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In An Underground Life, Gad Beck recounts his life before and during WWII in a frank, almost

novelistic ego-document. The accessible format of his work indicates that Beck was writing to the
average reader, intending to inform and entertain the public. From pre-war youth to his prison
rescue at the end of WWII, Beck spares few details in what is ultimately one of the few testimonies
of a surviving gay Jewish man in Nazi Berlin. Nazi policy saw the silencing of entire communities and
thus the Jewish war discourse is one which entered the public view only in exception cases.1 For the
gay community, this was exacerbated by negative social and legal conditions during and after the
war.2 It is in this respect that An Underground Life is most important; as a vicarious journey of the
emotions and events experienced by an inherently silent minority. Beck’s memoir allows us to view
the Nazi regime in Berlin from his mind frame and therein obtain a rarely accessible world view.
Even disregarding Beck’s open homosexuality, An Underground Life provides a unique outlook as it is
premised on the fact that Beck was not a victim. Most memoirs written about WWII are written with
a ‘survivor ideology’ in that they recount personal life events but focus on existential threats that
needed to be, or were, overcome.3 They are also generally focused on ‘I’.4 Beck, however, chose to
focus on positivity, the people around him and threats as a backdrop to his personal story. This is
substantiated by what Beck said in a 1999 lecture; ‘I am not a victim, and this is my story – why I am
not a victim’.5

Beck’s focus on the we rather than I makes it easier to, as Fullbrook and Rublack describe;
locate An Underground Life ‘within a relational landscape’ and explore its implications for a wider
community, not just an individual.6 To quote Greyerz, ‘Ultimately a majority of these texts
[Memoirs]… probably tell us more about groups than they do about individuals.’7 It is apt, thus, to
read and understand Beck from this social frame in order to learn more about the relationships and
communities that defined the life of a persecuted Jew. It becomes clear that community was
instrumental to survival and psychological health. ‘It was only due to this far-reaching network of
friends, acquaintances… that I was able to withstand the psychological pressures connected with

1
K. H. Jarausch. ‘Living with Broken Memories: Some Narratological Comments.’ In The Divided Past: rewriting
post-war German history, edited by C. Klessmann. Oxford: Berg, 2001, 177.
2
R. Moeller. ‘Private Acts, Public Anxieties and the Fight to Decriminalise Male Homosexuality in West
Germany.’ Feminist Studies 36, no. 3 (2010), 530.
3
K. H. Jarausch. ‘Living with Broken Memories: Some Narratological Comments.’ In The Divided Past: rewriting
post-war German history, edited by C. Klessmann. Oxford: Berg, 2001, 171.
4
Ibid., 175.
5
‘Gad Beck relates life in Berlin under Hitler’s regime’. Vanderbilt Register Online. Accessed 08 September
2017: http://www.vanderbilt.edu/News/register/Oct18_99/story1.html
6
M. Fullbrook and U. Rublack. ‘In relation: The “Social Self” and Ego-Documents.’ German History 28, no. 3
(2010), 270.
7
K. Greyerz. ‘Ego-Documents: The Last Word?’ German History 28, no. 3 (2010), 281.
living illegally.’8 The common threat that Jews were subjected to under Nazi policy forged bonds that
were tighter than a simple friendship would create. Take, for example, the actions of Fräulein
Schmidt who selflessly went to warn 36 people at great risk to herself.9 Additionally Beck shows how
the typical war tale does not always remain true regarding relationships with non-persecuted
people. It was often the case that Jews and homosexuals became alienated from close family and
friends as anti-Semitism increased during WWII.10 Beck, however, made a point of emphasising the
strong and positive relationships he held with his Christian family and even Wehrmacht soldiers who
deeply supported the Jewish cause. Hence, from the individual memoir of one man, we develop an
understanding of entire communities, different mentalities and the relationships people held.

