Legend has it that twenty miles of volcanic rock rising through the landscape of northern Bohemia was the work of the devil, who separated the warring Czechs and Germans by building a wall. The nineteenth-century invention of the Devil’s Wall was evidence of rising ethnic tensions. In interwar Czechoslovakia, Sudeten German nationalists conceived a radical mission to try to restore German influence across the region. Mark Cornwall tells the story of Heinz Rutha, an internationally recognized figure in his day, who was the pioneer of a youth movement that emphasized male bonding in its quest to reassert German dominance over Czech space.
Through a narrative that unravels the threads of Rutha’s own repressed sexuality, Cornwall shows how Czech authorities misinterpreted Rutha’s mission as sexual deviance and in 1937 charged him with corrupting adolescents. The resulting scandal led to Rutha’s imprisonment, suicide, and excommunication from the nationalist cause he had devoted his life to furthering. Cornwall is the first historian to tackle the long-taboo subject of how youth, homosexuality, and nationalism intersected in a fascist environment. The Devil’s Wall also challenges the notion that all Sudeten German nationalists were Nazis, and supplies a fresh explanation for Britain’s appeasement of Hitler, showing why the British might justifiably have supported the 1930s Sudeten German cause. In this readable biography of an ardent German Bohemian who participated as perpetrator, witness, and victim, Cornwall radically reassesses the Czech-German struggle of early twentieth-century Europe.
To get right to the point: The Devil’s Wall is without doubt one of the most interesting and innovative books on German–Czech history published in recent years.
Brilliantly recreates an intellectual universe in which central Europeans attempted to make sense of homosocial and homosexual relations after World War I… No one, including perhaps Rutha himself, has understood the rising Sudeten German nationalist better than Cornwall… This impressive book presents Rutha as a tragic figure. Cornwall’s decision to begin with Rutha’s suicide gives the entire narrative a sense of painful inevitability. His defining portrait of Rutha is of a man motivated by his sexuality but left increasingly vulnerable by those same sexual inclinations. The Devil’s Wall is an artfully done biography that offers new perspectives on a number of themes dear to historians of Bohemia, sexuality, and early twentieth-century European nationalisms. It is, above all, a compelling story of a surprisingly influential figure in central European history and for that it deserves a wide audience indeed.
Cornwall’s work is convincing, meticulously grounded in the sources, and at times really path-breaking. For the theme of homosexuality…is still completely ‘under researched’ in the German-speaking culture of the Bohemian lands… The Devil’s Wall is indisputably a significant book, which furthers our understanding considerably.
The Devil’s Wall looks at how youth, nationalism and homosexuality overlapped with fascism and the Czech–German struggle of early-20th-century Europe. Focusing on Heinz Rutha, a pioneer of a youth movement emphasizing male bonding, Cornwall’s biography of this unusual and possibly repressed figure promises to be engrossing.
Cornwall’s book challenges the historiography of the Czech–German relationship during the 1930s in various ways by bending the historiographical spotlight from the antagonism between Nazi-Sudeten Germans and nationalistic Czechs and focusing instead on the detailed interpretation of the Sudeten German movement and its development prior to 1938. In addition, Cornwall analyzes Heinz Rutha’s sexual life, a study that has not previously been made by historians and was only possible because of unique primary sources and contemporary witnesses. The author, therefore, is able to explain Rutha’s unique concept of Eros within, as well as apart from, his homosexuality. In this aspect, he is in a line of scholars who, during the past two decades, have called for a growing awareness for more sensitive topics such as (homo)sexuality and Eros in the Third Reich. Overall Mark Cornwall’s book will, it is hoped, spark discussion in every aspect. It is well written, as well as convincing, and as such has the potential to make the Sudeten German question known to a wider public.
Mark Cornwall has written a superb and necessary examination of the life of Heinz Rutha (1897–1937) and his work as an influential youth leader and prominent figure in the Sudeten German nationalist movement… This book is eminently readable and engaging, making it suitable for both an undergraduate audience as well as experts with a focus on diplomacy and nationalism or the history of sexuality and gender. Cornwall is an exceptional guide through the conflicted and politically volatile historical narratives of Central European history, while consistently adding new insights. The end result challenges accepted preconceptions about the development of Sudeten German nationalism while simultaneously confronting the reader with Rutha’s troubling personal legacy.
In The Devil’s Wall Mark Cornwall, Professor of Modern European History at Southampton University, reclaims for LGBT history the little-known story of Heinz Rutha (1897–1937), a German-speaking activist in Czechoslovakia in the years leading up to World War II. Rutha was part of the Wandervogel movement, ostensibly an organization of clean-living lads, but in reality an all-male hothouse which produced a generation of right-wing homosexuals… He was poised to become a leading figure in German politics. But he may have been betrayed by Czech cops, who accused him of (illegal) homosexuality.
[A] remarkably researched biography… The Devil’s Wall rescues Rutha from an undeserved obscurity born of a now bygone taboo. Cornwall promises, and delivers, fresh perspectives on the internal dynamics of the Sudeten German movement, as well as on international dimensions to the Czech–German conflict after 1933… Perhaps the most riveting chapters stretch from the Great War to about 1933. Drawing on a long-lost diary that Rutha kept for half of 1918, Cornwall captures the anxieties of a lower-middle-class Catholic at the age of twenty-one as he experienced not only combat and political catastrophe but attraction to fellow men… Cornwall has written a thorough and thought-provoking study.
A remarkable book. With his painstaking reconstruction of Heinz Rutha’s short and turbulent life, Cornwall asks us to rethink—often radically—the history of Central Europe in the twentieth century. He successfully demonstrates that Sudeten German nationalism was, in the main, neither inspired nor directed by the Nazis, but was a movement in its own right. He also shows how Rutha’s attempts to deal with his homosexual longings informed his understanding of Sudeten German identity. Highly original in its character and brimming with implications, The Devil’s Wall offers novel and valuable insights to historians of nationalism, diplomacy, and gender and sexuality alike.
Cornwall’s exquisitely revelatory study of charismatic youth leader and Sudeten German nationalist Heinz Rutha—earnest, seductive, and deeply conflicted—is luminously written and consistently absorbing. From the suicide with which it opens to the haunting aftermath of confused allegations over political betrayal and cross-generational homosexuality, the book beautifully recreates the complex and ambiguous emotional landscape inhabited by pan-German nationalists flirting with Nazism during Czechoslovakia’s brief experiment with democracy between the end of World War I and the annexation of 1938.
Highly original and refreshingly challenging, The Devil’s Wall forces us to rethink many of our assumptions about the so-called Sudeten Question. By focusing on Heinz Rutha and youth movements instead of high politics, Cornwall argues for an alternative history of the demise of interwar Czechoslovakia, in which the Sudeten movement is authentically home-grown and not simply the willing puppet of masters in Berlin. The book’s gripping narrative helps us understand that the dramatic outward shift in Sudeten German allegiance in the 1930s was only the final manifestation of a gradual inward development over the preceding decades. In both its textured reconstruction of a single life and its incorporation of gender and sexuality into the history of interwar East-Central Europe, there is truly nothing like this book.
- 2013, Winner of the Czechoslovak Studies Association Book Prize
- 384 pages
- 6-1/8 x 9-1/4 inches
- Harvard University Press
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