Emperor William II’s Homosexual “Circle” Scandalizes Germany Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Journalist Maximilian Harden alleged that German emperor William II had close homosexual associates and confidants, a “circle” led by Philipp, Prince of Eulenburg-Hertefeld. The scandal, which in its lurid detail captivated the public for years, created international discussions of homosexuality and possibly precipitated the emperor’s military aggression that culminated in World War I.

Summary of Event

In 1906, newspaper editor Maximilian Harden published accusations of “abnormal” sexuality among close friends of German emperor William II. In particular, Harden targeted military leader Kuno von Moltke and diplomat Philipp Eulenburg. In one of his first articles, published in the weekly Die Zukunft (the future) and pompously titled “Dies Irae” (day of wrath), Harden thinly veiled those he accused as the Harpist (Eulenburg), Sweetie (Moltke), and Darling (William II). Many journalists had an inkling that a major scandal was in the making, and so the witch hunt Witch hunts began. [kw]William II’s Homosexual “Circle” Scandalizes Germany, Emperor (1906-1909) [kw]Homosexual “Circle” Scandalizes Germany, Emperor William II’s (1906-1909) William II Harden, Maximilian Eulenburg-Hertefeld, Philipp, Prince of Liebenberg circle World War I[World War 01];and William II[William II] Homosexuality;Emperor William II William II Harden, Maximilian Eulenburg-Hertefeld, Philipp, Prince of Liebenberg circle World War I[World War 01];and William II[William II] Homosexuality;Emperor William II [g]Europe;1906-1909: Emperor William II’s Homosexual “Circle” Scandalizes Germany[00040] [g]Germany;1906-1909: Emperor William II’s Homosexual “Circle” Scandalizes Germany[00040] [c]Royalty;1906-1909: Emperor William II’s Homosexual “Circle” Scandalizes Germany[00040] [c]Sex;1906-1909: Emperor William II’s Homosexual “Circle” Scandalizes Germany[00040] [c]Publishing and journalism;1906-1909: Emperor William II’s Homosexual “Circle” Scandalizes Germany[00040] [c]Politics;1906-1909: Emperor William II’s Homosexual “Circle” Scandalizes Germany[00040] [c]Military;1906-1909: Emperor William II’s Homosexual “Circle” Scandalizes Germany[00040] Moltke, Kuno von

Emperor William II.

(Library of Congress)

In 1886, Eulenburg had met Crown Prince William, soon to be Emperor William II, and became part of a close-knit group of homoerotically inclined generals, civilians, diplomats, and politicians known as the Liebenberg circle (named for Eulenburg’s retreat, which translates as “mountain of love”). Eulenburg’s meteoric rise included appointments as envoy to Bavaria and ambassador to Austria-Hungary, and he was elevated to the title of prince in 1900. Eulenberg had eight children with a Swedish countess but reportedly never cared for his wife.

In 1902, prompted by blackmail, Eulenburg retired from politics. In the same year, revelations surfaced that Friedrich Alfred Krupp, Germany’s largest industrial magnate, had been consorting with boys on the island of Capri. (Krupp was found dead shortly thereafter, apparently from suicide.) Furthermore, a staggering number of gay-related suicides, resignations, and courts-martial had been hushed up in the military. Worse, at a cross-dressing evening at court, a high-ranking soldier, performing as a ballerina, dropped dead from a heart attack. Finally, in a climate of xenophobia, a French spy who had abused Eulenburg’s confidence caused more political fallout. The scandal could no longer be contained.

The final straw for Harden, a liberal concerning issues of sex and sexuality, was the 1906 Algeciras conference, in which Germany suffered a diplomatic defeat by having to cede control over Morocco to France. The conference confirmed an Anglo-French alliance and led to Germany’s increasing isolation. Although the scandal involved homosexuality (and to many people nothing was more scandalous), Harden really had a political motive.

After Harden’s allegations, which legally entailed a violation of Paragraph 175 (the German law that made homosexual activity a criminal offense), Eulenburg turned himself in to a “friendly” district attorney, insisted he was innocent, and was cleared after a lukewarm investigation. (Moltke’s wife, during the late 1890’s, had sued for divorce on grounds of his “deviant” sexuality.) Moltke challenged Harden to a duel, which Harden refused. Moltke then sued him for libel Libel cases in civil court. Harden was acquitted, but—on highest orders—the verdict was overturned. In the second trial, now in criminal court, Harden was found guilty. Once again, the case was retried. With the possibility of appeal, the sensational scandal could drag on indefinitely, and it became clear that there was little judicial impartiality in the case.

Harden eventually agreed to an out-of-court settlement (the government secretly paid for his expenses and declared that Harden had acted out of patriotism), but not without dropping a bombshell in a trial he had staged earlier in Munich. (Bavaria was out of reach for the Prussian judiciary.) A milkman and a fisherman—two men not of Eulenburg’s social class—admitted having had sex with Eulenburg. As a result, Eulenburg was arrested for perjuring himself in the Moltke-Harden trials and in a related trial, in which Adolf Brand, an advocate of homosexual emancipation, had alleged that Chancellor Bernhard von Bülow had engaged in sexual intercourse with his male secretary, or “better half.” For reasons of poor health, Eulenburg was never convicted. Friends had counseled him to do the “honorable” thing and commit suicide.

