The Eulenburg Affair Scandalizes Germany’s Leadership

The Eulenburg affair involved accusations of homosexuality among the entourage of German kaiser William II and set in motion a series of sensational trials. The affair had lasting political, legal, and cultural consequences, including increased public discussion of homosexuality, most of which was negative.

Summary of Event

Philipp, prince of Eulenburg-Hertefeld, grew up in a noble Prussian family, prodded by an austere father toward a “manly” career and balanced by an artistically gifted mother who encouraged his more “feminine” sensibilities, including his poetry and writing of music and plays. Eulenburg married a Swedish countess and produced eight children but never cared for his wife. [kw]Eulenburg Affair Scandalizes Germany’s Leadership, The (1907-1909)
[kw]Germany’s Leadership, Eulenburg Affair Scandalizes (1907-1909)
Eulenburg affair
Homosexuality;government scandals and
[c]Government and politics;1907-1909: The Eulenburg Affair Scandalizes Germany’s Leadership[0200]
[c]Laws, acts, and legal history;1907-1909: The Eulenburg Affair Scandalizes Germany’s Leadership[0200]
Eulenburg-Hertefeld, Philipp, prince of
Moltke, Kuno von
William II (German kaiser)
Harden, Maximilian

Philipp, prince of Eulenburg-Hertefeld.

In 1886, Eulenburg met Crown Prince William, soon to be Kaiser William II, and became part of a close-knit group of homoerotically inclined generals, civilians, diplomats, politicians, and lawmakers, known as the Liebenberg circle, Liebenberg circle a group named after Eulenburg’s retreat. (Liebenberg means the “mountain of love.”) Eulenburg’s meteoric rise included appointments as envoy to Bavaria and ambassador to Austria-Hungary. He was given the title of prince in 1900.

Trouble was ahead, however. Earlier, Eulenburg’s brother had been outed as homosexual. Emperor William immediately ordered Eulenburg to denounce his sibling and sever all ties with him, which Eulenburg refused to do. In 1902, Eulenburg retired from politics—prompted in part by blackmail and imminent exposure. Aggravating circumstances included revelations that Friedrich Alfred Krupp, Krupp, Alfred heir to Germany’s largest industrial magnate, had been consorting with boys on the island of Capri (Krupp committed suicide in 1902); a staggering number of gay-related suicides, resignations, and military courts-martial; a cross-dressing evening at court, where the military ballerina dropped dead from a heart attack; and the political fallout caused by a French spy who had abused Eulenburg’s confidence.

Kuno von Moltke, 1900.

Starting in 1906, Maximilian Harden, in the weekly Die Zukunft (the future), which he founded and edited, accused the group of deviant sexuality, targeting, in particular, Kuno von Moltke, the military commandant of Berlin. (In the late 1890’s, Moltke’s wife had sued for divorce because of his homosexuality.) Later, Moltke challenged Harden to a duel, but Harden refused, leading Moltke to sue him for libel in civil court. Harden was acquitted, but the case was retried in criminal court. In this second trial, Harden was found guilty, but once again, the verdict was overturned.

Another trial followed. With the possibility of appeal, the sensational scandal was likely to drag on, so Harden eventually agreed to an out-of-court settlement (the government secretly paid for his expenses). Harden later dropped a bombshell: He accused Eulenburg of having had sex with two men who were completely out of his class.

Eulenburg’s health was rapidly declining, and thus another trial against him, this time for alleged perjury, was postponed several times and was never completed. Friends had counseled Eulenburg to commit suicide during the long ordeal. He died in 1921, abandoned by almost everyone.

Unfortunately, prosecutorial evidence and transcripts of Eulenburg’s trials were destroyed by German authorities in 1932; earlier, in 1907, correspondence between Moltke and Eulenburg had been hastily burned; and World War II destroyed whatever documents survived the purge.


Politically, the trials proved disastrous. Emperor William distanced himself from men who often mitigated his emotional outbursts, firebrand politics, and rash decisions. Some maintain that Eulenburg and his friends could have steered William’s militancy in a different direction.

