had male customers and male or transsexual sex workers one of whom the court addressed as binti (Kiswahili: daughter; unmarried woman) and who was supposed to have visited the governor at times at his residence. The very existence of the brothel demonstrates that there were enough European customers to make it economically viable. Moving it to Zanzibar, a city well known to Rechenberg who had spent four years there as consul in the 1890s, fed the orientalist view of the time that non heteronormative practices and desires belonged to the perceived east. In fact, there is evidence that male sex workers and male as well as female same sex practices were common in the capital of the Zanzibar Islands.

This leads to the question of what all of this means then. The so-called German vice was certainly well and alive in the colony. But considering the charges filed by African men, women, and children for rape by German men, the picture that emerges is indeed rather messy. Some German men were gay and enjoyed the freedoms of living in the capital Dar es Salaam or on remote stations with few German neighbours to report them. Others enacted sexual violence on colonial subjects, at times guided merely by convenience and availability, without a particular desire for a man, woman, or child, while other German men again were clearly sexual predators. Maybe most surprising is in the end that as so many men of his generation who stood in the public limelight, Rechenberg went out of his way to deny any sexual transgressions, including adultery, let alone sodomy, while in this early colonial period with a colonial administration barely on the ground African survivors demanded justice in the colonial court system which did lead to guilty verdicts and sentencing to prison. Meanwhile Rechenberg returned to Germany in 1911 and quietly retired in 1914 to turn his attention to conservative party politics, while the newspaper editor von Roy was sentenced to prison and financially ruined. There is no evidence from or of Max, his wife, and family beyond the court cases where their only role was to prove whether the governor was guilty of breaking the anti-sodomy law.[3]

Dr Heike I. Schmidt is an Associate Professor in African History at the University of Reading, specialising in gender, colonialism, violence & conflict, nationalism, and identity. Dr Schmidt is currently writing a gendered history of violence and the colonial encounter. 

[1] Note With the exception of the German Penal Code, all translations are the author’s.

[2] For the full discussion of these court cases, the Rechenberg affair, and sexual crime in German East Africa, see Heike I. Schmidt, ‘Colonial Intimacy: The Rechenberg Scandal, Homosexuality and Sexual Crime in German East Africa’, Journal of the History of Sexuality
17, no. 1 (2008), 25-59; also ‘Who is Master in the Colony? Propriety, Honor, and Manliness in German East Africa’, in Geoff Eley and Bradley Naranch (eds) German Cultures of Colonialism: Race, Nation, and Globalization, 1884-1945 (Durham, NC, 2015), 109-128.

[3] For a more detailed discussion of the topic see, Heike I. Schmidt, ‘The German Empire and Its Legacies: Propriety, Respectability, and Colonial Hegemony’, in: Sonia Corrêa, Gustavo Gomes da Costa Santos and Matthew Waites (eds), Colonialisms and Queer Politics: Sexualities, Genders and Unsettling Colonialities (Oxford, forthcoming).

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