Even so, the relative silence of Beck on the persecution of homosexuals in Nazi Berlin
presents a false view that most homosexual males were able to continue living out their desires with
little fear of retribution. We know, from other sources, that the Nazis believed homosexuality was an
‘epidemic’ spread by gay men and that around 100,000 were arrested.11 We also know that gay men
were often alienated from family, friends and society and that they were forced to wear a pink
triangle in concentration camps.12 Despite this, there is no mention anywhere of the pink triangle
(the yellow star does appear multiple times) and little mention of any of these other aspects within
An Underground Life. While this is not necessarily negative, one should ‘read against the grain’ in
order to draw information from the text which Beck avoided. To do so requires us to reject his
notion that he was not a victim and focus on the silences. From the acceptance of his Christian
family to the large sums of cash he received from Schwersenz, there are multiple opportunities
throughout the book to stop and reflect on the people who were not so fortunate.13 People such as
Manfred who never made it out of the war alive. Even Beck makes reference to his luck, ‘Certainly
other people had different experiences; I guess I was lucky’.14 By reading the text in this way, and
opposing what Beck was trying to convey, we are able to gain an understanding of Jewish,
sometimes homosexual, ‘victims’ as well. Just because Beck does not focus on negativity and pain
does not mean these elements are not present within the text and it does not mean we cannot
extract them to draw further meaning.

8
G. Beck. An Underground Life. Wisconsin: University of Wisconsin Press, 1999, 129.
9
Ibid., 158.
10
L. Pine. Hitler’s national community: society and culture in Nazi Germany. Second edition. London:
Bloomsbury Academic, 2017, 189.
11
C. Epstein. Nazi Germany: Confronting the Myths. Chichester: Wiley Blackwell, 2015, 102 and 103.
12
L. Pine. Hitler’s national community: society and culture in Nazi Germany. Second edition. London:
Bloomsbury Academic, 2017, 189 – 190.
13
G. Beck. An Underground Life. Wisconsin: University of Wisconsin Press, 1999, 23 and 111.
14
Ibid., 57.
Finally, the large gap between the end of WWII and publication of Beck’s work in 1999
remains an issue. Given that Beck was writing some decades after the fact and noting the toll that
time takes on memory, it is reasonable to assume that there will be inaccuracies in his work
attributable to lapses in memory. There exists, however, many empirically verifiable events that
serve to allay this concern. These include Beck’s recounts of Kristallnacht, the start of forced
migrations and other dated events.15 In addition to this, the most likely reason for Beck’s delay in
publication is that, as mentioned earlier, there were significant legal and social constraints on
homosexuality even after WWII. In fact, the number of convictions for violations of paragraph 175
was four times higher in the 1960s than at the end of the Weimer Republic.16 Hans Joachim Schoeps
relayed this when he wrote in 1963 that for homosexuals, the Third Reich had not yet ended.17
Further, the public nature of Beck’s audience meant that social conditions at the time were of
paramount importance to how his work would be received. It would therefore have been both
socially unacceptable and legally dangerous for Beck to publish such a memoir in the post-war
period. That Beck waited to include what is undoubtedly the most controversial aspect of his work,
rather than simply omitting it, says a lot about the validity of his writing. Indeed, Beck’s inclusion of
these frank details at all indicates an honest agenda. All considered, Beck delivers a largely reliable
ego-document that serves to enhance our otherwise empirical understanding of this silent minority,
along with the relationships and communities they constructed.

15
Ibid., 36 and 60.
16
R. Moeller. ‘Private Acts, Public Anxieties and the Fight to Decriminalise Male Homosexuality in West
Germany.’ Feminist Studies 36, no. 3 (2010), 530.
17
Ibid., 544.
1100 Words

Primary Source

Beck, G. An Underground Life. Wisconsin: University of Wisconsin Press, 1999.

Secondary Sources

Epstein, C. Nazi Germany: Confronting the Myths. Chichester: Wiley Blackwell, 2015.
Fullbrook, M. and Rublack, U. ‘In relation: The “Social Self” and Ego-Documents.’ German History 28,
no. 3 (2010).
‘Gad Beck relates life in Berlin under Hitler’s regime’. Vanderbilt Register Online. Accessed 08
September 2017: http://www.vanderbilt.edu/News/register/Oct18_99/story1.html
Greyerz, K. ‘Ego-Documents: The Last Word?’ German History 28, no. 3 (2010).
Jarausch, K. H. ‘Living with Broken Memories: Some Narratological Comments.’ In The Divided Past:
rewriting post-war German history, edited by C. Klessmann. Oxford: Berg, 2001.
Moeller, R. ‘Private Acts, Public Anxieties and the Fight to Decriminalise Male Homosexuality in West
Germany.’ Feminist Studies 36, no. 3 (2010).
Pine, L. Hitler’s national community: society and culture in Nazi Germany. Second edition. London:
Bloomsbury Academic, 2017.