Culturally, the affair fostered a climate of disgust and distrust. Even the kaiser was no longer above suspicion. In 1886, William—however innocently—had sailed on the Starnberger Sea with the very fisherman who claimed to have had sex with Eulenburg. Indeed, the epistolary correspondence between Moltke and Eulenburg revealed a titillating term for the emperor: Liebchen, a diminutive of the word “darling.”

At the same time, pioneer sexologists, such as Magnus Hirschfeld, founder of the Wissenschaftlich-humanitäre Komitee (Scientific-Humanitarian Committee), who had testified in court, met with more denial and denigration. Furthermore, just a decade after the trials of Oscar Wilde, the revelations prompted German police to enforce Paragraph 175 (which earlier had been interpreted as defining anal intercourse only) more strictly, even extending it to women.

Moreover, the cause célèbre had implications for the history of sexuality. Isabel Hull quotes a letter by Eulenburg, composed shortly after the scandal.

In the moment when the freshest example of the modern age, a Harden, criticized our nature, stripped our ideal friendship, laid bare the form of our thinking and feeling which we had justifiably regarded all our lives as something obvious and natural, in that moment, the modern age, laughing cold-bloodedly, broke our necks.…The new concepts of sensuality and love stamp our nature as weak, even unhealthily weak.

The medicalization and criminalization of homosexuality was in full swing then, having dealt the final blow to Platonic love, romantic friendship, and homosocial bonding.

Historian James Steakley sums up the affair thus:

Despite its [alleged] role in the outbreak of World War I, despite the campaign for moral rearmament, the anti-Semitic undertones, the heightening of military discipline, the concern about decadence, and the exhortations to middle-class morality, a subtle dialectic was at work tending to proliferate sexual practices and identities.

Finally, the word “homosexual” Homosexual, as a term was established as the standard term, replacing the earlier, derogatory terms “pederasty” and “unnatural vice” and the clinical/medical terms “intermediate type” or “third sex.” In literary circles, the Eulenburg scandal affected the lives and writings of Thomas Mann, Marcel Proust, André Gide, and Felix Paul Greve (Frederick Philip Grove), among others. Eulenburg affair
Homosexuality;government scandals and

Further Reading

  • Cavell, Richard. “Felix Paul Greve, the Eulenburg Scandal, and Frederick Philip Grove.” Essays on Canadian Writing 62 (Fall, 1997): 12-45.
  • Hull, Isabel V. The Entourage of Kaiser Wilhelm II, 1888-1918. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1982.
  • Jones, James W. “We of the Third Sex”: Literary Representations of Homosexuality in Wilhelmine Germany. New York: Peter Lang, 1990.
  • Röhl, John C. G. The Kaiser and His Court: Wilhelm II and the Government of Germany. Translated by Terence F. Cole. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1994.
  • Steakley, James D. “Iconography of a Scandal: Political Cartoons and the Eulenburg Affair in Wilhelmin Germany.” In Hidden from History: Reclaiming the Gay and Lesbian Past, edited by Martin Duberman, Martha Vicinus, and George Chauncey, Jr. New York: NAL Books, 1989.
  • Young, Harry F. Maximilian Harden, Censor Germaniae: The Critic in Opposition from Bismarck to the Rise of Nazism. The Hague, the Netherlands: Martinus Nijhoff, 1959.

May 6, 1868: Kertbeny Coins the Terms “Homosexual” and “Heterosexual”

1885: United Kingdom Criminalizes “Gross Indecency”

May 25, 1895: Oscar Wilde Is Convicted of Gross Indecency

May 14, 1897: Hirschfeld Founds the Scientific-Humanitarian Committee

1906: Friedlaender Breaks with the Scientific-Humanitarian Committee

March 15, 1919-1921: U.S. Navy Launches Sting Operation Against “Sexual Perverts”

1933-1945: Nazis Persecute Homosexuals

June 30-July 1, 1934: Hitler’s Night of the Long Knives