The newspapers could hardly get enough of the scandal because there was no dearth of salacious detail. For example, Moltke’s wife testified that her husband had placed a pan of cold water between them to discourage intercourse, all the while cherishing one of Eulenburg’s handkerchiefs. Also, Moltke had been seen wearing makeup in court, heightening his effeminacy, and Eulenburg was so feeble that he had to be carried into the courtroom in a litter. Moreover, the milkman and fisherman had rendered their services in exchange for extravagant trips to places such as the pyramids in Egypt. Finally, the chancellor allegedly had bestowed a passionate kiss on another man at an all-male gathering.

More detail surfaced during the trials: The cuirassier’s uniform was considered alluring to soliciting homosexuals, who had invited soldiers to outrageous champagne parties and group orgies. This evidence was provided by witnesses peeping through keyholes. Even a “key” to the trials was published in 1907: J. L. Caspar’s Das Treiben der Homosexuellen: Volle Aufklärung zum Verständnis der Andeutungen und “Halben Worte” im Moltke-Harden Proze , translated as “what homosexuals are up to: full disclosure for the understanding of the insinuations and ’half words’ in the Moltke-Harden trial.”

Cartoons Cartoons about the scandal proliferated as well. There were four topics that recurred: the threat to national honor and security, the infiltration of the military and its Prussian prowess, the decline of traditional morality, and the subversion of gender roles as codified by the state and the church.


Politically, the scandal proved disastrous. William, after suffering a nervous breakdown, completely distanced himself from a group of men that often mitigated his fierce outbursts, constant mood swings, and hawkish politics. Some maintain in hindsight that Eulenburg and his friends could have steered William’s militant militarism in a different direction; they also might have averted World War I.

The emperor himself (whom most historians would describe as bisexual, although William would never have admitted that, not even to himself) was no longer above suspicion. The epistolary correspondence between Moltke and Eulenburg revealed a titillating term for William: Liebchen (a diminutive of darling); similarly, former chancellor Otto von Bismarck had dismissed William and Eulenburg as cinaedi (faggots).

The scandal also revealed what many already knew: The military included homosexual men. Abroad, this perception proved disastrous, for Germany’s army was seen as perverse and effeminate and hence weak. Furthermore, Harden came under attack because he was Jewish, renewing fears of a Semitic conspiracy that played into the hands of the Nazis during the Weimar Republic. Indeed, after the Night of the Long Knives Night of the Long Knives on June 30, 1934, when Röhm, Ernst Ernst Röhm, the head of the Sturm Abteilung, or SA (storm troopers), was assassinated, Adolf Hitler Hitler, Adolf [p]Hitler, Adolf;purges purged all known and suspected gays from the army.

Finally, the cause célèbre had implications for the history of sexuality. Isabel Hull, in her 1982 study of the scandal, quotes a letter by Eulenburg that was composed shortly after the scandal. The letter alludes to homosexuality being criminalized and made into a pathology during modern times, social changes that dealt the final blow to Platonic love, homosocial bonding, and Romantic friendship. William II Harden, Maximilian Eulenburg-Hertefeld, Philipp, Prince of Liebenberg circle World War I[World War 01];and William II[William II] Homosexuality;Emperor William II

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hull, Isabel V. The Entourage of Kaiser Wilhelm II, 1888-1918. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1982. A thorough account of William II’s friends and associates.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kohlrausch, Martin. “The Unmanly Emperor: Wilhelm II and the Fragility of the Royal Individual.” In The Body of the Queen: Gender and Rule in the Courtly World, 1500-2000, edited by Regina Schulte. New York: Berghahn Books, 2006. Focuses on the connection between the kaiser’s explicit hypermasculinity, which concealed his effeminacy, and the perception that homosexuality equaled political danger and military weakness.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Röhl, John C. G., and Nicolaus Sombart, eds. Kaiser Wilhelm II, New Interpretations: The Corfu Papers. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1982. Excellent essay collection ranging from William’s relationship with England to Wilhelmine culture. Especially relevant is Röhl’s character sketch of the emperor, including his love life.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Steakley, James D. “Iconography of a Scandal: Political Cartoons and the Eulenburg Affair.” Studies in Visual Communication 9, no. 2 (Spring, 1983): 20-51. Sophisticated discussion of the visual aspects of the scandal, namely the use of political cartoons to communicate meaning. Reproduces forty-one illustrations.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. Die Freunde des Kaisers: Die Eulenburg-Affäre im Spiegel Zeitgenössischer Karikaturen. Hamburg, Germany: Männerschwarmskript, 2004. Expanded and updated version of Steakley’s 1983 article. In German, but recommended for English readers for its eighty-two black-and-white and sixteen color illustrations.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Vargo, Marc E. “A Charge of Libel: Kaiser Wilhelm II and the Eulenburg Affair.” In Scandal: Infamous Gay Controversies of the Twentieth Century. New York: Harrington Park Press, 2003. Succinctly written, extensive analysis of the scandal and its ramifications. Also considers Krupp’s suicide.

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Categories: History